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Welcome to the Alley Theatre


he Mission of the Alley Theatre’s Education and Community Engagement programs is to apply theatre practice in a wide range of community contexts — to use the practice of theatre to strengthen and promote the interpersonal goals of our community partners; to provide a vehicle for meaningful community discourse; to create the most advanced training ground for emerging theatre artists; and to become a driving force for arts education within our schools.

Our Core Values: 

Empathy and collaboration through the practice of theatre

Service to our community by teaching our art form in multiple settings

Innovation and quality in our practice

Excellence in developing exemplary replicable nationally recognized programming


Our Partners in Education Foundation Ray C. Fish Foundation George and Mary Josephine Hamman Foundation William E. and Natoma Pyle Harvey Charitable Trust National Corporate Theatre Fund Hearst Creative Impact Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™ Immanuel & Helen B. Olshan Foundation, Inc. The Powell Foundation Kinder Foundation Baby Dinosaurs in Staging Stem at the Play Makers Summer camp, 2013

Robert W. & Pearl Wallis Knox Charitable Foundation Lillian Kaiser Lewis Foundation William Randolph Hearst Foundation

Government Texas Commission on the Arts /Education TCA/Public Safety/Criminal Justice Harris County Department of Education

Corporation Boeing Deloitte Enbridge Energy Company, Inc. Macy's Marathon Oil Company Parker Drilling Company Shell Oil Company United Airlines


Education at the Alley Theatre


he Alley Theatre is firmly committed to the idea that participation in the arts and arts integration in education is more than enriching — it is essential!

Studies have illustrated that students who study the arts are more active in community affairs, assume leadership roles, are more likely to participate in math or science fairs and have increased self-esteem and confidence. Additionally, research has demonstrated that what students learn in the arts helps them to succeed in other subjects and promotes skills that are vital to the future workforce. But developing a love of theatre is a progressive process, requiring sustained exposure.

Arts Education: 

Improves critical literacy skills for all learners

Sparks curiosity and fosters personal growth

Celebrates diversity and cultural heritage

Encourages creativity and critical thinking

Inspires civic participation

Senior Summer Conservatory Performance, 2013

Become a School PARTNER Becoming an Alley Partner provides teachers with a valuable outside resource that augments existing curriculum. School partnerships are tailored to meet individual school needs and can involve participation in multiple programs. Students and educators participate in observing plays. They discuss the characters and language. They take part in playmaking, theatre design and production workshops with guest teaching artists and with each other. Together, the school and the Alley design an experience to suit your teaching needs and address the students’ needs. If you are bringing students to a performance of You Can’t Take It With You, please consider scheduling a pre– or postperformance workshop for your group or classes. To check availability, please contact Education and Community Engagement at 713.228.9341 or at This teacher guide includes eight lesson plans. The first and last ones are the most essential in order to prepare students for the play and to help them process the experience. We have included TEKS suggestions here for your convenience. Please adjust the lesson plans for You Can’t Take It With You to suit the needs of your classroom.


What to Bring to the Theatre Please discuss the “live” qualities of theatre with your students before attending a performance at the Alley Theatre.


heatre is very public and it happens before a live audience. This makes each performance as unique as the group of people who gather as a community to see and hear it. In the theatre, the audience affects the performance. An engaged, attentive and enthusiastic audience will get a better performance from the cast and crew than a disruptive audience. People play games, text, surf the Internet and watch television in private. They can also stop and rewind a program or a clip if needed, not so in the theatre. Therefore, there are different expectations of you and your students when you step into a theatre. So here are some general guidelines that anyone new to the theatre should know. (Teachers don’t expect that all of your students will know this etiquette, so please go over these common sense rules.)

All electronic devices must be turned off upon entering our theatre, especially cell phones, portable gaming devices, and MP3 players. These items produce noise that is distracting to others and interferes with our equipment. (IF POSSIBLE, LEAVE BACKPACKS WITH CELLPHONES ON THE BUS OR LOCKED IN THE CAR.)

The use of recording or photo equipment of any kind is not permitted in the theatre before, during or after the performance.

Food and drink are never allowed in our theatre, even for the evening performances.

