Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Inescapable Message of You Can't Take it With You

The Kaufman and Hart play You Can’t Take It with You is surely one of the most pernicious works of the Depression years. When it was revived on Broadway last year the chorus of praise was near-universal—“one of the most persuasive works of pure escapism in Broadway history” raved Ben Brantley in the New York Times (Sept 28 2014). The audience reaction to the accomplished production Maureen and I saw tonight at Lamb’s Theatre in San Diego seemed to be just as enthusiastic. But it’s a play that sets up a dichotomy between two positions that both, in their way, provide unquestioning support for an unjust system.

The play, which premiered at the height of the Depression in 1936, sets up two poles of opposition. On the one hand we have a repressed Wall Street capitalist and his family (his wife’s main interest is the annual flower show in New York). On the other hand we have a happy family of oddball eccentrics, each pursuing a zany pastime in their always-chaotic (but large and comfortable) home. Where does the money come from to support all the zaniness? The grandfather made a good deal himself on Wall Street when he was younger. He could have become much richer, but he threw it all up in favor of idle amusements; his income now is from rental properties that we hear mentioned only once. We are clearly meant to admire his abandonment of the rat race, and to find his eccentric happy family lovable. Yet none of the family seems to care at all that they are living off the grandfather’s rentier income in a world filled with the real hardships of the Depression.

When the inevitable confrontation comes, the Wall Street capitalist refers to the happy-go-lucky lifestyle of the eccentric family as “communism.” It is their willingness to put their own happiness above all else that is contrasted with his staid capitalist money-making--and the play comes down squarely on the side of thoughtless happiness.

This would be a vapid message in any age, but (as Maureen pointed out to me) it would at least be an understandable message in an era such as the late 1960s, when the majority of the population led more-or-less comfortable middle-class lives, and when materialism was arguably in need of a corrective. In the context of the 1930s, such escapism should have been entirely unpersuasive. 'Forget the troubles of the world and the stresses of your high-paid job; give it all up for a rentier existence in which you can devote yourself to zany hobbies.' What an extraordinary message!

So why was You Can’t Take It with You such a phenomenal success? Could it have been because it played to relatively rich audiences in Broadway and not to the masses? No doubt there were a great many Wall Street business people and rentier eccentrics who found it gratifying to see the world in terms of a conflict between those values and not between rich and poor, socialism and capitalism. And they could afford tickets to a Broadway show.

But it wouldn’t have worked in a movie; no wonder Frank Capra made the family of eccentrics working class, and added a storyline that puts their house in danger due to the machinations of the rich capitalist. It’s Capra’s storyline that succeeded with the masses—and no doubt it deserved to. The original Kaufman-Moss play, for all that it has a number of funny moments, has a storyline that we should escape from, not to.

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