By Aden Ross
You Can’t Take It with You opened in 1936, when America was still in the Depression and the world was on the brink of World War II. Eager to forget the bad news at home and the worse news abroad, people flocked to this lunatic play for 837 consecutive performances. In addition, it won the Pulitzer Prize for the 1936-37 season. Is this minor classic by George Kaufman and Moss Hart only a period piece, certainly worth admiring in its own right? Or can it still speak to audiences at the turn of the twenty-first century?
From the beginning, the description of the Vanderhof’s living room sets the tone and the play’s parameters. It is actually an “every-man-for-himself room . . . . For here meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated—if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating” (p. 225; all references to You Can’t Take It with You are from Three Comedies of American Life [New York: Washington Square Press, 1961].
Kaufman and Hart then interject into this setting in which anything can happen a cast of zany characters capable of doing virtually anything. The time is two weeks before the Fourth of July, and the father of the family is (naturally) designing and building his own fireworks in the basement. His wife, Penny, is (naturally) writing her eleventh play, while their daughter (naturally) toe-dances around a batch of cooling candy. Grandpa, the patriarch of the family, has just returned from the latest graduation at Columbia, because thirty-five years ago he jettisoned his job and the Establishment to raise snakes, play darts, and attend commencements. The play also presents the obligatory young lovers, whose fate hangs in the balance between her crazy Vanderhof family and his far too stolid Kirbys. Unfortunately, we recognize his family: Mr. Kirby is a stock broker at the top of the socio-economic ladder, and Mrs. Kirby is a proper matron whose repressed sexuality can only surface in a parlor game.
Plot questions rapidly evolve from simple ones like, “Will the boy get the girl?” to more intriguing ones like, “Who are the sinister men following Ed on his delivery route?” to hilarious ones like, “Why is there a Russian duchess in the kitchen and a drunken actress on the sofa?” The playwrights consistently use a sure-fire technique for comedy: they develop concurrent but unrelated situations, then, at key moments, overlay them. The effect sounds like an impromptu string trio in which each instrument is playing a different melody. For example:
Paul: Mr. De Pinna was right about the balloon. It was too close to the powder.
Essie: Want a Love Dream, Father? . . .
Penny: I’m going back to the war play, Paul.
Paul: Oh, that’s nice. We’re putting some red stars after the bombs and then the balloon. That ought to do it.
Essie: You know, Mr. Kolenkhov says I’m his most promising pupil.
Penny: You’d think with forty monks and one girl that something would happen.
This technique is most hilarious in the classic scene closing act 2. At that point, the prospective in-laws are attempting to leave after a disastrous Vanderhof “dinner.” But three G-men have suddenly appeared and, in their search, have found the drunken actress in a negligee, whom they carry downstairs. Right then, a whole year’s supply of fireworks explodes, the cook and Mrs. Kirby scream, Penny races to save her manuscripts, Ed worries about his xylophone, and everyone is–arrested.
Second-rate comic writers, like many in current television, simply establish a pitch of insanity and continue raising it in a given script. Kaufman and Hart instead intensify their comic effects by providing subtle perspective, often through structural parallels between trivial and serious events. For example, the possibility of World War II is a constant backdrop in You Can’t Take It with You. On the opposite end of the war spectrum, Paul is building fireworks—pseudo-warfare for the quintessentially American holiday. Halfway between the tragedy of real war and the festive artillery of Independence Day falls the play’s “war” between the two families. In the same vein, Penny is writing a war play, which must be as ridiculously chaotic as her other scripts. Structurally parallel to that is the situation of the Russian duchess, now a waitress, who embodies the very real breakdown of Russian society. On the spectrum of chaos, the events of Kaufman and Hart’s comedy fall halfway between Penny’s literary efforts and the Bolshevik Revolution, between the fictional confection and the ultra-real. Comic writing like this is as intelligent as it seems effortless.
While You Can’t Take It with You is less symbolic than many plays, Kaufman and Hart nonetheless develop appropriate images to underscore their main ideas. Snakes, whether in the Vanderhof household or in Eden, remain suggestive to Judaeo-Christian audiences, especially since Mrs. Kirby is terrified of them and symbolically loses her innocence in the parlor game. Food also comprises a major symbol: Penny eats candy out of a human skull made of plaster of Paris; Essie makes candies entitled “Love Dreams”; the dinner for the Kirbys devolves from canned salmon to frankfurters; and the final reunion is, symbolically, a dinner of roast goose and blintzes made by the duchess. Likewise, music serves both a dramatic and a symbolic function, from Essie’s optimistic toe-dancing, to the actress’s drunken singing, to Ed’s re-composing Beethoven on the xylophone. Traditional comedy, like traditional music, literally ascends from confusion to understanding, from dissonance to harmony.
Politics forms one of the play’s major themes, sometimes dating the script, but more often illustrating its continuing relevance. Donald, the charming boyfriend of the cook, is “on relief,” at once sparking comic debate and revealing America’s perennial ambivalence toward the welfare system. The conflict between the Soviet government and old Russia forms an interesting counterpoint to events in the late twentieth century, as do the characters’ views on Stalin. The most delightful politics in the play come from Grandpa Vanderhof, who has refused to pay income taxes all his life because he couldn’t see what he got for his money. Today he would be in Congress.
Kaufman and Hart expand the theme of the welfare state into a thoroughgoing examination of work. What constitutes “work”? What good is it? What bad is it? Mr. Kirby, the workaholic, really wanted to be a trapeze artist or a saxophone player. Much happier in their work, Penny writes plays, Ed delivers candy, and Paul designs skyrockets. Alice and Tony, the young lovers, work for Mr. Kirby; hence their souls are in danger. Grandpa worries that Tony will “wake up twenty years from now with nothing in his life but stocks and bonds,” just like the elder Kirby. America has always had a love-hate affair with the Protestant work ethic, and this play reflects it. To what extent, it asks, is work a conscious denial of one’s own natural impulses—indeed, an expression of fear of freedom? On the other hand, to what extent is personal happiness irresponsible?
The affirmation of individuality lies at the heart of this play. This house demands that people do as they like. This time makes “love dreams” come true–both the dreams of love and the love of dreams. This family cherishes the eccentric, the free, the particular, the brave. For Alice to reject her family, to choose “roast beef and two green vegetables” over candy and corn flakes, will profoundly harm her as a human being and as a contributing member of society.
Most comedies offer happiness in one form or another; this play actively celebrates joy. Penny marvels that she and Paul are as happy as the day they were engaged, as are Ed and Essie, or Donald and Rheba. When asked how he feels, Kolenkhov answers, “Magnificent! Life is chasing around inside of me, like a squirrel” (270). Even when he seriously contemplates the war and the future, Grandpa insists that “nobody can take [my happiness] away from me, no matter what they do to the world” (309). Grandpa finally and fortunately teaches Mr. Kirby that the businessman has all the money and material comfort he needs: “You can’t take it with you.” Life will come to us, in all its ecstatic splendor, if we simply let it.
In a recent editorial in Artweek, Rosetta Brooks described how contemporary America suffers from “too muchness–too many options, too much information, too many images, too little time to digest life—much less art” (“Viewpoint,” February, 1995, p. 4). The fact that You Can’t Take It with You still holds so much appeal does not merely attest to the entertainment value of “escapist” theatre. This play does give us time to digest life and art. It reminds us that certain truths still exist: charm, wisdom, eccentricity, innocence, selflessness, good will. Raymond Chandler once wrote, “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.” This lovely old play may not offer “redemption” on a macrocosmic scale, but it offers a quotidian grace our hyper-accelerated culture so desperately needs.