Saturday, July 24, 2010

Act One!

Our book today is Moss Hart’s boisterous, utterly unforgettable 1959 autobiography, Act One, not only one of the best American memoirs but one of the best theatrical memoirs ever written. Hart fell in love with the theater as a boy, reading back issues of Theatre Magazine and dreaming of that world before he ever saw it, and the book opens with the story of his Bronx employer sending the yearning, dreaming 12-year-old Hart on an errand to Broadway, where his dour, unimaginative parents had previously forbidden him to go. He steps off the subway into a world of wonder, and he’s forever convinced that he’s found his home. As he sardonically puts it, he’s caught a sickness:
There is no point whatever in writing or reading a book of theatrical reminiscences if either the writer or the reader is to be hampered by incredulity, an aversion to melodrama, or even the somewhat foolish glow of the incorrigibly stage-struck. Like it or not, the credulous eye and the quixotic heart are part and parcel of the theatre. The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.

It’s not a sickness for which he wants a cure (except in his darkest moments, and Act One does have them – like most theater folk, Hart was prone to mood swings), and the book chronicles his unceasing efforts to move his life (and the living quarters of his family) closer and closer to the world of his dreams. He gets work as an errand boy and starts hammering out plays, learns the practicalities of his craft in the Borscht Belt circuit far from New York lights, and eventually makes writes and directs his way back to the glorious, petty, heartbreaking, wonderfully human world of New York theater. It could be a catty world too, naturally, and Hart wouldn’t have it any other way:
The most exhilarating theatrical discussions are usually those denigrating success, and I am certain that in al the little restaurants and bars that dot the theatrical district of today, just such groups are stirring their coffee and pouring their spleen into the hides and reputations of the successful. It is a game as ageless and fascinating as the theatre itself, and each time one of the mighty falls, the glad cry of “Bingo!” is joyfully voiced with all the resonance of a hallelujah chorus.

The stinging mention of those little bars and restaurants that dot the theatrical district will be the present-day reader’s surest tip that we’re dealing in ancient history here. When Hart was directing and writing such delightful war-horses as You Can’t Take It With You, The Man Who Came To Dinner, and My Fair Lady, Broadway was still a place that could not only inspire a 12-year-old Moss Hart but actually also nurture him; shows cost at most an hour’s pay, not a month’s mortgage, and errand-boys were kids with the fire to learn the craft, not Choate waiting-listers with resumes to fatten. In other words, Hart is clearly writing about pre-Cameron Makintosh Broadway.

There’s a lot of great theater in this book, understandably, from the gallery of great portraits of the legends Hart encountered (his long-time collaborator George Kaufman being a frustrating exception, as vague and elusive in these pages as he so often was in real life) to the hilariously self-aggrandizing final scene where an exultant Hart, with great notices and three runaway hits suddenly to his credit, takes a cab out to his family’s squalid one-bedroom apartment at dawn, wakes everybody up, and tells them they’re all leaving for a hotel in Manhattan in an hour with nothing but the clothes on their back – none of their grimy old furniture, none of their shabby old utensils, not even a toothbrush … they’ll make a totally clean start in the City with the money he’s bringing in. I doubt Brendan Behan could have improved the business (and as you’d expect, there’s quite a lot of great theater that’s left out, including all hint of Hart’s illicit second life as a clandestine and self-loathing gay man; during his heyday in Broadway, Hart spent a great deal of money and time with an astonishingly beautiful young actor named Gordon Merrick, who would go on to pen some of the most forthright gay novels ever written – there’s a Hart character in virtually every one of them, seldom, alas, written sympathetically).

And in addition to being an accidental hymn of praise to the Broadway Cameron Makintosh destroyed, Hart’s book also manages quite often to describe perfectly some aspects of theatrical life and stagecraft that will never change. There are long passages throughout Act One that would have had Shakespeare – or Sophocles – nodding fondly in recognition:
The initial performance, the raising of a curtain on a play before its very first audience, is for me at least the worst two hours of that play’s existence, whatever its subsequent fate may be. No one really knows anything much about a play until it meets its first audience; not its directors, its actors, its producers, and least of all its author. The scenes he has counting on most strongly, his favorite bits of fine writing – the delicately balanced emotional or comedic thrusts, the witty, ironic summing up, the wry third-act curtain with its caustic stinging last line that adroitly illuminates the theme – these are the things that are most likely to go down the drain first, sometimes with an audible thud. The big scene in the second act, or the touching speech that reflects all of the author’s personal philosophy – that cherished mosaic of words on which he has secretly based his hopes for the Pulitzer Prize or at the very least the Drama Critics Award – such things the audience invariably will sit silently but politely through, patiently waiting for the reappearance of that delightful minor character, who was tossed in only to highlight the speech, or for an echo of that delicious little scene which was written only as a transition to the big one.

Hart of course did win his Pulitzer, and many awards besides – but for all us bookish folk (and even those of us who came late to books after – ironically enough – the theater), his greatest achievement will always be this heartfelt, hammy marvel of a book.

1 comment:

JC said...

This is an interesting choice -- beautifully described, of course ... did you pick it up this week at the Strand?