A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

George S. Kaufman

Satirist George S. Kaufman, witty master of American theater comedy, inventor of the  stage "wisecrack," and titled "the great  collaborator," because he preferred being a co-author,  was born in Pittsburgh November 14 1889.  His best-known works, "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "You Can't Take It With You," and  "The Solid Gold Cadillac," continue as laugh hits on stages in the English-speaking world, most recently in England, in the West End where “The Royal Family” starred Judi Dench and at the Chichester Festival Theater, where Richard Griffiths enacted Sheridan Whiteside who comes to dinner and wreaks havoc in the household. Also among Kaufman's writing credits are the Marx Brothers' best movies, "Coconuts," "Animal Crackers," and "A Night at the Opera," currently playing television screens on a regular basis.

A tall, thin, bony man with glasses and a shock of unruly hair, Kaufman whether speaking or writing never used more words than were necessary.  As second-string drama critic at the New York Times, he reviewed the secondary plays; the major critic was Alexander Woollcott, whom Kaufman satirizes in "The Man Who Came to Dinner."  "Crisp, curt, and to the point" is a contemporary's description of Kaufman's reviews.   Of a particularly dismal comedy he wrote, "There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there."  Of another play, equally short-lived, he observed, "I saw the play at a disadvantage.  The curtain was up."

A worrying man, Kaufman never aspired to the role of major drama critic, but preferred to hold on to his job as drama editor and second-string critic.  Even when he had success after success on Broadway as co-writer and director, he stayed at the Times.  Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson believed that Kaufman "trusted the Times more than he trusted the theater. . . .There was nobody less sure of himself as a theatrical genius. . . .he felt that if everything else blew up, he could always come back to the Times."

Kaufman's career as a newspaperman began as a writer of a humorous column for a newspaper in Washington, D.C., a column unique in its day for political satire.  "Office hours are from 12 to 1," he wrote of the Senate, "with an hour off for lunch."  Of the then President,  Woodrow Wilson:  "Mr. Wilson's mind, as has been the custom, will be closed all day Sunday."

As a playwright, one of  Kaufman's best satiric works is the musical "Of Thee I Sing," written with Morris Ryskind, with music by George Gershwin.   It was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, for which ordinarily only plays were eligible.  "Not only is it coherent and well-knit enough to class as a play," said the awards committee, but it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude toward them."   In the musical,  the usual political rogues indulge in the customary shenanigans to nominate  a nonentity, Wintergreen, for President.   Victor Moore, as the idle Vice President, awaiting an assignment of any kind, joins a tour of the White House, his first visit to that edifice.  When no one, not even the guide, can explain what the Vice President does, Throttlebottom explains: "He sits around in the parks, and feeds the pigeons, and takes walks, and goes to the movies.  The other day he was going to join the library, but he had to have two references,  so he couldn't get in."

An insignificant person battling a large establishment is also the subject of the George S. Kaufman-Howard Teichman comedy "The Solid Gold Cadillac" (1953),  in which a small stockholder takes on a large corporation and becomes a heroine by ousting its crooked board of directors. One of the best scenes is the first stockholder's meeting she attends, with the usual period in which carefully placed persons ask anticipated questions, but the meek-seeming  Josephine Hull dares to raise her hand and pose her question.  Judy Holliday plays the crusading stockholder in the film,  also a hit.

After collaborating on comedies with Marc Connelly, Ring Lardner, and Edna Ferber,  Kaufman worked with Moss Hart on two of their best-known plays,  "You Can't Take It With You" (1936) and "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1939).  In "You Can't Take It With You," the Sycamores during the depression are a zany family who are not suffering but enjoying themselves; as no one has a job, they can give full time to their hobbies, which include ballet dancing and fireworks-making.  When the income tax collector arrives, he meets more than his match in Grandpa Vanderhof.   Grandpa asks, "What do I get for my money?  If I go into Macy's and buy something, there it is -- I see it.  What's the Government give me?"  When the tax collector points out "What about Congress, and the Supreme Court, and the President?  We've got to pay them, don't we?"  Grandpa retorts, "Not with my money--no, sir."

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" attacks the cult of the celebrity, one who endears himself to the American public via the media, but who personally is a  conceited hypocrite.   Based on  Kaufman's boss at the Times, Alexander Woollcott,  Sheridan Whiteside, loved by all except those who know him, arrives at a typical American home from which he has decided to broadcast his Christmas message of peace and goodwill to the world.  Slipping on the icy doorstep, Whiteside is now confined to the household from which he had anticipated a speedy departure, so now he receives visits from all his celebrity friends, characters who are thinly disguised well-knowns of the day, including Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward and Harpo Marx.  Both plays were highly successful as movies.

Kaufman’s latest revival in London’s West End was ”The Royal Family,” co-written with Edna Ferber in 1927 and satirizing the “first family” of the theater, Ethel, Lionel and John Barrymore.  Directed by Peter Hall, its all-star cast included Judi Dench as Fanny Cavendish, the matriarchof the dynasty who plans a comeback despite failing health, and Harriet Walter as her actress daughter whose desire to quit the stage and marry a millionaire Fanny dismisses: “marriage isn’t a career; it’s an incident.”  Toby Stephens played John, the womanizing, swashbuckling hero with the perfect profile.

Another Kaufman hit in the West End in 2001 was Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical based on the Kaufman-Hart comedy of 1934 about friends who pursue success in Hollywood. 

Kaufman died in 1961, in the presence of his wife Leueen McGrath, his daughter Anne, and his last collaborator, Howard Teichman.  Teich, as he was known to his theater friends and his students at Barnard College, is the author of a witty and informative memoir about Kaufman, George S. Kaufman: An Intimate Portrait (1972). Critic Brooks Atkinson praises Kaufman as "One of the great writers of satirical comedy," and points out that before him the theater was "mawkish and artificial....When he came into the theater, it became very stimulating because he destroyed nonsense."