Drama: An Actor's Educationby John Lithgow
In this riveting personal history, John Lithgow shares a backstage view of the life and career that took place before he became a nationally known star. Above all, Lithgow’s memoir is a tribute to his father, Arthur, who brought theater to John’s boyhood. From bedtime stories to Arthur’s illustrious productions, performance and storytelling were… See more details below
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In this riveting personal history, John Lithgow shares a backstage view of the life and career that took place before he became a nationally known star. Above all, Lithgow’s memoir is a tribute to his father, Arthur, who brought theater to John’s boyhood. From bedtime stories to Arthur’s illustrious productions, performance and storytelling were cherished parts of family life. Drama tells of the Lithgows’ countless moves between Arthur’s gigs and details a young actor’s introduction to the undeniable power of theater.
As Lithgow relives his storied career, he cuts to the heart of why actors are driven to perform, and why people are driven to watch them do it. But he also chronicles the harrowing moments of his past, reflecting on mistakes large and small and the love of a father who set him on the road to a life onstage. Funny, affecting, and thoroughly engrossing, Drama pulls back the curtain on the making of one of our most beloved actors.
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DramaAn Actor's Education
By John Lithgow
HarperCollinsCopyright © 2011 John Lithgow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA CURIOUS LIFE
The first time I acted was before I even remember. At age
two, I was a street urchin in a mythical Asian kingdom in a
stage version of "The Emperor's New Clothes." It was 1947,
and the show was performed in a Victorian Gothic opera house,
long since demolished, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. A black and white
photograph from that production shows me at the edge of a crowd
of brightly costumed grown-up actors. Standing nearby is my sister
Robin. She is four, two years older than I, and also a street urchin.
We are both dressed in little kimonos with pointy straw hats, and
someone has drawn dark diagonal eyebrows above our eyes,
rendering us vaguely Japanese. I am clearly oblivious, a faun in the
headlights. I stand knee-high next to a large man in a white shift
and a pillbox hat who appears to have a role not much bigger than
mine. He reaches down to hold my hand. He is clearly in charge
of me, lest I wander off into the wings. There is very little in the
photograph to suggest that, at age two, I have a future in the theater.
But I do. Later that season, in the same old opera house, I was
already back onstage. I played one of Nora's children in A Doll's
House by Henrik Ibsen. I don't remember this performance either
(and there's no photographic record of it), but Robin was there once
again, playing another of Nora's children and steering me around
the stage as if I were an obedient pet. In that production, the role
of Torvald, Nora's tyrannical husband and the father of those two
children, was played by that same fellow in the white shift from The
Emperor's New Clothes. In a case of art imitating life, my onstage
father was my actual father. His name was Arthur Lithgow.
Thus it was that my curious life in entertainment was launched,
before I was even conscious of it, on the same stage as my father. So
it is with my father that I will begin.
Arthur Lithgow had curious beginnings, too. He was born in the
Dominican Republic, where, generations before, a clan of Scottish
Lithgows had emigrated to seek their fortunes as sugar-growing
landowners. I'm not sure whether these early Lithgows prospered,
but they enthusiastically intermarried with the Dominican population.
One recent day, as I was walking down a Manhattan sidewalk,
a chocolate brown Dominican cabdriver screeched to a stop, leaped
out, and greeted me as his distant cousin.
Young Arthur got off to a bumpy start. Evidently, his father (my
grandfather) was a bad businessman. He was naive, overly trusting,
and cursed with catastrophic bad luck. He and a partner teamed up
on a far-fetched scheme to patent and peddle synthetic molasses.
The partner absconded with their entire investment. My grandfather
sued his erstwhile friend, lost the suit, and moved his family
north to Boston, to start all over. At this point, his bad luck asserted
itself. He fell victim to the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, died within
weeks, and left my grandmother a widowpenniless, a mother of
four, and pregnant. Arthur was the third-oldest of her children. He
was four years old. Growing up, he barely remembered even having
But the situation for this forlorn family was far from hopeless. My
grandmother, Ina B. Lithgow, was a trained nurse. She was smart,
resourceful, and just as hard-nosed as my grandfather had been soft
headed. He had left her with a large clapboard house in Melrose,
Massachusetts, and she immediately set about putting it to good
use. She flung open its doors and turned it into an old folks' home.
