We are pleased to announce we will be producing “You Can’t Take it With You,” a delightful comedy written in 1936 when it premiered on Broadway! The play won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was adapted for the screen as You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.
You, you want to know what the play is about?
Grandpa Vanderhof and his wacky family, the Sycamores, have been happily living their zany lives in his house by Columbia University in New York for many years. This family (and their friends) are a madcap group of eccentrics, marching to the beat of their own drum, with pride and joy. Their hobbies include collecting snakes, building fireworks in the basement, writing a myriad of plays that never get published, and taking ballet lessons. Things like stress, jobs, and paying taxes to the government are for other people, not for them! But when practical young Alice Sycamore becomes engaged to her company’s Vice President Tony Kirby, the Vanderhof/Sycamore clan must straighten up to meet the new in-laws. Disaster ensues when the Kirbys arrive at the wrong time and, despite the best laid plans, see Alice’s family in all of its crazy glory. The evening ends with everyone in the house getting arrested, and Alice ending the engagement. It isn’t until Grandpa’s wise speech to Mr. Kirby about the importance of living life to the fullest that the two families find a way to accept each other, and love conquers all. You Can’t Take It With You is a madcap, idealistic comedy that reinforces the idea that you can only live life to the fullest by doing whatever makes you happy.
More in depth look:
The story takes place entirely in the large house of a slightly odd New York City family. Various characters in the lives of the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael clan are introduced in the first act.
The patriarch of the family, Grandpa Vanderhof, is a whimsical old man who keeps snakes and has never paid his income tax. Penelope “Penny” Vanderhof Sycamore is his daughter (a writer of adventure- and sex-filled melodrama plays), and is married to Paul Sycamore, a tinkerer who manufactures fireworks in the basement with the help of his assistant, Mr. De Pinna, who used to be the family’s iceman. One of Paul and Penny’s two daughters is Essie Sycamore Carmichael, a childish candymaker who dreams of being a ballerina (but in reality is terrible at dancing). Essie is married to Ed Carmichael, a xylophone player who lives with them and helps distribute Essie’s candies. Ed is an amateur printer who prints any phrase that sounds catchy. Paul and Penny’s other daughter Alice Sycamore is quite obviously the only “normal” family member. She has an office job and is sometimes embarrassed by the eccentricities of her family, yet deep down, she still loves them. In addition, the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael clan employs a maid, Rheba, who is dating Donald, a handyman who performs odd jobs for the Sycamores.
Essie tells Grandpa Vanderhof that some letters have arrived for him from the “United States Government”, but that she misplaced them. Shortly afterwards, Alice comes home and announces that she has fallen in love with a young man with whom she works, Tony Kirby, the son of the company’s executive. Before going upstairs to change, Alice tells her family that he will be coming over shortly to take her on a date. The entire family is still joyfully discussing her boyfriend when the doorbell rings. Penny answers the door and greets the man standing there, thinking he must be Tony, but only after forcing the stranger to shake hands with the entire family do they realize that he is not Alice’s boyfriend: He is a tax investigator.
His name is Wilbur C. Henderson, and he is investigating Grandpa for his evasion of income tax. When Henderson asks Grandpa why he owed twenty-four years of back income tax, Grandpa states he never believed in it, and that the government wouldn’t know what to do with the money if he did pay it. Henderson becomes infuriated by Grandpa’s answers to his questions. Henderson spots Grandpa’s snakes, and runs out of the house in fear, but not before promising Grandpa that he will hear – one way or another – from the United States government.
The real Tony Kirby arrives, and Alice is nervous that her eccentric family will scare him away, so she attempts to leave with him on their date. As they attempt to leave, Mr. Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s extremely eccentric Russian ballet instructor, arrives and makes chitchat with the family, complaining about the Revolution. During this discussion, Alice and Tony make their escape. Then the rest of the family sit down for dinner.
The second act takes place a few days later. Alice has invited Tony and his father and mother over for dinner the next evening, and it is the only thing on the entire family’s mind. Alice runs around the house telling her family to try to act as normal as possible. Penny has brought actress Gay Wellington over to read over Penny’s latest play, but Gay becomes very drunk, and passes out onto the living room couch after looking at the snakes.
Ed returns from distributing Essie’s candies, worried that he is being followed by someone. When Mr. De Pinna looks out the window, he sees no one other than a man walking away. Ed is still sent out by Essie to deliver more candies. Paul and Mr. De Pinna are downstairs the whole time making fireworks. Mr. De Pinna comes up from the basement carrying a painting that Penny had started of him as a discus thrower. Mr. De Pinna asks if Penny would finish it and she agrees. She leaves to put on her painting gear and Mr. De Pinna leaves to put on his costume.
At the same time, Mr. Kolenkhov arrives and begins Essie’s ballet lesson. Ed provides accompanying music on the xylophone. Rheba runs in and out of the kitchen cleaning. Grandpa takes this time to practice darts and feed the snakes. In the midst of all this hullabaloo, Tony appears in the doorway with Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Kirby. Before them is the entire eccentric spectacle. Apparently, Tony has forgotten for which night dinner was planned, and Alice is incredibly embarrassed.
