Where's the book?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

#22 a theatrical biography

I've often read that Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One, is one of the best, if not the best story of a life in the theater. As I theater lover/geek I thought it was high time to read it.

To tell you the truth (I always do), I wasn't exactly sure who Moss Hart was. I'd heard the name, but I had him mixed up with Lorenz Hart, as in Rodgers and Hart, as in composer and lyricist of Pal Joey and On Your Toes and a bunch of other renowned musicals. Silly me. Moss was one of the theater's most famous writers (with his partner, the legendary George S. Kaufman, You Can't Take it With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner) and directors (My Fair Lady, Camelot), as well as being a Hollywood screenwriter (the Judy Garland A Star is Born, Gentleman's Agreement). But the book is not about his great success, it's about the struggle that led up to it.

It starts with his childhood, spent in poverty in the Bronx and Brooklyn, in his family of immigrant Jews--although not the immigrant Jews we're used to--these came from Britain, hence the odd family name, "Moss." This poverty wasn't charming, or warm, or funny. It was debasing, grinding, and grim. They took in boarders, his father struggled to find work, and Moss dropped out of school at 14 to try to add a few pennies to the family coffers, working a horrific job in a fur vault for two years. He paints the family portraits beautifully, including his younger brother, his beaten-down parents, his overbearing grandfather, and his aunt Kate, a theater-lover who kindles his interest in and devotion to the stage.

Hart pursued his dream of success in the theater with single-minded devotion, through jobs as an office boy, years at Catskill summer "camps" entertaining the guests and mounting plays, to directing tiny theater companies in Jersey, to his first disastrous play, and then, finally, to his first success (after an incredibly long period of revising, reworking, opening out of town, and reworking some more), Once in a Lifetime, written with Kauffman. Kauffman also acted in and directed the play, and is one of the fascinating characters that Moss brings brilliantly to life.

It's at that point that the poverty finally ends, and the day after the play's successful opening night Hart celebrates by insisting that his entire family pack one bag (total!) and walk out of their grim Brooklyn apartment, get in a cab, and move to a hotel in Manhattan, leaving everything, every stick of worn furniture, every piece of outdated and mended clothing, even their toothbrushes, behind.

It's also at that point that the book ends, unfortunately, and Hart was working on Act Two when he died, way too young, at the age of 57 in December of 1961.

One of the things about the book that most interested me was something I discovered while reading about it. One of the most indelible characters in the story was Hart's Aunt Kate. She lived with the family and, despite their extremely miserable poverty, never worked. Not only didn't she have a job, she didn't do anything in the home to help out. Somehow the family members accepted this as an inevitability, which Hart doesn't really explain. But after years of Aunt Kate swanning around the house like a Rockefeller forced to live with savages, Hart's father, a quiet, self-abasing man, loses his temper over some books she has given away and kicks her out. It's years before Moss is able to find her again. She is the mistress of linens at a home for girls, where she lives, and one the most moving scenes in the book is of Moss taking his aunt, already dying of cancer, to the theater and escorting her to a seat in the orchestra--a pleasure she has never before been able to indulge. She dies shortly thereafter, before Hart's first big hit.

It's very sad, and also completely untrue. Aunt Kate survived for many years after Hart's first success, gradually descending into mental illness. She vandalized his home, wrote threatening letters, and even set fires backstage during rehearsals for one of his plays.

He writes in the book that one of the reasons he became a writer is to make life into better, happier, more entertaining stories. I guess that included his own.

No comments:

Post a Comment