WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Someone in the House, by Kaufman, Larry Evans, and Walter C. Percival, 9 September 1918, Knickerbocker Theatre, New York, 32 [performances].
- Jacques Duval, adapted from Hans Muller's play, 10 November 1919, Blackstone Theatre, Chicago.
- Dulcy, by Kaufman and Marc Connelly, 13 August 1921, Frazee Theatre, New York, 246.
- To the Ladies!, by Kaufman and Connelly, 20 February 1922, Liberty Theatre, New York, 128.
- No, Siree!, by Kaufman and Connelly, 30 April 1922, Forty-ninth Street Theatre, New York, 1.
- The 49ers, by Kaufman and Connelly, 7 November 1922, Punch and Judy Theatre, New York, 15.
- Merton of the Movies, by Kaufman and Connelly, 13 November 1922, Cort Theatre, New York, 398.
- Helen of Troy, New York, by Kaufman and Connelly, score by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, 19 June 1923, Selwyn Theatre, New York, 193.
- The Deep Tangled Wildwood, by Kaufman and Connelly, 5 November 1923, Frazee Theatre, New York, 16.
- Beggar on Horseback, by Kaufman and Connelly, adapted from Paul Apel's play, 12 February 1924, Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 224.
- Be Yourself, by Kaufman and Connelly, score by Lewis Gensler and Milton Schwarzwald, 3 September 1924, Sam H. Harris Theatre, New York, 93.
- Minick, by Kaufman and Edna Ferber, 24 September 1924, Booth Theatre, New York, 154.
- The Butter and Egg Man, 23 September 1925, Long-acre Theatre, New York, 241.
- The Cocoanuts, score by Irving Berlin, 8 December 1925, Lyric Theatre, New York, 375.
- The Good Fellow, by Kaufman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, 5 October 1926, Playhouse Theatre, New York, 8.
- The Royal Family, by Kaufman and Ferber, 28 December 1927, Selwyn Theatre, New York, 343.
- Animal Crackers, by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, score by Kalmar and Ruby, 23 October 1928, 44th Street Theatre, New York, 213.
- The Still Alarm in The Little Show, 30 April 1929, Music Box Theatre, New York, 321.
- June Moon, by Kaufman and Ring Lardner, 9 October 1929, Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 272.
- The Channel Road, by Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott, 17 October 1929, Plymouth Theatre, New York, 60.
- Strike Up the Band, by Kaufman and Ryskind, score by George and Ira Gershwin, 14 January 1930, Times Square Theatre, New York, 191.
- Once in a Lifetime, by Kaufman and Moss Hart, 24 September 1930, Music Box Theatre, New York, 401.
- The Band Wagon, by Kaufman and Howard Dietz, 3 June 1931, New Amsterdam Theatre, New York, 262.
- Eldorado, by Kaufman and Laurence Stallings, 26 October 1931, Shubert Theatre, New Haven.
- Of Thee I Sing, book by Kaufman and Ryskind, score by George and Ira Gershwin, 26 December 1931, Music Box Theatre, New York, 446.
- Dinner at Eight, by Kaufman and Ferber, 22 October 1932, Music Box Theatre, New York, 243.
- Let 'Em Eat Cake, by Kaufman and Ryskind, score by George and Ira Gershwin, 21 October 1933, Imperial Theatre, New York, 89.
- The Dark Tower, by Kaufman and Woollcott, 25 November 1933, Morosco Theatre, New York, 57.
- Merrily We Roll Along, by Kaufman and Hart, 29 September 1934, Music Box Theatre, New York, 155.
- Bring On the Girls, by Kaufman and Ryskind, 22 October 1934, National Theatre, Washington, D.C..
- First Lady, by Kaufman and Katherine Dayton, 26 November 1935, Music Box Theatre, New York, 244.
- Stage Door, by Kaufman and Ferber, 22 October 1936, Music Box Theatre, New York, 169.
- You Can't Take It With You, by Kaufman and Hart, 14 December 1936, Booth Theatre, New York, 837.
- I'd Rather Be Right, by Kaufman and Hart, score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, 2 November 1937, Alvin Theatre, New York, 289.
- The Fabulous Invalid, by Kaufman and Hart, 8 October 1938, Broadhurst Theatre, New York, 65.
- The American Way, by Kaufman and Hart, 21 January 1939, Center Theatre, New York, 164.
- The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Kaufman and Hart, 16 October 1939, Music Box Theatre, New York, 739.
- George Washington Slept Here, by Kaufman and Hart, 18 October 1940, Lyceum Theatre, New York, 173.
- The Land Is Bright, by Kaufman and Ferber, 28 October 1941, Music Box Theatre, New York, 79.
- The Late George Apley, by Kaufman and John P. Marquand, 21 November 1944, Lyceum Theatre, New York, 384.
- Local Boy Makes Good in The Seven Lively Arts, 7 December 1944, Ziegfield Theatre, New York, 182.
- Hollywood Pinafore, 31 May 1945, Alvin Theatre, New York, 52.
- Park Avenue, by Kaufman and Nunnally Johnson, score by Arthur Schwartz and Ira Gershwin, 4 November 1946, Shubert Theatre, New York, 72.
- Bravo!, by Kaufman and Ferber, 11 November 1948, Lyceum Theatre, New York, 44.
- The Small Hours, by Kaufman and Leueen McGrath, 15 February 1951, National Theatre, New York, 20.
- Fancy Meeting You Again, by Kaufman and McGrath, 14 January 1952, Royale Theatre, New York, 8.
- The Solid Gold Cadillac, by Kaufman and Howard Teichmann, 5 November 1953, Belasco Theatre, New York, 526.
- Silk Stockings, by Kaufman, McGrath, and Abe Burrows, score by Cole Porter, 24 February 1955, Imperial Theatre, 478.
- Amicable Parting, by Kaufman and McGrath, 3 June 1968, Off Broadway Playhouse, Camden, N.J., 5.
- Dulcy, by Kaufman and Marc Connelly (New York & London: Putnam's, 1921).
- To the Ladies!, by Kaufman and Connelly (New York & London: French, 1923).
- Merton of the Movies, by Kaufman and Connelly (New York & London: French, 1925).
- Beggar on Horseback, by Kaufman and Connelly, adapted from Paul Apel's play (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925; London: Benn, 1925).
- Minick, by Kaufman and Edna Ferber (New York: French, 1925; London: French, 1930).
- If Men Played Cards as Women Do (New York & London: French, 1926).
- The Butter and Egg Man (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926; London: French, 1926).
- The Royal Family, by Kaufman and Ferber (Garden City: Doubleday, 1928).
- June Moon, by Kaufman and Ring Lardner (New York & London: Scribners, 1930).
- Once in a Lifetime, by Kaufman and Moss Hart (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1930; London: Gollancz, 1932).
- The Good Fellow, by Kaufman and Herman J. Mankiewicz (New York: French, 1931).
- Of Thee I Sing, by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (New York: Knopf, 1932; London: Gollancz, 1933).
- Dinner at Eight, by Kaufman and Ferber (Garden City: Doubleday, 1932; London: Heinemann, 1933).
- Let 'Em Eat Cake, by Kaufman and Ryskind (New York: Knopf, 1933).
- Merrily We Roll Along, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1934).
- First Lady, by Kaufman and Katherine Dayton (New York: Random House, 1935).
- Stage Door, by Kaufman and Ferber (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, 1936; London: Heinemann, 1937).
- The Dark Tower, by Kaufman and Woollcott (New York & London: French, 1937).
- You Can't Take It With You, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937; London: Barker, 1938).
- I'd Rather Be Right, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1937).
- The Fabulous Invalid, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1938).
