Broadway Comedies

By George S. Kaufman with Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, Ring Lardner and Morrie Ryskind

Library of America. 911 pp. $35Like many uncommonly funny people, George S. Kaufman could be difficult, headstrong, irascible, arrogant and overbearing, yet he was the ultimate team player. If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Kaufman was the Great Collaborator. Over a show-business career that spanned more than four decades, he teamed up with various gifted writers to produce hugely popular Broadway plays and musicals, many of which were turned into hugely popular Hollywood movies -- "Of Thee I Sing," "Dinner at Eight," "Stage Door," "You Can't Take It With You," "The Man Who Came to Dinner" -- and he directed many of them as well, which is to say that he presided over collaborative undertakings involving scores, even hundreds, of people.

When word arrived that Kaufman was to be honored with his own volume in the Library of America, I was delighted. As an adolescent in the 1950s and a young man in the 1960s, I was a passionate Kaufmanite. My worn copy of the Modern Library's Six Plays by Kaufman & Hart was my bedside companion and my vade mecum, accompanying me from one place to another, providing endless laughter and delight. Precisely when and why I stopped reading Kaufman's plays I cannot say, but they remained fixed in memory among the great pleasures of youth.

Of the six plays in that volume, plays upon which Kaufman collaborated with Moss Hart, only three make it into the Library of America collection: "Once in a Lifetime," "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner." The ones missing are "Merrily We Roll Along," "The American Way" and "George Washington Slept Here." Instead we are given three plays that Kaufman wrote with Edna Ferber ("The Royal Family," "Dinner at Eight" and "Stage Door"), two he wrote with Morrie Ryskind ("Animal Crackers" and "Of Thee I Sing"), and one he wrote with Ring Lardner ("June Moon"). This doubtless is more representative of Kaufman's busy and varied career, but it has an unfortunate and presumably unintended side effect: It leaves no doubt that when Kaufman wasn't collaborating with Hart, the quality of his work went way, way down.

With the exception of "Of Thee I Sing," the plays Kaufman wrote with Ferber, Ryskind and Lardner -- plays produced over nine years, beginning with "The Royal Family" in December 1927 -- are period pieces now, and even "Of Thee I Sing" barely makes the cut; its dialogue is snappy but dated, rescued from oblivion by Ira Gershwin's lyrics (included here) and George Gershwin's music (you'll have to get the album). Thirty pages of small-type notes are required at the end of the volume, mostly to identify the celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s whose names were immediately recognized by audiences of the day but are almost entirely unknown now: Father Divine, Polly Adler, Philo Vance, Grover Whalen, William E. Borah, Hattie Carnegie, Milt Gross, Kay Francis, John L. Sullivan, Peter Arno, Primo Carnera, Clara Bow. Sic transit gloria mundi, and sic transit yesterday's laughs.

Of the non-Hart collaborations, only "Animal Crackers" is genuinely funny, and one senses that Kaufman and Ryskind had relatively little to do with its laughs. These almost certainly were contributed (mostly ad lib) by Harpo, Zeppo and, most especially, Groucho Marx, who starred in the original 1928 production. One of the many anecdotes reported elsewhere about Kaufman takes place during a rehearsal of "Animal Crackers." Kaufman listened to the Marx Brothers have their way with his script before finally complaining: "Excuse me for interrupting, but I thought for a minute I actually heard a line I wrote." The following bit of patter is Marx to the core. It begins with Mrs. Rittenhouse, the hostess, meeting a musician named Emanuel Ravelli. "You are one of the musicians? But you were not due until tomorrow," she says. Ravelli and Captain Spaulding, the explorer played by Groucho, then get rolling:

"RAVELLI: We couldn't come tomorrow. It was too quick.

"SPAULDING: Say, you're lucky they didn't come yesterday.

"RAVELLI: We were busy yesterday, but we charge you just the same.

"SPAULDING: This is better than exploring. What do you fellows get an hour?

"RAVELLI: For playing we get ten dollars an hour.

"SPAULDING: I see. What do you get for not playing?

"RAVELLI: Twelve dollars an hour.

"SPAULDING: Well, cut me off a piece of that, will you?

"RAVELLI: Now, for rehearsing we make a special rate, fifteen dollars an hour.

"SPAULDING: That's for rehearsing? What do you get for not rehearsing?

"RAVELLI: You couldn't afford it. You see if we don't rehearse we don't play, and if we don't play that runs into money.

"SPAULDING: How much do you want to run into an open man-hole?

"RAVELLI: Just the cover charge.

"SPAULDING: Well, if you're ever in the neighborhood, drop in."

Et cetera. Funny stuff, but a whole lot funnier if your mind's eye can see Groucho, with his cigar and his glasses and his moustache, and your mind's ear can hear his lightning-fast voice. Unfortunately there aren't that many people under 60 who remember Groucho that clearly, which leaves one to wonder how much staying power "Animal Crackers" really has, since it is Groucho to the core, as another quotable quote makes irresistibly plain:

"The principal animals inhabiting the African jungle are Moose, Elks, and Knights of Pythias. Of course you all know what a moose is. That's big game. The first day I shot two bucks. That was the biggest game we had. Of course, you all know what a moose is. A moose runs around the floor, eats cheese, and is chased by the cat. The Elks, however, stay up in the hills, most of the year. But in the spring they come down for their annual convention. It is very interesting to watch them come down to the water hole, and you should see them when they find it is only a water hole. What those Elks are looking for is an Elka-hole.

"One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know."

Lovely stuff, but it's Marx, not Kaufman. For all his irreverence and his speed with a riposte, Kaufman didn't do the wild, off-the-wall rimshots that were Groucho's stock in trade. Paired with Hart he could be hugely witty and amusing, but his roots were in the conventional Broadway theater rather than in vaudeville, where the Marx Brothers got their education. As the collaborations with Ferber illustrate, he was capable of writing sentimental melodrama as well as comedy (there are more gulps than guffaws in those three plays) and even paired with Lardner -- a match that would seem to have been made in heaven -- he played it pretty much down the middle. Lardner had longed all his life for a Broadway success, and "June Moon" gave him one, but his most imaginative and durable plays are those strange, beguiling one-act exercises in inspired absurdism: "Cora, or Fun at a Spa," "I Gaspiri," "The Tridget of Greva."

So we are left with the Hart collaborations. Dated references are problems in all three of those included here, especially "The Man Who Came to Dinner," but all of them are regularly revived by theatrical groups both professional and amateur, and presumably the references are brought up-to-date: Julia Roberts substitutes for ZaSu Pitts, Tony Blair for Anthony Eden, et cetera. I'd love to have seen the 2000 New York revival of "The Man Who Came to Dinner," with Nathan Lane playing the immortal Sheridan Whiteside, or the 1984 revival of "You Can't Take It With You," with Jason Robards as Grandpa Vanderhof. No doubt both revivals underscored a central aspect of Kaufman & Hart plays: They may be dated in some ways, but they're tightly constructed and move at a brisk pace, their characters are eccentric but deeply human, and their humor transcends the limitations of period.

So what Kaufman & Co. tells me is that I was right to love Six Plays by Kaufman & Hart as much as I did, but that when he hitched up with someone else, he couldn't take it with him. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

From left: Ring Lardner, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber