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By Moss Hart
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Christopher Hart
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That afternoon, I went to work at the music store as usual. It was just around the corner from where we lived, and I worked there every afternoon from three o'clock until seven, while its owner, a violin and piano teacher on the side, gave the lessons which more or less supported the store. There was apparently no great passion for music in the Bronx at that time, and the sparseness of the customers, other than Mr. Levenson's pupils themselves, allowed me to finish my homework as rapidly as possible and then pore greedily over as many copies of Theatre Magazine as the library would allow me to take out at one time.
It was, as far as I was concerned, the perfect job. There was usually even enough time, before Mr. Levenson returned at seven o'clock, for a good half-hour or so of pure, idle dreaming; a necessity as basic to a twelve-year-old boy as food and drink. I was thoroughly conscious of the fact that my own dreams of glory were quite unlike those of the other boys on the block, for the fantasies and speculations I indulged in, after I had reluctantly turned the last page of Theatre Magazine, were always of Broadway. They were fantasies because though I had been born in and had lived in New York City all of my life, I had never actually seen Broadway.
In my twelve-year-old world it was permissible to work after school; it was, in fact, rather a necessity. The four dollars I earned every week was an item that counted heavily in the shaky family budget, but the rules did not permit my going downtown alone. True, I had passed underneath Broadway many times in the subway on the way to visit relatives in the far reaches of Brooklyn, but the family had never yielded to my entreaties that we get out at Times Square and have a quick look around, and the anguish of being directly underneath my goal and yet not able to see it was well-nigh insupportable.
This afternoon, however, a kind fate was arranging a far more impressive look for me than I ever could have arranged for myself. As I entered the store, and before I could even toss my books and magazines on the counter, Mr. Levenson was speaking. Apparently he had been waiting impatiently for me to arrive.
"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 east 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."
I nodded solemnly, not wishing to put into words what I knew was going to be a barefaced lie. I had no idea, of course, of asking for my mother's consent. This was the excuse I had been longing for. I took the slip of paper he held out to me, tossed my books onto the counter, and bolted straight for the subway station, bypassing our house on the dangerous chance that my mother might be looking out the window or talking to a neighbor on the stoop.
On the journey downtown I determined to pick up the music at Schirmer's as quickly as possible and then have a long and glorious look around. I can still recall my excitement as the subway doors opened at Times Square, and I shall certainly never forget the picture that greeted me as I dashed up the stairs and stood gaping at my first sight of Broadway and 42nd Street. A swirling mob of happy, laughing people filled the streets, and others hung from the windows of nearly every building. Vendors moved among the crowd selling confetti, noisemakers and paper streamers, and policemen on horseback circled slowly and good-naturedly around the Times Building, pressing the throngs, with no great success, out of the street and onto the jammed sidewalks. Nor can I deny that my first thought was, "Of course! That's just the way I thought it would be!"
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 Evans 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 trying to push my way through that solid mass of humanity, I got into the subway again and rode glumly back to the Bronx.
* * *
I have thought it fitting to begin this book with my first glimpse of Broadway, since I have spent most of my adult working life in and about its gaudy locale, and if this opening anecdote falls too quickly into the time-honored tradition of theatrical memoirs, then let the unwary reader beware at the very outset — these annals are not for those unsentimental about the theatre or untouched by its idiocies as well as its glories.
There is no point whatever in writing or reading a book of theatrical reminiscences if either the writer or the reader is to be hampered by incredulity, an aversion to melodrama, or even the somewhat foolish glow of the incorrigibly stage-struck. Like it or not, the credulous eye and the quixotic heart are part and parcel of the theatre. The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection.
The most interesting aspect of that twelve-year-old self was not the naïveté expressed in the fantasy of what Broadway would be like, but the already strong sense of dedication in that childish figure on the subway steps.
Why? How does it occur? It is an interesting speculation, for I know of no greater race of fanatics, no more severely lost or dedicated a tribe, than the people of the theatre.
What special need masks those simple words "stage-struck"? How to explain the strength of what usually amounts to a lifelong obsession? What sets the trigger on the inner mechanism that produces actors, actresses or playwrights — what is the nature of the compelling force that marks those particular human beings and sets them apart for the rest of their lives? It is somewhat easier to understand the dedication of a scientist or a man of the church, but the grubby rewards the theatre offers, except to the privileged few, make it hard to understand the undaunted loyalty it calls forth or the passion with which it is pursued.