- The American Way, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1939).
- The Man Who Came to Dinner, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1939; London: English Theatre Guild, 1945).
- George Washington Slept Here, by Kaufman and Hart (New York: Random House, 1940).
- The Land Is Bright, by Kaufman and Ferber (Garden City: Doubleday, Doran, 1941).
- Six Plays by Kaufman and Hart, introduction by Kaufman (New York: Modern Library, 1942).
- The Late George Apley, by Kaufman and John P. Marquand (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1946).
- Bravo!, by Kaufman and Ferber (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1949).
- The Small Hours, by Kaufman and Leueen McGrath (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1951).
- Fancy Meeting You Again, by Kaufman and McGrath (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1952).
- The Solid Gold Cadillac (New York: Random House, 1954).
- Business Is Business [short] by Kaufman and Dorothy Parker, Paramount, 1925.
- If Men Played Cards as Women Do [short], Paramount/Famous-Lasky, 1929; included in Star-Spangled Rhythm, Paramount, 1942.
- Roman Scandals, by Kaufman, Robert E. Sherwood, George Oppenheimer, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, and W.A. McGuire, Goldwyn / United Artists, 1933.
- A Night at the Opera, by Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and James Kevin McGuinness, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935.
- The Still Alarm, in The Little Show (New York: French, 1930).
- Charles Goren, Better Bridge for Better Players, introduction by Kaufman (Garden City: Double-day, 1942).
- "Notes on an Infamous Collaboration," Theatre Magazine, 50 (December 1929): 24.
- "Jimmy the Well-Dressed Man: A Vaudeville Act with Music," Nation, 134 (15 June 1932): 676-677.
- "All We Need is Horse Sense," New Yorker, 11 (25 May 1935): 36.
- "Einstein in Hollywood," Nation, 147 (6 August 1938): 128-129.
- "Seeing Things," Saturday Review, 28 (11 August 1945): 22-23.
- "School for Waiters," New Yorker, 23 (2 August 1947): 48-51.
- "The Great Kibitzer's Strike of 1926," New Yorker, 25 (12 November 1949): 37-38.
- "Does Newark Have to Be Where It Is?" New Yorker, 29 (19 September 1953): 33.
- "Musical Comedy--or Musical Serious?," New York Times Magazine, 3 November 1957, p. 24.
- "Memoir," New Yorker, 36 (11 June 1960): 39.
The theatre world affectionately dubbed George S. Kaufman "The Great Collaborator," and that epithet pinpoints his particular genius. Only one of his full-length plays was not a collaboration or adaptation. His other famous activities in addition to his writing--as a director and as one of the wittiest members of the Algonquin Round Table group--also involved collaboration of a sort. He excelled at producing humorous dialogue and at shaping material so that it played well, but he had little interest in (and perhaps little talent for) creating original dramatic plots or complex characters. But despite differences among the works he produced with a Moss Hart or a Marc Connelly or an Edna Ferber , recognizably Kaufmanesque elements run throughout his best plays: the naive, not-too-bright young man out to make his fortune; the wise-cracking independent young woman who comes to his aid; the traumas involved in preparing to entertain company; and a satirical eye cast in the direction of big business, politics, American bourgeois mores, and, especially, show business. A sizable majority of his twenty-five hits contain at least one character connected with the theatre, films, or the music business.
Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh in 1889, a descendant of early German/Jewish immigrants to the region. A year before his birth his only brother, Richard, died at the age of two, and his emotionally unstable mother Nettie therefore neurotically overprotected George. As a result Kaufman grew up with ineradicable phobias about food, failure, physical contact, illness, and death. Nevertheless, his childhood was not on the whole unhappy. He enjoyed playing baseball and card games, reading-- Mark Twain and W.S. Gilbert were early favorites--and attending plays and vaudeville shows. At fourteen he wrote his first play, "The Failure," in collaboration with a friend, Irving Pichel, who later became a successful Hollywood actor and director. Kaufman also acted in plays performed by the dramatic society at Rodeph Shalom Temple, his family's synagogue.
After graduating from high school in 1907, Kaufman entered law school at the Western University of Pennsylvania (later the University of Pittsburgh). But he contracted pleurisy during his first semester and withdrew. When recovered, he did not return to school but undertook a series of short-lived jobs, as a member of a surveying team, as a clerk in the Allegheny County Tax Office, and then as stenographer to the controller of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. In 1909 his father found him a post as salesman for the Columbia Ribbon Company, which the elder Kaufman managed. Kaufman remained in this job for three years.
At the same time, however, he had begun his writing career by contributing comic items to the "Always in Good Humor" column in the New York Evening Mail edited by the celebrated FPA--Franklin Pierce Adams. Adams recognized Kaufman's talent for crafting witticisms and printed his submissions frequently. To emulate his mentor, Kaufman signed his pieces with his initials only, and since he had been given no middle name, he arbitrarily added the letter S to become GSK. In later years he said that the initial honored his grandfather Simon Kaufman, and librarians have zealously, but erroneously, added the middle name Simon to all the author cards for Kaufman.
In 1912 Frank Munsey, publisher of the Washington Times, asked Adams to recommend someone to write and edit a humor column for his paper. Adams mentioned Kaufman, and Munsey hired him sight unseen. Kaufman moved to Washington, D.C., and his column "This and That with Sometimes a Little of the Other," debuted on 9 December. Things went well until late November 1913, when Munsey, a virulent anti-Semite, visited the newsroom and saw the very Semitic-looking Kaufman for the first time. "What is that Jew doing in my city room?" Munsey exclaimed; Kaufman was soon notified that his 1 December column would be his last.
The elder Kaufmans had in the meantime moved to Manhattan, and upon his dismissal Kaufman went to New York and moved in with them. Within two months Adams had gotten him another job, as a reporter for the New York Tribune. Kaufman would remain a newspaperman for seventeen years, primarily with the New York Times, where he started on the drama desk in 1917 and soon became drama editor, a position he would retain until 1930, even after he had become established as a successful playwright.
On a visit to his sister Ruth and her husband in Rochester in 1916, Kaufman met and quickly became engaged to the assertive and intelligent Beatrice Bakrow. They were married on 15 March 1917 and moved into an apartment on Central Park West. Beatrice soon became pregnant, but in November 1918 the baby, a boy, was stillborn and Beatrice was rendered incapable of bearing any more children. (The Kaufmans subsequently adopted a daughter, Anne.) The impact of the tragedy on the neurotic Kaufman was to make him impotent with his wife. Although the two remained devoted in all other respects, by mutual consent they both turned to others for sexual gratification. Kaufman later developed a reputation as an accomplished ladies' man--sex was the only kind of touching he could tolerate, but he tolerated it marvelously--particularly after his name was the most prominent of those publicized through the Mary Astor "diary" scandal.
Through his newspaper work Kaufman met and became intimate with such sophisticated Manhattanites as Dorothy Parker , Robert Benchley , Alexander Woollcott , and Heywood Broun , whom he would join for legendary battles of wit over the lunch table at the Algonquin. Working on the Times drama desk also reawakened Kaufman's interest in playwriting and provided him with contacts in the theatrical business that would eventually enable him to write for the stage. In 1917 Burns Mantle brought Kaufman's name to the attention of Henry Stern, who wished to begin an agency to develop plays by unproduced playwrights. Kaufman wrote for Stern a farce called "Going Up" about an impoverished young man who gets involved with altering the dollar amounts on checks to his own advantage. Although Stern and Mantle liked the play, they could interest no producer in putting it on. However, one, George C. Tyler, upon reading the play, made note of Kaufman as a writer with a future.