All four of her children were recruited to slave away as a grudging
staff of peewee caregivers, in the hours before and after school. The
oldest of these children was ten, the youngest was three. Child
labor laws clearly did not apply when the survival of the family was
At some point in all this, Ina came to term. She gave birth to
a baby daughter who only lived a matter of days. Swallowing her
grief, and regaining her strength, she went right back to work.
To my father, Ina must have been downright scary as she fought
to keep her household afloat. But fifty years later, when I was a
child, little of the fierce, formidable pragmatist was left. She had
mellowed into my gentle and adorable "Grammy." Comfortable
in that role, she was witty and mischievous, and entertained her
grandchildren with long bedtime recitations of epic poems she had
learned as a girl"The Wreck of the Hesperus," "The Skeleton in
Armor," "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere." Only recently did it
occur to me that, fifty years before, in the midst of all that hardship,
she must have bestowed the same storytelling riches on her own
I picture my father eight years old, bleary-eyed and dressed for
bed in hand-me-down pajamas. It is an evening in 1922. He is with
his two older sisters and his younger brother, huddling around their
mother on a worn sofa in the darkened living room of their Melrose
home. He is a pale, thin boy with reddish-brown hair. He is quiet,
bookish, and a little melancholy, miscast in the role of "man of the
house," which fell to him when his father died. Tonight's poem is
"The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I
picture young Arthur listening with a kind of eager hunger, marking
the meter, savoring the suspense, and devouring all those exotic
new words. He is only a child, but I suspect he already knows, he
can feel in his bones, that storytelling will define his later life.
And so it did. Growing into adolescence, Arthur commandeered
a little room on the top floor of the Melrose house and immersed
himself in books. Ghostly storytellers had found their most attentive
listener: Rudyard Kipling, Washington Irving, Robert Louis
Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott. And as he worked his way through all
these timeworn treasures, he made a life-changing discovery. As
an older man, my father described the moment when he "caught a
fever": he came across the plays of William Shakespeare. Reading
from a single hefty volume of the Complete Works, the teenage boy
proceeded to methodically plow through the entire vast canon.
A few years later, such literary passions sent Arthur westward to
Ohio, to Antioch College, in Yellow Springs. There his love of
storytelling evolved into a love of theater. At Antioch, he poured his
energies into student productions. Cast as Hamlet in his senior year,
he caught the eye of an infatuated freshman, a Baptist minister's
daughter from Rochester, New York, named Sarah Price. When
Arthur graduated, he headed straight to New York City, where he
joined the legions of aspiring young actors scrabbling for work in
the depths of the Depression. Within months of his arrival, he was
astonished to find Sarah Price on his doorstep, having dropped out
of Antioch to follow him east. With no reasonable notion of what
else to do, he married her. It was a marriage that was to last sixty-
four years, until his death in 2004.
By the time my conscious memory kicks in, it was the late 1940s
and the couple were back in Yellow Springs. In the intervening
years, Arthur had turned his back on New York theater; he had
taught at Vermont's Putney School; he had worked in wartime
industry in Rochester; and he had completed basic training in the
U.S. Army. Just as he was about to be shipped out to the South
Pacific, I was born. Arthur was now the father of three children.
According to army policy, this made him eligible for immediate
discharge. He seized the opportunity and rushed home to Rochester.
The next stop for the burgeoning young family was Ithaca, New
York, where the G.I. Bill paid for Arthur's master's degree in
play writing at Cornell. A year later, he was working as a junior faculty
member in English and drama at his Alma mater, Antioch College.
He was also producing plays for the Antioch Area Theatre in the
old Yellow Springs Opera House. Among those plays were A Doll's
House and The Emperor's New Clothes. A year after that, when I was
approaching four years old, I start to remember.
