On this weeks episode of David and Art, a mostly forgotten name from Broadway casts a long shadow on the art world.
Last week, in its “Broadway Fridays” series of free online offerings, the Lincoln Center Theater made available a play called “Act One,” taken from the autobiography of an American playwright named Moss Hart. His name is largely forgotten these days outside of Broadway circles, but for a while, his was one of the biggest names in American culture.
Moss Hart was born in the Bronx in 1904 and grew up in poverty. His father immigrated from
England and was a cigar roller until the invention of a cigar-rolling machine made his skills worthless. Moss had to quit school in the 8th grade and get a job to help support his family. A less likely childhood from which to come a titan of the American theater is hard to imagine, but that’s part of the wonder of art itself: that it can draw forth devotees and participants from every level of society.
He was introduced to the world of the theater by his eccentric “Aunt Kate,” and immediately saw it as a path to a better life. But despite winning a role in a 1926 revival of Eugene O’Neil’s acclaimed experimental play The Emperor Jones, Hart’s acting career never took off. He was soon working as an entertainment director in unglamorous summer camps in Vermont and Pennsylvania where he staged plays and wrote and re-wrote scripts.
Writing proved to be his strength and it brought him back to the world he longed for. He wrote his first hit play, “Once in a Lifetime,” in 1930, collaborating with the already legendary George S. Kaufman, who, among other things, was known as a play doctor—one who could sniff out weaknesses in a script and come up with boffo ways of fixing them. Together the duo followed their first success with two more plays that became timeless pieces of American comedy: 1937’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1939. Hart also wrote with famous composers like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and later directed the Broadway productions of My Fair Lady, and Camelot. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1954 version of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland.
Kaufman once remarked that “nothing happens to Moss in the simple and ordinary terms in which it happens to the average person. The most normal of human experiences is crowded with drama where Moss is concerned.” It’s these normal human experiences that, when we see them played out on stage, give us important insight into our own lives and a deeper understanding of what makes us tick.
“Like it or not,” Hart said, “the credulous eye and the quixotic heart are part and parcel of the theater.” It’s probably true that we don’t need to be overly credulous these days. But for a cynical and jaded society, the openness that theater creates is well worth celebrating