Therefore, when Tyler was trying to get a play about a gentleman crook into shape after a failed road tryout in the autumn of 1917, he called in Kaufman to serve as a rewrite man. Others had preceded and would succeed Kaufman at this task, but his contribution was the only one deemed significant enough to earn him author credit with the original writers, Larry Evans and Walter C. Percival. The finished product, Someone in the House , opened 9 September 1918 and closed after only thirty-two performances and mediocre reviews.
Kaufman's involvement with Someone in the House proved far more significant than its undistinguished run might indicate, however, Tyler had cast in the supporting role of Helene Glendenning a gifted British actress with little American exposure: Lynn Fontanne. He wanted Kaufman to rewrite the part to showcase Fontanne's talents; Kaufman responded by modelling Helene on Dulcinea, a character of FPA's invention who exuded naive optimism and spoke predominantly in cliches. Fontanne handled this role expertly and received glowing notices, in contrast to those of the play as a whole. When Tyler three years later decided to produce a play starring Fontanne as this same character, he naturally offered the project to Kaufman. (Kaufman had in the meantime ill-advisedly adapted for Tyler Jacques Duval, Hans Muller's gloomy Danish melodrama about a French medical researcher, his wife, and the wife's lover who becomes the doctor's patient. The material was totally unsuited to Kaufman's talents and the play closed out of town.) He agreed on the condition that he could collaborate with Marcus Cooke Connelly, a fellow newspaperman with whom he had unsuccessfully been trying for a year to come up with a viable script for a three-act comedy.
In the new play Connelly and Kaufman openly acknowledged the source for their heroine by calling her Dulcinea Smith and giving Adams "a bow" beneath the title, Dulcy , in the playbill and on the title page of the published version. The play finds Dulcy attempting to promote the merger between her husband Gordon's small costume jewelry firm and the larger Forbes corporation by inviting the Forbes family to her Westchester home for a weekend. She also schemes to arrange an elopement between Forbes's daughter Angela and Vincent Leach, an effete Hollywood scenarist. In the course of the overplotted proceedings, which also involve a missing pearl necklace, an ex-convict butler, and a lunatic impersonating a millionaire, everything Dulcy does has results disastrously opposite to those she intends, yet in the end Gordon has the merger on most favorable terms and Angela has married not Leach, but Bill Parker, Dulcy's acerbic brother, one of the few sensible characters in the play. Opening on 13 August 1921, Dulcy , despite Kaufman's conviction that it would be a failure, ran for 246 performances and established Kaufman as a preeminent Broadway dramatist. It was a position he would not lose until illness debilitated him at the end of his life forty years later.
The play contains many elements that would reappear in other Kaufman/Connelly collaborations and in Kaufman's work with others. First there is the basis of the comedy in confrontations between the wisecracking knowledgeable eiron, here Bill Parker, and to a lesser extent, Mr. Forbes, and complacent often self-deluded alazons like Tom Sterrett, the gung-ho advertising executive, and Leach, the pretentious screenwriter. (It is fitting that while both these braggarts seek the hand of the ingenue, Angela, Bill wins her in the end.) One of the play's finest comic scenes involves the reactions of Bill and Forbes to Leach's lengthy recitation of the scenario for his upcoming epic film, Sin. The overall discomfiture and exasperation that Forbes must suffer from Dulcy's misguided efforts to entertain him produce much more humor today than do the heroine's addlepated effusions divorced from the magic of Fontanne's performance. Besides being bored by Leach and by the piano recitals of "Schuyler Van Dyck" (the disguised lunatic), Forbes must sit in the soft armchairs his hostess insists on rather than in the straight-backed chair his sore back requires; the eloping couple borrow his car, leaving him stranded; as entertainments Dulcy suggests bridge and golf, which he abhors; and when he discovers a billiard table, promising an amusement he enjoys, she has misplaced the billiard balls.
Kaufman, a workaholic, who played as energetically as he worked, reacted neurotically to the prospect of poor service, uncertain food prepared by strangers, and directionless leisure. Perhaps for that reason, anxious preparations to entertain ill-assorted combinations of visitors and the disastrous social events that ensue occur frequently in his drama. The incompatibility of the bourgeois business world to which Forbes and Gordon Smith belong and the eccentric artistic milieu of Leach would also provide dramatic conflict in many Kaufman plays, as would the situation of a young woman helping her man to success. In later plays, however, the man possesses Dulcy's bumbling earnestness and the woman hardheaded common sense.
This is certainly the case in the next Kaufman/Connelly collaboration, To the Ladies! (1922). Its protagonist is Leonard Beebe, another husband seeking career advancement, this time in the piano manufacturing firm of John Kincaid, who believes that "there is a great romance in pianos. Some day, perhaps, it will be written." Leonard shares Kincaid's enthusiasm, but his ardor far exceeds his intelligence. He believes the claims made for various self-improvement aids in the classifieds and has invested heavily in a bogus Florida land scheme. Like many Kaufman heroes to follow, he is also complacently overconfident as to the success his abilities should lead to. Leonard does succeed, but only through the agency of his wife Elsie, whose demure, acquiescent manner masks her shrewd maneuverings on her husband's behalf. When, after typical anxieties about the impending visit, the Kincaids drop in on the Beebes in act 1, Elsie is recognized as a kindred soul by Mrs. Kincaid, who for years has unobtrusively made all her husband's business decisions for him. She approves of Elsie and procures a promotion for Leonard.
Leonard's second advancement occurs during the comic highlight of the play, the Kincaid company banquet. The authors satirize the excesses of such gatherings with deadly accuracy, parodying each style of boring presentation. Leonard and two other aspirants for promotion are to give speeches also; he has memorized one from a "Be-a-Popular-Speaker" manual. Unfortunately the first speaker has chosen the same selection. When her husband is made speechless by this calamity, Elsie, saying he has laryngitis, extemporaneously gives as Leonard's a sincere, low-key address that wins him the job. Kincaid later discovers this deception and wants to replace Leonard. Elsie and Kincaid's wife, Myrtle, dissuade him by pointing out that most men succeed only through their wives. The play ends with Elsie and Myrtle congratulating themselves on the recruitment of another "able woman," Mrs. Fernandez and arranging to lunch together on "Tuesday--as usual."
Following To the Ladies! Kaufman and Connelly wrote sketches for two revues and a satire on the supposed simplicity of small-town life, which after several title changes and a rocky road trip in 1922, opened and soon closed on Broadway in 1923 as The Deep Tangled Wildwood. Also during 1922, however, they produced a successful comedy, Merton of the Movies , which from a half century's distance appears as the freshest of their collaborations. It also established the pattern--a naive young man from the sticks comes to the big city, gets involved in show business, and bumbles his way into unlikely success--that would recur in Kaufman plays written without Connelly such as The Butter and Egg Man (1925), June Moon (1929), and Once in a Lifetime (1930).
Based on a serial by Harry Leon Wilson , Merton of the Movies traces the fortunes of a general-store clerk from Illinois, who, stirred by his resemblance to screen hero Harold Parmalee and by the fan magazine descriptions of his idol Beulah Baxter, vows to go to Hollywood to make "serious pictures" and "enrich the American public." Upon his arrival Merton spends days without food or money, hanging around the Parmalee-Baxter sets and hoping for a part. He is taken in tow by a wise and cynical stunt girl, "Flips" Montague, whose friend Jeff Baird, a slapstick comedy director, finds in Merton's attempts to emulate Parmalee a wonderful source of parody. They persuade Merton that they are filming a serious Western in which he should give his best dramatic performance; with him thus deceived they produce a hilarious spoof that establishes Merton as a comedy star. Although the truth initially crushes Merton, he finally realizes that comedy can be as valuable as drama and reconciles himself to a career with Baird and a marriage with Flips.