Applause is used to acknowledge the performers and to voice appreciation or approval. Dimming the lights on the stage and bringing up the house lights usually signals intermission. A curtain call in which the cast returns to the stage for bows follows a performance. Applause can erupt naturally from an engaged audience: this is great.

We welcome genuine reactions to the work on stage. However, conversations and discussions must wait until intermission or after the curtain call.

Visiting the theatre should be an entertaining activity, but it is also one that requires consideration for fellow audience members, as well as the actors on stage.




How is attending a play different from going to the movies?

How should you react to any loud noises during the play?

Why is it so important to not talk during a play?

What to bring to the theatre:     


What to leave behind:     



INTRODUCTION: “The Dynamic Celebration of Joy”


escribed as “the season’s best comedy” by The New Yorker when it premiered in 1936, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You remains a theatrical gem. This Pulitzer Prize-winning farce tells the story of the eclectic Sycamore family. Presided over by Grandpa Martin Vanderhoof, who quit his job 35 years earlier to do as he pleases, the Sycamores are far from typical.

You Can’t Take It With You is

“something to be prized. It is moon struck … blessed with all the happiest lunacies Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman have been able to contribute to it.” — The New York Times

Consisting of an amateur artist and playwright, a fumbling but passionate ballet dancer and candy maker, a fledgling xylophone player, fireworks manufacturers who concoct their experiments in the basement and an odd assemblage of guests and strangers, the Sycamore household is in a perpetual state of controlled pandemonium. Alice, the “sane” Sycamore, works on Wall Street and is engaged to her boss’s son, Tony. When Tony and his conservative parents visit the Sycamore home to meet the family on a particularly festive evening, sparks literally fly. Often considered the exemplar of Depression-era comedy in which “comic booby traps” are cunningly set, You Can’t Take It With You is one of Hart and Kaufman’s warmest plays (it was also the first farce to win the Pulitzer). As Kaufman once said to his wife, the play asserts a simple point: “…the way to live and be happy is just to go ahead and live, and not pay attention to the world.” These are surprisingly optimistic thoughts even during unsteady economic and political times, but considering that the play was written in the midst of the Great Depression and just three years before the beginning of World War II, the positive sentiment is more remarkable. The show’s 837-performance run on Broadway and the accolades Kaufman and Hart received for their work illustrated, according to writer Jerry L. Crawford, that the uplifting tale about an eccentric family who manages to not only survive the tumultuous depression, but to also enjoy their lives during it, appealed to theatergoers. Eager to forget the bad news at home and the ever-increasing threats from overseas, audiences found refuge in the spirited existence of the Sycamore family. America’s current financial and political landscapes are reminiscent of the era during which Kaufman and Hart composed their jocular farce. As our economy continues to strain and as wars loom over us, You Can’t Take It With You continues to provide contemporary audiences with the affirmation that we can also make it through these difficult times. — Written by Amy Steele, Former Dramaturg, Alley Theatre (2004)


EXAMINE: The Proverb—You Can’t Take It With You


proverb is an imperative or commanding statement designed to convey wisdom about everyday living to a particular audience. It’s useful to know proverbs because you hear them come up in conversation all the time. Sometimes people say the entire proverb to give advice to a friend. Learning proverbs can also help you to understand the way that people in certain cultures think about the world.

"Two wrongs don't make a right."

The proverb, “You can't take it with you,” is often used in conversation. Some believe it comes from the Bible and originates from Paul’s first letter to Timothy (I time 6:7) “For we have brought nothing into the world, and so we cannot take anything out of it. If we have food and covering with these we shall be content.”

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

But why do we use these quick and often glib easy phrases? They are a kind of short-hand, a quick hit, or a symbolic way of saying an undeniable truth. In a few words something complex is communicated. We have the Book of Proverbs, Chinese proverbs; in fact, every culture has a collection of wise sayings that help guide life. They are universal.

"No man is an island."

"The pen is mightier than the sword." "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

"Fortune favors the bold." "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst." "Better late than never."


"Birds of a feather flock together."

1. Define and discuss what a proverb is in your class. Make a list of proverbs on the board. If you need prompts use the list to the right.

"There's no such thing as a free lunch."

In pair-shares discuss some real life situations where they might use one of these proverbs.

"There's no place like home."

Discuss why they would use these in the situations that are listed.

"Discretion is the greater part of valor." "The early bird catches the worm."

