Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879
Moss Hart, who also wrote plays by himself, is best known for plays written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman. He was born the son of Barnett Hart, a cigar maker, and Lillian Solomon Hart. The family was extremely poor, and Hart was forced to drop out of school after finishing the eighth grade. His first job was with a wholesale furrier, but Hart had acquired a love for the theater from his maternal aunt and dreamed of a theater-related career. He left the furrier after two years and found employment in the office of Augustus Pitou, Jr., a theatrical manager known as the King of the One-Night Stands. Hart began as office boy but eventually became Pitou’s personal secretary.
Because of his association with Pitou, Hart’s name was added to the free list at area theaters. At that time there were seventy theaters operating in New York City, with as many as eleven new plays opening simultaneously, and Hart managed to take in everything that was playing. Through this total immersion in the theater, Hart developed an ability to envision his plays as they would actually be performed. He had an instinct for the spoken as opposed to the written word, and he was able to write as if he were the director, watching the play unfold on the stage.
Hart’s first play, The Hold-up Man, was written in response to Pitou’s need for a new play. Hart, telling himself that he could write as well as some of the playwrights then producing plays, sat down and wrote the first act in a single night. The next day, he gave what he had written to Pitou, telling him that the author was Robert Arnold Conrad, a name Hart fabricated from the first names of three of his friends. Hart says in his autobiography that he intended to tell Pitou that he had written the first act as a joke, but when Pitou liked it and asked to see the second act, Hart did not have the nerve to admit that he was the author. Returning to his typewriter, he produced the second and third acts, after which he confessed. Unfazed, Pitou went ahead with production plans. The Hold-up Man opened in Rochester, New York, in 1923, and closed in Chicago shortly thereafter. Pitou lost forty-five thousand dollars on the play, and Hart lost his job.
Far from being discouraged, Hart continued to write plays—without success—while working during the summers as a social director at various Catskill resorts and as a little-theater director during the winters. Finally, in 1929, Sam H. Harris, a Broadway producer, agreed to produce Hart’s Once in a Lifetime if Hart would agree to rewrite it with the assistance of Kaufman, an established playwright who, with Marc Connelly, had written Beggar on Horseback (pr. 1924). Hart agreed, and for the next ten years he and Kaufman worked together to produce seven plays and one musical.
When their last collaboration, George Washington Slept Here, failed at the box office, Hart decided to attempt to write without a collaborator. His first play after his break with Kaufman was Lady in the Dark, a musical comedy about a woman in psychoanalysis that combined straight drama and musical fantasy. Hart used a similar combination of straight drama and fantasy in the third play he wrote after separating from Kaufman, Christopher Blake, where Hart uses daydream fantasies as a way of exposing the emotional impact of divorce on a young boy.
In the early 1940’s, Hart received a commission to write a play about the Air Force. The result was Winged Victory. Hart spent a considerable amount of time doing research, but, characteristically, the play was written in six weeks and staged in slightly more than two. Hart wrote another patriotic play, Light Up the Sky, in 1949.
Hart’s last play, The Climate of Eden, is an adaptation of Edgar Mittelholzer’s novel Shadows Move Among Them (1951). The play, which is set in British Guiana, has psychological overtones that reflect the playwright’s experience with psychiatric treatment. Hart considered this his most interesting work. He believed that it had offered him an opportunity to write a different kind of play and to explore and record his own feelings about what he called “a utopia of the heart.” Although some critics praised the play’s dialogue and characterizations, others found The Climate of Eden unnecessarily complicated. These critics suggest that Hart’s extensive excursions into psychiatric theory result in a confusing double plot that is difficult to follow. When The Climate of Eden closed after only twenty performances, Hart stopped writing plays and began work on an autobiography. Act One, which was published in 1959, covers the period from Hart’s early childhood to 1930, when Once in a Lifetime opened in New York City.
Hart’s individual contribution to the literature of the American stage is difficult to assess, not only because so much of his best work was in collaboration with George S. Kaufman but also because those plays that they produced together have completely overshadowed the ones Hart wrote alone. His contribution to comedy and farce probably cannot be overstated, however. Hart continued his association with the theater after he stopped writing by returning to directing.
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