Merrily We Roll Along (1934)

By George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

The Plot:

merrily playbill smA story of three friends, their artistic ambitions, the price of fame, and the changes in American society from World War I to the Depression—all told in a reverse chronological structure.

The plot concerns Richard Niles, who is revealed on the opening night of his latest play to be a pretentious playwright of successful but forgettable light comedies. As the play moves backwards from 1934 to 1916, we see how Niles drove his novelist friend Julia Glenn to drink; how he alienated his best friend, painter Jonathan Crale; and how he hitched his star to -- and eventually betrayed -- his wife, glamorous actress Althea Royce, all for the material comforts of success. The last scene finds Niles at his college graduation, quoting with all the fervor of idealistic youth the words of Polonius: "This above all, to thine own self be true".

The play ends with the celebration of the armistice and high hopes from the young trio for their friendship, their careers, and their values—almost all of which we have already seen destroyed during the course of the play.

About the Play:

It was Hart's notion to tell the story of the entertainment and art world from World War I to the Depression by creating a tale of three friends and telling it backwards. Besides being a fabulous time capsule of the period, the play features a thinly-velied portrait of the authors' colleague Dorothy Parker as Julia Glenn, the central female character. (A supporting character based on George Gershwin is also depicted.) The play was also turned into a cult favorite musical by the same title by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth in 1981, which, although it had only a brief tenure on Broadway (it opened on November 16th—Kaufman's birthday—and ran two weeks) has been frequently and successfully revived Off-Braodway and in London and Washington, DC. Still, the original packs a tremendous punch—and is Kaufman and Hart's most ambitious play.

Stage history:

The play opened at the Music Box Theater on September 29, 1934; it was largest non-musical play to run there (155 performances). With its nine separate scenes and cast of 91 actors, it was impractical to tour the play, either before or after its Broadway opening. A film sale to MGM did not yield a screen version.

Production details:

The original production has nine scenes and a cast of 91: a huge show, but open to doubling and creative casting.


"After this declaration of ethics, it will be impossible to dismiss Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Hart as clever jesters with an instinct for the stage."

--Brooks Atkinson, New York Times, 1934

"Here's this wealthy playwright who has repeated successes and earned enormous sums of money, has mistresses as well as a family, an expensive town house, a luxurious beach house and a yacht. The problem is: How did the son of a bitch get into this jam?"

--Herman Mankiewicz

Strip Box:

For those who only know the musical version, the original MERRILY provides great suspense, drama, and characters—worth a look!