2. Examine the proverb—“You can’t take it with you.” 

In what kinds of current events situations might they hear this phrase?

Would they ever use this phrase?

What professions might use it?

Have they ever heard this phrase used at home?

"Never look a gift horse in the mouth." "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs." "You can't always get what you want." "Cleanliness is next to godliness." "A watched pot never boils." "Beggars can't be choosers." "Actions speak louder than words." "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."


ABOUT The playwrights: Moss Hart


oss Hart (October 24, 1904 – December 20, 1961), one of the two authors of You Can’t Take It With You, was the son of poor English-born Jewish immigrants. Hart was born in New York City and raised in both the Bronx and Brooklyn. Hart once described the “dirt brown taste of poverty” when reminiscing about his childhood. But armed with an endless wit and a passion for the transformative experience of the theatre, he was able to rise above his own circumstances to become a well-known and wealthy man. But Hart’s transformation did not happen over night. After years of struggling to work as a director of amateur theatrical groups and as an entertainment director at summer resorts, Hart had his first Broadway hit with Once In a Lifetime. Like You Can’t Take It With You, Lifetime was written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman. The original production of You Can’t Take It With You opened at the Booth Theater on December 14, 1936. It won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is today the most produced show written by Hart. It was adapted for film by director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin in 1938. The film won the Best Picture Oscar, while Capra won for Best Director.

“Theatre makes possible, the art of being somebody else … not a scrawny boy with bad teeth, a funny name …” Moss Hart


Hart also wrote a memoir entitled, Act One: An Autobiography, which was released in 1959 and adapted to film in 1963, (with George Hamilton portraying Hart). As an author, Hart’s other theatrical hits include a play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, a musical with composer Irving Berlin called As Thousands Cheer, and Lady in the Dark, which was composed by Kurt Weill. As a director, Moss Hart had his biggest hit with My Fair Lady, which ran for seven years and garnered him the Tony Award for Best Director. The last show Hart directed was the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot (1960). During a very troubled and expensive out-of-town tryout (the show was then running four hours long), Hart had a heart attack. The show opened before he fully recovered, but he and Lerner reworked it after the opening. Thanks to the revision, huge pre-sales, and a cast performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the very expensive musical went on to be a hit. Hart married actress Kitty Carlisle in 1946 and the couple had two children. He died of a heart attack in 1961 at the age of 57.

ABOUT THE Playwrights: George S. Kaufman


eorge S. Kaufman, like Moss Hart, was born to a Jewish family, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kaufman attended high school in Pittsburgh (and law school for three months before becoming disenchanted).

After a series of odd jobs, Kaufman began his career as a drama critic and journalist. From 1917 to 1930 Kaufman was the drama editor for The New York Times. As an author, he had his debut on Broadway in 1918 with the melodrama Someone in the House, which ran for only 32 performances. He wryly suggested that the best way to avoid a crowd during the flu season was to see his show. From 1921 to 1958, at least one play or musical of his authorship ran on Broadway. He wrote only one play alone, preferring the company of talented co-authors and composers. Among his successes were shows crafted by teams of writers including the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. Political satire was also one of his fortes, and earned him one of two Pulitzer Prizes in 1932 for Of Thee I Sing. Other political satires included the hits Let ‘Em Eat Cake and Strike Up the Band.

Anthony Kirby: This would be a fine country if we all

spent our time at the zoo and played the harmonica. Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: You used to play one

yourself; Tony said so. Maybe you ought to take it up again. Maybe it’ll stop you trying to be so desperate about making more money than you can ever use. You can’t take it with you, Mr. Kirby. So what good is it? As near as I can see, the only thing you can take with you is the love of your friends. — George S. Kaufman with Moss Hart , “You Can’t Take It With You”


A Mash-up: Context and Theme

Connections:    


In small groups or pairs have students select a word they wonder about and actually look it up. Discuss any surprising applications for this word. Discuss the origin of the word Discuss as a class some of the vocabulary words and how they apply to today’s current events. Have students look at the Word Mash and pictures on page 13 and brainstorm what they think the play might be about.

Exploration: Context and Theme


ony Kirby: … It takes courage. You know everybody's afraid to live.

