Reading about theatre

Besides going to theatre and talking about it afterwards as we drive home, Bob and I like to read about theatre and this blog provides an opportunity for me to report on some of the books that have given me insight into the lives of those engaged in theatre as well as the history of theatre. One of the books I found particularly valuable was Original Story By  by Arthur Laurents;

This is a fascinating book giving rise to much thinking about our history as a culture and about how things have changed. This is a memoir of Broadway and Hollywood since Laurents was both a playwright and a screen writer. His name originally was Arthur Levine. Being Jewish is one of his problems, being homosexual at a time when it was condemned was another. He does seem to have had an incredibly active sex life. Fortunately, AIDS was not a problem at the time but one of the characteristics of these autobiographies of theatrical folk, particularly by men, is a full account of all their sexual adventures. Laurents did also have affairs with women such as Nora Kaye, who was a dear friend as well as a lover. He tried to cure his homosexuality by going into psychoanalysis with Theodore  Reik who sounds like the fraud that he was. He had a fairly long affair with Farley Granger . The only other man that he lived with for many years was Tom Hatcher who became his life-long companion.

It was interesting to catch glimpses of people that I knew such as Mike Gordon and Ralph Alswang in this chronicle. It is fairly chronological in its telling although there is some jumping around as he records different aspects of his relationship with people like Jerome Robbins. Laurents’ problem with the House Unamerican Committee came about because of a casual remark by Russell Crouse. Laurents was never a communist although he knew some and was left leaning. The Communists did not approve of homosexuality. He makes the observation that people were not evil because they informed. They informed because they were evil. Their nature was to be self-serving and ambitious. He provides detailed accounts of West Side Story and Gypsy. He really liked the performances by Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly better because they could act which Merman couldn’t. One of his great directorial successes was Les Cage aux Folles.

The book concludes when he is 81 and in good health. He died at age 93. He was directing into his nineties much like the famed George Abbott. One gets a sense of the changing Hollywood and New York scene, particularly since his play Jolson Sings Again  opened regionally and not on Broadway. We catch glimpses of Katherine Hepburn who seems not very nice, Anatole Litvak, George Cukor, David Merrick and others . Laurents brief discussion of celebrity is interesting and is well demonstrated in the actions of the various people in this book. This leads one to want to read more biographies and autobiographies. I don’t feel that this summary does justice to the complexity of the book and the questions it leads to in terms of our culture and of the role of theatre. One great moment is when he talks about the most wonderful sound in theatre and that is silence when the audience is so raptly attentive that not a sound is heard. Actors like that first laugh but all theatre people know the quality of this sound of silence. There is such a difference between the playwright and the screen writer. One of Laurents’ functions at MGM was to refuse to work on scripts. When he discusses Rope  and Alfred Hitchcock, he makes the observation that James Stewart probably didn’t know that his character was gay.

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