Kaufman and Hart were together as a playwriting team for ten years, writing some of the best comedies of their time. A few of them, including You Can’t Take It with You, are classics of the American theatre. Here are their plays:
- Once in a Lifetime (1930)
- Merrily We Roll Along (1934)
- The Paperhanger (1935)
- You Can’t Take It with You (1936)
- I’d Rather Be Right (with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart; 1937)
- The Fabulous Invalid (1938)
- The American Way (1939)
- The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939)
- George Washington Slept Here (1940)
George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) was born in Pittsburgh. Early on he worked as a stenographer for the Pittsburgh Coal Company, as a surveyor, chain-man, and transit man for the city of Pittsburgh, as a shoelace and hatband salesman for the Columbia Ribbon Company, and as a window clerk in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. He became a journalist in1912, contributing to the humor column “This, That, and a Little of the Other” in the Washington Times. From Washington he moved to New York City and wrote the “Be That as It May” humor column for the Evening Mail.
In 1915 he began a two-year stint as a theatre reporter for the New York Tribune, after which he moved to the New York Times as a theatre reporter, then a reviewer, and finally the editor of the drama page, a position he held until 1930. His work as the theatre editor of the Times was immensely important, for he brought ethics and integrity to a shoddy department of the newspaper. Prior to Kaufman’s tenure, theatre critics would engage in a kind of journalistic payola, exchanging a good review for gifts from producers. Kaufman put a stop to this practice, getting rid of the rag-tag reviewers who were selling their reviews to theatre-owners, and hiring authentic theatre critics. The result was a theatre page that ran reviews its readers could trust, and the Times’s drama critics became the most important in the city. The other New York papers, seeing the success created by Kaufman’s housecleaning, soon followed suit, resulting in much higher standards for American theatre criticism and journalism.
While serving as editor of the New York Times’s theatre pages, Kaufman began to write plays and comedies and musicals, often with a writing partner. (Kaufman’s only major play written entirely by Kaufman was 1925’s The Butter and Egg Man.) His first produced play was 1918’s Among Those Present, written with Larry Evans and Walker C. Percival. For the forty-year period from 1921 to 1941, Kaufman and his collaborators had at least one—sometimes more than one—major hit on Broadway.
Among his many other collaborators are:
Marc Connelly: Dulcy (1921: Kaufman’s first big hit, the one that established him as a bankable playwright), Merton of the Movies (1923), Beggar on Horseback (1924), and others; Irving Berlin: The Cocoanuts (1926: the musical comedy for the Marx Brothers); Morrie Ryskind: Animal Crackers (1928: the musical comedy for the Marx Brothers), Strike Up the Band (1930 with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin), Of Thee I Sing (1931; music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin; winner of the Pulitzer Prize—the first musical to do so), Bring on the Girls! (1934), and others; Edna Ferber: The Royal Family (1927), Dinner at Eight (1932), Stage Door (1936), and others; Howard Teichmann: The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953); and Moss Hart.
While he was writing comedies and editing the New York Times’s drama page, Kaufman was also directing plays. He often directed the plays he had written—as he did with You Can’t Take It with You—but he is also well known for his direction of other playwrights’s works. He notably directed Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (1928), John Steinbeck’s 1937 Of Mice and Men, and Abe Burrows, Jo Swerling, and Frank Loesser’s 1950 Guys and Dolls, all to great acclaim.
Kaufman wrote for the stage for thirty-seven years, creating 45 productions on Broadway. Twenty-seven of these were hits, and eighteen failed (a success rate of about 67%). Two, including You Can’t Take It with You, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Moss Hart (1904-1961) grew up in poverty in a small apartment in the Bronx, where his family shared living quarters with their boarders. An aunt, who also lived with them, took him to the theatre as a boy, and Hart began to dream of working in the profession. In 1919 at the age of fourteen, Hart worked for A. L. Newberger Furs as a storage vault clerk, a dull, tedious job. Two years later he became secretary to Augustus Pitou, Jr., who managed theatre tours. Hart was a play reader for Pitou, and submitted one of his own plays under a pen name. Pitou accepted it and produced it, but when the play failed miserably in a five-week run in Chicago, costing Pitou $45,000 (in 1923 dollars, mind you), Hart was fired. From 1923-29 he worked in the summers as a social and entertainment director at resort camps in the Catskills, while directing for little theatre companies in New Jersey and New York and acting during the winter months.
He continued to write plays and submit them. And producers continued to reject them. Advised by a friend to try his hand at comedy—his plays up to that time were either serious things or melodramas—Hart finally wrote a draft that raised the interest of one of Broadway’s great producers, Sam Harris. Harris thought Hart’s play, 1930’s Once in a Lifetime, could use some rewriting, and introduced the young playwright to George S. Kaufman. Their work throughout the late spring and summer was slow and often disappointing (Hart chronicles their collaboration in his Act One, which deservedly has been called the best theatre biography written by an American.) In September 1930, the play opened and was a smash hit, running for 305 performances, “a healthy record,” writes Howard Taubman, “in the days before theatres were air-conditioned and before New York in the summer was acclaimed as a festival.” For ten years, Hart worked with Kaufman, generating plays that were often good and made them both a good deal of money.
In 1940, Hart broke, amicably, with Kaufman. He didn’t want to be known as one-half of a pair and desired to show himself and the world that he could stand on his own as a man of the theatre. In 1941 he wrote a musical comedy about psychoanalysis, Lady in the Dark. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Hart juxtaposed realistic scenes with scenes of fantasy and music, which represented the inner psychological life and dreams of the heroine. Lady in the Dark expanded the boundaries of the subject matter and style of musical theatre.
Hart-without-Kaufman generated a solid body of theatrical work, including Winged Victory (1943), Christopher Blake (1947), Light Up the Sky (1949), and The Climate of Eden (1952). He wrote the screenplays for well-known motion pictures, including Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Frankie and Johnnie (1935), Winged Victory (1944), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), and A Star Is Born (1954). After his break with Kaufman, Hart began to direct for the stage. He directed several of his own plays (Lady in the Dark, Winged Victory, Christopher Blake, Light Up the Sky) but his direction received the highest acclaim when he staged the original production of My Fair Lady (1956). The stress of his last directing project, 1960’s Camelot, contributed to his death by heart attack in 1961.
You Can’t Take It with You
Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You, where the serious “real” world of big business and big government encounter the eccentric Sycamore family, was an immediate hit with both the critics and the public. “The action,” one critic has written, “pitting a family of happy-go-lucky non-conformists against a respectable couple, provided ample scope for poking fun at American manners, and even succeeded in advancing a formal critique of the business ethic. This theme … is brought memorably to life through the expert characterisation of a broad range of characters, none of which is allowed to dominate.”
Opening December 14, 1936, the play ran for, at the time, an incredible 837 performances. Within three months, wrote Burns Mantle, the play was selling four months in advance. Every seat at every performance was filled, and when the heat of July and August slowed attendance and empty seats appeared for the first time, they were still seats that had been paid for.
The play caught the spirit of the country, too. “There is no reason,” writes Thomas S. Hischak, “that the Great American Play’s approach should not be a comic one. While the play celebrates the warm and wacky qualities of a family that is distinctly atypical, it captures the inner spirit of revolt in each one of us. There is also something so characteristically American about the comedy’s take on conventionality and unconventionality that it is endearing in a very democratic way.”
You Can’t Take It with You is the most-revived of either Kaufman’s or Hart’s plays, and we are pleased to share it with you in this production.