Alice Sycamore: You ought to hear Grandpa on that subject. You know he says most people nowadays are run by fear. Fear of what they eat, fear of what they drink, fear of their jobs, their future, fear of their health. They're scared to save money, and they're scared to spend it. You know what his pet aversion is? The people who commercialize on fear, you know they scare you to death so they can sell you something you don't need. — You Can’t Take It With You

Photo: Fibonacci Blue, 2013

Photo: Alan Cleaver, 2009

Photo: Feral78, 2012

Photo: Andrea Gage, 2008

Photo: photologue_np, 2011

Connections:   

Have your students look at the pictures and discuss how each of these images depicts something in their own life. Read the quote from the play and pair share about whether this quote from the 1930s still applies to today’s current events. Discuss with your class how fear does or does not affect their choices.


HISTORICAL CONTEXT: The Great Depression


ou Can’t Take It With You takes place during the Great Depression. And while You Can’t Take It With You is a lighthearted comedy, the context in which it takes place is quite serious.

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in 1930 and lasted until the late 1930s or middle 1940s. It was the longest, most widespread, and deepest depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how far the world's economy can decline. The depression originated in the U.S. after the fall in stock prices that began around September 4, 1929, and became worldwide news with the stock market crash of October 29, 1929 (known as Black Tuesday). The Great Depression had devastating effects in countries rich and poor. Personal income , tax revenue, profits and prices dropped, while international trade plunged by more than 50 percent. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25 percent, and in some countries, rose as high as 33%. Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936

Cities all around the world were hit hard, especially those dependent on heavy industry. Construction was virtually halted in many countries. Farming and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by approximately 60 percent. Facing plummeting demand with few alternate sources of jobs, areas dependent on primary sector industries such as cash cropping , mining, and logging suffered the most. Some economies started to recover by the mid-1930s. In many countries, the negative effects of the Great Depression lasted until the end of World War II.

Connections: Then and Now The Great Recession of 2009 proved to be the second most disastrous global economic downturn since the Great Depression. Also known as The Lesser Depression, it was a marked global economic decline that began in December 2007 and took a particularly sharp downward turn in September 2008. Banks found themselves without cash, many businesses laid off their workers and a crisis in the housing market began. Was your family effected by this downturn? Your neighbors? If so, how? Discuss where your family might go if they lost their home. More about this book


TIMELINE OF EVENTS: 1931-1939 1931  Bank panic - 305 banks closed in September, 522 shut down in October  Unemployment estimated between 4,000,000 and 5,000,000  First flight around the world by Wiley Post and Harold Gatty  Al Capone, convicted on income tax evasion, is sentenced to 11 years in prison  Japan invades Manchuria 1932  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected President and declares “New Deal” for America  Unemployment reaches 13,000,000; national wages 60 percent less than in 1929  An army of veterans seeking cash payments for their promised bonuses camp out in Washington; federal troops under General Douglas MacArthur  Amelia Earhart becomes first woman to fly across the Atlantic 1933  Prohibition of alcohol is repealed  Hitler seizes power in Germany  Organized labor boosts its membership, with the AFL having 4,000,000 members 1934  Drought hits Midwest worsens the situation that was caused by the Depression  First general strike in U.S. history in San Francisco 1935  Supreme Court declares that the government can’t legislate prices, wages, working conditions  Social Security Act is passed into law 1936  Dust Bowl  Roosevelt re-elected in a landslide despite opposition of 80 percent of nation’s press  Federal Theatre Project is founded under the Works Progress Administration 1937  Roosevelt proposes increasing the number of judges on the Supreme Court; measure fails  The Hindenburg, a dirigible explodes in Lakehurst, New Jersey 1938  Hitler annexes Austria  Wage and Hours Act passed: minimum wage for workers rose to 40 cents  A patent is issued for nylon 1939  Hitler seizes Czechoslovakia and invades Poland  World War II begins Scientists succeed in splitting uranium atoms.  television begins under commercial license 1940 

Roosevelt re-elected to unprecedented third term

15 Photo: Margaret Bourke-White/public do-

The American Family: The Heart of the Play


enelope Sycamore: Penny is the mother. She writes plays and paints as hobbies because it makes her happy. Penny is constantly concerned with the welfare of her family. Her main goal is to make sure everyone is happy, particularly her daughter Alice. Essie Carmichael: Wife of Ed, daughter of Penny and Paul Sycamore, As a hobby she makes candy that Ed sells. Essie dreams of being a ballerina. She has spent 8 years studying with Boris Kolenkhov. Rheba: The African-American maid and cook to the Sycamore family. She is treated almost like a part of the family. She is dating Donald. The company in the Alley Theatre’s 2003 production of You Can’t Take It With You. Photo by Jim Caldwell.

