It was a hot summer weekend more than twenty years ago when I first picked up what would become my favorite book. I was at a bed and breakfast with friends in Spring Lake, New Jersey. The house's bookshelf was filled with those kind of dented volumes you find in summer places: Reader's Digest Condensed Books, celebrity biographies, trashy romances. And one worn hardcover with a title that sounded vaguely familiar: Act One. I picked it up, started reading, and was basically out of commission for the rest of the weekend.
Act One by Moss Hart is not the best book I've ever read. But it is my favorite. Most people to whom I recommend it have never heard of it, or of its author. But on about my fifth rereading I realized why I like it so much: it's the best, funniest, and most inspiring description of the creative process ever put down on paper.
If you cared about show business in the middle of the 20th century, you certainly knew who Moss Hart was. A fantastically successful playwright and director, Hart was at the peak of his fame in 1959, having just mounted, against considerable odds, what would become one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time, My Fair Lady. That was the year he published Act One, the story of his life, or — as the title implies — the first part of his life.
Hart was born and raised poor in the Bronx (as he puts it, "in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty"), trapped in a love-starved, dysfunctional family, and desperate to escape. Salvation came at the hands of his Aunt Kate, who introduced him to the theater. Broadway became his obsession, and his memoir maps his journey from the Bronx to Forty-second Street.
The structure of Act One is ingenious. The first part describes his slow, painful, funny climb from poverty to semi-poverty: from office boy for a theatrical agent, Augustus ("King of the One Night Stands") Pitou; to failed actor and budding director; to social director of a two-bit summer camp in the Catskills. The first part of the book ends with Hart, determined to make it to the big time, sitting down on the beach at Coney Island to write his first play.
Part Two opens in 1929, four years later, in the same spot. But Hart's circumstances are thrillingly transformed: he is now the most sought-after social director on the Catskills circuit, with a personal staff of more than two dozen people and a brand-new 1,500-seat theater at his disposal. By not dwelling on the events that brought him to this surprisingly esteemed position (the future head of MGM is his assistant, and the future head of Paramount is his biggest rival), Hart can continue to portray himself as green-gilled naif for the rest of the book.
And it's the rest of the book that is the real subject of Act One: the story of how Hart's first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime came to be. Describing the solitary process of writing a play doesn't sound particularly interesting, but Hart's producer agreed to mount his first effort on the condition that he collaborate with George S. Kaufman, then Broadway's unchallenged king of comedy. The interplay of the awestruck Hart and the sardonic, aloof Kaufman transform a lonesome activity into a tremendously engaging one.
For it turns out that the art of writing a play, in Hart's description at least, is a process that will seem familar to many designers. You start with a concept (the theme), develop a design (the plot), and then implement it (the script). Like design, doing it takes some inspiration and a little bit of genius, but mainly lots and lots of hard work. And although writing a play is considered an art, unlike painting or novel writing the user feedback is brutally immediate in the form of out-of-town tryouts where the audiences leave no doubt about what's working and what's not.
And Kaufman and Hart soon learn their play isn't working. Once in a Lifetime is frantic satirical comedy about the coming of talking pictures to Hollywood; if it sounds familiar, you probably recognize the plot from the movie musical version, Singin' in the Rain. The play's preview audiences love the first half, but midway through the second act, it begins to fall flat: "There were laughs, of course, during the rest of the act but they were scattered and thinnish and sounded as though the audience were forcing themselves to laugh at things they didn't quite find funny." The third act is a disaster, the audience reaction to which Hart describes in a fit of nearly rapturous masochism:
A deadly cough or two began to echo hollowly through the auditorium — that telltake tocsin that pierces the playwright's eardrums, those sounds that penetrate his heart like carefully aimed poison darts — and after the first few tentative coughs a sudden epidemic of respiratory ailments seemed to spread through every chest in the audience as though a long-awaited signal had been given. Great clearings of the throat, prodigious nose-blowings, Gargantuan sneezes came from all parts of the theatre both upstairs and down, all of them gradually blending until the odious sound emerged as one great and constant cough that drowned out every line that was being uttered on stage.
Then begins the grueling process by which Hart and Kaufman write and rewrite the play through its previews in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. It improves, but not quite enough. "Comedies usually have to be ninety-five percent airtight — at least that's been my experience," Kaufman tells his partner a week before opening night. "You can squeak by with ninety per cent once in a while, but not with eighty-five, and according to my figures, not to keep any secrets from you, this one just inches over the seventy mark. I don't know what son-of-a-bitch set up those figures, but there you are." Disconsolate, Hart goes out for a drink with his producer, Sam Harris, as they both try to forget the surefire flop they have on their hands. At the end of the evening, the producer says, almost as a parting thought, that he wishes they weren't doing such a "noisy" play: "Just think about it. Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn't another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other. Is that right, or isn't it?" Hart is puzzled, and then electrified, for his producer has just provided him with the key for resolving the play's last act.
I stared at him silently, my mind racing back and forth over what he had said, an odd excitemenet beginning to take possession of me...Far from clutching at straws, it seemd to me that Sam Harris had in his own paradoxical fashion put his finger straight on that unfathomable fault in the third act that had defied all our efforts. The more I thought of it, the more certain I became that he was correct, though I could not define why...
I was much too stimulated now to think of going to sleep. It was a fine moonlit night and I kept walking. I tried to find my way toward the park, for the air in the streets was still stifling, but I stumbled instead upon a children's playground...I walked to a swing and sat down on it. I swung back and forth, and higher and more wildly I made the swing go, the greater impression of coolness it created. I was a little apprehensive that a policeman might happen by and wonder what a grown man was doing in a child's swing at four o'clock in the morning. I became absorbed in threading my way through the labyrinth of that third act, and with a shock of recognition I thought I saw clearly where we had gone wrong, and then, in a sudden flash of improvisation, exactly the right way to resolve it. I let the swing come to a full stop and sat there transfixed by the rightness of the idea, but a little staggered at the audacity of it, or at what it might entail.
If you're a designer — indeed, if you're in any kind of creative enterprise — I'm guessing you can identify with that grown man in the swing at four in the morning, your heart racing with the thrill of finally solving a seemingly intractable problem. Do I have to add that the last minute rewrite — the addition of one intimate moment in the midst of what had been ceaseless mayhem — saves the day? ("The quiet scene Sam Harris had asked for was playing line after line to the biggest laughs in the play. Even some of the perfectly straight lines seemed to evoke laughter, and the laughter mounted until it became one continuous roar.") Once in a Lifetime becomes a huge hit, and the young playwright's future is secured.
In Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart, Stephen Bach suggests that Hart took so many dramatic liberties in Act One that it was nearly a work of fiction. And when I finally saw Once in a Lifetime in a production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (starring no less than Lauren Graham from the Gilmore Girls), I found it anachronistic and, honestly, not as funny in the twenty-first century as it evidently was seventy years earlier.
But does it really matter? For Act One, in the end, is a parable: about childhood dreams, about the search for success, about the hard work of creativity. But more than anything else, it's about the conviction that so many of us hold that we're just one brilliant inspiration — and a few swings on a late-night playground — away from transforming our lives forever. If this is dramatic liberty, I'll take it. Isn't that what design is all about?