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Act One
An Autobiography

Moss Hart
Published by Random House/NY in 2002

ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2009


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"ACT ONE" nothing is more exciting than the first time one types those fateful words on the top of a blank sheet of paper. This is the story of Moss Hart's childhood how he arrived at that day and the tortuous path his life took on the way to success as a playwright. He dedicated this book to his wife, Kitty Carlisle, saying, "The book that she asked for." Knowing that Kitty was a New Orleans' lady, I hoped to read something about her life with Moss, but was disappointed as the book ended before he met his lifelong love. The title says it all, but I had to read this book to understand what happens in Act 1 is developed further in Act 2 and brought to a crisis in Act 3 which is resolved as the play ends. Clearly Kitty didn't arrive till sometime in Act 2 and stayed until the curtain fell on Act 3 for this great playwright when he died in 1961.

Moss Hart grew up in a poor section of the Bronx, in a family ruled over by his domineering grandfather. As Moss defined it on Page 8, his family was "a dictatorship ruled over by its sickest member".(1) For many years the closest he ever got to Broadway was riding the subway under the famous street with his family to visit relatives in Brooklyn, until one fateful day, his boss at the music store where he worked every afternoon made an unusual request of Moss.

[page 4] "Do you think," he said, while I was still in the doorway, "your mother would let you go downtown alone, just this once? I need some music for tomorrow's lessons. All you have to do is to get off the subway at Times Square, walk two blocks west to Schirmer's pick up the music, and then get on the subway again. Do you think she would let you do it? I don't want you to go without telling your mother."

Moss had no intention of asking or telling his mother. He quickly picked up the music the next day and hurried to see the street of his dreams, Broadway. He was not disappointed, at first. He saw vendors selling confetti, noisemakers, and paper streamers and horseback policemen pressing the throng back from the street to the sidewalks.

[page 5] In that first breathless look it seemed completely right somehow that the glittering Broadway of my fantasy should be as dazzling as this even in broad daylight, but what I took to be an everyday occurrence was Broadway waiting to celebrate the election of either Charles Evan Hughes or Woodrow Wilson as the next President of the United States. I had merely stumbled into a historic moment. It was the first of many disappointments inevitable to the stage-struck, and after helplessly try to push my way through that solid mass of humanity, I got into the subway again and rode glumly back to the Bronx.

This illustrates one of the events "impaled in childhood like a fly in amber" which he says leads to the "temperament, the tantrums and the utter childishness of theater people in general". (Page 7) In the science of doyletics, the events which happen to us under the age of five are impaled in us, not as a lifeless fly in amber but as a living bodily state or doyle which can be relived ever after upon arrival of an appropriate stimulus. These living doyles are the source of the tantrums and temperament of everyone, not just theater people. The noun we apply to these outbreaks, childishness, is rather appropriate because they are replicas of pre-five-year-old behavior. Childlike is behavior we like; childish is behavior we dislike, but both are living childhood events impaled in the limbic structure of our brain before five, ready to fly into action within us at a moment's notice, without our being aware of the reason or origin.(2)

Moss's Aunt Kate was the person most responsible for his love of theater, and in many ways she was the star of ACT ONE of his own life. Many years later Moss sat and watched "A Streetcar Named Desire" and was taken aback to see his long-dead Aunt Kate appearing on the stage in the persona of Blanche Du Bois. Aunt Kate possessed "a touching combination of the sane and ludicrous along with some secret splendor within herself" just as Tennessee Williams' heroine did. Moss was only seven at the death of his grandfather who supported Aunt Kate. With the loss of income from the grandfather, Moss's family continued to have Kate living with them and supporting her as well. As befits Blanche, the dire straits of the family did not deter Aunt Kate from continuing to spend her meager money going to plays.

