The Pequod Review:
Moss Hart was one of the leading playwrights of the early 20th century, and two years before his death (in 1961, at the age of only 57) he published this superb memoir, Act One. The book details Hart's personal history, from his 1904 birth in an upper Manhattan tenement house to his (mostly) successful Broadway career. But the best sections describe more generally how he discovered his artistic passion — in Hart's case, for the theater — and used it to find a way out of his suffocating and dead-end home life. It's a thrilling story that will resonate with many adolescents and young adults, especially those looking to leave home for something bigger in life:
The mere idea, little enough in itself, of not returning home each evening and walking those four flights up the grimy stairway to our apartment, filled me with an almost unbearable sense of exhilaration and freedom such as I had never before known. It is hard to describe or to explain concisely the overwhelming and suffocating boredom that is the essence of being poor. A great deal has been written about the barren drudgery of poverty; but I do not recall that the numbing effect of its boredom has been much written or talked about. Yet boredom is the keynote of poverty -- of all its indignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with -- for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine. To be able to break out of its dark brown sameness, out of the boredom of a world without movement or change, filled me with a deep excitement.
[T]he theatre is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child... who perceives that his secret goal is attainable — to be himself and yet be somebody else, and in the very act of doing so, to be loved and admired; to stand gloriously in a spotlight undimmed by the rivalry of brothers or sisters and to be relieved of his sense of guilt by the waves of applause that roll over the footlights to those wonderful creatures on the stage.
Hart also uses the example of Once in a Lifetime (1930) to show how plays are written and produced. It's a gripping account that shows the combination of hard work, luck and persistence that lie at the heart of artistic pursuits.
And he has a great line on one of the greatest cities in the world:
It was possible in this wonderful city for that nameless little boy — for any of its millions — to have a decent chance to scale the walls and achieve what they wished. Wealth, rank or an imposing name counted for nothing. The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream. For those who did, it unlocked its gates and its treasures, not caring who they were or where they came from.
Despite its age — as well as Hart's tendency to sometimes dwell on irrelevant personal details — this remains a charming memoir of a truly engaged artist.