From 1930 to 1960 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, a couple of "unacknowledged legislators" on the truly supreme courts of Broadway and Hollywood put a spin on the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" that still helps to define America for many people for whom "Kaufman and Hart" is only a vague memory. The archetypal moment occurs when the Marx Brothers leap fully formed from Kaufman's head. That the only true freedom is the sublime irresponsibility of those who never grow up is an idea open to endless variations. Watching Hart explore them in the works he's best remembered for is one of the many delights of Steven Bach's enthralling biography Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart.
The most obvious enchantment is the cast of characters. As writer, director and producer Hart was into everything. Apart from his work with Kaufman he wrote revues and book musicals with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart (the other one), Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, not to mention Igor Stravinsky. He wrote Judy Garland the screenplay (A Star is Born) that might have saved her career if anything could and he made stars out of Danny Kaye and Julie Andrews, whom, on her own testimony, he taught "how to be Eliza [Dolittle]." And like almost everyone else in the book, he spent innumerable hours on the couches of the two fabulous celebrity psychoanalysts of the period, Gregory Zilboorg (whose flamboyant moustache was widely known as "the lunatic fringe"), and Lawrence Kubie, who may have hastened George Gershwin's death from a brain tumour by convincing him that his headaches were psychosomatic, but who also nursed Hart through a lifelong manic-depression and had a role in moving him from bisexual episodes to a fulfilling marriage with Kitty Carlisle that provided him with whatever serenity there was in his life as well as two children.
So many¨and there are many more¨big names might have made Dazzler a mere book of lists. But Bach, a man of the theatre, humane observer, indefatigable researcher and master of the revealing anecdote and the sentence with a sting in its tail, makes all these people fresh, surprising and more often than not, morally ambiguous.
One of them was Algonquin Roundtable, a wit, critic, pundit and all-round curmudgeon, Alexander Woollcott, whom Kaufman and Hart turned into "the man who came to dinner." At the age of ten, Bach tells us, little Alexander, pondering on what he wanted to be when he grew up decided on the (spectacularly achieved) career of "A Fabbulous Monster." It's hard to think of a neater phrase for the crowd Bach puts on stage for us. And he would have been speaking for most of them if he'd added that Woollcott never wanted to grow up.
Anyone who isn't even just a little ready to worship these unpredictable, uninhibited pagan gods and eternal children or can't see a one-liner as a foretaste of paradise and the best example we have of "art for art's sake," probably shouldn't bother with this book. For the rest of us the procession of "improbable" characters¨the adjective Kaufman chose when challenged to define Woollcott in one word¨is enough to make it essential reading.
But Bach gives more. His story is structured by a paradox that makes Hart's life a deeper (pardon the pretension) comedy than any that he or Kaufman quite managed to write. The comic theme of Hart's life, if not his works, is that responsible sanity and irresponsible lunacy have to come together to produce great art or a great life. And they can only come together when sanity is in charge and playing politics every second to keep it all together.
The Kaufman-Hart plays are as light-hearted, carefree and as utterly enjoyable as they are because sanity isn't allowed to take charge. They let us believe for a couple of hours in the beautiful fantasy that the light-hearted, carefree people, the ones who never grew up, don't need the help of anyone else to survive, certainly not the world of business and politics. It's one of our most amiable comic shticks. The so-called crazy are really sane; and vice versa in spades. Grandpa Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You, the play that won Kaufman and Hart a Pulitzer in 1936, is the irresistible spokesman for all the Peter Pans in the world. Almost forty years before we meet him, he'd left his business behind because it wasn't fun. Money is somehow there but Grandpa hasn't paid taxes for eight years because the lucky man has managed to get himself declared dead.
The play is often called dated. But it's darker undertones are all too up-to-date. Its undercurrent of disappointment with the possibilities of business and democracy is an ominous foretaste of the desertion of the institutions of liberalism all around us today. Grandpa Vanderhof is willing to leave the running of the world to the people who like to run the world. It's none of his business. As for elections: "Got all worked up about whether Cleveland or Blaine was going to be elected¨seemed awful important at the time, but who cares now."