Much of the humor of the play is incidental to this plot and derives from the shrewd observations of Hollywood idiocies that pass before the audience as Merton awaits his opportunity to act as an extra. Particularly amusing are the bits of bizarre scenarios discussed by director Sigmond Rosenblatt and his scenarist Weller. The contrast between Merton's idealized images of Parmalee and Baxter and their actual characters also generates considerable comedy. Parmalee is a pompous idiot, and Miss Baxter is a petty, vain woman who has slept her way to the top. Although Kaufman in 1923 had never visited Hollywood, he considered it a sham, business masquerading as art, where success came through sheer chance. His opinion would not change over the years, even though he would later go to California to rewrite scripts for various studios.
Next the collaborators provided a book for the already titled and scored musical Helen of Troy, New York (1923). They turned to their favorite theme, the foibles of the business world, and wrote a farce about life in a collar company. The musical ran for six months on Broadway but died quickly in the public memory. Then in early 1924 the pair embarked upon what would be their last successful collaboration, Beggar on Horseback . It was also their most theatrically ambitious in that it was based on an experimental German play by Paul Apel, Hans Sonnenstössers Höllenfahrt, and contained expressionist and surrealist elements.
Most of the play comprises the dream of impoverished composer Neil McRae after he has, on the advice of a childhood friend, proposed to the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois family from his midwestern hometown. Through the marriage he hopes to acquire enough money to complete the symphony he is struggling to write amidst the jobs as an arranger he takes on to support himself. In so doing he must break off with the girl he really loves, his New York neighbor Cynthia Mason. In the dream the Philistine banality and materialism of the Cady family, only slightly exaggerated from their actual conversation, interferes with Neil's art far more than his poverty ever did; at last, exasperated beyond endurance, he murders the entire family. After a trial staged like a play--during which the Cadys spring back to life and prevent Neil from playing his symphony as a defense for his actions--he is incarcerated in the Cady Consolidated Art Factory where composers, writers, and painters are forced to turn out prodigious quantities of hack work for the delight of the masses. Awakening from this awful warning, Neil breaks his engagement to Gladys Cady and proposes to Cynthia.
The Cadys embody the foibles of the provincial, business-minded middle class that are the primary target of satire in all the Kaufman/Connelly plays. Mr. Cady abandoned an ambition to become a judge when he discovered how little money judges make; his chief interests are golf and the affairs of his widget factory. Mrs. Cady sits in a rocking chair, knitting and gossiping; her favorite recreation is off-key hymn singing. Their son Homer is a peevish, lazy hypochondriac who says unkind things to Neil at every opportunity. Despite the avant-garde trappings, the world of the play is that of Dulcy and To the Ladies! And although Beggar on Horseback received high critical praise as a daring intellectual drama when it opened, even Kaufman, viewing a revival years later, noted that it had dated badly.
Kaufman and Connelly wrote one more play, an indifferent and short-lived musical, Be Yourself, but by the time of its opening in 1924 Kaufman the compulsive writer had clashed with the less driven Connelly, and the two decided to end their partnership. Kaufman would work subsequently with many collaborators, most importantly Edna Ferber , Morrie Ryskind , and, of course, Moss Hart . But the one full length play he wrote that was not a collaboration or adaptation, The Butter and Egg Man , is very much on the Kaufman/Connelly model. It concerns the efforts of unscrupulous Broadway producers Jack McClure and Joe Lehman (an Irish-Jewish partnership to be repeated with Gilhooley and Lippman in Of Thee I Sing, 1931) to obtain financing for a dreadful musical melodrama, Her Lesson, that they have acquired without paying royalties. They find their "butter and egg man"--an out-of-towner with a bankroll--in Peter Jones from Chillicothe, Ohio, who wants to parlay $20,000 quickly into $50,000 in order to buy the hotel at which he works. Enchanted by Lehmac Productions' charming secretary Jane Weston, he lets himself be talked into investing in the play.
Her Lesson has a terrible road tryout in Syracuse; after a vain attempt by all concerned to fix the play--a situation Kaufman knew well--the producers decide to close it. Frantic at the loss of his bankroll, Peter offers to buy them out. He raises the necessary cash from the stagestruck assistant manager of the Syracuse hotel, Oscar Fritchie, who is even dumber than he. Peter has meanwhile picked up just enough of Lehman's fast-talking ways to succeed in the theatre business. Her Lesson miraculously arrives on Broadway a hit.
Many reversals occur in the third act of The Butter and Egg Man, with the upshot that Lehman buys back the play just in time to be slapped with a plagiarism suit, Peter talks Oscar into investing his share of the profits in the Chillicothe hotel, and Jane and Peter, after an estrangement brought about by his brush with theatrical success, reconcile and leave for Chillicothe where they will marry and and manage the hotel. This ending represents the only time in Kaufman's many treatments of the naive Midwesterner versus the big city sophisticate that he advocates a retreat to the provinces. But in all other respects the play differs little from those that preceded it, particularly in Jane's role as guide to the inexperienced Peter.
What The Butter and Egg Man lacks in originality it makes up for in Kaufman's insider's knowledge of the theatrical world he is mocking and in the pointed jibes of Fanny Lehman, Joe's ex-wife who has no real function in the play except to deliver wisecracks. While Kaufman definitely wrote better with collaborators, this play demonstrates that he could turn out competent comic entertainment on his own. However, he never attempted a solo outing again and was always on the alert for new collaborators.
The first he found after breaking with Connelly was the already prominent fiction writer Edna Ferber . Kaufman approached her in 1923 about dramatizing her story "Old Man Minick." She consented, beginning a partnership that would last off and on for the next twenty-five years. It was, however, often a strained partnership, partly because Ferber fell in love with Kaufman and he did not reciprocate. Of all his collaborators Ferber nevertheless seems to have had the most noticeable influence on the finished product. With their melodrama, sudden death, and moralizing the plays are more Ferber/Kaufman than Kaufman/Ferber.
Minick , which opened in September 1924, a year before the premiere of The Butter and Egg Man, gave little indication of the success they would eventually achieve together. Ferber's tale about an elderly widower who comes to stay with his son and daughter-in-law, disrupts their lives, and then must overcome their guilt (in order to enter the retirement home where he has friends and really would prefer to live) had few themes to bring out the best in Kaufman. The one effective sequence concerns the frantic preparations for the meeting of Nettie Minick's civic club at her apartment, the banality of the club's business, and the total collapse of the gathering due to Minick's interference. Here Kaufman is on home ground, exposing trivial bourgeois values.
In 1927 Kaufman and Ferber got together again on a play with a subject comfortable for both. For Kaufman it was the well-known territory of the Broadway theatre, for Ferber the fortunes of a family dynasty, three generations of actors in the Cavendish clan, patterned after the Barrymores. The Royal Family (1927) unfolds in a series of hectic, dialogue-filled scenes with many characters running about the stage talking at cross purposes. Rather than having a well-defined plot, it presents several conflicts. The central one involves the opposition of two ways of life--secure, dull materialism and domesticity versus the erratic, egocentric, but fulfilling life in the theatre.
Julie Cavendish ponders giving up her stage career to marry ex-suitor, now millionaire industrialist, Gil Martin, and move to South America. Her daughter Gwen struggles to accommodate her developing acting career to her love for society scion Perry Stewart. The differences between philistine and artist are, as always in Kaufman, irreconcilable. As Martin describes the joys of life among his "very fine" friends the Zamacos, "He's a Spaniard of the highest type--very big cattle man. She was a Kansas City girl--Krantz--you know--daughter of Julius Krantz--packer," Julie's resolve to get away from the madness of the acting profession weakens. Although Gwen does marry Perry and bear his son, she is soon planning to go back on the stage and start the baby, named Aubrey for his great-grandfather the Shakespearean actor, on the same path. It is clear that Gil and Perry will always be outsiders in their women's lives.
