UBC Publications

UBC Publications

UBC Publications

You Can't Take It With You Nov 1, 1990

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Can ft Take It
With You  You Can't Take It With You
Kaufman I Hart
In Broadway's
Golden Days
"People like that should be in the crazy house."
— George Kaufman's mother, on You Can't Take It With You
Broadway seems a decaying empire now. Its most glittering
celebrities are real estate moguls and professional sports
entrepreneurs. Theatre audiences consist largely of busloads of
tourists. New musicals, once the touchstone of American theatre,
are imported from England to the eager colonies. Times Square is
distinctly seedy, and good new plays are few and far between.
Kaufman and Han dubbed theatre "the fabulous invalid" -
always on the brink of death, but always reviving. Present-day
Broadway theatre seems like an invalid, to be sure, but hardly a
fabulous one. Broadway's dominance of American theatre reached
its height in the 1920s and 1930s, persisted through the 1950s, and
settled into anecdotage in recent decades. The golden age of
Broadway, like most golden ages, was very short, and spawned a
legend which long ouUived the vitality of an extraordinary time.
Is it only coincidence that the greatest years of Broadway theatre
occurred during the working career of George S. Kaufman? He was
a journalist, a critic, and one of America's foremost stage directors.
He was a respected member of the "Round Table," New York's
famous collection of humorists, who met daily at the Algonquin
Hotel to have lunch and to exercise their celebrated wit. But most
importantly, Kaufman was the leading playwright of Broadway's
golden age. Between 1921 and 1940, he wrote no less than 23
Broadway hits (each running for more than 100 performances), plus
almost as many near-misses. In 1966, five years after his death,
there were so many revivals of Kaufman's plays that he was
described as the hottest playwright on Broadway.
Writing can be lonely work. Although Kaufman was a shy man,
he wrote almost all his plays with collaborators: Beggar on
Horseback with Marc Connelly, Of Thee 1 Sing with Morrie
Ryskind and the Gershwin brothers, Dinner at Eight and Stage Door
with Edna Ferber, You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who
Came to Dinner with Moss Hart. As a director and sometime "play
doctor," Kaufman's sure hand with structure and dialogue helped
many other playwrights lo early success. After Kaufman directed
Kaufman I Hart
You Can't Take It With You
the premiere of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck wrote,' 'I didn't
realize that little things in writing made such a difference, and
George taught it to me for the first time in my life."
"Plays are not written," said Kaufman, "they're rewritten." In his
autobiography. Act One, my favourite of all backstage books, Moss
Hart draws a vivid portrait of the workaholic perfectionist Kaufman.
Hart's true story would be scarcely credible as a poor-boy-makes-
good stage comedy. An unsolicited manuscript catches the attention
of a Broadway producer, who persuades the experienced hitmaker
Kaufman to collaborate with the unknown young talent Hart They
work for months rewriting Hart's manuscript, a play prophetically
entiUed Once in a Lifetime. The multi-talented Kaufman decides to
act in the play as well as direct it. In out-of-town tryouts, audiences
laugh uproariously through the first act, but become resdess and
sullen during the next two. After many late-night work sessions and
more tryouts, Kaufman regretfully summons Hart to his dressing
room to give him the bad news: he is giving up on the play. But
young Hart, determined not to let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
slip through his fingers, perseveres and manages finally to diagnose
the critical dramatic flaw. He bursts into Kaufman's apartment and,
interrupting his ex-partner's breakfast and shouting over his
objections, reads him the new script changes. The hitmaker sees a
glimmer of hope. The play is taken up again, and finally opens on
Broadway to tumultuous acclaim. The rest, as they say, is history -
the history of the most successful playwriting team of the American
Despite their other achievements as writers and directors, together
and separately, the pinnacle of Kaufman and Hart's success was You
Can't Take It With You. Their popular madcap comedy opened on
Broadway in December 1936, and won a Pulitzer Prize the next
year. While the Depression is barely mentioned in the play, it lurks
unmistakably just outside the door. In this parlous time. You Can't
Take It With You captured the resilience of American individuality
and American optimism. The Vanderhof/Sycamore home itself is the
opposite of a crazy house - which is the point of the play. It is a
sanctuary against poverty and oppression and a shrine to gentle
strength, common sense, honesty, and love.
Denis Johnston
(Denis Johnston teaches Canadian theatre history in the UBC Theatre Department.) You Can't Take It Wtth You
Kaufman I Hast
The Wit
George S. Kaufman
When questioned about his flamboyant but favorite
collaborator, Kaufman was asked, "Does Moss always tell the
"He does," Kaufman replied, "but I don't think he can
stand a withering cross examination."
When he was in Hollywood he complained he never had
time for books. Standing on a street corner with Leonard
Lyons, he watched two airplanes writing in the sky urging
people to drink Pepsi-Cola.
"That's the only thing I've read since I've been out here,"
Kaufman told Lyons.
Kaufman's hypochondria was fair game even for Kaufman.
An old friend recommended a physician whose knowledge of
the theatre was remarkable.
"The kind of doctor I want," Kaufman said, "is one who,
when he's not examining me, is home studying medicine."
Kaufman I Hart
You Cant Take It With You
While walking along Fifth Avenue with Nunnally
Johnson, Kaufman saw his friend stop in front of the
specialty shop of Mark Cross. Johnson looked at the wares in
the window. Kaufman shook his head.
"Pay no attention to this," he said. "Moss can take you to
Cartier's and get you the same thing for three times the
During the Philadelphia tryout of a musical in which he
was interested, Kaufman was pessimistic about the dress
rehearsal on which he worked all night At 3:00 A.M., he
entered a diner and studied the menu. He told the waiter, "I
want something that will keep me awake thinking it was the
food I ate and not the show I saw."
At costume parties, Kaufman very much favored Abe
Lincoln. A beard, a high hat, and a shawl were enough. He
bore a striking resemblance to the rail-splitter.
And then actor Raymond Massey scored success after
success playing Lincoln. It was with a trace of envy and a
touch of pettiness that Kaufman said, "Massey won't be
satisfied until he's assassinated."
From Howard Teichmann's excellent biography
George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait,
New York 1972. You Can't Take It With You
Kaufman I Hart
A Note
the Director
When John Wright was bom in Pioneer Mine, B.C., You Can't
Take It With You was still running on Broadway. Being a rather
colicky child, his mother would soothe him by reading reviews of
plays and sports results to him. A review by Edmond Gagey of the
Kaufman & Hart masterpiece caught John's attention, and he
began to plan for the eventual staging of this delightful comedy.
Years later, in John Brockington's directing class at UBC, he
had his first encounter with the actual script of You Can't Take It
With You. He graduated from UBC in Theatre, and went on to
Stanford University where he received his M.F.A.
Returning to Canada in 1967, John Wright worked as a director,
actor and teacher until the mid-sevenries, when he left the theatre
to become a writer, producer and director for film and television.
In 1977 his wife became the successful novelist L.R. Wright. In
1987 his two daughters Kate and Johnna, graduated in Theatre
from UBC.
The next year Mr. Wright himself returned to UBC, the
Edmond Gagey review still clutched in his hand, to teach in the
Film Studies program. This year, at long last, You Can't Take It
With You was scheduled for production and the now more aged,
but still enthusiastic Mr. Wright was invited to direct
.      ,     :■,'. .!:,!■
by Tjrnberlake Werienbaker
January 16-26
by William Shakespeare
March 6-16
BOX      OFFICE      228-2678


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