Sunday, November 16, 2014

This Day in Theater History (George S. Kaufman, Master Collaborator, Born)

November 16, 1889—George S. Kaufman, synonymous with urban wit as a member of the Algonquin “Roundtable” and as a playwright and director who preferred to work with others, was born in what many in his circle would have regarded as the sticks—Pittsburgh.

Nowadays, it is not unusual for theater professionals to hone their craft in this area of western Pennsylvania—brother and sister Rob and Kathleen Marshall (director-choreographers of, respectively, Chicago and The Pajama Game), for instance, cut their teeth in the theater program at Carnegie-Mellon, in Pittsburgh. But Kaufman’s path was more circuitous, and less happy.

With his long face, tortoiseshell spectacles and bushy hair brushed upward into a preposterous pompadour (a look appropriated for John Turturro’s Clifford Odets-like playwright in Barton Fink), Kaufman in adulthood appeared—not to put a fine point on it—like a grown version of a nerd. Indeed, his childhood was given over far more to books than to play.

But the cosseted circumstances that limited his physical activities early on derived from an understandable reason on his parents’ part: the loss of an older brother. The library became George’s favorite place, and something involving writing—in the end, journalism—his intended profession.

In his 20s, Kaufman wrote for a number of Washington and New York newspapers, including a stint as drama editor for The New York Times. That work was distinguished by a penchant for one-liners that made him a regular at the fabled Algonquin Round Table of Twenties wits, and became a hallmark of his later comedies. (For instance, in one review, he noted caustically, "There was laughter in the back of the theatre, leading to the belief that someone was telling jokes back there.") He made his debut as a Broadway playwright with Some One in the House in 1918.

The presence of two co-authors, Larry Evans and W. C. Percival, might indicate that the rookie playwright required the assistance of more seasoned professionals, but in fact this became Kaufman’s preferred mode of working for the rest of his four-decade career. “With few exceptions, all of 
[Kaufman’s] forty-five librettos and nonmusicals were written with somebody else,” noted Thomas S. Hischak in Boy Loses Girl: Broadway's Librettists (2002). His collaborators included neophyte playwrights (Ring Lardner, John Marquand, even “stripper-intellectual” Gypsy Rose Lee) and other, more established figures who, with him, formed, in the interwar period, the closest thing that America has had to Restoration Comedy (Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Morrie Ryskind, and, most significantly, Moss Hart).

Hart’s Act One, perhaps the best-loved of all show business memoirs, exhibits extraordinary respect for his senior (by 15 years) partner while also spelling out Kaufman’s individual, unusual, sometimes downright eccentric working methods: sessions that began at noon and continued, without food, for another 4½ hours; lying on his back as he tried out ideas; devoting as much as two hours to a single line of dialogue, or a whole afternoon to an entrance or exit.

In that attempt to create comic machinery as smoothly running as a Swiss watch, along with an aversion to sentimentality so intense that he would run to the bathroom to wash his hands to avoid one of Hart’s effusive expressions of gratitude, Kaufman resembles nobody so much as Seinfeld co-creator Larry David. In fact, a Myra Chanin article in The Huffington Post last month referred to Kaufman as “the Larry David of that day…a major maven of human imperfections.”

Kaufman would share the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, for his work with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, on the musical satire Of Thee I Sing (1932), and with Hart for You Can’t Take It With You (1936). (I will eventually review the latter, now being revived on Broadway with James Earl Jones.)

The influence of Kaufman, as playwright and director, extended not only from every year from 1921 (when his second play, Dulcy, opened) to 1958 (when a comedy he directed, Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet, closed) but even down to the present day. Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon are just a few of the comic writers who have cited Kaufman and Hart as major influences on their own style growing up. In addition, two shows he wrote in the 1920s for the Marx Brothers, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were adapted to film, becoming crucial in creating their cinematic persona. "My dad gave Groucho his walk and his talk," Kaufman’s daughter, Anne Kaufman Schneider said in a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

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