Reflections on GSK

kaufman-drawingAlthough it is easy to chart Kaufman's successes, his influence on American playwriting is harder to define. If Eugene O'Neill represents the tragic mask of American drama, Kaufman can lay claim to its comedic counterpart. Kaufman added a distinctly American touch to his comedy, bringing the brashness of the postwar era to the Broadway stage.

Kaufman's insight into the American character was nearly as biting and witty as Mark Twain's. The two dueling families of You Can't Take It with You represent the conflict between the moral absolute of American capitalism and the idiosyncratic individualism of American democracy, and Kaufman sympathized with the latter.

Although little of his Jewish ancestry was evident in his plays, Kaufman drew heavily on the myths of assimilation in America. His heroes are invariably without lineage, money, or breeding, but they had industry, intelligence, and wit in large supply; usually they won out over exclusion, avarice, and stupidity.

No American playwright has been more respected for the kind of solid craftsmanship and economy that Kaufman brought to his works. His plays have served as models of comic construction for the stage, films, and television. In addition, his expert use of the wisecrack--the sly, sharp line that bolstered the speaker's ego or deflated his opponent's--has earned him a reputation as an American wit and it has become a staple of popular comedy in every medium.

His comedies have three particular characteristics: outstanding parts for talented actors, tremendous physical and verbal energy, and a keen satirical outlook on timeless American preoccupations and institutions.

In a paradoxical contrast to Kaufman's remark about satire, there has not been a Saturday night since 1925 when a George S. Kaufman comedy hasn't been playing somewhere in America.


There are only two genuine wits on American television: Groucho Marx and George S. Kaufman. Without Kaufman, television in half-witted.

--Fred Allen, on the occasion of Kaufman being let go from the program "Information Please"


Although he coined the phrase, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night," George S. Kaufman built a long and brilliant career out of his gift for ridicule. As a writer, play doctor, and director, he had a hand in the making of a joyous series of Broadway successes. A theatre giant, he was the collaborator par excellence. . . . For four decades, George S. Kaufman helped to entertain America and to make it laugh at its own foibles.

--New York Times Editorial Page, on the occasion of his death, June 3, 1961


Kaufman was almost the last of the Broadway breed of iconoclasts, a breed that indulged in derision rather than breakage. It also preferred to lampoon American flaws under its nose, rather than clobber the cockeyed behavior of far-off Russians and Chinese. Kaufman's writings for the stage and magazines varied in excellence but seldom in purpose. They investigated human clownishness and offered Americans a look at themselves in a sort of fun house mirror.

How good a playwright was Kaufman? At his best, he was the best of playwrights, and more. He was part of a good time Americans were once able to enjoy--when they dared to laugh at themselves, rather than yield that privilege to others.
--Ben Hecht, Saturday Review, June 24, 1961


When Robert Benchley died, Donald Ogden Stewart wrote me, "Benchley was humor." It could be said, with equal truth, that Kaufman was comedy. The wit for which he was so justly famous often tended to obscure rather than to illuminate the man and his achievements. Yet the span of Kaufman's active years in the theatre was, in large part, the very measure of the rise of Broadway comedy, which seemed to decline as he withdrew from it.

His contribution to American comedy theatre in the form of satire was considerable. With Connelly, he more than kidded the movies, and with Moss Hart, he continued this hilarious assault. He also took in the his sardonic stride politics, government, the Supreme Court, big business, and the theatre. It would therefore be completely wrong and misleading to take at face value George Kaufman's offhand, often defensive and cynical dismissal of his own gifts.

The legend of George Kaufman will grow, the truth about the man himself will probably stay just where it is, but time will brighten the light he brought to American humor, comedy, and wit. If the theater is to have a renascence of comedy, it will need another Kaufman and the need is extremely great in this present period of decadence.
--James Thurber, Theatre Arts, 1961