Thursday, October 19, 2017

Act One

So the story goes like this.

When I was a junior in high school my English teacher gave us all an assignment to read a biography. The idea was that after reading the biography and becoming acquainted with the subject we would have to, in lieu of our usual book report, give a speech to the class.   For the speech, we would pretend that we were introducing the main character in the biography to a group that was attending an event where the main character would be speaking.

It was I think--now having the perspective of a teacher for 40 years--a very good assignment.  It would, one would think, force us to read a biography and understand it sufficiently to be able to "introduce" the subject of the book to the class.

I have a vague idea of how I selected the book.  I think I waited, go figure, until the last minute to find one and asked dad if he had any ideas.  It may not have happened that way, but I know I picked a book that had been in dad's bookcase for a spell.  It was called Act One an autobiography of the great playwright Moss Hart.  I did not know who Moss Hart was, but the book on the bookshelf satisfied the requirement, and maybe Dad recommended it.

I started reading it and I liked it.  It was funny in parts. Hart relayed how he had wanted to be in the Theatre from an early age and stayed focussed on that goal.  His family was poor and, maybe like all families, quirky. There was an eccentric Aunt who encouraged Hart's aspirations, a domineering grandfather, a shy brother, a dad who could barely make a living, and a mother who tried to keep the starving family together.

What happened was that the deadline for making my speech was coming up and I had only finished the first part of the book--232 pages of the 450 plus page autobiography. I figured I would not have enough time to finish the book so I started writing the speech based on what I had read.  On occasion, even as a kid, I was able to make decent presentations.  I crafted an engaging introduction and delivered the speech to the class well enough to get some genuine strokes from classmates who were no doubt more prepared but less poised when delivering a talk. I earned an A, as I recall, on my effort.

Dad asked how the talk had gone and I told him. And then I said half as a brag, that I got an A even though I had not finished the book.

Dad was not the kind of guy who would get riled up about this sort of thing usually. His attitude, more often than not, about my less than studious habits as a teen, was to wave his hand meaning a combination of "there's nothing I can do if you want to be a goof" and "I got bigger fish to fry than to worry about you."

I remember once when he and my mother came to Albany where I went to college. He saw a list of the various lectures that were scheduled on campus and said something like, "These are great. They've got famous people coming here. Do you ever go to these?" I probably looked at him as if to say, "Dad, you know me. I play basketball in the afternoons."  He made a face, but did not read me the riot act.

However, when I told him that I had not, and did not plan to, read the second part of Act One, he got uncharacteristically upset.  He said the first part was good, but the second part very very important to read.  He then said something that he never had said to me previously and never said again. He said that if I did not read the second half he was going to tell my teacher.

Well, I knew that was a bluff and being all wise and smart and knowing everything I needed to know on planet earth at 15, did not even consider reading the second half of the book.

Libraries around here, and I am sure libraries everywhere, hold annual used book sales. There is one in particular that is very popular. When I am around during the time of their sale I tend to go into this basement where they store the books and see what I can get.  I have become something close to a book worm as an adult and find reading a fun hobby as anyone who reads my blogs regularly will know.  So, I am often in that basement poking around for a good read.

On a recent visit to the book sale I spotted Act One and I was reminded of the incident with my dad, the speech assignment, and his desire for me to finish the book.  I decided that I would get it, reread the first part and then finish what I had not finished 50 plus years ago.  Just completed the book this afternoon.

I was surprised at how much I remembered from the first part.  I enjoyed it the second time around as I had the first.  I am not sure the book is really appropriate for a fifteen year old. Lots of sophisticated vocabulary that I am sure I glossed over as a kid. Also, the issues that Hart dealt with, with his family were ones that I would not have fully appreciated in my teens.

The second part, while a tougher slog, became very powerful to me. It became so not because of the story itself but because of my recollection of how important Dad thought it was for me to finish it.

 The first part concludes with Hart taking a writing pad to the beach and deciding to become a playwright. The second part, for almost all of it, is about Hart's first successful play, Once in a Lifetime. There were many times when Hart could have quit.  He thought he had a winner, but then a reader decided that Hart needed a collaborator. The collaborator, George Kaufman, was a wonderful person to work with, but was idiosyncratic enough to make a lesser person decide to pack it in.

Hart did not pack it in. The two of them rewrote the play together. Then they went to Atlantic City for a tryout. And the second and third act stunk up the place.

They rewrote Once in a Lifetime again., with Hart coming up with an idea that seemed to be a real winner. They tried the play out again--the third act stunk up the place.

At one point Kaufman said essentially he had given it all he had. Hart was about to give up, but then he decided he would not.  He just could not. His parents and kid brother were still starving; he had no money to rub together, but he decided that come hell or high water, he was going to make this work.

So, he took the subway up to Kaufman's apartment barged in while Kaufman was taking a bath and said that they had to try again. They did.

They took the play to Philadelphia and the third act stunk the place up.  Hart and Kaufman at first decided they had no choice but take the stinker to New York. Maybe there would be a miracle and the New Yorkers would love it.  But then Hart reconsidered and thought that he did not want to bet on a miracle. Again, Hart rewrote the third act.

This time it worked. They went to New York. The audience loved it.  The reviews were fantastic.

Hart went to Brooklyn where his parents and brother were living in squalor and said, "pack a bag" we are moving to New York and never looking back. It's not in the autobiography but after that first hit, Hart had success after success as a playwright and director, most famously directing My Fair Lady.

So, what Dad wanted me to do was read the book to know and to never forget that if you have a dream you should chase it and despite the storms, if you believe in your ability to pursue the dream, deal with the storm to see the rainbow.

Vocationally, if not in all areas, I have been industrious and persevering despite never having finished Act One until two hours ago.  Regardless of how valuable it could have been to me at 15,  I know why he wanted me to read the book then.  And I wish I could tell him now, that I finished it.

After all this, do I recommend Act One? Well, for the reason that my father wanted me to read it, yes, but with a few qualifiers.

The first is that it can be tough sledding. Lots of pages with no conversation. My vocabulary now at three score and nearly eight, is pretty sophisticated, but I had to keep underlining words that were new to me.

Second you might get tired of reading about playwriting and the theatre if you are not naturally interested.

The third is a big qualifier. Before I finished I read a wikipedia article about Hart as I became intrigued about him in general and his collaboration with Kaufman.  I found out something that was mildly upsetting.  In this article it said that in the autobiography he had altered the facts about his quirky Aunt, and not insignificantly.  What is problematic about this is it made me start to wonder if he had changed any other facts to make the story better.  When you read an autobiography or biography you want, like Dragnet, the facts ma'am.  And if an author plays with the truth in one part, you wonder about the truth in another part. For example when Hart gets telegrams wishing him well on opening night, some of the well-wishers, it seemed to me, would be unlikely to even know that Hart was still in show business. It made for interesting reading though to think that people from his past had sent him telegrams.  Our past does create our background, but if these people did not all send him telegrams, then it was inappropriate to write that they had in something that claims to be non fiction.

In sum, even though I cannot unequivocally recommend the book. I am so very glad, Dad, that I finished it. And thank you for knowing that the lessons in those pages are important ones for anyone on the cusp of this life's journey.

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