I approached the reading of Steven Bach's biography of playwright Moss Hart with a strange mixture of apprehension and hopefulness, as I had my own experiences with Moss Hart and his wife, Kitty Carlisle, which made me much less than enthusiastic about them on a personal level. I was one of the many who trouped up to Toronto in 1960 to figure out why Camelot, which Hart was directing, wasn't working. On that occasion, I found Hart pleasant, distant, beautifully groomed, utterly opaque, and ultimately bewildered by the soggy mess that was tragically dragging itself across the O'Keefe Center stage.
Unfortunately, Bach's book, Dazzler, confirmed my deepest suspicions about Hart. It becomes clear in this 416-page tome that Hart spent his whole public life dramatizing and reinventing himself as a public figure while desperately seeking approbation for the personal image he sought to project.
The text makes claims about his many psychical illnesses being the result of a bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, while at the same time quoting numerous friends who repeatedly refer to the self-dramatizing proclivities of Hart and of his anxiety about many private demons: his homosexuality; his limited imagination (he lacked new ideas); his poor and humble beginnings (even his attempt at autobiography, Act One, is self-dramatized); and, finally, his inability to achieve success as a writer on his own without George S. Kaufman (damningly, Hart's entry in Hartnoll's The Oxford Companion to the Theatre reads, "See Kaufman, George S.").
It must be noted, however, that Bach did not receive cooperation from the Hart family, and that many of the anecdotes in the book rely on the oral remembrances of second- and third-hand sources. Perhaps because of this,
we reach the end of Bach's long and carefully researched chronicle of Hart seeing the same surfaces the subject chose for us to see. We see a man driven to succeed in order to prove himself not only worthy of success but worthy of love and admiration as well. We don't gain any personal insight into this man who wove so much creative fiction around him, though there are surprises, such as learning that all of the brilliance, which Hart is noted for in his direction of My Fair Lady, is a direct steal from Gabriel Pascal's 1938 film production of Pygmalion.
There is little doubt that Moss Hart lived by the dictum that Anouilh's General in Waltz of the Toreadors imparted to his illegitimate son: "It doesn't matter what you're doing underneath the water, as long as it looks like you're swimming on top." We see a man of surfaces, a "dazzler" not giving off the luster of a diamond but the superficial sheen of cubic zirconium; a sad, minor player in the theater's heyday, before television's glare diminished the bright lights of Broadway. Hart's real life and story remain as he appeared to me that long ago night in Toronto: opaque.
By Steven Bach (Knopf, 416 pages, $29.95)
"There are times, I think, when Moss is not completely sure whether the curtain is up or down."
--George S. Kaufman