In 1936, when Kaufman
and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You won the Pulitzer Prize, critics called
it "superior fooling," "thoroughly amusing," "winningly tender," "all absurdity,"
"full of hilarious incongruities and extravagances, without any serious
contribution to social or political philosophy." One critic wrote, pointedly,
that New York theatre always had room for "pleasant comedies" without any
"cross or disagreeable" characters.
These judgements take on
greater resonance when seen against the background of the theatre of the
nineteen-thirties, which saw the flowering of plays of social protest,
of "proletarian" theatre, often grim and humorless depictions of life as
it was being lived during the Great Depression. You Can’t Take It With
You was thus greeted by some with relief as an escape from the harsh realities
just outside the theatre doors, the realities portrayed, for example, in
Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, perhaps the most successful of those mounted
by the Group Theatre. These two plays, mirror-images of each other, offer
a revealing glimpse into the Depression era.
Both plays deal with a family’s
response to the social and economic pressures of the period. They are both
(in Odets’ words) "struggling for life amidst petty conditions." In each
play, the central figure is a philosophic grandfather whose ideas motivate
the actions and behavior of the other family members. In Awake and Sing,
the choices of the two Berger children — one to flee, the other to stay
and fight for a better life — have as their common source the middle-class
desire to improve the quality of their lives, of those "that dwell in the
dust" (to complete the Biblical allusion of the title). The uninhibited
members of the Vanderhof family, on the other hand, have not only awakened
to sing but also dance, play the xylophone, make candy, write plays, throw
darts, feed snakes, and in general practice the twin gospels of total relaxation
and total individualism.
Indeed, the titles of the
two plays are interchangeable. You Can’t Take It With You is a jazzy restatement
of the carpe diem theme, which is the precisely the anti-materialistic
gospel that Odets’ Grandpa Jacob preaches — that the making of money is
not the purpose of life. The Vanderhof family patriarch has already put
that doctrine into practice; he now takes "time to notice when spring comes
around." Grandpa Jacob rejects a life "printed on dollar bills" because
it lacks dignity; Grandpa Vanderhof rejects it because it’s no fun. "Do
what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution," says one
grandfather — and the other would agree wholeheartedly.
Both the ostensibly realistic
drama and the extravagantly nonsensical farce point to the basic American
idealism that lurks just below the surface of our often brazen materialism.
It isn’t surprising that these plays were popular and successful in the
mid-thirties. For both are basically consolatory and sentimental comedies
that restate a familiar American principle: namely the integrity of the
individual and one’s right to dig in heels, rear back, and holler — or
just to opt out, another milder but no less personal way of asserting one’s
The terms of assertion in
the two plays are different, but the underlying theme, evoked by the times,
is identical. At a time when the individual seemed to be at the mercy of
impersonal and powerful economic forces, the theme of individual dignity
and freedom must be reckoned as a criticism of existing conditions — and
as an American ideal too important to be forgotten.
— Charles Kaplan
Charles Kaplan is a Colony
Subscriber and Emeritus Professor of English at California State University