Swans Commentary » swans.com January 15, 2007  



Jared Brown's Moss Hart: A Prince Of The Theatre


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Brown, Jared: Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre, Backstage Books, ISBN 0-8230-7890-6, 452 pages


(Swans - January 15, 2007)   At the heart of Jared Brown's mesmerizing biography of Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre lies the mystery of his subject's unshakeable and destabilizing depressions which, with extraordinary self-restraint, Hart managed to keep under control while executing all his professional duties. Chris Hart believes that his father suffered from what is now called bipolar disorder -- what was once described simply as "manic depression." "I noticed the sort of wild upswings," says Hart's son, "when he was being effusive and buying stuff and redecorating the different houses." In fact, Hart was a maniacal re-decorator, a helpless shopper constantly acquiring new clothes, not because he needed them, but because it obviously relieved some irrepressible compulsion to acquire "things" that temporarily soothed the anguish.

Moss Hart was born into dire poverty and, as an adolescent, was obliged to work in a series of menial jobs (furrier's assistant, garment district worker, office boy) to support his entire family. He was essentially the breadwinner and took his familial responsibility very seriously. After the Broadway success of "Once Upon a Lifetime," all of that changed dramatically and, to mark the change, Hart announced to his family on the day the reviews appeared, they were all moving out of their Brooklyn slum and into Manhattan. "And we're not taking anything with us," he declared, "not even a toothbrush, a bathrobe, pajamas or nightgown. We're walking out of here and starting fresh." He packed the entire family into a taxi and installed them in the Edison Hotel on 47th Street. The "new life" of both Hart and his family started on that fateful night.

Is it any wonder that, as he matured into a highly successful playwright and director, he would be haunted by a niggling sense of unworthiness; a suspicion that no matter how splendid his material acquisitions, they represented only ill-gotten gain; something that, in an unshakeable sense, he was not entitled to? "Life with Moss," said his wife Kitty Carlisle, "was like living on a high mountain range, jumping from peak to peak. The depths were always below; they were Moss's depressions. I never knew what would trigger them."

In 1959, after a highly successful launch of his autobiography Act One, his wife asked him how he could be so miserable when the success of his book was so resounding. "He felt," according to Carlisle, "that each success had been sleight of hand, dust in the eyes of the audience and the critics, and he'd gotten away with it again. You strive for success, hoping it will change your life and change you. Then you achieve it; but you wake up the next morning to discover that nothing is changed. You're the same old fellow you were before." Or, to be more psychologically accurate, the same poverty stricken and questing youth that Hart was before he magically "hit it big."

It seems clear to me that the bulk of Hart's success both as a playwright and a director stemmed from the fact that he plied his art in an almost therapeutic way, as a means of eliminating the desperate, threadbare kid he was right up to 1930 when his first Broadway success transformed his status but never for a moment shifted the deeply submerged iceberg of his low self esteem. That is, perhaps, the most fascinating aspect of the man; that, in his own eyes, his work was a failed attempt to escape the lowly person he persisted in believing he was -- even in the face of dazzling, tangible proofs to the contrary.

Brown doesn't delve too deeply into the cause of Hart's depressions and, in general, is more concerned with marshalling facts than providing analyses, which is a shame as the paradoxes and contradictions of Hart's life cry out for explication. One is given a very thorough agenda of Hart's professional life which seems to skirt the private agendas that pulsate beneath.

In his Preface, Jared Brown appears to have a high estimation of the American theatre between 1920 and l960. He salutes the outstanding playwrights Eugene O'Neill, Elmer Rice, S.N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, Lillian Hellman, Marc Connelley, Maxwell Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and of course, Moss Hart, without acknowledging that, with the exception of O'Neill, Miller, Williams, and possibly Wilder, it is a very down-market Hall of Fame indeed; and that a distinction needs to be drawn between great dramatists such as Shaw, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Synge, O'Casey, Genet, Beckett, and effective craftsmen and playmakers like virtually everyone else on Brown's roster.

A well-made piece of commercial theatre such as the three or four successful plays of Kaufman and Hart are not to be sneezed at. It takes a very special kind of genius to produce a Broadway success and for a short while -- during an exceptional decade -- Kaufman and Hart had it in spades, but there is a considerable difference in latitude and longitude between commercially successful ephemeral art and those durable works whose resonance do not fade with the end of the season. It would be difficult to reanimate the work of most of the names in Brown's Pantheon. Behrman, Sherwood, Hellman, Connelley, Anderson, Rice, and even a number of O'Neill's plays that retain only a kind of archival significance; of interest to the historian and the drama student but not to the public, and for the very good reason that most of them are mummified in their period. To be fair to Hart, his most durable work as a playwright belongs to the mid-1930s when he was in tandem with George S. Kaufman, but even here, we must strike off "Merrily We Roll Along," "George Washington Slept Here," and "The Fabulous Invalid" as well as the failures acknowledged by Brown himself such as "Christopher Blake," "The Climate of Eden," and "The American Way." "Light Up The Sky," it seems to me, is a marginal case as is "Lady In The Dark," both of which, in the hands of imaginative directors, are capable of reincarnation.

