George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 Broadway hit, You Can’t Take It With You, had fun in ways no longer permitted today. A nonstop romp with a loveable crowd of crazies—the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael family and assorted hangers-on—You Can’t Take It With You is one of Kaufman and Hart’s most memorable plays. Of course, the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichaels are not so crazy after all. They just take reality as it comes, and by the end of the show they have won our hearts. Quoth Grandpa Vanderhof to Kolenkhov, a visiting Russian: “Oh, the world’s not so crazy . . . . It’s just the people in it. Life’s pretty simple if you just relax. . . . trouble is, people forget that. I know I did. I was right in the thick of it—fighting, and scratching, and clawing. Regular jungle. One day it just kind of struck me. I wasn’t having any fun.”
Ridicule is reserved for a witless taxman and for the hoity-toity parents of the suitor (Tony Kirby) of the family granddaughter (Alice). When Mr. and Mrs. Kirby arrive for dinner, in full evening dress and on the wrong night, fireworks (some real ones in the basement, as it happens) ensue, including a cant-meets-commonsense exchange between Mrs. Kirby and Grandpa’s daughter, Penny Vanderhof Sycamore.
To break the ice, the company discusses hobbies. Raising orchids is Mr. Kirby’s. When Grandpa remarks that orchids must be expensive, Mr. Kirby agrees but says he’d go crazy without something to relieve the strain (he is “in Wall Street,” after all): “Lot of the men I know have yachts—just for that very reason.” Mrs. Kirby then offers up her hobby—spiritualism—adding that it is not just a hobby but a “great solace.” Penny will have none of it: “Now, Mrs. Kirby, don’t tell me you fell for that. Why, everybody knows it’s a fake.” Mrs. Kirby withers, choosing not to discuss it further. After an embarrassing word game that goes through “sex,” “lust,” and “Wall Street,” the Kirbys opt not to stay for dinner.
Grandpa’s clan will put up with a lot in one another, but they won’t suffer a crank or a snob. Spiritualism was the ism du jour of the gullible in the years following World War I. In our day, “scientism,” which turns science into an idol, similarly charms susceptible souls desperate for the definitive answer. Even in Kaufman and Hart’s day, the impulse to transpose a noun into an ideology was something to guard against. Kaufman and Hart did the job with laughter.
“What are you doin’ for science next year?” we used to ask of our classmates in junior high and high school. We did not ask, or even wonder, what science was doing for us. We were bringing ourselves to science class as required, rather as we did to music lessons or basketball practice. The “busy minds and bodies” model of education was then dominant, in which science had its place. Memories are indelible of my very first encounters with this mysterious and wondrous quantity in elementary school in the 1950s: dry cell batteries, models of the solar system, charts on the shapes of clouds, the kinds of rocks, the parts of a flower. It wasn’t too far from pistils and stamens to sex-segregated health and hygiene class, which coyly addressed certain awkward signs of growing up. Once a year “science fairs,” held in the gym and dutifully attended by moms and dads who usually played some behind-the-scenes hand in Bill’s and Betty’s “projects,” were part of the drill. “Baby science,” as a friend mellifluously put it to me the other day, grew with us into adolescence. There were still not many choices in those days, and the trinity of biology, chemistry, and physics united many high schoolers in communities of awe and misery: sacrificial earthworms and galvanic frogs’ legs, ring stands and Bunsen burners, ripple tanks and slide rules. With worries about missile gaps and Soviet satellites then front page news, science took on new public urgency. At the loftiest educational levels, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 subsidized graduate schools that offered science PhDs. Even at the lower levels I still inhabited, science became, in a favored adjective of those times, “cool.”
In time, for some of us, coolness cooled in favor of subjects in the “humanities,” against which science was set off. This was mere taste, however (explained perhaps by a certain laziness in math), and no judgment on science’s worth, which everyone granted. This was because, in its run-of-the-mill representation in those days, science was still modest. Seldom was it offered up as anything more than a set of tools for understanding how the physical world was put together and worked. The word “experiment,” its handmaid, suggested trial and error and a certain open-endedness—contingency, in the adult word not yet at our command. This was one of the things, in addition to the pretty girl who shared your microscope, that also could make science fun: in chem-lab, the unexpected sometimes happened.
The pandemic-fueled eruption of science in the public mind has screamed past all the culture war referents of recent decades and deposited us in a strange place. We are passing a marker on a path that science is ill-prepared to travel. From the start of our current trial-by-virus, politicians and their scientific counselors have talked endlessly about reliance on science to guide policy day by day and even predict the future. This is a wily virus however, and the record, for guidance and clairvoyance, has been spotty. Why then do we now observe “science” making way for “the science,” as our leaders put it today, with the definite article so cleverly appended?
Is it weariness or desperation or yet another “wave?” Or is it the perverse old tendency, that the less certain one is the more stubborn one becomes in insisting that one is not uncertain? Leaders, from the new chief executive down through the chain of governors and corporate CEOs, huff and puff with “the science.” A great deal, we all gratefully stipulate, of medical/public health science is superb: a triumph of learning about how human biology works and the product of careful research by thousands of smart doctors and other scientists the world over. But is this changing and contingent body of knowledge what is meant by “the science” as our leaders pompously conjure it? Or is “the science” used as rhetorical weaponry to command belief in it? Like the impact of price inflation on currency, language inflation destroys value, and what we cannot value we will not respect.
It is hard to imagine You Can’t Take It With You masked. It is too direct—too in your face. It is not about protocols for staying alive but about living. The harum scarum opening scene ends as the family sits down to dinner and Grandpa taps his plate for silence. This is not, we suspect, a particularly religious crowd, yet “Grace” is about to be begged: “Well, Sir, we’ve been getting along pretty good for quite a while now, and we’re certainly much obliged. Remember, all we ask is just to go along and be happy in our own sort of way. Of course we want to keep our health, but as far as anything else is concerned, we’ll leave it to You. Thank You.”
Amen and thank you, Grandpa.