[page 18] I can well remember the times we went to bed in the dark because there was no quarter to put in the gas meter; or even more vividly, some evening meals eaten by candlelight for the same reason, after which Aunt Kate would emerge from her room, attired in what she considered proper fashion, and be on her way to David Belasco's production of The Darling of the Gods or the equivalent hit of the moment. Incredible as it may seem, never once did she offer to forgo the theater, no matter how dire the financial crisis might be and , equally astonishing, it seems to me, was the fact that she was not expected to. In some curious way I think the answer is that we were grateful for this small patch of lunatic brightness in the unending drabness of those years. Just as she never admitted to herself the poverty in which we lived, so through her passion for the theater she made us forget it for a little while, too.

Moss Hart had two driving forces in his early life, a goad and a goal. Poverty was the goad and Broadway was the goal. I suppose my family was poor, but frankly we never thought about or talked about it, we simply lived on the money we had and squeezed as much as joy as we could from our life. Yet, being poor inculcated a way of life, a way of thinking which rears itself in me yet today. When something needs to be done around the house, no matter how small or how large, my first thought is how to do it myself using only materials already in my possession. I always feel great after a small repair in which I used some "raw material" (what others might call junk) from the garage which has sat waiting for a decade to be pressed into use. Being poor also meant that we seldom were supervised in our play, rarely had baby sitters, instead I was the baby sitter of choice from the time I was about 9 years old or so. That freedom was a boon to us that rich kids with their nannies, tutors, and other care givers lacked.

[page 26] The goad, in a nutshell, was poverty. Now, there is nothing about poverty in itself that is in any way disgraceful, and I have noticed that children of poor families do not in any way seem to feel humiliated or hampered by it. Indeed, in many ways they lead a freer and less thwarted life than the constantly supervised children of the well-to-do. Moreover, since all the other children they know are also poor, they take it for granted that this is the way the world is, and it is not until the awakening years of adolescence that an awareness comes that the world is somewhat unevenly divided between the rich and the poor.

Clearly achieving Moss's goal of Broadway success would alleviate the pressure from the goad that poverty in the Bronx provided. He said, "My feet were embedded in the Upper Bronx, but my eyes were set firmly toward Broadway." (Page 28)

The poverty of my childhood was in a small town on the Mississippi River directly across from New Orleans, Westwego. In a sense, it was the Bronx. To get to the bright lights of Canal Street and theaters and shows of the French Quarter required a long bus ride and a ferry ride across the great river. Westwego was a tough neighborhood to grow up in. There were kids who were in reform schools by 15, and some of them returned to the block I lived on. There were guys in school carrying switchblade knives and always a fight on the school grounds every week or so. Like Moss, I wasn't a tough guy and couldn't afford a switchblade even if I wanted one, which I didn't. I loved to read books. I played Little League baseball for a couple of years, but couldn't find a position on the baseball field that I felt comfortable with or was good at. Never hit a home run and couldn't dependably catch a long fly ball in right field where I was relegated to playing. I preferred poetry to pitching, fishing to football, and science to soccer. I can relate to Moss's sentiments about his own lack of toughness, and I always wished I were a strong, tough guy like those teenage thugs or football jocks in Westwego but I never cared to take the steps to make myself part of their cult of toughness.

[page 30] It is a mistake to believe that this cult of "toughness" was limited to the poor neighborhood in which we lived. It had begun to pervade other levels of American life, and I suspect that today's bland dismissal of the intellectual and the overwhelming emphasis placed on the necessity of competing and of success are due in part to the strange taboo we have set against that softness in ourselves which brings men closest to the angels. A nation of poets would be not more desirable than a nation of athletes, but I wonder if that toughness and competitiveness, which have become an ingrained part of our character as a people and a symbol of our way of life as a nation, are not a sign of weakness as well as of strength. Is our cultural life not robbed of a necessary dimension and our emotional life of an element of grace? And I wonder if the fear of a lack of toughness in our children does not sometimes rob them of an awakening awareness and sensitivity in the realm of the spirit that are each child's birthright and his weapon of rebellion against the accepted norm of his time. This lack of toughness and the inability to compete were a constant agony of my own childhood, and I lived it through as best I could.

