The New York Times,
CURTAIN GOING UP! CURTAIN GOING UP!
Autobiography Moss Hart Relates How He Made Show Business
ACT ONE. An Autobiography. By
444 pp. New York: Random House. $5.
By S. N.
There have been very few autobiographies by playwrights.
Perhaps one reason is that it is perfectly possible to have
a successful career in the theatre without having much of
general interest to say and having brought down numberless
curtains, the playwrights retire, like their audiences, for
Another reason may be that it is possible to write
successful plays without being cozy with the English
language, and to tackle a book makes an unreasonable demand.
Eugene O'Neill had a tin ear for the sonorities of the
English language, and it did him no harm whatever in the
Somerset Maugham has said that playwrighting is a knack,
you've either got it or you haven't got it, and you can't
learn it. Henry James, who could write a book was, he added,
knackless. Flaubert said that the drama is not art but a
secret. Perhaps playwrights don't want to give away the
secret, or perhaps they don't want to reveal the fact that
they don't know it.
Moss Hart's autobiography is a striking exception to the
generalizations I have listed. His prose is lithe, clean and
easy. He is engagingly candid; when he ventures into the
emotional realms of human relations, he is moving and
poignant. He is also hilariously funny.
This is the best book on "show business" as practiced in
this country in our time that I have ever read; it is
entertaining and fascinating through all its considerable
length. Mr. Hart writes about the sober insanity of
theatrical production with the objectivity of an outsider,
and of course he can do it only because he is an insider of
the insiders. He is an accomplished virtuoso of the theatre
arts, as anyone who has seen his direction of "My Fair Lady"
must know—which means that everybody knows it.
The author grew up in the Bronx, in impoverished
circumstances, and from the beginning had a blind fixation
on the theatre as other prodigies have early obsessions to
master music, mathematics or entomology. Hart made for
Broadway and Forty-second Street as lemmings make for the
open sea, happily with more viable results.
I've never read anything funnier than the account of his
first venture as a playwright. He got a job as office boy to
a theatrical manager named Augustus Pitou Jr., who was known
as the King of the One-Night Stands. Mr. Pitou, until Mr.
Hart's advent as the King's messenger, had no interest
whatever in producing plays in New York. He had a stable of
stars including Chauncey Olcott, Fisk O'Hara, May Robson,
Elsa Ryan, Joseph Regan and Gerald Griffin. All the plays in
which these stars appeared were written by Anne Nichols. Mr.
Piton didn't really like the theatre; what he liked was
timetables. His consuming interest was in the Railway Guide,
which he studied as a curate reads the Bible. How to get a
company from Huron to Green Bay, from Fond du Lac to Eau
Claire took the cream of his thought.
As a given name Moss seemed improbable to Mr. Pitou, Mouse
much more likely; so be called him Mouse. It was Mouse who
interrupted the King's happy romance with the Railway Guide.
It came about that Miss Nichols took it into her head to
write a play for New York instead of for Green Bay. It was
called "Able's Irish Rose." She believed in it and produced
it with her own money, as she could get no one to invest in
The strenuous creative effort of writing "Able" must have
diluted the quality of her output for Mr. Pitou because a
play she wrote for one of his stars, the Irish tenor, Joseph
Regan, was so bad that it was rejected in Butte, Mont.
Desperate, Mr. Pitou asked Mouse to read scripts fast and to
turn up a substitute vehicle for Mr. Regan.
Mouse read his head off. As saints see visions and
mathematicians equations, Mouse found himself throwing the
wretched scripts aside and writing, on s sheet of white
paper, "Act One. Scene One." He sat up all night and, by
dawn, he had completed the first act of his first play, "The
Beloved Bandit" He synthesized a name from various occupants
of the tenement house in which he lived and typed on the
title page: "By Robert Arnold Conrad." He told the King that
it was the only likely script he had found. The King read it
and felt the thrill of discovery.
Something in Conrad's script ignited Mr. Pitou's latent gift
for creation. Mouse found himself taking a letter to Robert
Arnold Conrad, expressing Mr. Pitou's enthusiasm but also
his suggestions for improvement. He demanded the second act.
Mouse wrote it that night. When he brought that to Mr. Pitou
the latter experienced the thrill, not of discovery merely,
but the more poignant one of successful collaboration. He
felt that without his stimulating letter Conrad could never
have accomplished this second act.
After he had handed in the third act, Mouse was forced to
confess. Mr. Pitou took it well, merely reminding his office
boy that beginning authors did not get regular royalties.
Mr. Pitou showed the play to a very clever woman, Mrs. Henry
B. Harris, the owner of the Hudson Theatre. She shared
Pitou's enthusiasm, and they decided to produce "The
Beloved-Bandit" together. Mr. Pitou booked Rochester and
Chicago to precede the triumphal entry into New York. The
play went into rehearsal. Mouse found himself running out
getting cups of coffee and sandwiches for everybody. It
never occurred to him that this might be beneath an author's
All through rehearsals, all through the road tour, he was
eroded by one fear: that the creative spasm of Robert Arnold
Conrad might cost him his job. His fears were not
groundless. On his return from Chicago Hart found himself on
the subway to the Bronx jobless. In the window of a tobacco
shop a few blocks from his house he saw his father making
cigars. Hart was already sunk; at the sight of his father
working in the window he sank deeper. Luckily his father did
not see him.
