Michael Bierut | Essays

My Favorite Book is Not About Design (or Is It?)

It was a hot summer weekend more than twenty years ago when I first picked up what would become my favorite book. I was at a bed and breakfast with friends in Spring Lake, New Jersey. The house's bookshelf was filled with those kind of dented volumes you find in summer places: Reader's Digest Condensed Books, celebrity biographies, trashy romances. And one worn hardcover with a title that sounded vaguely familiar: Act One. I picked it up, started reading, and was basically out of commission for the rest of the weekend.

Act One by Moss Hart is not the best book I've ever read. But it is my favorite. Most people to whom I recommend it have never heard of it, or of its author. But on about my fifth rereading I realized why I like it so much: it's the best, funniest, and most inspiring description of the creative process ever put down on paper.

If you cared about show business in the middle of the 20th century, you certainly knew who Moss Hart was. A fantastically successful playwright and director, Hart was at the peak of his fame in 1959, having just mounted, against considerable odds, what would become one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time, My Fair Lady. That was the year he published Act One, the story of his life, or — as the title implies — the first part of his life.

Hart was born and raised poor in the Bronx (as he puts it, "in an atmosphere of unrelieved poverty"), trapped in a love-starved, dysfunctional family, and desperate to escape. Salvation came at the hands of his Aunt Kate, who introduced him to the theater. Broadway became his obsession, and his memoir maps his journey from the Bronx to Forty-second Street.

The structure of Act One is ingenious. The first part describes his slow, painful, funny climb from poverty to semi-poverty: from office boy for a theatrical agent, Augustus ("King of the One Night Stands") Pitou; to failed actor and budding director; to social director of a two-bit summer camp in the Catskills. The first part of the book ends with Hart, determined to make it to the big time, sitting down on the beach at Coney Island to write his first play.

Part Two opens in 1929, four years later, in the same spot. But Hart's circumstances are thrillingly transformed: he is now the most sought-after social director on the Catskills circuit, with a personal staff of more than two dozen people and a brand-new 1,500-seat theater at his disposal. By not dwelling on the events that brought him to this surprisingly esteemed position (the future head of MGM is his assistant, and the future head of Paramount is his biggest rival), Hart can continue to portray himself as green-gilled naif for the rest of the book.

And it's the rest of the book that is the real subject of Act One: the story of how Hart's first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime came to be. Describing the solitary process of writing a play doesn't sound particularly interesting, but Hart's producer agreed to mount his first effort on the condition that he collaborate with George S. Kaufman, then Broadway's unchallenged king of comedy. The interplay of the awestruck Hart and the sardonic, aloof Kaufman transform a lonesome activity into a tremendously engaging one.

For it turns out that the art of writing a play, in Hart's description at least, is a process that will seem familar to many designers. You start with a concept (the theme), develop a design (the plot), and then implement it (the script). Like design, doing it takes some inspiration and a little bit of genius, but mainly lots and lots of hard work. And although writing a play is considered an art, unlike painting or novel writing the user feedback is brutally immediate in the form of out-of-town tryouts where the audiences leave no doubt about what's working and what's not.

And Kaufman and Hart soon learn their play isn't working. Once in a Lifetime is frantic satirical comedy about the coming of talking pictures to Hollywood; if it sounds familiar, you probably recognize the plot from the movie musical version, Singin' in the Rain. The play's preview audiences love the first half, but midway through the second act, it begins to fall flat: "There were laughs, of course, during the rest of the act but they were scattered and thinnish and sounded as though the audience were forcing themselves to laugh at things they didn't quite find funny." The third act is a disaster, the audience reaction to which Hart describes in a fit of nearly rapturous masochism:

A deadly cough or two began to echo hollowly through the auditorium — that telltake tocsin that pierces the playwright's eardrums, those sounds that penetrate his heart like carefully aimed poison darts — and after the first few tentative coughs a sudden epidemic of respiratory ailments seemed to spread through every chest in the audience as though a long-awaited signal had been given. Great clearings of the throat, prodigious nose-blowings, Gargantuan sneezes came from all parts of the theatre both upstairs and down, all of them gradually blending until the odious sound emerged as one great and constant cough that drowned out every line that was being uttered on stage.

Then begins the grueling process by which Hart and Kaufman write and rewrite the play through its previews in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. It improves, but not quite enough. "Comedies usually have to be ninety-five percent airtight — at least that's been my experience," Kaufman tells his partner a week before opening night. "You can squeak by with ninety per cent once in a while, but not with eighty-five, and according to my figures, not to keep any secrets from you, this one just inches over the seventy mark. I don't know what son-of-a-bitch set up those figures, but there you are." Disconsolate, Hart goes out for a drink with his producer, Sam Harris, as they both try to forget the surefire flop they have on their hands. At the end of the evening, the producer says, almost as a parting thought, that he wishes they weren't doing such a "noisy" play: "Just think about it. Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn't another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other. Is that right, or isn't it?" Hart is puzzled, and then electrified, for his producer has just provided him with the key for resolving the play's last act.