While they become one set of fools to be defeated by the wisecracks of Julie and her mother Fanny, those theatre people who are not true artists serve as another set. Paramount among them are the conceited hams Herbert Dean and his wife Kitty, who, lacking talent and having lost youth, must descend from the legitimate theatre to vaudeville melodrama. They contrast with grande dame Fanny who, despite her age, is prevented from making a triumphant comeback tour only by the illness that leads to her death at the final curtain. Fanny's black sheep son Tony also comes in for some of the same type of satire, while providing much of the play's humor as well, as he exaggerates the events of his own life into a never-ending melodrama. Tony has the true Cavendish talent, but he has sold out to Hollywood (as much a sin to Ferber as to Kaufman); he spends most of his time, not acting, but either evading women he has seduced and abandoned or hiding out from the reporters his scandals attract.
At the end of the play, however, Tony is returning to the stage, playing Christ in an updated version of the Passion play; all the other members of the family are returning to the stage as well. Although Fanny's death mutes the happiness of the conclusion, just prior to her demise she has asserted of baby Aubrey's imminent debut: "He's a Cavendish, and he's going to carry on. We always have and we always will. When one drops out there's always another one to take his place." The Royal Family celebrates this continuity of the family acting tradition, which becomes a metaphor for the persistence of the theatre itself.
In 1929 Ferber began trying to interest Kaufman in a play about a fashionable society dinner party and the various people--with their various self-serving motives--who attend. But Kaufman felt the vignette structure required by Ferber's concept would be technically impossible to stage. By 1932 the success of the similarly structured Grand Hotel and Ferber's persistent entreaties persuaded him to change his mind. Once the two began work on Dinner at Eight (1932) he warmed to the theme, and the anticipated difficulties with unity disappeared.
Although the audience meets them in separate scenes, the destinies of each of the dinner guests are complexly intertwined. The hostess, Millicent Jordan, is so busy trying to score a social coup by entertaining visiting British nobility that she doesn't notice her husband Oliver's failing health and failing business. The latter is threatened by a stock takeover, behind dummy agents, by Ferberesque self-made Montana millionaire Dan Packard. Unaware of his scheme, Oliver has had Millie invite the rough-hewn Packard and his vulgar wife Kitty to the dinner. Packard agrees to come because he needs to meet Lord Ferncliffe in order to further his empire-building ambitions. Also on the guest list is Dr. Talbot, the physician who alone knows that Jordan is dying and who has had an affair with Kitty Packard. Two former stars, Carlotta Vance and Larry Renault, now broke and past their acting prime, are also to grace the table; both have done things that have adversely affected their hosts. Carlotta has sold the Jordan stock her old admirer Oliver advised her to buy in the past, thus making the Packard takeover possible. And Renault has seduced the Jordans' daughter Paula away from her wealthy fiance.
By the actual time of the dinner, one of the least propitious of the many nervously planned at-home entertainments in the Kaufman canon, most of the characters have received a comeuppance. The guests of honor, the Ferncliffes, cancel out at the last moment, disappointing Packard and nullifying the raison d'etre for the whole affair. What's worse, Millicent must fill in with her decidedly non-fashionable cousins Hattie, the Kaufman wise-cracker of the play, and Ed. She has suffered a further blow when a quarrel among the servants results in the destruction of the lobster dish that was to crown the meal. The doctor decides to return to his wife and to break off with Kitty. Evicted from his hotel for nonpayment of his bill, with no acting jobs on the horizon and no money for whiskey, Renault commits suicide; but Paula has gone to break off her engagement before the news reaches her. Carlotta learns that she has inadvertently ruined her old friend. Dinner at Eight, unlike most of Kaufman's plays, balances its criticism of pretension and double-dealing with little affirmation of the eventual triumph of common sense and decency.
The next Kaufman/Ferber collaboration restored such a balance. Stage Door (1936) contrasts several sets of show-business people, playing off those who prostitute their talent to Hollywood fame against those who remain true to the higher ideals of the legitimate theatre. The play is set in a New York boardinghouse for aspiring female performers, the Footlights Club, modeled on the real-life Rehearsal Club. With Margaret Sullavan playing the lead role of Terry Randall, the play was a substantial hit and would have run even longer if pregnancy had not forced Sullavan to leave the show.
Kaufman and Ferber wrote two more plays together, but neither repeated the success of the preceding trio of hits. The Land Is Bright (1941) is pure Ferber, a multigeneration saga of a western robber baron and his descendants, who get and spend money irresponsibly, pursue decadent lifestyles, make loveless marriages, and often end violently. The last generation, however, profiting from the marriage of one of the sons to a competent, nonmaterialistic wife and shaken by events in Hitler's Europe, vows to enter public service to make up for all the family has gouged from the country. Such a concept provided little scope for Kaufman's comic gifts except in the opening scene when the head of the clan's former Montana sidekicks reacts in disbelief to the gaudy,nouveau riche appointments of his New York City mansion.
The team's last collaboration, Bravo! (1948), is more Kaufmanesque, although its focus on a group of European refugees trying to start over in America derives from a preoccupation of Ferber's that also figures in The Land Is Bright. The central character Zoltan Lazko, a formerly eminent East European playwright, supposedly based on Ferenc Molnar , lives with a diverse collection of fellow countrymen in a New York brownstone. (One feels as though one has gone home with Boris Kolenkhov, the emigre Russian ballet master of the earlier, Kaufman/Hart collaboration You Can't Take It With You, 1936.) Their struggles provide many effective comic moments and sharp dialogue exchanges, but the contrived plot, which alternates between pathos and satire, fails to find a place for all the characters. As a whole, the play does not jell. So as it began, the Kaufman/Ferber collaboration ended on an insignificant note.
Kaufman first sought the help of Morrie Ryskind , another frequent collaborator during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when he was working on the book of The Cocoanuts (1925), an Irving Berlin musical starring his new friends the Marx Brothers. The play concerns Florida land speculation at a rundown hotel owned by Groucho, with Zeppo as the desk clerk, Harpo and Chico as two wacky guests, and Margaret Dumont, in her first appearance with the brothers, as a bewildered sane one. Of course, plot never mattered much to the Marxes; Kaufman and Ryskind's primary task involved coming up with copious wisecracks for Groucho to "ad lib" at will. Groucho was one of the few performers Kaufman grudgingly allowed to tamper with a script, and Kaufman was one of the few dramatists Groucho trusted to write for him.
Therefore Kaufman was summoned for the book of the next Marx Brothers musical Animal Crackers (1928), and Ryskind, who had worked uncredited on The Cocoanuts, this time received full coauthor billing. Like the later Dinner at Eight, Animal Crackers deals with the going awry of a party as social coup, this time a weekend at the estate of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Dumont). She has arranged to show off to her guests both the noted African explorer, Captain Spalding (a role which gave Groucho his theme song "Hooray for Captain Spalding!"), and a valuable painting. But her envious, scheming neighbors exchange the painting for a forgery; a second copy then turns up; and general anarchy, abetted by Harpo and Chico, ensues before the confusion is cleared up and all the romantic subplots happily resolved. Both these stage successes helped to launch the Marx Brothers' movie careers. Although Kaufman did not join Ryskind in adapting them for the screen, at the request of MGM's Irving Thalberg, whom he admired, he did later contribute to the original screenplay of A Night at the Opera (1935).