What is never in dispute are Hart's directorial achievements and, in many ways, these are more impressive than anything he ever wrote. The pinnacles were obviously "My Fair Lady," "Lady In The Dark," and, in a roundabout way, the re-treaded and patched-up mise-en-scene for "Camelot." But what is clear is that as a young man having begun as an entertainment director at summer camps and then being mentored by the brilliant veteran George S. Kaufman, Hart instinctively assimilated the chemistry of stage direction and his temperament, working methods, and professional dedication were so attuned to the needs of his material that he truly became a master of the craft.

Collaboration with Kaufman was both a boon and a burden. Everyone believed the senior writer was responsible for the best of what was shown, and the fumbled moments were inevitably attributed to his junior sidekick. The most magnanimous thing Kaufman may have ever done in his lifetime was when he stepped forward on the glittering first night of "Once Upon A Time" and in a one-line curtain speech told the audience of critics and first-nighters: "I would like this audience to know that eighty per cent of this play is Moss Hart."

One suspects that eighty percent of all their collaborations were attributable to the junior partner for one notes that in Kaufman's earlier collaborations with Marc Connelly, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, Ring Lardner, later with Howard Teichmann, no play had the éclat and longevity as those engineered with Hart. It is also curious that Kaufman, like Hart in his earliest work, felt the need to be umbilically linked to a "partner" -- as if each man was missing some essential biological better half that was needed to make up a whole. When one considers that Kaufman was responsible for staging memorable Broadway hits such as "The Front Page," "Of Thee I Sing," "Of Mice and Men," "My Sister Eileen," and "Guys and Dolls," a case could be made that his greatest achievements, like Hart's, were more as a director than a playwright.

Jared Brown has ground up his research into an enthralling study of Moss Hart's life and sundry careers as playwright, director, bon vivant, clothes horse, patriot and neurotic. It is a biography rippling with facts, anecdotes, quotations, and enlightening minutiae. Some of it recaps what Hart himself provided in Act One, one of the best-written theatrical memoirs ever published. His was a dizzying rise to the very heights of American stardom, which, apart from theatrical accomplishments, included screenplays for outstanding films such as "Gentleman's Agreement," "A Star is Born," and "The Man Who Came To Dinner." My only quibble is that Brown seems to feel the need to justify 452 pages on his subject and so sprinkles commendatory letters and blurbs throughout the book to confirm Hart's stature. Of course, what that tends to do among critical readers is to make them suspect he is overcompensating for the fear that maybe Hart is not really as great as his hagiographer cracks him up to be. And, in one sense, he isn't.

Hart's genius was, through trial and error, fastidiously concocting a formula for commercial success (no mean feat) but his obsessions were restricted to the world in which he moved, and that was Show Business. Actors, playwrights, directors, agents, show-people litter works like "Once Upon A Time," "The Man Who Came To Dinner," "Light Up The Sky," "The Fabulous Invalid," even to a lesser extent "You Can't Take It With You." Hart, starting at a very early age and continuing throughout his life, was enamored with the glitz and glitter of Broadway; the heady conquests and sullen defeats that characterize Show Business. During World War II, his outlook was somewhat broadened as he mingled with ordinary servicemen in creating "Winged Victory," a piece of wartime propaganda for members of the US Air Force, and after the war he became actively involved with the Dramatists Guild and several social and political organizations, but his macrocosm was always Show Business, and no matter how enchanting that is, it is a very small segment of the real world. By not transcending the tug of his natural habitat -- theatre and film -- Hart closed down areas of creativity that might have widened him both as a playwright and director. Had he gravitated to these other planes, he might have gained a deeper perspective and a sharper sense of what life beyond the theatre was all about. Would it have made him a better playwright? Who can say? It might have deprived us of some of the sparkling comedies that are the richest part of his legacy, or it might have ripened his talent and made him capable of more pertinent, more resourceful work. But I suspect that is like asking Feydeau to be Genet or Neil Simon to metamorphose into Arthur Miller. Shouldn't we simply be grateful for the sprightliness and diversion we have been granted and count our blessings?

Perhaps, but I feel Hart himself never did.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio). This review was first published in the November 2006 issue of the American Book Review.



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Published January 15, 2007