Paul Sycamore: Father of Essie and Alice, husband of Penny, makes fireworks in the basement with the help of his assistant.

Mr. De Pinna: His hobby is playing with erector sets. Mr. De Pinna came inside to speak to Paul eight years ago and has never left. Ed Carmichael: Husband of Essie. He is a xylophone player, and distributes Essie's candies. Ed is an amateur printer . Donald: The African-American boyfriend of Rheba, who seems to serve as volunteer handyman for the Sycamores. Martin Vanderhof: Grandpa in the play. He is an eccentric happy old man who has never paid his income tax because he doesn't believe in it, as he feels that the government wouldn't know what to do with the money if he paid it. He lives his life by the philosophy 'don't do anything that you're not going to enjoy doing'. He goes to circuses, commencements, throws darts, and collects stamps. Alice Sycamore: Fiancée of Tony Kirby. She has an office job, and is rather embarrassed by the eccentricities of her family when she has Tony and his parents at her house, yet she still loves them. She tends to be a pessimist. Wilbur C. Henderson: An employee of the IRS. He comes to collect the tax money owed by Grandpa. Tony Kirby: Fiancé of Alice, Son of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby. He sees how, even though the Sycamores appear odd, they are really the perfect family because they love and care about each other. His own family is very proper and has many issues none of them will admit. He is vice president of Kirby and Co. Boris Kolenkhov: A Russian who escaped to America shortly before the Russian Revolution. He is very concerned with world politics, and the deterioration of Russia. He is the ballet instructor of Essie. He likes the Greeks and the Romans, questions society, and is interested in world affairs. Gay Wellington: An actress whom Mrs. Sycamore meets on a bus and invites home to read one of her plays. Anthony P. Kirby: Husband of Mrs. Kirby, father of Tony. He is a very proper man who is president of Kirby and Co. and secretly despises his job. His hobby is raising expensive orchids. Miriam Kirby: Wife of Mr. Kirby, mother of Tony. She is an extremely prim and proper woman and is horrified by the goings-on in the Sycamore household. Her hobby is spiritualism. G-Man 1, G-Man 2 (Jim), G-Man 3 (Mac): Three agents who come to investigate Ed because of the communist quotes he prints up and places in Essie's candy boxes, such as "God is the State – the State is God".


CHARACTER STUDY: The Eccentric American Spirit and the Pursuit of Happiness


ost of the members of the Vanderhof-Sycamore clan revel in their eccentricity. This is frustrating to young Alice Sycamore, who aspires to live in a family that will be socially acceptable to her beau, Tony Kirby, and his stuffy, wealthy family. During the play, Alice’s family members embarrass her in the following ways:

Penny Sycamore, Alice’s mother, writes plays just because a “typewriter was delivered to the house by accident” several years ago. Her area in the house is cluttered with a variety of unfinished plays. And she is learning to paint in the corner.

Penny’s husband Paul tinkers with explosives in the basement, and plays with erector sets.

Penny and Paul’s daughter Essie makes candy and studies ballet which she practices in the living room, though she is not very good at either.

Essie’s husband Ed Carmichael plays the xylophone and enjoys working with a printing press.

But by far, the most eccentric member of the Vanderhof-Sycamore clan is Grandpa. Grandpa Vanderhof was a successful businessman, but walked away from his job because he was unhappy. He prefers to fill his days attending college commencement ceremonies and catching and raising snakes. Juxtapose Grandpa Vanderhof’s willingness to pursue his own interest and happiness with Mr. Kirby’s aversion to anything that might be even slightly pleasurable (in Act II, he remarks that “Lust is not a human emotion —I t is depraved”). Yet Grandpa Vanderhof might have a point: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. Grandpa’s pursuit of happiness is bigger than eccentricity — it is connected to a very principled — and fundamentally American — stance that he took as a young man. Eventually Grandpa’s argument for happiness is so compelling that even the rigid Mr. Kirby eventually softens his stance and allows his Tony to marry Alice — because it will make both Alice and his son happy. Ultimately, Hart and Kaufman show us that the “strange” Vanderhof-Sycamores are more connected to what it means to an American than the upwardly mobile Kirbys.