The Marxes having gone to Hollywood, Kaufman and Ryskind for their next Broadway venture turned to a more focused musical satire, originating in Ryskind's interest in politics. Strike Up the Band (1930) is a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style extravaganza about a businessman who stages a war as a profit-making venture. After the authors experienced some difficulty in completing a producible script, the play ran a respectable 191 performances. But their political satire that followed it soon eclipsed Strike Up the Band in the history of the theatre. Of Thee I Sing opened 26 December 1931, ran over one hundred performances longer than any previous Kaufman play, and became the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Of Thee I Sing does not satirize any particular politician or party but ridicules the American system of presidential politics. Two assumptions underlie most of the play's humor: first, that competency to run government concerns neither candidates nor electorate during a presidential race; second, that the office of vice-president reduces its holder to a nonentity. Neither point is very original, but the Kaufman / Ryskind plot, aided by the George and Ira Gershwin score, turned it into delightful theatre.
Worried about his party's declining popularity, the advisers of incumbent John P. Wintergreen seek a campaign gimmick to insure his reelection. After polling a chambermaid, who informs them that, after money, people care most about love, the party hacks arrange for Wintergreen to run on a love platform. The winner of a Miss America-like beauty contest will be his bride. But at the last minute he cannot go through with the stunt, having fallen in love with the corn muffins baked by the unglamorous but practical pageant coordinator Mary Turner.
Wintergreen easily wins the election, but the contest winner, Southern belle Diana Devereaux, stirs up public opinion against him for jilting her. Then the French government joins in the protest when it discovers that Miss Devereaux comes from a long line of illegitimate descendants of Napoleon. However, Mary's pregnancy placates the populace, and the French are satisfied when vice-president Throttlebottom, whom no one ever recognizes, finally gets to perform a duty--to act in place of the president and marry Diana.
Individual scenes and the whole musical mode point up the fantasy elements of the play. At a rally the candidates' speeches are upstaged by a wrestling match going on at the same time in the same hall; Throttlebottom can only enter the White House as an awestruck tourist; the Supreme Court, by tossing dice, rules on whether the presidential infant will be a boy or a girl (in the end Mary has twins, one of each sex); Mary worries over the number of lamb chops required by the officials who cannot be prevented from coming to state dinners. Yet the exaggerations have just enough basis in truth to make the satire wickedly effective. While the vice-presidential jokes seem somewhat stale today, the depiction of the presidency as 99% public relations hype is more relevant than ever.
Kaufman and Ryskind would never duplicate the success of Of Thee I Sing. A sequel, Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933), again featuring Wintergreen and Throttlebottom as played by the now popular comedy team of William Gaxton and Victor Moore and dealing with international rather than domestic politics, veered too far into fantasy to work as satire. Bring On the Girls (1934), another political satire and their first nonmusical collaboration, closed in tryouts. These failures, coupled with a swing to the right in Ryskind's political views, ended their playwriting partnership.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s Kaufman was involved with three other hits written with people other than his usual collaborators. In 1929 he offered to help Ring Lardner dramatize his short story "Some Like Them Cold." It concerned the romance between one of Lardner's grammar-fracturing, dumb but overconfident provincials who goes to the big city and the hometown girl he meets in a railway station. She shares his simple tastes and naive aspirations and longs to fill all his domestic needs. In the story he drops her for a "cool" sophisticated New Yorker, but Kaufman persuaded Lardner that the play would be more commercially viable if the young man, Fred, became intimidated by the demands of this gold-digging creature, Eileen, and eventually allowed himself to be led back into the arms of his faithful Edna by the acerbic but kindhearted Tin Pan Alley pianist Maxie Schwartz.
Happy ending aside, the combination of the antisentimental, witty Kaufman and cynical, witty Lardner results in the most tough-minded and consistently funny version of the much-used Kaufman plot involving the simple-minded and untalented young man who inexplicably succeeds in show business, this time as a songwriter. June Moon , the title of one of his hits as well as of the play itself, has two wisecracking characters, Maxie and Lucille Sears, the neglected and straying wife of Fred's composer Paul Sears; when their sarcasm collides with Fred's banal, earnest effusions, the play has few rivals in the Kaufman canon:
FRED: I like Bronxes best. They're nothing but gin and orange juice. I don't know why they call it a Bronx.
MAXIE: It's great orange country, up there.
FRED: I seen the Goddest [sic] of Liberty, too--I mean the statue. It cost a million dollars and weighs 225 ton.
MAXIE (gently): She ought to cut out sweets.
Kaufman also worked with Howard Dietz on the comedy sketches for the highly successful musical revue The Band Wagon in 1931, and in the mid-1930s he collaborated with Washington columnist and society insider Katherine Dayton to produce First Lady (1935), an entertaining amalgam of the Kaufman / Ryskind political extravaganzas and the Kaufman / Connelly plays about women arranging their husbands' careers. The plot, which does not warrant close scrutiny, has two rival Washington hostesses, Lucy Chase Wayne, granddaughter of a former president, and well-worn beauty Irene Hibbard competing to become First Lady. When Lucy suspects that Irene will divorce her aging Supreme Court justice husband in order to marry an up-and-coming young Western senator, Gordon Keane, she starts a "Carter Hibbard for President" boom in order to divert Irene's attention. But her scheme backfires when Hibbard, backed by a powerful newspaper chain and a satirically presented national women's organization, becomes the leading contender for the party's nomination. Only a scandal from Irene's past saves the day by forcing Hibbard to withdraw from the race and leaving the nomination available for Lucy's husband Stephen, the secretary of state. As a final twist, Keane, now safely steered romantically toward Lucy's Southern belle niece, reveals that he was born in Canada and thus disqualified from ever running for president.
Most of the action occurs before or during one of Lucy's parties, and the number of acidulous comments made by the various Washington wives in attendance makes it clear that the plot only serves as an excuse for a witty survey of social life in the nation's capital, where a hostess arranging a dinner partner for a friend can remark, "I can give you a Cuba attache, unless they have a revolution before dinner."
Far more significant than any of Kaufman's other collaborations during the 1930s, however, were the plays he wrote with Moss Hart ; Kaufman and Hart are now linked in the public consciousness as firmly as Gilbert and Sullivan. The circumstances of their first collaboration, when Hart sought help from Kaufman in 1929 for rendering his script of Once in a Lifetime stageworthy, and the agonies of multiple rewrites and dismal tryouts before the play's triumph on Broadway, as detailed by Hart in his autobiography Act One (1959), have become a theatrical legend of sorts. Although Kaufman, who also directed and acted the part of Lawrence Vail, claimed in his opening night speech that the play was eighty percent Moss Hart , Once in a Lifetime is ironically the most Kaufmanesque of all their collaborations. As Hart admitted, it had been inspired by Merton of the Movies and June Moon. Succeeding Kaufman / Hart plays would more strongly reveal Hart's preference for comedy over satire, for the creation of more psychologically complex characters, for the theatrically innovative, and for significant rather than perfunctory romantic plots. Even Once in a Lifetime has the profusion of characters, episodic plotting, and onstage chaos that typifies the Kaufman / Hart comedies.
The play takes place during the crisis that swept Hollywood with the advent of sound. Three out-of-work vaudevillians, fast-talking Jerry Hyland, his cynical girl May Daniels, and their dumber-than-dumb partner George Lewis head west with a scheme to pass themselves off as elocution experts. Silent stars are so desperate to learn how to deliver lines that May and Jerry soon find themselves with many opportunities at the Glogauer Studios. Given the capricious nature of Hollywood success, they lose them just as quickly, and almost lose each other when Jerry's absorption in getting ahead at all costs alienates May. In the meantime, however, Indian nut-cracking George has become a hit director of films starring his equally dim-witted actress girl friend Susan Walker. Although he shoots the wrong script and makes numerous technical errors, the critics hail his latest film as cinematically daring and innovative. With the studio at his feet, he demands that May and Jerry be rehired, and they resolve their romantic differences.