I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child. Like most pet theories, this one also contains the fallacy of too broad a generalization. But certainly the first retreat a child makes to alleviate his unhappiness is to contrive a world of his own, and it is but a small step out of his private world into the fantasy world of the theatre. We have all seen children create imaginary companions or even imaginary parents. The daydream of attending our own funeral and savoring the abiding satisfaction of having our contrite and conscience-stricken parents stand weeping over our coffin is so usual a fantasy of childhood as to be almost obligatory, and it disappears with the other flights and fancies of childhood. But to the deeply disturbed child caught in a situation that he cannot resolve, the first wonder of the theatre comes as a revelation and a resolution of his unconscious difficulties. Here on a brightly lit stage, before a hushed and admiring audience, are people doing the very things he has played out in his own fantasies: assuming heroic or villainous guises, bathing in the applause and love of a hitherto hostile world. Suddenly he perceives that his secret goal is attainable — to be himself and yet be somebody else, and in the very act of doing so, to be loved and admired; to stand gloriously in a spotlight undimmed by the rivalry of brothers or sisters and to be relieved of his sense of guilt by the waves of applause that roll over the footlights to those wonderful creatures on the stage. After all, is not the essence of acting the art of being somebody else? Is not the craft of the playwright the ability to make a fantasy of his own creation so true to the lives of the characters he is depicting that the audience accepts it as reality? And what is any play but the expression of its author's conscious fantasy at that particular moment. I would hazard a guess that no play idea is ever completely accidental, and I would hazard a further guess that the temperament, the tantrums and the utter childishness of theatre people in general, is neither accidental nor a necessary weapon of their profession. It has nothing to do with so-called "artistic temperament." The explanation, I think, is a far simpler one. For the most part, they are impaled in childhood like a fly in amber.
I have set down the foregoing not altogether without guile, for it allows me to come somewhat circuitously to my own childhood. Inevitably, I sheer away from the hackneyed picture of the unhappy child in poor circumstances who triumphed over difficulties and achieved success. Yet the hackneyed is sometimes relevant, for how else is one to understand the figure of the Sunday interview, or the press agent's program notes, if there is not a more conventional picture of his beginnings? Hackneyed or not, beginnings are necessary — and mine were certainly conventional enough.
I grew up in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty, with what Ruth Gordon describes as "the dark brown taste of being poor" forever in my mouth and the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose. It was not, as may be gathered, a very happy childhood and the atmosphere was not improved by the family cast of characters. I cannot remember who it was who said that a family was a dictatorship ruled over by its sickest member — he certainly could not have known my grandfather — but it was some such symbol he must have had in mind when he made the remark, for my grandfather, whom I adored, towered over my first seven years like an Everest of Victorian tyranny. He was, in many ways, quite an extraordinary man, and his effect on me in those early and crucial years was, I suppose, incalculable. I am certain I still bear the marks. He was a cigarmaker by trade, and he worked side by side on the same bench with his closest friend, Samuel Gompers. Together they hatched out the first early dream of an American Federation of Labor, and for a while it was a tossup as to who would lead the crusade, my grandfather or Samuel Gompers. The family legend is that they quarreled bitterly and their friendship ended on the somewhat comic grounds of who was to carry the briefcase in to union meetings — the one briefcase they owned between them. I am quite prepared to believe this story as not entirely apocryphal. It sounds, indeed, very much like my grandfather, and exactly the way he was likely to behave.
He most certainly behaved that way at home. His two daughters, my mother and my Aunt Kate, he looked upon as indentured servants sent to serve him by some fine beneficent natural law. I think he accepted my father's dim presence in the house with the passing annoyance of a GI watching a jungle fungus grow on his boot, and he returned my adoration of him with a deep devotion of his own. To do him strict justice, he had no easy time of it himself, and the sorry state of shabby gentility in which he lived out most of his life, though due entirely to his own truculence and innate bad temper, was not what he had been born to. He was, as a matter of fact, the black sheep of a large and quite wealthy family of English Jews, and he had apparently at a very early age alienated himself from each and every one of them, finally ending all family ties in a burst of rebellion that settled him for good and all in America.