The person who furthered Moss's goal for Broadway was his Aunt Kate who soon began taking him to plays with her every time she went. They invariably sat in the upstairs gallery, until one fateful day after Moss began earning money as an office boy for Mr. Pitou, a producer of plays.

[page 53] It was not until we reached the theater that either of us spoke, and as we walked into the lobby, Aunt Kate instinctively turned toward the steps leading up to the gallery. Without a word I took her arm and steered toward the orchestra door, and as we handed our stubs to the usher I said, "From now on we sit in the orchestra(3)." For the first time that evening she smiled; and the sight of Aunt Kate sweeping through the orchestra doors, just as I had imagined she would, was magical. In a moment everything was forgotten and forgiven by both of us in the glory of sitting "down front." Aunt Kate sailed down the aisle like a great ship coming into port and sank into her orchestra seat, with a quiet sigh of being home at long last. It mattered not a bit to either one of us that we were almost alone in the theater, for the play was one of the most notorious failures of the season and people could not be enticed into the theater even with free tickets. We sat there with vast empty spaces all around, utterly oblivious and content.

Anne Nichols had a play which seemed destined to fail and she offered Mr. Pitou a chance to buy half of it, but Mrs. Pitou, having hated the play forced him to not invest. Missed a chance at a million dollars, but since Mr. Pitou stayed in the road play business and needed new writers, Moss decided he could write a play better than the hacks Pitou was hiring. So one day, Moss sat down and wrote these words at the top of a blank sheet of paper, ACT ONE, and his life as a playwright began its tortuous journey. It was also a torturous journey, full of painful rejections and re-writes. Moss couldn't admit that as Mr. Pitou's office boy he had written the play, so he attributed the authorship to a fictitious writer, Robert Arnold Conrad. As the play began to draw interest and a backer to produce, Moss finally had to admit to his boss, alone with him in an elevator, "Mr. Pitou, I am Robert Arnold Conrad."

[page 63] The elevator doors opened and we both stepped out into the lobby. In silence we walked the length of the lobby and out into 42nd Street. Only then did Mr. Pitou give any indication that he had heard me.
      "Mouse," he said at last, "I don't know whether you know it or not, but when an author writes his first play he doesn't get the regular royalties."

Moss was so excited that he splurged and ate all the frankfurters his stomach could hold, about ten of them. The clerk warned him, "You'll be sick, buddy better knock off."

[page 64] He was right. I just managed to get back to the office and into the bathroom in time. My debut as a playwright was a portent for the future: I have been sick in the men's room every opening night of a play of mine in theaters all over the country.

When his play went on the road, Moss experienced his first time going into a room of his own. I grew up with four brothers, sleeping in a bed with three of them when I was young and later with one of them. We lived in a poverty similar to Moss's and I recall what a treat it was to be away at college and to have a room with a bed of my own for the first time. I couldn't afford a dormitory room to myself, but the library of Louisiana State University had just installed listening rooms where you could check out classical music LPs and sit in a room alone to listen to them. Often I didn't play the music and just sat studying in the silence of a room of my own.

[page 68, 69] When I settled into my room at the hotel in Rochester, I sat for a long moment on the bed drinking in a joyous sense of privacy that I had never before experienced. I would sleep alone in a room that night for the first time in my life. I did not know until that moment how starved I had been for privacy, what a precious refreshment to the spirit it is; there is no such indulgence in the realms of poverty, and only those who have lived without it can know what a prime luxury privacy is.

The events of the world all happen at the same time, as if the world were a play being directed by some off-stage director who has proclaimed that things will be running smoothly in this scene and everything will go awry in the next. Moss observed that effect in the course of getting plays produced: a good play brought smoothly running things and a bad play brought kinks and rough edges everywhere. All plays are thought to be good plays, but the rough edges were a sign of impending doom invariably. His first play, The Beloved Bandit, was the latter kind of play and the only money the Bandit took was from the pocket of the angel who invested in the play. Its opening in Chicago was a disaster, clearing the seats of the critic Ashton Stevens and the rest of the audience before the end of ACT ONE.