Penny tells Alice not to worry, and that they can manage a nice dinner easily. She gives a list of things to Donald and tells him to run down to the store. Grandpa tries desperately to keep the party normal and under control for the sake of his granddaughter. Mr. Kirby reveals himself to be a very straitlaced fat-cat, who raises orchids as a hobby. Mr. Kirby investigates a child’s model and finds it is Paul’s “hobby”. Mrs. Kirby tells them that her true passion is spiritualism, which Penny derides as a “fake”. During a discussion of hobbies, Mr. Kolenkhov brings up that the Romans’ hobby was wrestling, and demonstrates on Mr. Kirby by throwing him on the floor.
To pass the time after this awkward incident, Penny suggests they play a free association game. Alice imagines what is coming and immediately tries to quash the suggestions, but Penny shrugs her off and instructs everyone to write down “the first thing that pops into their heads” after she says certain words.
Penny offers the words “potato”, “bathroom”, “lust”, “honeymoon“, and “sex”. Penny reads Mr. Kirby’s list first, with reactions of, respectively: “steak”, “toothpaste”, “unlawful”, “trip”, and “male”. Mrs. Kirby’s list, however, causes much controversy. “Starch” is her response to potatoes, which is not that bad, but her response for “bathroom” is “Mr. Kirby”, and she covers it up with the fact that Mr. Kirby spends a lot of time in there “bathing and shaving”. Her response to “lust” is “human”, claiming it is a perfectly human emotion. Mr. Kirby disagrees, saying “it is depraved”. “Honeymoon”‘s reply is “dull”, as Mrs. Kirby explains that there was “nothing to do at night”. The shocker comes when Mrs. Kirby says her reply to “sex” was “Wall Street“. She at first claims she doesn’t know what she meant by it, but once provoked she yells at Mr. Kirby “You’re always talking about Wall Street, even when …” and then stops.
Wholly embarrassed and humiliated, Mr. Kirby and Mrs. Kirby order Tony home with them immediately but Tony refuses to go. Alice finally decides that their marriage will never work and ends their engagement, and also decides to resign her job at Kirby’s company. Before the Kirbys can leave, Department of Justice agents come through the door. The head agent tells them that Ed’s pamphlets from the candy boxes, on which he has printed anything that “sounds nice”, read “DYNAMITE THE CAPITOL”, “DYNAMITE THE WHITE HOUSE”, “DYNAMITE THE SUPREME COURT”, and “GOD IS THE STATE, THE STATE IS GOD”. Grandpa tries to explain to the head agent, but he informs them they are all under arrest.
The agents discover enormous amounts of gunpowder in the basement and think it is for dynamiting Washington, and one agent returns from the basement dragging Mr. De Pinna with him, who was in the basement the whole time. De Pinna desperately tries to explain to the agent that he had left his lit pipe downstairs and must go and get it, but the agent disregards him. Meanwhile, another agent brings down Gay Wellington from upstairs, singing drunkenly. At that point, the fireworks in the basement go off, lit by De Pinna’s untended pipe, and everyone (aside from Grandpa and Wellington) panics, leaving the whole house in an uproar as Act II ends.
The next day, Donald and Rheba sit in the kitchen reading the paper, which focuses on the story of both families being arrested, with Mr. Kirby’s presence causing the story to make headlines. Also, Paul and Mr. De Pinna’s fireworks have been completely destroyed. Meanwhile, Alice has decided to leave for a prolonged trip to the Adirondack Mountains to think things over. When the family forgets to call for a cab, she finally shows her exasperation, angered that her family can’t be “normal” at all. Tony then arrives and tries to reason with Alice, but she refuses, heading upstairs with Tony following.
Soon, Mr. Kolenkhov appears with the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, in all of her former glory. After discussing the sad fate of former Russian royalty now working menial jobs in New York, the Grand Duchess soon insists upon going into the kitchen to cook the dinner for the family.
Mr. Kirby arrives to pick up Tony and to settle his score with Grandpa. Soon, Mr. Kirby and Tony get into a heated argument, the pinnacle of which finds Tony admitting that he had purposely brought his family on the wrong night, the night before. He explains that he wanted each family to see each other as they really were, and that he sees the Sycamores as “normal”, that they are a family that loves and understands one another, saying that Mr. Kirby never had time to understand Tony. Grandpa tells Mr. Kirby that he’s happy with no longer working and getting to enjoy life every day, and that has made him happy ever since, though Mr. Kirby is not convinced, especially as Grandpa suspects that Mr. Kirby doesn’t like his job. Tony affirms this by pointing out that he found letters that Mr. Kirby had written to his father, expressing desires to be a trapeze artist and later a saxophone player, and that Mr. Kirby still has a saxophone in his closet. Grandpa tells Mr. Kirby that he should get to enjoy his life and riches now while he can, pointing out, “you can’t take it with you”. Tony agrees with this, deciding to leave the family business to do something he wants to do, and Mr. Kirby finally gives in, giving his blessings to Alice and Tony getting back together, which they do.
Essie then brings a letter to Grandpa that’s from the government. Grandpa had lied to the government that he was actually Martin Vanderhof Jr., and that the Martin Vanderhof the government was looking for was his father. This is corroborated because the family had buried the deceased milkman (who had lived with them prior to De Pinna) using Grandpa’s name, since they never knew the milkman’s real name. Grandpa’s trick works, as the government tells him that they now owe him a refund, instead of him owing them taxes.
The play comes to a conclusion as the family, along with Tony and Mr. Kirby, sit down to dinner with the Grand Duchess. Grandpa says a touching prayer, and then they dive into the food.