He was a man of considerable personal charm, with an alert and inquiring mind, but since he was always superior to the life he was forced to live, it served to further sour a nature already steeped in arrogance and gall. The bitterness and disappointments of his daily life he of course took out on his immediate family, and though I never knew my grandmother (she died shortly before I was born), the tales I have heard of her life with him were hair-raising and a little terrifying.
He had married beneath him in the best tradition of the black sheep, and my grandmother could neither read nor write. His financial circumstances from the very moment of their marriage were extremely straitened, and since there was very little left over for entertainment of any kind, the great pleasure of my grandmother's life was to have my grandfather read aloud to her in the evening. Charles Dickens was at the height of his fame then as a novelist and his works were her abiding passion. My mother has told me that there were difficult times when my grandmother seemed to survive only for the evenings, and the most vivid recollection of her own early childhood was my grandfather's voice reading Dickens aloud, and later on her most terrifying memory was when he would not — and the house would be completely silent, for when he was in a rage or fit of depression he would punish my grandmother by not reading for days and sometimes weeks at a time and would sit evening after evening without uttering a word. There would be silence throughout the evening meal and complete silence afterward, for he would talk to no one and would allow no word to be spoken by his wife or daughters. He sulked until the fit was over. Worse still, he would never pick up where he had left off. Dickens was published serially in America in those days, and he would start the readings again with the latest installment, so that my grandmother was forever in the dark about large portions of David Copperfield's life and did not know until long afterwards what happened to Little Emily. Perhaps I inherited from my grandmother my abhorrence of people who sulk, for it is the one quirk or quality in people I cannot abide and do not suffer gladly.
Another tale my mother told me of this perverse and unpredictable man, was his reception of the news that my grandmother had saved, after twenty years of scrounging, enough money to take them all on a trip to England. How she managed to save any such sum out of the meager amount she was allotted to make ends meet, God knows, even though it took her twenty years to do it. How many untold small and large privations that money represented is painful to think of — daily existence must have been harsh enough in itself. But save it she did, with some involuted feminine logic that men are unable to contemplate or understand. And she brought it forth and offered it to her husband because he had been out of work for eight months and in such a state of melancholia, according to my mother, that they all feared for his reason. They needn't have. When my grandmother, at one of those silent evening meals, proposed that they break his streak of bad luck by sailing to London and that she had the money for their passage, he flew into one of his monumental rages. How dared she, he thundered, let him walk around with the seat hanging out of his pants and one frayed shirt to his name! It did her no good to protest that she had saved it for just some such crisis and that she was offering it all to him now. He sulked in terrible silence for another two weeks and then they sailed for London, all freshly and fashionably outfitted; for it was not my grandfather's way to let his rich family have the least hint that he had been anything but a complete success in his adopted country. And my mother never forgot the grand airs he gave himself or the new and unfailing courtesy to his wife and daughters, a side of his they had never before seen and which was revealed in full flower from the moment the boat docked at Southampton.
The trip was not without fateful consequences of its own. My mother and father met in London — he followed her to America a year later. And on my Aunt Kate the trip produced so profound an impression that she never recovered from it for the rest of her life. She was twenty at the time and my mother eighteen, and for both of them it was a glimpse of a kind of life they had never known or were to know again. To my poor Aunt Kate, an incurable romantic, this whiff of how the other half lived was like some fearful narcotic. From that moment onward, she behaved like a lady of fashion, disdaining work of any sort, and was supported for the rest of her days — she lived to be sixty-odd — first by my grandfather and then by my father, whom she detested and who detested her in return. It was a rather strange obsession, but one that remained unshakable, in spite of the fact that she sometimes had to read her inevitable novel by candlelight, since there wasn't always a quarter to put in the gas meter. One of the most vivid memories of my own childhood is seeing her trail into her room with her bottle of smelling salts and a book or the Sunday papers, and hearing the lock click shut. Her behavior remained unchanged, while my mother cooked, cleaned and did the washing and ironing not only for ourselves but for the boarders we took in to help pay the rent. It drove my father crazy, as well it might, for she never lifted a finger to help in any way, not so much as by drying a single dish. Yet it was she who opened up the world of the theatre to me and I loved her and am forever grateful to her. It was she, too, who was largely responsible for the powerful effect my grandfather was to have on my early years.
Excerpted from Act One by Moss Hart. Copyright © 2014 Christopher Hart. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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