Broadway’s Great Collaborator: Patient and Generous Kaufman

Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies, edited by Laurence Maslon. The Library of America, 860 pages, $35.

In almost all periods of history, the theatrical audience has shown a marked preference for comedy over tragedy, a preference not ignored by playwrights. Among Shakespeare’s plays, for pre-eminent example, comedies outnumber tragedies 16 to 11. The reason why comedy comes out ahead is clear enough: Tragedy is hard to take. It invariably and often unsubtly carries the message that however glorious our life may be, none of us can escape the Grim Reaper, whereas comedy—with its romances, its marriages and, yes, its pregnancies—tells us that, no matter what may befall any individual, the human race will go on forever. Who doesn’t prefer good news to bad?

Quite fittingly, then, the Library of America has decided to add to its constantly expanding shelf of classic American literature a volume of nine comedies by George S. Kaufman and four of his many collaborators, edited and with notes by Laurence Maslon. These plays, which date from 1927 to 1939, have never lost their popularity. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing each of them at least twice, and two— The Royal Family, written with Edna Ferber, and You Can’t Take It with You, written with Moss Hart—so often that I’ve lost count.

Broadway’s great collaborator, Kaufman enjoyed exchanging ideas with other writers rather than retreating to a lonely study and devising scenes and dialogue on his own. Frequently it was the writing partner, not Kaufman himself, who came up with the idea for the new work. Generous with his time, Kaufman was quite willing to help a fledgling playwright achieve the success he dreamed of. This was most famously true of the first collaboration with Moss Hart, whose Once in a Lifetime was brought to Kaufman as a complete three-act comedy in need of revision. Together, the two men turned it into a hit, with all of Hart’s original ideas intact. On its opening night, Kaufman told the applauding audience that the work they had just seen was 80 percent Hart. (He did not, however, tell them that he was taking 40 percent of the royalties.)

Hart was Kaufman’s favorite collaborator and the one whose comic vision was most like his own. To try to figure out which of the two was responsible for which sight gag or wisecrack is a losing game. That’s not always true of some of the collaborations with other writers. Kaufman made no effort to suppress the voice of any of them. Edna Ferber, whose fiction often tells the story of a dynastic family, can be heard quite clearly in both The Royal Family, based loosely on the lives of members of the famous Barrymore clan, and Dinner at Eight, in which the desperately ill head of a shipping fleet developed by his grandfather now faces losing control to a marauding upstart. In June Moon, the dramatization of a story by Ring Lardner set in the music-publishing business and undertaken by the two writers at Kaufman’s suggestion, Lardner’s sardonic voice can heard in every scene. Only Lardner could have come up with a song called “All I Ask Is Give Our Child a Name.” It’s at least likely, too, that Morrie Ryskind, who among Kaufman’s associates was the one most fascinated by politics, is the dominant voice in Of Thee I Sing, a satiric spoof the American Presidency. No wonder, given Kaufman’s patience and fair-mindedness—to say nothing of his eagerness to settle down to work on a promising new project as soon as his last play was launched—that collaborators were constantly striving to reach his ear with suggestions for what might be yet another hit.

Unfortunately, the Library of America collection doesn’t include The Butter and Egg Man, the only full-length play that Kaufman wrote entirely on his own. Frequently performed, it’s bare-bones G.S.K.: a sharp, wisecracking comedy about show business, a frequent target of his wit. A young man from Ohio comes to New York with money to invest in a play; naïve though he is, he soon learns the art of survival in the big city, in a business where sharpies are constantly on the prowl for an easy mark. In the last act, he tricks the tricksters who are after his money and goes home a much wiser and wealthier man. Because it’s a comedy, a young woman he’s fallen in love with goes home with him, and we may be certain that they’ll do their part to ensure the continuity of the human race. To make room for this play, I would gladly drop Kaufman and Ryskind’s Animal Crackers, a farce presumably included because it starred the Marx Brothers and has never before been published. Performed today with impersonators of the famous brothers taking the leads, it’s much better seen than read. On the printed page, Groucho’s rambling dialogue, which shifts from topic to topic with a determined disregard for intelligible communication, soon becomes boring. To see how Kaufman and Ryskind could make good use of the brothers’ brand of zaniness, visit the nearest DVD rental shop and take home their film A Night at the Opera, in which the brothers are at their scripted best. (Some tiresomely conventional romantic scenes between a soprano and a tenor threaten to spoil the fun, but the fast-forward button on your remote control will mercifully whisk them off the screen.)

Kaufman is only the third playwright to be honored with inclusion in the Library of America. The others are Eugene O’Neill with three volumes and Tennessee Williams with two. It’s to be hoped that the board in charge of this admirable series will give serious thought to including other American playwrights who have created plays now recognized as classics. (Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets are the two most likely candidates.) Perhaps the board might also entertain the notion of combining plays by several writers in collections based on a single theme. Dramatists, no less than poets and novelists, are essential to the health of our culture.

Malcolm Goldstein is the author of George S. Kaufman: His Life, His Theater (Oxford University Press).