Act One

Moss Hart knew "the dark brown taste of being poor." And when he made his considerable fortune on Broadway he bought a country estate, planted thousands of trees and built a gaudy mansion. The place looked so baroque it prompted pundit Alexander Woollcott to remark it's "just what God would do if he had the money."

Hart published his memoir, Act One, in 1959. By then he'd written at least 20 plays - among them, with George S. Kaufman, Once in a Lifetime, You Can't Take It With You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner (currently at Coronado Playhouse), and he had directed My Fair Lady, and would soon direct Camelot.

His rise from rags to mega-bucks gives the book the feel of a fairy tale. When Kaufman read it (and the flattering compliments), he wrote, "I'm very pleased for Moss that Act One is on the best seller list. I simply feel that it should be under fiction instead of non-fiction."

The story's pure Horatio Alger, or Eliza Doolittle. But what Hart learned along the way about theater, writing, and the creative process make the book a must re-read.

Part one's the education of Moss Hart. He must leave school before the eighth grade to provide for the family. By then he has the calling - Broadway or Bust - and pays copious dues as a gofer for an out-of-town producer, as a Borscht-circuit social director, fledgling actor (who performs with the great, often greatly drunk Charles Gilpin), and director of "little" theaters.

He writes seven scripts, one per year, and becomes convinced that "talent by itself is not enough, even an authentic and first-rate talent is not enough, nor are brilliance and audacity in themselves sufficient. There remains the ability to translate that talent...into terms that fulfill the promise of a play...the full measure of its potential."

He adds that "weariness was the villain I fought and wrestled with...and three-o'clock-in-the-morning courage was what I prayed for far more than inspiration or an ingenious device to bring the second-act curtain down."

Part two follows the process of Once in a Lifetime (1930) from the page - he writes "Act One, Scene One" in pencil on a yellow legal pad - to the stage. Given the way the script flows, it's almost impossible to believe it caused so much creative grief. Part two illustrates Hart's point that "sometimes play writing only begins when when 'End of Act Three' is typed on the manuscript."

Somehow - and Hart must use the word "luck" at least 30 times in the book - the master craftsman George S. Kaufman wants to collaborate on the script. And they go to work.

One of the best parts of the book, for me, is watching Kaufman grind: "This eminently successful man labored each day quite as though our positions had been reversed and this were his first play, not mine; his great chance to make his mark on as a Broadway playwright...No moment, however small, seemed unimportant enough to escape his almost fierce attention."

The last, say, third of the book's a cliff-hanger. No matter what they do, no matter how much of Kaufman's sticky-sweet fudge Hart must consume during the endless sessions, Lifetime refuses to come clean. A Broadway opening looks in doubt.

Hart says "the vital scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as they are by the actors on stage." The same holds true for the final scenes of Act One.

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