Thursday, April 11, 2013
Two memoirs by playwrights worth reading
Act One by Moss Hart
How does a memoir differ from a biography? The memoir zeroes in on one episode or segment of the writer's life. This month I read intriguing memoirs of two playwrights—Moss Hart and Lillian Hellman. We will look into Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time next week. This week we will take a look at Moss Hart's story up to the point of his first successful play on Broadway. The struggle that preceded that success makes for dramatic telling.
The Apprenticeship of Moss Hart
When I read Moss Hart's memoir I envisioned someone like Richard Dreyfus in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz — a smallish young Jewish man of limitless moxie. The young man's struggle to reach the world of Broadway and the theater was rewarded. The goad was poverty:
Hart was born in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx. His dreams of glory were quite unlike those of the other boys on the block — his childhood goal was to be an actor. His crazy Aunt Kate, an incurable romantic something like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, instilled in him a passion for the theater. At age thirteen he regaled the boys on his block with the story of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. Even at that age he could dramatize a story and hold an audience. He never dreamed he would write the words for actors to speak on stage. At school Moss was a lonely and alien figure. He never got to graduate from public school — he went to work the summer he reached eighth grade and never returned to school.
When Hart was almost seventeen he got a job in a theatrical office, thanks to a stroke of lucky timing, at Augustus Pitou Theatrical Enterprises, who booked vaudeville actors on tours around the county. "This first active attachment to the theater . . . had the effect on me of that first stiff drink on a reformed alcoholic." As a Broadway office boy he wangled free access to countless Broadway plays, and he went to the flops as well as the hits. From the flops he learned a few things about how not to write plays that served him later: "those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes . . ."
An actor he met while working for Gus Pitou, Ed Chodorov, got Moss into a gig directing an amateur acting club at the Labor Temple. For their second round of plays, Moss chose Ibsen's play Ghost— way beyond their amateur skills. The lead actor gave up, Moss was forced to play the lead. It didn't go well. But he resolved to stay with his theater ambitions. "Once more I decided no—there would be no turning back, whatever happened."
The same man who hired him to direct plays at the Labor Temple, William Perlman, also hired him and Ed Chodorov to serve as social directors at a summer camp for adults. At the end of that first summer, Moss resolved that, if he was ever to remain in the theater, the only way would be for him to write plays. His stage presence just did not hold enough promise to weather the withering criticism he had once witnessed an English theater director named Basil Dean dole out to an actor.
The Sands of Brighton Beach
For six years Moss spent the summers working as a social director at camps and each winter he wrote a new play— some while sitting on the sand of Brighton Beach. Hart says now that his first attempt at writing a play was too filled with clichés and "time-warn devices". "I had simply set down what I knew best, and stuck to it. The play had verity; what it lacked was the breath of life and imagination—two necessary ingredients for what is usually called creative writing."
At age 18 or 19 Moss Hart directed a little theater group at the YMCA in Newark, wanting to do everything to broaden and improve his theater craft.
The family moved to Brighton Beach when Hart was 20. The first six plays were dramas, influenced by Eugene O'Neill, and were turned down by Broadway producers. The last rejection letter suggested he try writing a comedy. So for the seventh play, Hart allowed that, for once in his life, he would try writing a comedy.
The play was a farce describing a Hollywood production in the very first years of the talking picture. Moss called the play "Once in a Lifetime".
Moss hung out in a Manhattan restaurant called Rudleys with a coterie of others on the fringes trying to make it on Broadway — among them Dore Schary and a young Archie Leach. His gang were usually full of advice on how Moss should approach trying to get his play produced.
Producer Sam Harris, who liked Moss's play but saw that it needed work, introduced Moss to George S. Kaufman. We get more than a glimpse of the hot summer days spent revising the play, Moss subsisting on candy bars during the day at Kaufman's house because Kaufman didn't eat much, didn't think to offer Moss anything to eat, and Moss had a voracious appetite but almost no money.
He meets Alexander Woollcott at an afternoon party at George's house. Woollcott a theater critic whose column is published in the New Yorker magazine and several newspapers. Hart had read Woollcott’s reviews in the New York World traveling on the subway to his first job as a teenager. Moss spots Woollcott reading a mystery story and breaks the ice by telling the famous critic "You'll like this book." Woollcott answers quite rudely "How would you know?" This encounter rankles Hart and gives rise a few years later to the Moss Hart play "The Man who Came to Dinner".
In Moss’s current play Kaufman cast himself in the role of a Broadway playwright hired to help restore some sanity to the production—a role he performed brilliantly.
Birthing pains in an out-of-town preview
The third act of the play just wasn't working. We see George pacing the theater hallway nervously during the show. More revisions were required. Producer Sam Harris tells Moss “This is a very noisy play.” This observation sets Moss on the road to revising the third act to include some calm, serene conversation. With these changes in place, the Philadelphia audience responded favorably.
Final success in Manhattan — the show opens 1930 at the Music Box Theater and does spectacularly well. First time Moss or his parents had any money. The Music Box — Moss's younger brother nicknames it the cash box.