“The trouble with Shakespeare is that you never get to sit down unless you’re a king.”
George S. Kaufman
“The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream. For those who did, it unlocked its gates and its treasures, not caring who they were or where they came from.”
Back on Broadway: You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman — a 1936 drama with a big heart and a witty soul. What a bold move by its producers to mount a star-filled revival of this Depression-era comedy at a time when the world could use a generous dose of gentle humor.
The tortured, but ultimately successful, tale of how You Can’t Take It With You came to be and almost wasn’t is told with charm and gusto by Moss Hart in his fabulous Act One, which still wins rave reviews as one of the best theater memoirs ever penned.
In a nutshell, Moss came up with the basic story line as a young, struggling writer and then somehow convinced the hugely successful George S. Kaufman to help him shape the play into a massive hit. Even today, almost 80 years later, You Can’t Take It With You remains one of America’s most popular plays. It’s a high school, community, and regional theater standby. And though the story of the daffy but lovable Sycamore family may seem over the top and even obsolete, as one critic, Tom Sellar, put it, “…there’s simply no choice but to surrender to this ancient chestnut of a script when it reaches out to you across the footlights, begging for love.”
What is there about this comedy that makes it so endearing? Among its enduring strengths:
It celebrates eccentricity: In a society where individuality is prized but we are constantly pressured to conform, a family which totally embraces its own oddball behavior is perennially appealing.
It invites enjoyment: From start to finish, the play entreats its audience to laugh, not think too hard, kick back, and take whatever comes in stride. That’s a refreshingly relaxing agenda.
It’s elegantly crafted: As Tom Sellar notes, “The evening’s pleasures come, in part, from the amazing precision of Kaufman and Hart’s craft. Every line shrewdly pushes the situation a little further toward catastrophe or resolution…” This precision was hard-won: According to Moss Hart, at one point the project was sinking; he and George rescued it by the skin of its teeth. But whatever its ups and downs, the two writers brought enormous craft and persistence to their joint venture. The result: a play that “reaches out to you across the footlights.”
Wit, humor, enduring appeal, craft, persistence: What a powerful mix! How can we bring these qualities to our own work as we write on?