I stared at him silently, my mind racing back and forth over what he had said, an odd excitemenet beginning to take possession of me...Far from clutching at straws, it seemd to me that Sam Harris had in his own paradoxical fashion put his finger straight on that unfathomable fault in the third act that had defied all our efforts. The more I thought of it, the more certain I became that he was correct, though I could not define why...

I was much too stimulated now to think of going to sleep. It was a fine moonlit night and I kept walking. I tried to find my way toward the park, for the air in the streets was still stifling, but I stumbled instead upon a children's playground...I walked to a swing and sat down on it. I swung back and forth, and higher and more wildly I made the swing go, the greater impression of coolness it created. I was a little apprehensive that a policeman might happen by and wonder what a grown man was doing in a child's swing at four o'clock in the morning. I became absorbed in threading my way through the labyrinth of that third act, and with a shock of recognition I thought I saw clearly where we had gone wrong, and then, in a sudden flash of improvisation, exactly the right way to resolve it. I let the swing come to a full stop and sat there transfixed by the rightness of the idea, but a little staggered at the audacity of it, or at what it might entail.

If you're a designer — indeed, if you're in any kind of creative enterprise — I'm guessing you can identify with that grown man in the swing at four in the morning, your heart racing with the thrill of finally solving a seemingly intractable problem. Do I have to add that the last minute rewrite — the addition of one intimate moment in the midst of what had been ceaseless mayhem — saves the day? ("The quiet scene Sam Harris had asked for was playing line after line to the biggest laughs in the play. Even some of the perfectly straight lines seemed to evoke laughter, and the laughter mounted until it became one continuous roar.") Once in a Lifetime becomes a huge hit, and the young playwright's future is secured.

In Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart, Stephen Bach suggests that Hart took so many dramatic liberties in Act One that it was nearly a work of fiction. And when I finally saw Once in a Lifetime in a production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (starring no less than Lauren Graham from the Gilmore Girls), I found it anachronistic and, honestly, not as funny in the twenty-first century as it evidently was seventy years earlier.

But does it really matter? For Act One, in the end, is a parable: about childhood dreams, about the search for success, about the hard work of creativity. But more than anything else, it's about the conviction that so many of us hold that we're just one brilliant inspiration — and a few swings on a late-night playground — away from transforming our lives forever. If this is dramatic liberty, I'll take it. Isn't that what design is all about?

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [13]

Your ending comments are wonderful.

There's an undeniably expectant sense of hope in design. And I love that.

Sure, but... isn't what all artistic activity is about?...

Valupi is right that most any artistic activity is inherently optimistic, but the process of design — like playwriting — predicates so much of its success on the reaction of the audience. That combination of hopefulness and risk is what makes what we do so exciting.
Michael Bierut

Speaking of favorite books, I was just given a book that is a collection of great pages from U&lc magazine. It is undoubtably about design and it's amazing! I can't believe I'd never heard about it before. Makes me wonder what else I could be missing out on. For people who don't know, by the way, this book chronicles the phenomenal and seminal U&lc magazine of the early 70's through late 90's and every designer or artist should be familiar with it.
Alan Halberstein

The combination of hopefulness and the potential risk of losing an audience is what design is about, but it is also what all commercial creative pursuits are about. Further, the idea of hopefulness and risk is also the key combination for many passionate ventures such as medicine (doctors choosing a specific path of care for a patient), politics (a person running for office choosing a specific side of an issue to stand on), or mountain climber (risking death to summit a peak). The one constant is that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.

In regards to Stephen Bach's comment, Hart was an actor, a playwright, and a director, of course he's going to tweak his book in places to create a more dramatic story, he can't help it. There's a fine line between the painstaking accuracy of historical documentation and the dramatic liberties sometimes taken in works of non-fiction...with an autobiography being even one step further away. To write a bird's eye perspective detail of ones experience is impossible. We simply cannot see ourselves that clearly because our emotions and blinding proximity to ourselves cloud our view. The value of an autobiography versus a biography is that we as readers get to sit in the driver's seat, emotions and all, living the experience as the author did rather than viewing it from afar. All creative pursuits take some form of dramatic liberties and that's what makes them so much fun.
Kristin Ellison

Kirstin, there is a very charming passage at the very end of the book where Hart thinks about how he will tell someone the story using exactly the kind of dramatic hightening that you describe. In a way he is confessing to what he's been doing all along. Again, not that different from what we designers can't help doing, despite our commitment to "authenticity."
Michael Bierut

Michael, your note makes me think of the everyday action of telling friends stories - especially funny ones. We all use hand gestures, colorful vocabulary, and slight exaggeration, even if it's along the lines of "There were a million people in line at the bank." to make the story more entertaining and pull the listener into the moment. These unconscious tactics however do not make it fiction, quite the opposite really. To tell a story flat would only make it feel less real or wooden. We as a socienty subconsciously know what to edit out in our minds, I mean for god's sake, just watch the weather people in New England - they should get a Oscar annually for their work at "STORM CENTRAL!"
Kristin Ellison

Have you seen today's issue of Inc magazine? It has a great article The Design of Innovation at http://www.inc.com/articles/2005/06/vogelqa.html

Thank you, Michael.

