Could you use a good laugh? Try delving into "Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies," by George S. Kaufman, with Edna Ferber, Moss Hart, Ring Lardner and Morrie Ryskind (Library of America, 911 pages, $35).
The material within the pages of this book produced some of the heartiest laughs of the 20th century, and the good news is, the laughter still echoes loudly in the 21st.
This is no small achievement, not only because humor rarely keeps or travels well, but because these words primarily were meant to be heard, not read. Apparently, when produced by masters, humor can overcome the limitations imposed by time, space and the proscenium arch.
Masters they were, these men (and one woman) masters of the Broadway comedy stage when it was unquestionably at its brightest, the late 1920s through the 1930s. Their creations have proved so durable that they continue to be revived today, and all but one were made into movies that nearly universally were critical and commercial successes.
Two things are common to these nine plays. The first, of course, is George S. Kaufman, who might be called to adapt the title of one of his own plays The Man Who Came to Collaborate.
The other is that all are creations of Jewish writers Kaufman, in collaboration with Edna Ferber, Morrie Ryskind, and Moss Hart, and assisted by assorted Jewish songwriters. They were part of that great Jewish upsurge in American entertainment, particularly comedy, in the first half of the previous century.
How, then, did Ring Lardner, the lone Gentile, get in here? Because he easily matches them in writing clever dialogue, and no one matches him at reproducing American speech.
Lardner collaborated with Kaufman on "June Moon," the story of a callow young man, Fred Stevens, who comes to New York City from Schenectady with dreams of making it big as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter. While the laugh quotient is as high as in any other play, the conversations have the distinct ring of the small-town barbers and ballplayers in Lardner's stories.
"I'm always thinking of words that rhyme, even when I ain't working," Fred says. And, seeking to ingratiate himself with a Sweet Young Thing: "I don't believe God ever meant for woman to endure a life of druggery."
All the plays have an attitude of what might be called sophisticated wisecracking ("Women can't go wrong if they're not invited," a woman in "June Moon" says about marrying rich old men). But "Once in a Lifetime" is, compared with "June," a bit more paced, building to its laughs.
Written with Hart, "Once" is a hilarious satire of moviedom, in which three underemployed vaudevillians, seeing opportunity in Hollywood's panic over the arrival of talkies, head westward to set themselves up as voice coaches. One of the trio is the proverbial dumb stud, named George, of whom his friend May says, "George, you don't know anything about anything, and if what they say about movies is true, you'll go far!"
And he does. After all, this is the place where, a studio head says, "You couldn't stop making money even if you turned out a good picture you made money."
In a way, it is odd that "Of Thee I Sing," written with Ryskind, is the only play not to be filmed, because it was an innovation in American theater. Its songs (by George and Ira Gershwin) were incorporated into the story, advancing rather than interrupting it, and it offered not lighthearted escapism from the Depression but tart satire of the country's political situation.
Indeed, there is biting humor at the expense of the American political system, including a chorus line of Supreme Court justices who mock their own great power. There is a weird foreshadowing of the controversies of the Clinton administration, in that the president has a tryst with a Southern woman who sues him, financial contributors to the party in power are guests in the White House bedrooms, and a discussion goes on over what should be the first lady's proper place in the hustings or in the kitchen.
Small wonder that this was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, which went to its creators. Kaufman (and Hart) won another Pulitzer for 1936's "You Can't Take It With You."
The other plays herein are "The Royal Family" (with Ferber), "Animal Crackers" (Ryskind), "Dinner at Eight" (Ferber); "Stage Door" (Ferber), and the perennial favorite, "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (Hart).
What you can hear behind the laughter in many of them is America breaking away from a hidebound past, a process that had begun at least as early as World War I but was here galloping toward a freer dramatic future.
E-mail: Roger K. Miller, a journalist for many years, is a free-lance writer and reviewer for several publications, and a frequent contributor to the Deseret Morning News.