Connections: Do you consider yourself to be eccentric? What are some hobbies, habits or interests that you have that might be considered “strange” by members of your community?




Go online and check out the “Weird News” section of the Huffington Post or the Houston Chronicle. In groups discuss why this particular piece of news has been classified as “weird.” Is it a distinctly American story? Would people in other parts of the world or different communities find it “weird”? 3

TEKS Applications- Social Studies TEKS Applications- Fine Arts

Photos: 1. Warrenbrown Photography, 2009. 2. Byassa, 2012. 3. One Pointe Shoe Done, 2012 High Techdad. 4. Photo of Allen Haulon and Adrian Rollin (1948), Library of Congress.



Opportunity and Escapism: The American Way


he writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “America is another name for opportunity.” For the American-born Sycamore-Vanderhof clan, their home country has provided the opportunity and resources to pursue their eccentric passions. But the landscape of You Can’t Take It With You is also filled with characters who have immigrated to America from other countries in search of opportunity. The Russian dance instructor, Boris Kolenkhov, and Olga, a pre-Russian Revolution Grand Duchess are both prominently featured. Kolenkhov and Olga came to America fleeing the post-Russian Revolution Communist tumult. Kolenkhov has carved out a comfortable niche for himself as Essie’s dance instructor, but Olga struggles to make ends meet as a waitress. The struggles of Olga and other deposed royal Russians are the source of much of the play’s comedy in Act III. In Olga’s words: “Ah, Kolenkhov, our time is coming. My sister, Natasha, is studying to become a manicurist, Uncle Sergei they have promised to make floor walker, and next month, I get transferred to the Fifth Avenue Childs.’ From there, it is only a step to Schraffs.’” Even though it is funny to hear a former royal get excited about the possibility of a better waitressing job, Olga has fully bought into the American credo of opportunity. She is willing to start from the bottom and carve her own path in life. Furthermore, she strives with a smile on her face, another uniquely American characteristic. The Sycamores even remark upon it themselves: Grandpa: Wonderful what some people go through, isn’t it? And still keep kind of gay, too. Penny: M-m. She made me forget about everything for a minute.” Penny’s “forgetfulness” is significant. You Can’t Take It With You glosses over hardships in a humorous way, and is sometimes called a purely escapist play — or a play that’s all about entertainment and not necessarily containing any deeper meaning than what’s on the surface. What do you think — is this play escapist in nature? Or does it use humor to make a discussion about serious topics more palatable for general audiences?

Connections: What kids of things do you do to “escape?” What kinds of things does our culture do in 2013 that takes them away from uncomfortable topics? Do you tell stories or crack jokes to steer conversations away from uncomfortable topics?


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TEKS Applications- Social Studies

Class clash: Tensions Between the Kirbys and the Sycamores


he director of the Alley’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, Sanford Robbins, has remarked that he admires the play because its characters do not allow their “economic situation to determine their lifestyle.” Put simply: your family may be poor, but you can still enjoy a fun and robust life.

Yet, in You Can’t Take It With You, class is about more than economics — it is also about culture. The upper-class Kirbys signify their status not by flaunting their money but by acting with restraint and propriety. The Sycamores signal their middle-class status through their openness and common tastes. All of these tensions come to a head at the end of Act II in the following ways: 

Upon entering the Sycamore home for the first time, Mrs. Kirby remarks that it is “embarrassing.” She is the one who is presumably embarrassed by her unexpected visit, but her disgust also stems from the disheveled state of the Sycamores’ home.

While the Kirbys are a standard, nuclear family, the Sycamores’ “extended family” includes other eccentrics like Gay, an drunk actress who is passed out on the couch, Mr. DePinna, and Kolenkhov. The Kirbys are taken aback by all of these strange people when they first meet them.

Mrs. Kirby is frightened by the Sycamores’ pet snakes, but Grandpa regards them as normal family pets (like cats or dogs).

