The title of Geva’s 40th anniversary season opener was almost Foxy Grandpa. Or Money in the Bank. Or The King is Naked. Or Grandpa’s Other Snake. Fortunately, Beatrice Kaufman, George S. Kaufman‘s wife, prevailed, and You Can’t Take It With You was off and running. Rehearsals for our production begin in just over a month, which has me looking into the play’s history.
The year was 1936, and Moss Hart wrote to Kaufman, asking him to join him in working on a new play – what would become their third collaboration. Two years earlier, the men had developed the first notion of You Can’t Take It With You, which Kaufman referred to as the “pip,” the play “like nothing ever seen on land or sea.” But travel and other projects had kept the writers too busy to begin the actual work on the play until 1936. They toyed with working on a political play, but it didn’t appeal to either of them, so they returned to the idea of a play which didn’t emphasize plot, but focused instead on character, and “the bizarre situations that might develop among individuals who, though wishing no harm to others, lived only to please themselves.” Moss’ cousin, Carmel Bentwich Finkelstein, later insisted that the play was inspired by the tales Moss had heard about his relatives, the Solomons, from England. That family, led by Joseph Solomon who liked to quote Shaw’s definition of a gentleman as one who tried “to put at least as much into life as [he] took out of it” and other eccentrics (suffragettes, Zionists, and at least one hot air balloonist), could certainly have had an impact, but Hart never claimed it.
They began discussing the play on Memorial Day, and sent the following wire to Sam Harris, their producing partner:
Three days later, they had sketched the characters, and by June 26, after working 5 hours a day, a draft was on Sam Harris’ desk in New York. That same day, Kaufman wrote a letter to his wife, and sent her a copy of the script as well. In the letter, he said:
“I doubt if I can convey the quality of the Hart play in writing. You know it’s a slightly mad family, and has to do with the daughter of the house, the only sane one. She falls in love with the son of a conventional family, and the play proper concerns her attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable elements. The tony family comes to dinner – arriving on the wrong night – and finds everything at its most cuckoo. It turns out that the young man himself has a streak of madness in him, and at the finish he converts the girl [to his unconventional views] and they both settle down happily with [her] family. But it has a point, as you can see – that the way to live and be happy is just to go ahead and live, and not pay attention to the world. I think the play will have a nice love story and a certain tenderness, in addition to its madness. Does it sound too naive – I don’t think it will emerge as such. Of course we have some swell mad things for the family – the father manufactures fireworks in the cellar, the grandfather retired from the world in 1898 and doesn’t admit that anything has happened since then, etc. Please let me know how you react.”
A few of the play’s characters can, in fact, be tied to people the authors knew. Rheba was based on Mary Campbell, a Jamaican woman known as “Big Mary” who worked for Lorenz Hart’s (no relation to Moss – he was the lyricist who worked with Richard Rodgers) family. Asked one day why she was single, she replied “I don’t have no man because the kind I want, I don’t git, and the kind that want me, I don’t want.” Her best known remark was her sassy reply to Josephine Baker, who came to visit and requested “café au lait, s’il vous plait.” Big Mary replied “Speak with the mouth you was born with!”
The Grand Duchess Olga was inspired by a phony Russian prince who ran a fur salon in Beverly Hills. And the word-association game in the play is based on one the authors played at a party in Beverly Hills. Grandpa Vanderhof feels inspired by Hart’s Aunt Kate, Kaufman’s father, and Mark Twain, who Kaufman revered. And Ed’s constant xylophone playing references Barnett Hart (Moss’ father) who had taken to writing a song inspired by each of Moss’ plays.
The play, with its proper title (and with the only changes from the out of town tryouts being a few actor changes and a change in the ending), opened in NYC at the Booth Theatre on December 14, 1936. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive.
Ethan Mordden wrote, in The American Theatre, “Many of the plays [of the 1930s] dealt with disoriented characters – alienated either by epic environmental pressures they don’t understand or because they understand and dislike their environment. In You Can’t Take It With You the screwballs have their world order; it’s everybody else who’s disoriented.”
References in this post are from:
Bach, Steven. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart. New York: Random House, Inc., 2001.
Brown, Jared. Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre. New York: Back Stage Books, 2006.
Goldstein, Malcom. George S. Kaufman: His LIfe, His Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.