Grandpa doesn't just believe that the right not to participate is a great freedom. He thinks it's probably the only freedom left. The spirit is the same as in Kaufman's total send-up of politics in the books he wrote for the Gershwins' Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing (another Pulitzer winner) and Let 'Em Eat Cake. Good box office, especially in the midst of the depression? Sure. And it's also true that Hart didn't believe a word of it, especially when it came to campaigning for Roosevelt. But that didn't mean it was nothing but exploitative hypocrisy. Hart had at least one poignantly human reason to pay tribute to this fantasy life¨his Aunt Kate.
Hart's loving understanding of the joys of lunacy is something he came by early in life. In his Aunt Kate young Moss first saw the beauty as well as the danger of never growing up. Her escape from the family's poverty was into the fantasy offered by the cheap seats of the local theatre and she took Moss with her. One of the most striking things Bach's book makes possible for us is to compare Hart's real story with his telling of it in his autobiography Act One. Mostly Hart excises family members and early collaborators for no worse motive than to make his early struggles seem more lonely and his eventual triumph more inspiring to young readers starting out in the theatre. No doubt he also wanted to tell his life as an objective correlative of the inward isolation that burdened him through much of his life. There are a number of unfortunate results, including the disappearance of the substantial Jewish milieu in which he grew up. But none of Hart's rewritings¨detailed by Bach¨are as revealing as, from what Bach's book now tells us, his treatment of Aunt Kate.
Moss wants to give this innocent fantasist whom he loved so much the same sweet fate he gives all the sweet fantasists in his most famous plays. So he does the same thing to her he does to Grandpa Vanderhof: he declares her dead at a nice moment in her life some ten years before the real and harrowing death that you can read all about in Bach.
In life, though, if not in his best-known writings, Hart knew that the lovely lunatics could release their energies creatively only if someone sane, responsible and astute in both the economic and political practicalities of the theatre, and who also happened to love the crazies, was there to guide them towards great art. And most of Hart's life was a difficult but surprisingly successful struggle to control his own chaos and become that kind of a person. What that finally led to was the living out of the greatest comedy of his life, perverse, as full of surreal twists and turns as any of his plays and an ultimate triumph of civilized beauty torn out of anarchy¨the directing of (and substantial role in creating) My Fair Lady.
A writer concerned with telling the story of "the bad and the beautiful" couldn't have arranged a more stunning climax. Bach's 20-page account of the making of Hart's last big hit is as terrific a climax as Hart's 200-page climax in Act One about the making of his first one.
Maybe better. Bach painstakingly traces the most fully realized, most elegant and touching of operettas all the way back to a film-making genius, Gabriel Pascal, who nonchalantly peed in the street whenever he felt like it. Later we meet a true monster named Rex Harrison whose jibes at Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway make Alexander Woollcott look like gallantry itself. And in the middle of it all Moss gives Andrews the private rehearsals that will help her stand up to the big star and be every bit as big. It's a wonderful moment. Hart is at once, though kinder and gentler than either of them, both Henry Higgins teaching Eliza how to speak and also a reprise of Warner Baxter twenty years before in 42nd Street telling Ruby Keeler, "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star." As ever, Hart is a mature genius staging the story of a genius who never grew up.
The story would not of course be true to show-biz if the climactic My Fair Lady hadn't been followed up by a disastrous epilogue called Camelot, the fabulous invalid that was being wheeled on stage at the new O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, while its two main doctors, Alan Jay Lerner and Hart were being wheeled into Wellesley Hospital. Soon after Moss Hart was dead at 57.
Steven Bach has gives us a charming, loveable and immensely creative man of the theatre, making me long to get a look at more revivals, especially the reviews he wrote with the songwriters of the Golden Age. We can't we live without a certain amount of graceful, "who cares?" frivolity in the theatre. That spirit is not second-rate even though when you leave the theatre you can't take it with you. ˛