Penny offers the Kirbys canned salmon and frankfurters for dinner, processed foods that are affordable for middle-class families. Mrs. Kirby is disgusted by both options.

Kolenkhov and Penny ask Mr. Kirby questions about his stomach ulcers and romantic life while he attempts to preserve an air of propriety.

Hart and Kaufman do a good job of “showing” and not “telling” the audience the class distinctions between the Sycamores and Kirbys. Instead of having the families discuss their differences in an explicit way, Hart and Kaufman give us insight into each family’s socioeconomic status by revealing their particular cultural preferences.

The company in the Alley Theatre’s 2003 production of You Can’t Take it With You. Photo by Jim Caldwell.

Connections: How do people in 2013 signal (without explicitly mentioning wealth) their class status? Is it by driving a certain car or wearing certain clothing brands? Have you ever experienced a “class clash” with another person (or people)? How did you resolve it?

TEKS Applications- Social Studies


the original sitcom family: The Sycamores and the Changing American Sitcom Family


ou Can’t Take It With You is an example of a situation comedy, or “sitcom.” We most commonly associated sitcoms with contemporary television, but before the advent of television in the 1950s, “sitcoms” occurred in the theater. The sitcom features characters who share a common environment, like an office or home, with often humorous circumstances. It has a storyline and quirky characters. The ingredients of today’s television sitcoms, from certain character types, to pratfalls, routines and situations, can also be found in You Can’t Take It With You. According to Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor, the authors of Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, You Can’t Take It With You is the “quintessential domestic comedy,” exploring the comedic friction that arises when the eccentric Sycamores clash with the well-heeled Kirbys. The play also “challenges,” the book continues, “the notion that there is such a thing as a conventional American family upbringing.” The depiction of the American family in sitcoms is often closely connected to the social and political circumstances of the era. The socioeconomic clash depicted in You Can’t Take It With You was a byproduct of the Great Depression, in which lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots” were very starkly drawn. Sitcoms from the 1950s like Leave It To Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet depicted prosperous, upper-middle class families, reflecting America’s post-WWII financial prosperity. Rapid social changes in the 1960s made the world complicated and confusing for many Americans, and sitcoms depicting “country cousins” in fish-out-of water scenarios became prevalent. Examples include: Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Green Acres. Many of these “fish-out-of water” sitcoms continued to reflect the tensions between the haves and the have-nots that originate with You Can’t Take It With You. In the post-Civil Rights and feminist 1970s, viewers began to see sitcoms featuring AfricanAmericans and women, like Good Times and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The workplacecentered Mary Tyler Moore Show also reflected another emerging trend in sitcoms: the workplace wasn’t just a substitute for a family it was often a “preferable family.” Sitcoms built around African-Americans and women continued to appear through out the 1980s and 1990s (The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air are notable examples), and in 1998, Will & Grace showed openly gay men on television for the first time. All of the trends discussed above have come into play in the contemporary sitcom Modern Family, which currently airs on ABC. Modern Family expands and subverts the traditional family to include step-parents, family members of multiple ethnicities, and an openly gay couple with a child. Though we are many years removed from You Can’t Take It With You, it continues to redefine the idea of an American family.


Cast photo from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title screen from The Beverly Hillbillies

The Bill Cosby Show, NBC publicity photo, 1986

“Sitcoms should provide enjoyment for the audience, through people either empathizing with these characters or thinking they’re above these characters and the problems they’re going through.” - James Brooks, director, producer and screenwriter

Discuss the big issues affecting teens and families in 2013? Do they see these themeselves depicted on television?


TEKS Applications- Social Studies

Comedy: The Essence of American Humor


hat is comedy? More specifically, what is American comedy? It’s a question that seems easy to answer, but proves difficult to explain. In the book Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America hundreds of different artists and comedians were asked this question. Some of those interviewed don’t consider it a question worth asking. “Funny is funny. No matter what language. No matter who says it.” While others refer to America’s diversity and “our interaction with so many different cultures” trying to “assimilate into the dominant culture.” It is widely believed that humor is most defined by specific aspects of its current and historical culture. Norman Lear points to a current cultural factor: “Anywhere you look in America there’s a tremendous amount of excess, so of course comics are working their hearts out to audiences who are demanding louder, more vulgar, more interesting excess.” Rooted in European traditions such as Comedia dell’arte, comedy in America absorbed “home grown entertainment’ and created something “distinctly American” in the Minstrel and Vaudeville shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. American comedy still continues to evolve all the while remaining a fusion of cultural influences and forms. In America, our humor is as diverse as our culture. “Each new arrival to our shores absorbs the genre and adds to its complexion, evolution and tradition.”