The Lithgow family lived in Yellow Springs for ten years. When
we moved away, I had just finished sixth grade. Those ten years
would prove to be the longest stretch in one place of my entire
childhood. I've only been back to Yellow Springs twice for fleeting
visits, and the last visit was almost thirty years ago. Even so, it is the
closest thing I have to a hometown.
In the first show of mine that I actually remember, I had a lousy
part. I was the Chief Cook of the Castle in a third-grade school
production of The Sleeping Beauty. It took place in broad daylight
on a terrace outside The Antioch School. This was the lab school of
Antioch College, where I was receiving a progressive, fun, and not
very good education.
As the Chief Cook, my entire role consisted of chasing my
assistant onto the stage with a rolling pin, then dropping to the
ground and falling asleep for a hundred years at the moment Sleeping
Beauty pricks her finger. I must have known what a bad part
it was, but perhaps because of that I took particular care with my
costume. I persuaded my father to make me a chef 's hat befitting
the Chief Cook of the Castle. With surprising ingenuity, he folded a
large piece of poster board into a tall cylinder, then fashioned a puffy
crown at the top with white crepe paper. The hat was almost as tall
as I was. I was delighted.
"Now we'll just cut it down to half this height and it'll be
perfect," my father said.
"Oh, no, Dad!" I said. "Leave it!"
"But you'll run onstage and it'll fall off your head," he reasoned.
"No, it won't!" I insisted. "This is the hat of the Chief Cook of
the Castle! It's got to be very tall! Leave it!"
The next day, I carried the lordly hat into my classroom. My
schoolmates were awestruck.
"It's beautiful!" said Mrs. Parker. "But shouldn't we cut it down
to half this height? You'll run onstage and it will fall off your head."
"No, it won't!" I exclaimed. "This is the hat of the Chief Cook
of the Castle! The most important cook in the entire kingdom! It's
got to be very, very tall!"
My vehement arguments prevailed. The performance was that
afternoon. When my cue came, I ran onstage and my hat immediately
fell off my head. After the show, I chose not to answer the eight
or ten people who asked, "Why did they give you such a tall hat?"
This was perhaps the first instance of the extravagant excess for
which I would one day become so well known. But considering
what my father was up to at the time, such grandiosity is hardly
My father was producing Shakespeare on an epic scale. In the
summer of 1951, in league with two of his faculty colleagues, he
launched "Shakespeare Under the Stars," otherwise known as the
Antioch Shakespeare Festival. It was to last until 1957. The plays
that had sparked the imagination of that lonely boy in an attic room
in Melrose, Massachusetts, came to life on a platform stage beneath
the twin spires of the stately Main Hall of Antioch College. In every
one of those summers, my father's company of avid young actors,
many of them freshly minted graduates of Pittsburgh's Carnegie
Tech, would achieve the impossible. Each season they would open
seven Shakespeare plays in the course of nine weeks, rehearsing in
the day and performing at night. Once all seven had opened, the
company would perform them in rotating repertory, a different play
every night of the week, for the final month of the summer. In 1951,
the company began with a season of Shakespeare's history plays. By
1957, they had performed all of the others as well, thirty-eight in
all, many of them twice over. My father directed several of them
and acted in several more, with an exuberant flamboyance that
banished forever his boyhood shyness.
Were the shows any good? In those days I thought they were
magnificent. To my young eyes these were the greatest stage actors
in the country, my father was the finest director, and Shakespeare
couldn't possibly be performed any better. As the years passed, I
began to doubt my childhood impressions. How good could the
productions have been with such hasty rehearsals, such threadbare
costumes, and such an untested troupe? A twenty-six year old King
Lear? A professor's wife as Olivia? Grad students sprinkled among
all the minor parts? Though I never lost my sense of awe at the
magnitude of my father's achievement, a certain skepticism crept in
when I grew to be a theater professional myself.
Excerpted from Drama by John Lithgow Copyright © 2011 by John Lithgow. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
John Lithgow is an award-winning actor who has starred on stage and in film and television. A New York Times bestselling author of eight books for children, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.
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