The first rehearsal with the entire cast and design team.
Many years ago I included You Can’t Take It with You in a survey of American Drama I taught with a colleague in the English Department. It has been called the classic American comedy. But when it came to teaching the play, we found ourselves deeply disappointed. The play wasn’t what we wanted it to be. We were hoping for an irreverent, slightly disturbing play with an anarchic steak as radical as the Marx Brothers. Instead we found a creaky and sometimes ponderous period warhorse. We were hoping for some satire that would illuminate the class inequality, materialism and conventional stuffiness of American life. We wanted something truly bohemian, and instead we got pablum. I am sorry to say we passed on our indignant academic dismissal to our students.
I wish I could meet with that class again. I would sing a very different song this time. It’s not that we were entirely wrong about the play’s limitations, only that we were entirely blind to its virtues. You Can’t Take It With You opened in 1936, and played for 837 performances. It won the Pulitzer Prize. It has been a favorite of school, summer stock and amateur performances ever since (my son played Grandpa when he was 16, and he wasn’t bad either). It has been revived professionally on many occasions. It’s now safe to say this is one of America’s best loved plays. And it’s not because it is gummy cream of wheat. It’s because You Can’t Take It With You is truly loveable, very funny, and even—so I will argue--necessary.
I learned this very recently while attending auditions for the show. I watched dozens of actors read dozens of scenes (20 very distinct characters turn up in the Sycamore home), and after an hour I realized these auditions were not like any other I have attended. Normally when casting I make an effort to mask my owl like scrutiny with minimal pleasantness, but here I wasn’t masking anything. I was smiling all the time. And it wasn’t because these actors were universally talented (though many of them were), it was because the play itself makes you smile. It comes instantly and naturally to life when good actors stand up and deliver. The lines are still fresh, well-shaped and served with perfect timing by the master collaborators George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. But the play is more than skillful. It seems to come from a deeply warm center that permeates the entire household. It’s a household of improbable individualists. The mother is writing her 11th play—the others are all unfinished and terrible, but her enthusiasm is undaunted. Her husband is making fireworks in the basement and playing with his erector set. One daughter has been studying ballet for eight years (her teacher says she stinks), while her partner, an amateur printer, accompanies her on the xylophone. Many exotic characters make house calls: the Russian dance teacher, a drunk actress, and the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof is the patriarch of the household, but he rules with benign neglect and spends his time with his pet snakes, playing darts, or going out to circuses and commencements.
You might naturally suspect the Sycamore zoo is a portrait of family dysfunction, but the truth is quite the opposite. This is possibly the most functional family you will ever find on stage or anywhere else. Everyone likes and tolerates everyone else. Never is heard a discouraging word. Everyone is free to pursue happiness and does so without doubt or obstruction. No one is distracted by trivial matters like work, elections, success or money. Everyone is healthy. The Sycamore home is a distant cousin of the Greek Island, Ikaria, recently featured in the New York Times because it’s a place where nobody dies. There are no watches on Ikaria, plenty of naps, very little cash, lots of wine; everyone has a garden and hangs out together. The Sycamore home is much more American—less olive oil and more bounce—but it too is a kind of paradise on earth. You could say it’s also a sanctuary of terminally arrested children who don’t know the real meaning of work. You would be right, but you would be speaking in your grown up adult voice, the voice of those who no longer live in paradise and have forgotten what it is.
As we know, paradise only works when isolated and uncontaminated—inside a house or confined on an island. The drama comes with invasions, and in this play there are invasions of two kinds. The first to arrive is that dreaded American bogeyman: the IRS. The tax man has come to claim the twenty four years of back taxes Grandpa has never paid. That’s a lot of taxes. And then Wall Street shows up, represented by the Kirbys, the parents of the nice young man who is courting Alice, the only sane member of the Sycamore family. They’ve come to dinner a night before they were scheduled, and their arrival precipitates the ensuing comic mayhem. Since this is comedy, both invasions are eventually repelled. What’s the best way to defeat the tax man? Evasion, of course. And for your enemies? Convert them. So it goes in You Can’t Take It With You, in which paradise is gloriously retained.
Seventy six years after its first performance, You Can’t Take It With You seems curiously of its time and of ours too, but not on account of the obvious historical parallels. The play was written in another period of economic recession and looming war, but the paradisiacal garden of the Sycamore home is walled off from these grim realities; they are never seen or mentioned. What is wonderfully resonant still are the twin evils of taxes and big money. In our politics these days, Republicans complain about one and Democrats about the other, but here both are the bad guys, and both are defeated. It is rather wonderful how the old dialogue flashes into new life now. Consider this exchange between Grandpa and the tax man:
Henderson: The government gives you everything. It protects you.
Grandpa: What from?
Henderson: Well---invasion. Foreigners that might come over here and take everything you’ve got.
Grandpa: Oh, I don’t think they are going to do that.
Henderson: If you didn’t pay an income tax they would. How do you think the Government keeps up the Army and Navy. All those battleships . ..
Grandpa: Last time we used battleships was in the Spanish American War and what did we get out of it? Cuba—and we gave that back. I wouldn’t mind paying if it were something sensible.
These lines wonderfully scramble views that remain at odds today: a liberal critique of excessive defense spending which echoes the best zinger of the recent presidential debates, together with a libertarian insistence on deciding where personal income should go. With Grandpa, champion both of bohemian eccentricity and tea party resistance, we all win.
I suspect the play’s first producers knew what they were doing when they decided to open their show in December seventy six years ago. You Can’t Take It With You is not a traditional Christmas play, but it is a holiday play in the deepest and best sense. It takes us away from our grinding realities into a better, freer world, and one great reason this idyllic world is better and freer is that money is neither required nor valued. Money, in fact, is the enemy, as it often is in traditional Christmas plays as varied as A Christmas Carol and Santaland Diaries. The main thing money does in You Can’t Take It With You is give you indigestion. Its pursuit means you are spending most of your time doing things you don’t want to do. You are dedicated to your business when you really wanted to be a trapeze artist or play the saxophone. Your sex life dries up. You take a lot of bicarbonate of soda. And where’s the fun? As Grandpa says, “Where does the fun come in?”
You Can’t Take It With You banishes the realities of making a living and brings in the fun. It brings in the pursuits of real happiness. It gives us bad ballet, candy, great fireworks, and lots of love. What’s better than that? It suggests life forms of all kinds can live very well in the same house together and can actually care about each other too. This is the alternative American dream, and it’s just as deep and just as necessary as that other one about success and opportunity and the race to the top in the greatest nation on earth. We cordially invite you to the Sycamore home this holiday season. You will be greeted by the fabulous Velvet Hills chorus singing in four part harmony. You will be ushered into a home of fellow Americans living together and living in their own rich harmony, a place where explosions are only occasions for laughter, and the nice boy gets the great girl, and even the bad guy finally has some fun too. You’ll have to leave and go home when the play is over (though not before punch and cookies), but you can take a little piece of paradise with you when you go. Happy holidays!