[page 83] Some perceptive fellow once remarked, "They find the draftiest place in town and then build a theater around it."He was right. The wind from Lake Michigan whistled up the alley as though it had been sent there expressly by Ashton Stevens to find th author, but I hardly noticed. Now that the worst had happened, I could think only of just how and when the blow I most feared would fall.

Moss returned home, having lost his job as playwright, as office boy, and when he got home found out that he had lost his best friend, Aunt Kate. Incredibly his next job was in acting, playing an old man, just as Dustin Hoffman did early in his career when he played a 121-year-old Indian in "Little Big Man."

[page 101] The blacked-out teeth, the rusty gray stubble, the heavy dissipated drooping eyelids, the thin-lipped sneer that curled and aged the mouth into something evil and craven were decidedly right. I understood for the first time why it was more or less classic for young actors to start out in the theater by playing old men, and I perceived how completely make-up depersonalizes the actor. I was so delighted with the effect I had produced that I sailed through the dress rehearsal absolutely nerveless, nor can I truthfully record the traditional case of stage fright the following evening when the play opened.

Moss soon decided that acting was not for him, and switched to writing plays instead, but he learned a lot in his short time as an actor.

[page 104] But it seemed to me then, and it still does, that acting is more of a fortunate quirk of the personality than it is anything else. Certainly, education, technical training and the finest of Stanislavskian theories have yet to produce the same effect as an actor walking out on the stage with a curious chemistry of his own that fastens every eye in the audience upon him and fades the other actors into the scenery.

Such chemistry is innate and "as J. M. Barrie has said, like charm in a woman: 'If you have it, you don't need to have anything else; and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have." (Page 105)

Lucky Eddie stepped out of the elevator door one day and into Moss Hart's life. It seems to me that chance is how karma is revealed to us, but never understood at the time it appears, and Moss's karma appeared to him as Edward Chodorov that day. A few weeks later he was helping Eddie direct plays for a summer theater.

[page 114] The elevators doors opened and a young man stepped out into the lobby. His name was Edward Chodorov, and let no one say that luck does not play a large part in the fashioning of any career. There is not the faintest hint of the mystic in my nature, but I have seen the large role that coincidence and chance play in all of our lives too clearly demonstrated to reject as mere superstition that portion of our destiny or fate called luck. It is as inexplicable as fate itself is inexorable.

Moss became Sancho Panza to Eddie's Don Quixote and followed him to the windmills at breakneck speed. Soon Moss was casting a play and directing actors. He makes a point about an actor being like a horse which brings to mind a great line from the 2008 movie, "Easy Virtue", in which the heroine, an early female auto racer, expressed her disdain for horses via automotive metaphor, "They have unreliable steering and undependable brakes."

[page 121] In some measure an actor is rather like a thoroughbred horse he knows at once if the rider is afraid of him, and immediately he senses this, he take the bit in his teeth and the rider is never really in control of him again.

Like a jockey on a thoroughbred or a captain at the helm of a ship, a director must get control early of the cast of a play and never let go, no matter what. Right or wrong, he is still the captain and must never second-guess himself or show indecisiveness in front of his crew.

[page 121] To gain control of a cast, to get control early and to keep this control in an iron grip, is essential to a director facing a new company for the first time. There will be times even whole days, perhaps when a director, if he is a good one, will not always know what he is doing or if what he is doing is actually right for the actors or the play. He must proceed to do it, nevertheless, with certainty and surety and never relax his control for a moment the more uncertain he feels, the more sure-footed he must appear. He can always change everything he has done at the next rehearsal, but on the day that he is floundering and insecure himself, he must never allow the actors to know it. All is lost if he does.

