The New York Times, September 20, 1959


In His Autobiography Moss Hart Relates How He Made Show Business His Business

ACT ONE. An Autobiography. By Moss Hart.
444 pp. New York: Random House. $5.


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 a smoke.

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 theatre.

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 it.

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 dignity.

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 torture.

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 Dean. There
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 sophistication.

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 Moss Hart.

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."

Copyright © 2009