THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
BY JANET ALLEN, EXECUTIVE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
Many of us recognize the title of this American icon, which won a Pulitzer Prize and has been one of the most produced plays in the American canon since it was originally written, but most of us don’t know much else. Maybe we played a role in You Can’t Take It With You in high school, or saw a production, or saw the Frank Capra movie, loosely based on the play. What’s interesting to contemplate is that master playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote this comedy in 1936, at the point in the Great Depression when many people thought it would never end.
The crash of the stock market in 1929 led to an extended period of economic depression—the longest in American history—creating a decade of devastating economic challenges for most Americans. Sky-rocketing unemployment, plunging crop prices, a deflationary spiral, and a severe drought in the West and Midwest led to starvation, homelessness, and general privation in the American population. In the midst of this, Kaufman and Hart wrote a play that asserted that money isn’t everything: after all, “you can’t take it with you.”
There is significant surprise in reminding ourselves of this economic and social context around the play. The content of the play suggests deep questioning of the belief that capitalism alone can make America great. It poses, instead, that a singular focus on the economic gain side of the American dream causes many to lose sight of the importance of quality of life, of the “pursuit of happiness” part of the Declaration of Independence.
What makes us happy? Americans seem to be more baffled by that question than many other cultures around the world. The play outlines a number of means of achieving happiness, and all of them suggest that the 9-to-5 office setting may not be the best place to look for it. At a time when there was still considerable focus on making ends meet in American society, You Can’t Take It With You reminded us that the pursuit of capital at the expense of doing things that make the soul and heart sing is not a viable means to creating a contented American populace.
Encountering this play, with these values, at this point in the 21st century, presents some pretty revealing parallels. Climbing out of the recession of 2008-2012 has left many individuals and institutions, and perhaps even our political discourse, over-focused on the bottom line. The reminder to achieve balance, to look around at what makes the world an exciting and vibrant place in its complexity, to find activities that expand our vision and get us interactive and curious about our world—these are among the messages that this play delivers. The picture of unbridled capitalistic pursuit characterized by Mr. Kirby in the play is not terribly flattering: his attachment to Wall Street has literally poisoned every aspect of his life.
Another significant piece of the emotional underpinnings of this most gorgeous of all American comedies is the idea of tolerance—another tenet of human experience that is under fire in our current social moment, and another reason this 83-year-old play packs a punch for us in 2019. The play invites us to consider cultural and ethnic differences, and how they make our world a more interesting place. The Sycamores, in their largesse, invite many a wayfarer into their home, some for dinner, some for years. This dedication to collecting diverse humans into their household clearly makes this family not only fascinating but empathic, modeling an American way of life that gets at some of our best values: inclusivity, acceptance of the stranger at our door (regardless of their color or creed), and a willingness to share our table.
The Sycamores are quintessential Americans: living their freedom through their various passions, helping those in need, observing family traditions, and questioning social class distinctions. After all, as Grandpa says, “A cat can look at a king.” In the Sycamore house, happiness reigns, acceptance thrives, and there is always food (however eccentric) that can be stretched to feed another. May we all strive to be a little bit more like the loving and accepting Sycamores!
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