Any writer knows from experience that when a piece of writing is finished, it will seem trite and uninteresting or so good it requires no further attention if one reads it immediately after one finishes writing it. For myself, I must put it aside a day or two. I must wait long enough so that, when I do read it, it's as if I were reading someone else's work and I can appreciate it where it's good and correct it where it's not. If I don't wait long enough for it to gestate, whatever I read seems good, and my reading is a waste of my time. When my writing switched from the dead tree route to the live pixel route on the Internet, I no longer had galley proofs to pore over and I needed to find a way to handle that. Soon I discovered that once I published my work to the Internet and anyone, anywhere in the world, could be reading it, I suddenly felt the juices flowing through me as I re-read my work, and small glitches jumped off the monitor screen at me and screamed to be fixed immediately before someone in Bangladesh reads it! Moss describes the process for him.

[page 165] I finished the play in mid-February on a note of triumph and with exultant admiration for my own rare gifts as a playwright. But I made myself keep, not without some difficulty, my promise to put the manuscript away for a week and not look at it. Somewhere or other I had picked up the information that veteran playwrights always let a play cool off, so to speak, before they read it through again for a cold, unemotional appraisal. this had struck me as a wonderfully professional custom, and since I considered myself a professional now though an unproduced Bronx one, to be sure I was pathetically eager to use every professional trick that came to my attention.

Being a playwright is unlike any other profession. Whether one is a surgeon, a lawyer, a plumber, the problems may be different but the skills they require are basically the same, making incisions, applying the law, replacing a faucet. Moss explains about his profession:

[page 167] The problems of one play are not the problems of another, and the very mistakes that have been avoided in the previous play bear no relationship to mistakes that must be sidestepped in this present one. Unlike the surgeon who knows exactly where he must make the incision and tie off the blood vessels, or the lawyer who has legal precedents on which to base his case, the playwright confronts in each new play an operation that has never been performed before, or a brief that is being written for the time in the history of legal annals.
      With each new play the playwright is a Columbus sailing uncharted seas, with the unhappy knowledge that those unfriendly Indian tribes the critics and the public will be lining the shores at the end of the voyage waiting to scalp him, even if he survives the mutiny.

Moss met George Kaufman who agreed to work on his play with him. They made a curious couple and Moss admired him a lot, especially the way he used indifference as a weapon. I learned this process myself from Harry Boyd who has incorporated his way of expressing it into Boyd's Law, "You only have leverage in a situation when you want something less than the other person." Boyd discovered this process by doing therapy. He exercised leverage by disdaining any suggestion by his clients that he wanted them to get better. If he wanted it, they made sure he didn't get what he wanted. Until they wanted change more than he did, it wouldn't happen. I learned that doing therapy is like engaging in a tug-of-war: if you dropped your end of the rope, the client had to stop fighting you and that was the first step to deep and pervasive change. Reading Moss talk about Kaufman's indifference helped me to realize that indifference is the key to leverage one must be sincerely indifferent about an outcome to maintain leverage in a situation.

[page 287] Indifference can be a wonderful weapon whether it is used as ammunition in a warfare between lovers or as a mask of timidity and shyness, for behind that mask of disdain and unconcern lay the diffident and modest man whom it never entered my mind to be afraid of.

Moss Hart learned to love collaborating with George Kaufman and wrote about the loneliness of being a writer. For myself, being alone is never loneliness, but rather an alive solitude, and one that I love.

[page 305, 306] There can be no mystery, however, about the fact that collaboration is an infinitely more pleasurable way of working than alone. Most human beings fear loneliness, and writing is the loneliest of the professions. Writers agonize a great deal about the loneliness of their craft, and though the wailing is apt to be a little deafening at times, they are telling the truth. The hardest part of writing by far is the seeming exclusion from all humankind while work is under way, for the writer at work cannot be gregarious. If he is not alone, if he is with so much as one other person, he is not at work, and it is this feeling of being cut off from his fellows that drives most writers to invent the most elaborate and ingenious excuses to put work aside and escape back into the world again.

