Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quote of the Day (Moss Hart, on Theater as Escape)

“I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child. Like most pet theories, this one also contains the fallacy of too broad a generalization. But certainly the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappiness is to contrive a world of his own, and it is but a small step out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theatre….Here on a brightly lit stage, before a hushed and admiring audience, are people doing the very things he has played out in his fantasies: assuming heroic or villainous guises, bathing in the applause and love of a hitherto hostile world.”—Moss Hart, Act One: An Autobiography (1959) 

Years ago, my college friend Greg Burke urged me to read the theatrical memoir Act One. I knew the author, Moss Hart, from his 1930s comedies with collaborator George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner), but didn’t know he had written about himself. 

It took a long time for the seed Greg had planted to grow, but nearly 20 years later, his unchecked enthusiasm, along with my growing interest in the memoir as a genre, led me to hunt down this title.

Within a couple of pages, as Hart related his first exposure to the bright lights of Broadway, as a 12-year-old Bronx youth disregarding his mother’s worries about his safety, I was swept up in his confident voice. 

I don’t have an exact date on this, but Act One was published in September 1959. Though it spent a whole year on the New York Times bestseller list (including 22 weeks in the number-one spot), it fell out of print for awhile, and even after it was reissued in a new edition a few years ago, it didn’t attract much attention. 

The memoir is unlikely even now to receive the kind of 50th-anniversary celebration that, for instance, greeted Lolita and On the Road a few years ago.  More’s the pity--in its way, reality can be as compelling as any fiction. 

As Greg and I, not to mention thousands of other readers, can attest, Hart’s chronicle of his progress from a Dickensian childhood to the toast of the Great White Way has not lost a bit of its verve over the years, even if the world he longed to enter—and finally managed to conquer—has changed in a thousand ways. Great storytelling endures. 

I hope that this year, some critic at a mainstream media outlet—and not simply humble, little-noticed bloggers that I can think of—gives this memoir the affectionate retrospective it deserves. (So far as I know, only one major critic has done so—the Washington Post’s incomparable Jonathan Yardley, who jumped the gun with his reconsideration of the book last year.) 

What accounts for the autobiography’s brilliance? Start with what it isn’t—a stale regurgitation of the greatest hits of a lifetime, a “then-I-met…” chronicle, or a stale retrospective of an entertainer filtered through the anonymous voice of a ghostwriter. 

To be sure, other show-business professionals show up here (most memorably, Kaufman and the now-forgotten Charles Gilpin, a brilliant African-American actor who, after originating the title role of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, descended into alcoholism and chronic inability to find employment in the theater.) 

But the main character is Hart himself—his hunger, his drive to escape his neighborhood of “dray wagons, pushcarts and immigrants." 

In discussing his breakthrough hit, a satire about Hollywood’s uncertain transition to talkies, Once in a Lifetime (1930), Hart tips his cap to Kaufman not only for his generous public acknowledgment of the younger man’s contribution to their comedy, but for teaching him the whole carpentry of playwrighting—creating initial interest, sustaining suspense, and leaving the audience with a thrilling ending. How well Hart learned these lessons can be seen in this narrative, too. 

I cherish this account for another reason: Over the years, the behind-the-scenes aspects of drama have increasingly intrigued me. Yes, histories of American theater will plumb this book for insight into matters like the “little-theater” movement that gave Hart his start. 

But this memoir stays fresh—and, from what I have heard, has inspired countless theater professionals to this day—in its examination of the psychology of the starry-eyed people who long for the stage and stick with it despite every kind of disappointment. 

Sadly, Hart only lived to write about than less than half of his life, dying of a heart attack (his third) only two years after publication of this book. To fill out the rest of his extraordinary life story—and to see how he smoothed out the rough edges of even what he did cover—you’ll want to turn to Steven Bach’s biography, Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Don’t expect Bach to deliver the effervescence of Hart’s showbiz fable—the writer-producer, after all, had been testing his version of his success story for years, like the Atlantic City tryout of Once in a Lifetime. He had gauged the effect of his telling of certain incidents through early 1930s interviews and, more recently, to wife Kitty Carlisle, who tried to help him overcome insomnia by urging him to relate parts of his life story he had not gotten around to telling her before—in effect, talking himself to sleep.

But Bach does round out the story Hart couldn’t complete—the playwright’s even bigger successes with Kaufman after Once in a Lifetime; his continuing triumph on his own as playwright (Light Up the Sky) and musical collaborator (Lady in the Dark, with Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill); his screenwriting triumphs (most notably, the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born); and, most notably, given his declining health, his rescue from disaster, as sure-handed director, of two Lerner and Loewe musicals, My Fair Lady and Camelot. He also touches on the shadows in the playwright’s life, including depression over his bisexuality. 

Among the points Bach has corrected about Act One are that Hart: 

* Lengthened his purgatory as a Catskills summer-camp social director from four to six years; 

 *Moved back his discovery of Times Square from 1918 to 1916, to heighten his youthful inexperience;

 * Neglected to mention his co-author on plays written during his first days in the theater in the 1920s, Eddie Eliscu; and, most important, 

* Romanticized his Aunt Kate—crediting her with introducing him to the world of theater by taking him to shows, but concealing a mental illness so severe that she made a play for her brother-in-law, then, after being ejected from the household, scrawled curses on the Hart family’s subsequent residences, and even set a fire in a major Broadway theater. 

I’m not one who is fond of altering even small facts in a memoir: They open up avenues to outright fictionalization that often prove impossible to resist, and the discovery of these damages the trust that readers have in the genre. (I’m afraid that one friend’s cynical comment—“They make everything up, anyway”—is all too typical.) 

Stephen Colbert’s term “truthiness” was echoed nearly a half century ago, when director George Abbott told Hart that he had created “a truth-ier truth” about the theater world. Abbott touched on the quality that has made Act One so compelling over the years: The way that those who love the theater most deeply believe that every reverse is crushing and every curtain call a balm to the spirit, the irresistible manner in which it compels you to root for its up-from-the-mean-streets underdog. A show can’t succeed? The facts be damned. 

Over six years ago, I was lucky to see a production of Once in a Lifetime at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York. I wish it would be revived on Broadway. Better yet, I wish its creator’s account of its making, Act One, would be embraced by a whole new generation of readers.

1 comment:

B said...

Such a great memoir of the glory days of broadway and the dying days of vaudeville type tours. I read it after Julie Andrews mention it in her memoir. It is so terribly underrated!