A dramatic transformation: Act One

Moss Hart, Act One (1959)

I read Act One years ago, but was inspired to visit it again after reading Julie Andrews’s memoir Home, which includes a priceless account of her experience in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. Hart was the director, and if he hadn’t been, Andrews might never have made it to opening night. It was her first real acting job (her experience was in vaudeville, which is quite different from playing Shaw), and at first she could not get a grip on the role; her co-star Rex Harrison was in despair.

Hart dismissed the rest of the cast for a weekend and worked with Andrews until she was able to find her way into Eliza Dolittle, and the rest is theatre history. “He was very, very kind,” she said later.

In reading his autobiography, you can see why he wanted to give this talented kid a chance to shine, and why he did not give up easily — he got his own big break with a chance to work with a giant of the American theatre, and there was more than one obstacle along the way that required an imaginative leap of faith to overcome.

Act One is the story of how a boy from a poor family in the Bronx fell in love with the theatre, and how he stuck with it until he made it his profession, against very great odds. It’s a story that is colorful, funny, dramatic, and suspenseful; even though we know it ends with Hart’s first play, Once in a Lifetime, as a Broadway hit, we still feel with him through every setback, every moment of doubt and dismay.

My favorite moment in the book comes when the play has been through spring tryouts, and though the first act is a hit, the second and third are falling flat. After many all-night rewriting sessions, Hart’s co-writer, the famous and successful playwright George S. Kaufman, has finally given up and decided to go to Europe for the summer. At first Hart accepts this, but then he realizes he can’t go back on his dream. He gambles everything on one last pitch to Kaufman . . . and to find out how that turns out, you’ll have to read the book.

I hope you will, because it’s a simply wonderful story, not just for theatre lovers, but for anyone interested in human striving and endeavor, in the dreams that lift us out of mere vegetative existence and into real life. It’s a slice of history, too, a window into a vanished time and place that produced a uniquely American art.

Hart’s writing skill as a dramatist translates well into the narrative form, bringing scenes vividly before our eyes, and animating them with passion and energy. Here’s a passage where he describes how it felt when his play was finally out of his hands on opening night:

I felt unconsciously disconnected from the uproar that was taking place all around me; none of it seemed to have any connection with what had made the evening possible — with hotel rooms, a typewriter and curtains drawn against the light; with pacing up and down in the dark; with actors in bathrobes standing on a stage after a performance, the pilot light etching the exhaustion on each face under the make-up — none of this seemed to have anything to do with any of the people who had been part of all that had gone before. Those people were disappearing under my eyes, had vanished already in fact, and suddenly I knew what was vanishing along with them: that tight little cabal against the world — the conspiracy that had begun with the first day’s rehearsal and had been pledged in stale sandwiches and cold coffee in cardboard containers, the unspoken compact of long days on dim stages and dirty out-of-town dressing rooms, the common bond of the same shared hopes and fears — that sustaining conspiracy was over and the world had moved in. That old secret world removed and remote from everything but the play and ourselves had ended.

from Act One by Moss Hart

Fortunately, there’s still a way to enter into that “old secret world” — by reading Act One. It will truly transport you, and as Moss Hart was forever changed by his amazing story, you will be too.

This would be a perfect book to read for Reading the Theatre, coming in March at Entering the Enchanted Castle. Will you join us?
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2 thoughts on “A dramatic transformation: Act One

    1. I’m so glad, you can repeat at will! 🙂 I would love for more people to know about Act One, it’s just a terrific book.

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