As in Merton of the Movies, it is the absurd nature of life in Hollywood rather than the mechanics of the plot that generates the comedy. Kaufman and Hart look at the plight of New York playwrights brought out to write dialogue and then forgotten; at the accidents that pass for art; at the vulgarity of the big studio bosses Glogauer, whose precise whereabouts and phone extension are constantly announced by a page, and the aptly named Schlepkin brothers, one of whom is always "schlepping" home to the Bronx to care for their elderly mother; at the lack of any values save monetary ones. All these faults are pointed up through the running commentary of May, who serves double duty as romantic lead and wisecracking female.
Fearful of losing his individuality in his admiration for Kaufman, Hart did not immediately seek another collaboration. Three and a half years later, his confidence bolstered by psychoanalysis and some success on his own, he approached Kaufman, who had remained a close friend, with an idea for a play spanning several decades in the career of a successful but shallow Broadway playwright. Richard Niles has betrayed friends, lovers, and his own talent for quick material gain. The plot was about as hackneyed as it sounds, but Merrily We Roll Along (1934) depended for its success on a gimmick Hart had come up with: the action unfolded in reverse order, as in Harold Pinter 's recent Betrayal. A character based on Kaufman's friend Dorothy Parker also enlivened the proceedings with her biting, drunken comments. Nevertheless, although their previous hit guaranteed decent ticket sales, the second Kaufman / Hart effort did not really deserve the recognition it received from the public. For collaborators to lead Kaufman into "serious" drama was always a mistake.
The next Kaufman / Hart collaboration was definitely not a mistake. You Can't Take It With You , the story of an eccentric family and its efforts to resist the agents of social conformity, would run longer than any other Kaufman play, would win him his second Pulitzer Prize, and would achieve classic status in the American theatrical repertory along with such other celebrations of daffy individualism as Arsenic and Old Lace and Harvey.
Head of the household is "Grandpa" Martin Vanderhof, a successful businessman who had many years ago realized that he hated his work. So he simply retired to collect snakes and stamps and drop in annually on the Columbia University commencement exercises. His daughter Penny Sycamore is a hobbyist who abandoned painting for playwriting when a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house. Penny's husband Paul manufactures fireworks in the basement with the help of permanent houseguest Mr. DePinna, the iceman who came to make a delivery one day and never left. Their elder daughter Essie is an untalented but dedicated ballerina who also makes "Love Dreams" candy for her husband Ed to peddle around town. Ed includes in each box one of the selections from various books that he enjoys printing on his printing press. He also accompanies Essie on the xylophone. Her ballet teacher, Russian emigre Boris Kolenkhov, also visits frequently, particularly at mealtimes, casually presided over by black servants Rheba and Donald.
Two problems threaten the happiness of this blissful household. The one "normal" member of the family, Penny and Paul's younger daughter Alice, has fallen in love with her boss's son and fears that his conservative, materialistic family will never accept her unconventional one. And the Internal Revenue Service is inquiring into Grandpa's non-payment of income taxes while the FBI is concerned about some of the candy box inserts that Ed has copied from Communist tracts.
Everything comes to a head during the most calamitous of all Kaufman's calamitous parties when Alice's fiance Tony purposely brings his parents to dinner on the evening before Alice has scheduled a formal entertainment with everyone on his best behavior. Tony admires the nonconformity of the family and wants his parents to see them as they really are. They certainly get the opportunity. The Kirbys arrive at a moment when all members of the household are simultaneously pursuing their eccentric interests in the living room--a wonderful comic moment. None of the odd varieties of food in the house will suit Mr. Kirby's nervous stomach, a drunken actress is sleeping it off upstairs, Mrs. Kirby reveals during a word-association game that her husband substitutes business for sex, G-men invade the house and haul everyone off to jail as all the fireworks in the basement explode.
Of course the last act solves all difficulties. Tony and Grandpa convince Mr. Kirby that making money is not the sole aim of life. With the elimination of the familial incompatibility that had made Alice vow never to see Tony again, the young lovers can happily marry. And because the family had buried a former lodger under the name Martin Vanderhof, Grandpa can persuade the government that he is dead and therefore owes no taxes. The play ends as all sit once more around the family table--with a former Russian Grand Duchess dishing up blintzes--and Grandpa thanks God for making everything work out all right.
An expert blend of humor, whimsy, and sentiment, You Can't Take It With You is Kaufman's best and most popular play, but it is also not very typical of the mainstream of his work. Except for the famous interview with the IRS in which Grandpa quizzes the agent about what would be done with his money should he decide to pay taxes, the play contains little social satire. And one has difficulty, despite Kaufman's long history of distaste for the business world, imagining him, as compulsive worker, endorsing the philosophy Grandpa states to Mr. Kirby: "Don't see anybody I don't want to, don't have six hours of things I have to do every day before I get one hour to do what I like in--and I haven't taken bicarbonate of soda in thirty-five years. What's the matter with that?" Although Grandpa is generally interpreted as a wise man whose apparent craziness is far saner than that of the world at large, it is no wonder that Kaufman described the whole household as "a slightly mad family" who do "some swell mad things."
Kaufman and Hart would return to the idea of a house overrun with slightly mad people in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) four plays later, but in that interval they turned to a series of episodic theatrical spectacles that depended more on staging or stars than on their own comic gifts. I'd Rather Be Right (1937) was a political satire with a musical score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The revue was not about a fantasy politician as in the Kaufman / Ryskind musicals, but satirized, by name, Franklin D. Roosevelt, his cabinet members, and his quarrels with the Supreme Court justices (who pop out from behind bushes if the president even mentions making a new law), as well as such other topical institutions as the Federal Theatre Project. The framework for the satire is a dream--but the audience learns this only at the end of the play--in which a young couple meets FDR during a July Fourth celebration in Central Park and asks him to balance the federal budget so that the boy can get a raise that will enable them to marry. All the comically conceived schemes to do so fail, but the president inspires them with enough faith in the country to get married despite the prevailing economic uncertainty. The play owed most of its success not to this scenario, but to the spirited performance in the FDR role of George M. Cohan .
In 1938 Kaufman and Hart offered their most elaborate production, The Fabulous Invalid , a history of the American theatre. It begins with the opening of the Alexandria, a fictional theatre, and, after the premiere performance, the death of one and the suicide of the other of the husband and wife stars of the show. But they are permitted to stay on earth as ghosts as long as the theatre continues. This conceit allows Kaufman and Hart to stage a series of tableaux of scenes from famous plays of the century, utilizing elaborate sets and multimedia effects.
However, as the Alexandria deteriorates from showcase stage to movie theatre to seedy burlesque house, it appears that the ghosts may be doomed to leave earth. Then a young group of actors, modeled on Orson Welles's Mercury Players, buys the building and vows to restore its status as a legitimate theatre. As in The Royal Family, the dramatic tradition continues. Despite the ambitiousness of the production and its expression of both authors' deep love of the stage, it had the shortest run (65 performances) of any Kaufman / Hart play.
This failure did not deter them from trying another historical pageant in January 1939. The American Way is a cavalcade chronicling the rise to prominence and concomitant personal setbacks of immigrant German cabinetmaker Martin Gunther from the turn of the century through World War I to his death at the hands of Bundist thugs as he tries to convince his grandson to stick by American democratic ideals and not be seduced by Fascist propaganda from the homeland. A sentimental flag waver, this play had a cast of 250, striking sets and costumes, but a weak script. It fared better than the previous pageant only because the troubles in Europe had made patriotism fashionable.