A Different World


All in the Family

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch

Cheers Dennis the Menace Diff'rent Strokes Everybody Loves Raymond Family Affair

Sanford and Son Saved by the Bell Saved by the Bell: The New Class

Family Matters

Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

Family Ties

Spin City

Father Knows Best


Full House

That '70s Show

George Lopez

The Andy Griffith Show

Get Smart

The Beverly Hillbillies


The Brady Bunch

Gilligan's Island

The Cosby Show

Gomer Pyle: USMC Green Acres Growing Pains Happy Days Hogan's Heroes Home Improvement

Connections: As a class discuss some sitcoms that they currently watch. Can your student define what makes it “funny.” Some prompts to ask your students: Is it timing? Is it physical? Is it about people in difficult situations? Is it about serious topics? Is it funny poses and vocal choices? Is it about funny faces? Is it about entrances and exits?

I Dream of Jeannie I Love Lucy Leave It to Beaver M*A*S*H Ma and Pa Kettle Mama's Family Married with Children McHale's Navy Mork & Mindy My Three Sons My Wife and Kids

Is it about being clever lines? Defining funning can be elusive,. See if your students can make a list they can agree upon. Are some things more important than others? Can you come up with one definition?

Perfect Strangers Petticoat Junction Reba


Terms You Should Know


rothel — A place where men can visit prostitutes Burlesque — A variety show, typically including striptease Calling card — Card bearing a person’s name and address, sent or left in lieu of a formal social or business visit

Communism — A political doctrine based on Marxian Socialism that was the official ideology of the USSR Czar — Emperor or king; former leadership of Russia Dictate — To say or read aloud for another person to type, write down or record on tape Russian Revolution, 1917.

Frankfurters — Seasoned smoked sausages typically made of beef and pork Gaiety — The state of being merry or cheerful Helen of Troy — In Greek Mythology, the beautiful daughter of Zeus and Leda and wife of Menelaus; abducted by Paris, which caused the Trojan War Indicted — Formally accused or charged with a serious crime Monastery — A house for persons, especially monks or nuns, living under religious vows Pesetos — The former basic monetary unit of Spain (replaced by the euro) Russian Revolution — The 1917 uprising and eventual overthrow of the government which put the Bolsheviks (or Communists) into power Mrs. Roosevelt — (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt; a US diplomat, author, lecturer and wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library of Congress Collection

Securities Commission — Government agency responsible for financial regulation of securities products like stocks, bonds and other notes representing financial value Solace — Comfort or consolation in a time of distress or sadness Spiritualism — A system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums Stalin — Joseph Stalin; the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922-53, perhaps best known for His ruthless leadership Trapeze — A short horizontal bar hung by ropes or metal straps from a support, commonly found in circus performances

Trapeze, Kevin Jones, 2008

Trotsky — Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary and writer.


TEKS Applications- Social Studies TEKS Applications- Fine Arts



fter viewing the Alley Theatre’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, we encourage you and your students to record your expectations and reactions to the play.

Here are some ideas for written reflections:

What parts of the play did you enjoy and why? What are some specific lines you enjoyed and why? How would you have performed one of the roles? What draws you to that character? Has your perspective about what constitutes an American family changed? Do you agree with the choices of the director and designers? What would you have done differently?

Photo: Dr. Mitra Ray, 2011

Activity: Consider having students write reviews of You Can’t Take It With You. Make sure to include technical aspects such as sound and costumes, as well as specific notes on acting, plot, and the overall experience of the production. For more information on writing a review, please visit Please email any theatre-related reviews, poems, scenes and essays by your students to

“Dramatic conventions offer a safe harbor for trying out the situations for life; for experimenting with expression and communication; and for deepening human understanding.”

TEKS Applications- English Language & Reading

— James Catterall, Professor Emeritus, UCLA, Department of Education


To learn more about the Alley Theatre Education programs, visit

You Can't Take It With You Companion Guide Alley Theatre  

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