I was in dialogue with your last paragraph - particularly in relation with the notion that design is, ultimately, about liberty. Although a lyrical definition, or just because, it is too much latu sensu. Of course, no problem with that, it was a very nice ending.

Another point of reflection concerns de language of design, which is a non-verbal one. Being a graphic abstraction, it cannot be compared with other artistic forms of expression based on verbal contents, like playwriting. The audience will respond to verbal language immediately, thus permitting an accurate evaluation of its impact. The same in not true about design, since design is always just an element in a mix of other communicational elements - and it requires some kind of sophisticated artistic learning to separate the waters.

Design is also different from music, which gives an immediate feedback from the listener. But differently from music, design has a much more rational path until it reaches the intimate garden of desire. All these distinctions make the creative processes differ.

And, yes: Kristin, above, says it all in the first sentence.

Michael... Always the insightful of multiple layers. What a wonderful example of parallelisms of creativity. The endless ways we all proceed, yet we still stem from a basic core... Passion. Maybe that's why we are our own worse critic.
Unlike the art of drama where the response is immediate, the reactions of design is long term and sometimes un-measurable. Yet here we are, always striving to pursue our need to create. It is very exciting!

Personal Note: Missed you at the Reunion. It was good and interesting. Congratulations on ALL your achievements! It's obvious you do have an abundance of passion. Well done. Very well done.
Jesse A Guardado

Beautiful. Just beautiful. I wish I could say more.

Woody Allen wrote an article for the New York Times about George S. Kaufman. Here's an excerpt:

Hooked by the jokes, I read and reread "You Can't Take It With You," and its delightful cartoon lunacy never left my system. Its influence is painfully obvious in my first hapless attempt at theater, "Don't Drink the Water," which I labored over endlessly. Kaufman and Hart, on the other hand, took just a few weeks in 1936 to write their Pulitzer Prize-winning bauble, and one can see why, given the comic richness of the idea (and Kaufman's grasp of technique, which was formidable). I was relieved as a young writer to learn that "The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1939), another splendid comedy of theirs, in which the basic premise is delightful but less plot- and more character-driven, took months of hard labor before the two playwrights could contrive a sustaining story line.

Enchanted, as I got older I resolved that I would one day try to write comedies for the theater, and George S. Kaufman became an immediate role model. In retrospect it would seem it could as readily have been Moss Hart, who actually receives top billing on "You Can't Take It With You." (Kaufman made it a rule that whoever came up with the original idea would be first billed.) That it was Kaufman I glommed onto was probably because he was a more visible presence. It was his name that invariably appeared not just on Hart's work but on many another gifted comic playwright's sparkling hit. As sampled in the Library of America's "Kaufman & Co.," a collection of nine plays written with Morrie Ryskind, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner or Hart, it seemed every important comedy involved Kaufman in some capacity, either as writer, director or play doctor (in which he sometimes quietly worked behind the scenes out of town to save someone's crumbling second or third act).

It was also that his wonderful sour puss began showing up on television, and as I morphed lugubriously into puberty I cherished his sardonic wit. He, more than anyone, seemed to grasp how phony the world and its pompous inhabitants were, and what could be more appealing to the adolescent mind, especially one who put a big premium on the attitudes of Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields. Kaufman (1889-1961) was homely but sharp as a matzo -- a combination I could identify with because I was homely and longed to be sharp. Also Kaufman was unsentimental in a culture submerged in the gooey ichor of societal piety.

In reality that intimidating facade was just that, a facade. From examining his written love scenes and hearing many anecdotes about him over the years (most notably in "Act One," Moss Hart's great autobiography), it appears this coruscating verbal shark was actually quite sentimental and very softhearted, very generous to employees, a maker of chocolate fudge. But this side of George S. Kaufman was unknown to me when he scandalized the prissy multitudes by daring to say on TV during the Christmas season, "Let's make this one program on which no one sings 'Silent Night.'" You just had to love a guy like that.
Ed Page

I read Act One several times over the course of my adolescence. Your note opened up the reason why I went to it time and again. Thank you.

Jobs | July 21