George Kaufman hated hearing any plaudits about himself, and even though Moss had been forewarned, he couldn't leave a work session at George's apartment without thanking or praising him. George would only raise a finger as a gesture of farewell and head to the bathroom and turn the water on so he couldn't hear Moss's babbling. Trying to rush Moss through a lunch one day, George said, "If you take larger bites, we could finish the third act in a week."

[page 308] He was right to the exact day. A week later he typed "The curtain falls on Act Three" and quickly dashed into the bathroom to escape what he correctly surmised would be a few grandiloquent words from me to set the occasion more firmly in his mind. This time, evidently suspecting a whopper, he turned not only the washbasin taps on full, but the bathtub faucets as well, and began to take off this shirt and tie. He smiled and lifted one finger in farewell, knowing it was impossible even for me to make a speech to a man who was stripping down to get into a tub.

It was the night of his play. Moss admits that he rarely hears people laugh at his plays, he is always listening ahead to the next line or the next scene when laughter may not come. Another reason is the exercise routine he follows during a play when laughter does occurs as he describes in this passage about his first collaboration with George Kaufman who always paces back and forth at the back of auditorium, never looking at the stage, only the floor, and listening intently, something Moss learned to emulate, trying to avoid George, an ominous figure like Frankenstein roaming back and forth in the dark past him.

[page 329] Aline MacMahon made her entrance and a second or so later, with her third line, the entire audience broke into a roar of laughter. It marked the first time I had ever heard an audience laugh at something I had written.
      I stopped dead in my tracks as though someone had struck me hard across the mouth, and the Lobster Newburg resting fitfully in my stomach took a fearful heave and turn. I was near the stairway fortunately, and I raced down to the men's room, making it only just in time, and there I remained for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. I could hear applause and knew that the first scene had ended, and could tell by the other kind of applause that Blanche Ring had made her entrance in the second scene, but I dared not go upstairs. Each time I tried to leave I got only as far as the bottom of the stairway, and then returned to be sick again.
      Finally, in the middle of the second scene, I could bear it no longer. The audience was laughing almost continuously now and it was intolerable not to be able to drink it all in. I raced up the stairs and for a few seconds stood gaping at the stage, grinning foolishly and then breaking into delighted laughter myself as the audience laughed.
      I might have stayed that way for the rest of the act, or indeed the whole show, but for the figure that loomed up suddenly beside me and interrupted his pacing just long enough to remark thinly, "There were plenty of places where they didn't laugh while you were doing whatever the hell you were doing." He made a grenadier-turn and was off like a whippet to the opposite side of the theater. Thoroughly ashamed o myself, I resumed my own pacing; and we passed and repassed each other without a word until the curtain fell on the end of the first act.

With that we let the curtain fall on ACT ONE. Our stomach contents are still intact, we have not had to run downstairs to the men's room, we have stayed to enjoy the laughs which Moss Hart provided for us, sprinkled liberally among the "brown poverty" of his early life and the lugubrious summer theater catastrophes in the Catskills. We yearn now for ACT TWO, but alas there will be none, or at least not one to be written out in script for us. It was a solitary performance which Moss and Kitty enjoyed together in the privacy of their lives, a privacy which Moss so earnestly worked toward and so richly deserved.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. In psychotherapy the concept of "identified patient" illuminates how the sickest member(s) of the household may maneuver the attention to some other member, i.e., the "identified patient", the person who is identified as being "sick" but is really only sick by attribution. In Gena Rowlands' 1974 movie "A Woman Under the Influence" it is readily apparent when she returns to family setting that she is immediately identified as being crazy, and goes quickly from cured and sane to insane under the influence of her crazy family members.

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Footnote 2. For those interested in the origin of certain childish behaviors, there is a simple method available to trace and erase them called the Speed Trace. Follow this link for instructions:

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Footnote 3. The word orchestra was coined by the ancient Romans for the closest seats to the stage, reserved for the patricians and politicians of Rome. Only later was it used in modern times to refer to the band of musicians who occupied that position adjacent to the stage.

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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