When he got home, his mother told him that his Aunt Kate, a
beautifully realized character who meant a great deal to the
growing boy, and who shared his passion for the theatre, had
died. While he was unpacking he came upon the clean program
of "The Beloved Bandit" from the Adelphi Theatre in Chicago,
which he had saved for Aunt Kate. He tore it up and threw it
out of the window.
I have always been curious about summer camps and their
social directors. Mr. Hart spent five years at it, and he
gives you the whole run-down. As revealed by the author, it
is existence in a kind of leafy Dotheboys Hall. Mr. Hart has
the comedian's gift of being funny while he is describing
In the course of his negotiations for summer jobs, he
introduces you to a character named Mr. Axeler, proprietor
of the Half-Moon Country Club in Vermont. Axeler is straight
out of Dickens. He had charm, Hart says, and he was, above
all, benevolent. He would promise you anything as long as he
didn't have to deliver. Mr. Hart, it must be admitted, made
some unusual demands on Mr. Axeler. As his father and
brother were not working, he asked whether he might bring
them along. Mr. Axeler was delighted, he believed in
families sticking together. Mr. Hart had notions of dramatic
uplift; he wished to put on Shaw and O'Neill. Mr. Axeler's
reaction was astonishing: he leaped at the idea of doing
things other summer camps were not doing.
What won Mr. Hart over completely to Mr. Axeler was his
sartorial generosity. Mr. Hart admits to being
"clothes-crazy": he needed, as the insignia of office, white
flannel trousers and a blue sports jacket; he wanted them to
establish his authority and for their own sakes. Mr. Axeler
arranged for him to go to a haberdasher's on Eighth Avenue
and get what he needed. Hart went and indulged himself in an
orgy of buying, the first of the sprees in which he was able
to indulge himself at will later.
But there was a heavy price to pay: what happened that
summer is, to put it mildly, macabre; the Half-Moon Country
Club was a Bridge of Sighs; the experience was as unnerving
as the tour of "The Beloved Bandit," only it happened in
Vermont. Mounted on his nag, riding imperiously over the
tundra of his own domain, the phony Santa Claus, Mr. Axeler,
became transmogrified into the sobriquet invented for him by
his victims: the Mad Cossack.
After Robert Arnold Conrad had quenched his career as
theatrical office boy, Hart turned to acting. He got a job
playing in what we call now an off-Broadway revival of "The
Emperor Jones," and got good notices in The Times and in The
Morning World. He was offered and accepted a job its extra
in a production of "The Constant Nymph" directed by Basil
was a handsome and incompetent elderly character-actor on
whom Dews vented his sarcasm
Hart's empathy for people in uncomfortable situations is so
acute that he saw himself suddenly, aged 60, being harrowed
by directors like Basil Dean. Well, there he was! He would
never again be an office boy; acting was out, but his
passion for the theatre was more consuming than ever. There
was only one way out in order to get in: playwrighting.
There came a day when a script he had written aroused
interest among powerful people like Sam Harris, and Hart
actually found himself in the presence of George S. Kaufman.
It was like an untried sculptor meeting Rodin; a fledging
composer, Wagner. The juxtaposition of the raw recruit with
the seasoned campaigner, of the Bronx villager with the
metropolitan worldling presents twin masques of naiveté and
Mr. Kaufman is the acknowledged master of the mysterious art
of "play-construction." As author, director, collaborator he
has been connected with forty-two production in twenty-one
years. He is witty, astringent and powerfully defervescent.
(A distinguished collaborator burst in on him one day
shedding a rainbow spray of factitious geniality. "HELLO,
GEORGE!" he said. "After this," said Kaufman, "let's cut out
the hellos." The effect was deflationary.) Mr. Hart has done
a lovely and affectionate portrait of a man of whom it is
not easy to do a. portrait.
I don't know where you can read an account of the progress
of a play from script to stage—in this case the tremendously
successful "Once in a Lifetime" —which gives you the worm's
eye view Mr. Hart does in this book. Mr. Hart does not, as
other autobiographers are apt to do, give you a view of
himself colored by later events. He allows his naiveté to
shine forth in all its innocence. One day during their
collaboration he took a peek at Kaufman's engagement book
and was ravished and awed by the list of the people Kaufman
had engagements with. The day the rave notices for "Once in
a Lifetime" came in, Hart went to Brooklyn where he was
living with his mother and brother, called a taxi and took
them to a hotel in Manhattan. He wanted nothing in the house
and they took nothing. It is one of the swiftest migrations
in history and makes a wonderful curtain for "Act One" by
Mr. Behrman knocked on the stage door for eleven years
before gaining entrance in 1927. His many plays include "No
Time for Comedy," "Biography," and "Rain From Heaven."