In October 1939, Kaufman and Hart finally returned to the type of drama they did best with The Man Who Came to Dinner . It is the story of the stuffy middle-class Mesalia, Ohio, household of the Stanleys, which is totally disrupted by the celebrated journalist and personality Sheridan Whiteside when he injures his leg on their front stoop after having accepted their dinner invitation during a lecture tour. Taking over the house and servants, terrorizing his nurse, dropping famous names with every breath, Whiteside is a caricature of Kaufman's good friend Alexander Woollcott . Two other friends, Noel Coward and Harpo Marx, appear under the names Beverly Carlton and Banjo. But the play is hilarious even to an audience that knows nothing of the characters' real life prototypes.
Since most of the comedy derives from Whiteside's egotistical manipulations and outrageous put-downs, like his famous entrance line "I may vomit," the plot is slight. It concerns the decision of his indispensable secretary Maggie Cutler to marry local newspaperman and aspiring dramatist Bert Jefferson and remain in Mesalia. Partly for selfish reasons and partly because he believes Maggie would regret such a marriage, Whiteside schemes to break up the lovers by bringing in nymphomaniac actress Lorraine Sheldon to vamp Jefferson. But when he realizes how deep Maggie's love for Bert is, he conspires with Banjo to remove Lorraine--in a mummy case--just as quickly as he summoned her. His injury healed, he finally departs the Stanley residence, only to fall once again down the porch steps. He is carried in, threatening to sue them for $350,000, as Mr. Stanley throws up his hands in despair, Mrs. Stanley faints, and the curtain falls.
The Stanleys suffer a sort of reverse of Neil McRae's nightmare in Beggar on Horseback, as they are conventional people driven mad by artistic eccentrics. One cannot help but pity them, but they and their small-town friends are so rigid and dull that Whiteside retains audience sympathies despite his monstrous behavior, particularly when he helps the Stanley children June and Richard to achieve their ambitions over parental objections. The Man Who Came to Dinner presents the familiar Kaufman conflict between provincial bourgeois and New York-based artist, and there is little doubt as to his preference.
Kaufman and Hart's last play together, George Washington Slept Here (1940) is also a comedy, but more farcically slapstick than those that preceded it. It deals with the efforts of Newton and Annabelle Fuller to restore a ramshackle country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (where both Kaufman and Hart had country houses), in which the father of our country had supposedly spent the night. After many complications the house is left a shambles, and the poor Fullers learn that Benedict Arnold, not Washington, was the famous occupant. Although not as tedious as Merrily We Roll Along or The American Way, the play was decidedly inferior in conception and comic imagination to Once in a Lifetime, You Can't Take It With You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner.
During the 1940s the continuous success Kaufman had known since the opening of Dulcy began to lessen. He was no longer working with Hart, and his last two collaborations with Ferber in 1941 and 1948 were, as noted previously, not successful. While his adaptation of The Late George Apley with J.P. Marquand in 1944 was a hit, Hollywood Pinafore (1945), his updating of Gilbert's libretto for HMS Pinafore (retaining Sullivan's original score) to a movie studio setting flopped. The only other full-length play he wrote during the decade, Park Avenue (1946), a musical written with Nunnally Johnson and scored by Arthur Schwartz and Ira Gershwin, also had a brief run.
The decline in Kaufman's output during these years resulted partially from the personal upheaval of Beatrice Kaufman's sudden death in 1945. By 1949, however, he was married again, to thirty-five-year-old British actress Leueen McGrath. Together they wrote several plays to feature her, but only two, The Small Hours (1951) and Fancy Meeting You Again (1952), were ever produced. They ran only twenty and eight performances respectively. Kaufman's marriage to McGrath ended in divorce in 1957, but the two remained close friends until his death.
Eventually success returned. From 1948 to 1952 Kaufman gained national prominence dispensing his pointed wit on the radio and television panel show This is Show Business. In 1950 he directed the long-running hit musical Guys and Dolls for which he received his only Tony Award, as best director. Then in 1953, with new collaborator Howard Teichmann, he wrote The Solid Gold Cadillac, a Cinderella-style fable about an elderly actress who thwarts the plans of four conniving executives to swindle the stockholders of a large corporation. Given a sinecure as stockholder relations officer, Laura Partridge charms all the small stockholders with her letters so that they send her enough proxies to fire the four wicked officers and take over the company, with the help of its former president who had ill-advisedly accepted a government post in Washington. The effect is rather that of Carlotta Vance in Dinner at Eight deciding to save Oliver Jordan's company from Dan Packard rather than selling him her shares. The satire of the business world goes back to To the Ladies! and Dulcy, although the businessmen here are truly vicious characters rather than mere pompous fools. The Solid Gold Cadillac ran for 526 performances, making it the third longest-running of Kaufman's plays. He followed this success in 1955 with his last script to be produced, the hit Silk Stockings, the musical version of the movie Ninotchka, which he adapted with McGrath and Abe Burrows. His career as a director, which began auspiciously with his staging of the Hecht / MacArthur smash, The Front Page, in 1928 and included, in addition to twenty-four of his own plays, such notable productions as Of Mice and Men, My Sister Eileen, as well as Guys and Dolls , also ended on a successful note with Peter Ustinov 's Romanoff and Juliet in 1957.
Kaufman never gave up developing new projects--he was working with Connelly again just before he died--but his health, weakened by prostate trouble and a series of small strokes during the 1950s, permitted none of his projects to come to fruition in the four years before his quiet death on 2 June 1961 at the age of seventy-two.
Although Kaufman originated the aphorism "Satire is what closes on Saturday night," his primary strength as a dramatist was as a satirist of those follies most basic to American society, whether in the domestic, business, political, or entertainment spheres. Because he abhorred displays of emotion, and always let his collaborators write the love scenes, one can be fairly safe in crediting them also with providing the occasional feelings of tenderness or pathos the plays generate. To Kaufman goes praise for the laughs, for the crackling flow of wit. And very few of his more than forty plays to reach Broadway closed on their first Saturday night.
His satire had no profound reforming purpose. His targets were fools, not knaves. He wrote for the popular theatre, with an eye for the commercially viable, and few playwrights have had a better eye. He crafted his first hit in 1922 and his last in 1955, and although some have dated, it is still an even bet that if a classic comedy of the 1920s or 1930s is being revived, Kaufman's name will be on the playbill. The continuing revivals of his best plays in community and regional theatres and the appearance of three biographies in the 1970s indicates that interest in the man and his works is still strong. Although one cannot claim Kaufman as a great literary artist, he was one of the great men of the American theatre, and that theatre does not seem likely to forget him soon.
George S. Kaufman's papers, including copies of unpublished and unproduced plays, are at the Wisconsin Center for Theatre Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- George Freedley, "George S. Kaufman, 1889-1961," Modern Drama, 6 (December 1963): 241-243.
- Malcolm Goldstein, George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theatre (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
- Moss Hart, Act One (New York: Random House, 1959).
- Russell W. Lembke, "The Esthetic Values of Dissonance in the Plays of George S. Kaufman," Ph.D. Dissertation, Iowa State University, 1946.
- Lembke, "The George S. Kaufman Plays as Social History," Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33 (October 1947): 341-347.
- Scott Meredith, George S. Kaufman and his Friends (Garden City: Doubleday, 1974).
- Howard Teichmann, George S. Kaufman, an Intimate Portrait (New York: Atheneum, 1972).