Portrait of the Drama Critic As a Stage-Struck Boy

Ghost Light: A Memoir , by Frank Rich. Random House, 315 pages, $24.95.

The theater, Moss Hart explained, is the “inevitable refuge of the unhappy child.” Hart, one of the most successful playwrights and directors of the 20th century, endured severe poverty in his Bronx childhood before he reached the heights of Broadway success. Once his celebrated autobiography, Act One , had achieved cult status, Hart became the patron saint of the stage-struck; his ghost is one of several that haunt this engaging, often poignant, sometimes wearying memoir of a stage-struck boy, Frank Rich Jr., who eventually (though not in the course of this narrative) took his seat as chief drama critic of The New York Times .

For Frank Rich, as for Moss Hart, the theater was at first “not so much a profession as a disease.” In few Broadway chroniclers–not even in his predecessors at The Times , Alexander Woollcott, Brooks Atkinson or Walter Kerr–was the spore of the stage implanted so early. When she was pregnant with baby Frank, Mrs. Rich listened over and over to the original cast recording of South Pacific ; as the baby grew into a toddler and the toddler into a small boy, she opened up scrapbooks pasted with the Playbills and souvenirs of her own childhood theater-going, while Frank’s father brought home recordings of The Pajama Game , Peter Pan and Damn Yankees . Until he was 7, Frank was vouchsafed a contented 1950’s childhood, “where ignorance really was bliss.”

Then his parents separated, his father moved out. Suddenly his family and his home in a sleepy Maryland subdivision vanished as if in an earthquake. He developed elaborate fears: He lived in terror of nightfall and “the darkness of not knowing what was going to happen next.” He tried to reunite his parents by acting the part of the perfect boy. At the least sign of frustration, however, he would fly into a rage, punishing his mother with tantrums that subsided only when her resigned withdrawal made him suddenly afraid of losing his one remaining parent.

Like thousands before him, Mr. Rich chose the theater as his escape. It was a good choice. In the provincial Washington, D.C., of Mr. Rich’s upbringing–a swampy, un-air-conditioned hick town composed of neighborhoods like the sparsely populated Cleveland Park and the status-conscious “Chanukah Heights”–divorce made Frank a misfit everywhere except the theater.

Bewildered by his parents’ second marriages, Frank transplanted himself in fantasy to the brighter world of Broadway. He hoarded Playbills , wore new grooves into original cast albums and scissored the ads and A.B.C.’s from the theater pages of The Times to make simulated marquees on his bedroom bulletin board. His mania was so inexhaustible that, on an early visit to the real Broadway, he dove headfirst into Times Square trash cans–ostensibly to retrieve Playbills from shows he hadn’t seen, but really to clown for his mother, who shared and indulged his passion.

Back at home, Frank used his memories of such moments as “a kind of Salk vaccine” to inoculate himself against the mundane Washington of the Senators baseball team, WEAM Top 40 radio, S & H green stamps, D. C. Transit, the Evening Star and a shortage of children in Cleveland Park. The Broadway that Mr. Rich visited as a boy was undergoing a golden age– Bells Are Ringing at the Shubert, The Music Man and later Camelot at the Majestic, My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger–but the playhouse that we see most clearly in Ghost Light is the showcase Frank created in a shoebox at home, so that he could stage and relive the shows he’d just seen in New York. His theater had his name on it, Rich’s –after the Washington shoe store founded by his great-great-grandfather next to Ford’s (yet another theater) four years after Lincoln was shot (100 years later, the store was still in the family, run by his grandfather and father).

By age 14, Frank Rich was a drama critic thinly disguised as a short, fair, blue-eyed boy from the boondocks. Late one night during a binge of Broadway theater-going in 1963, he couldn’t resist handing over what amounted to his first notice: He one-upped a fellow stage addict in the shadows of the Majestic Theater. The stranger, waiting to get Mary Martin’s autograph, had tried to impress Frank with the news that the legendary producer David Merrick was about to bring a new musical to the St. James. Tough luck–Frank had already seen the musical in its Washington tryout. He’d already read the bad review in Variety , the show business bible, and he’d staked out a contrarian position: “Buy a ticket to Hello, Dolly! in advance,” advised the boy who would become known as the Butcher of Broadway. “It’s going to be a hit.”

Like many aggressive and outspoken people, Mr. Rich insists on seeing himself filtered through the shyness and insecurity his childhood taught him to cover up. As he recounts the incident outside the Majestic, he claims to have startled himself with his own assertiveness. But this was a boy with a subscription not to Boys’ Life or Popular Mechanics but to Variety , and it followed him to summer camp so that, in between stagecraft and swimming, he could keep an eye on the week’s box-office receipts. This was a boy already well-acquainted with the power of inside information.

Broadway taught Frank a lesson he dreaded: Everything that opens must sooner or later close. But theater magic proved to be so transforming that it turned Mr. Rich’s bullying stepfather, Joel Fisher, a high-octane Washington lawyer, into Frank’s affectionate champion, then back again. Along with daily tongue-lashings and occasional beatings, Joel provided front-row seats at standing-room-only shows to which not even the Vice President of the United States could get access.

As a high school kid decked out in a newly bought tweed suit, Frank was initiated into box-office mysteries by one of the theater’s classical guardians, Scott Kirkpatrick, the eccentric and old-fashioned manager of Washington’s National Theater, who hired the teenager as a ticket-taker. At the National, Frank met the man who became his first true theater mentor, Clayton Coots, a company manager who tutored Frank in the ways of extravagant after-theater suppers, offered purportedly Platonic back rubs (accompanied by invitations to share the bed instead of the living-room sofa), and initiated a correspondence laced with tea and sympathy.

Once introduced to the real lives of show people, Frank became a believer in the central mystery of their faith: that each night, in a few combustible moments after dusk, as a company of players and a house full of onlookers magically fuse, they form a family–a family so fantastic yet real that each night, and in the process of its whole run, the life of a show recapitulates the cycle of every family’s creation and dissolution. This conception of the theater as a magical place where one’s original family is made incarnate and whole once more, where divorce and death are cheated each night (but only as long as the show lasts), is tested and retested throughout Mr. Rich’s memoir. Will this new family love him? Is it really any more reliable than the one that broke his heart in the first place? What happens when a play closes? Where does everyone go?

The questions are elementary and existential because Mr. Rich has chosen to limit his field of vision to the peripheries of a boy’s life. For almost the entire story, the author’s external activities occur well within the bounds of parental sanction and curfew. The stage does more than awe and exhilarate; it empowers him. At a Broadway playhouse, he feels completely in control, especially if he can sit alone. He observes himself watching shows and sees–at first with uncanny perspicuity, then with sad recognition–the links to his own family dramas. In this sense, Ghost Light is more the story of a young man’s awakening–a book of anatomized responses–than a traditional theatrical memoir.

The narrow sight lines that the grown-up Mr. Rich has chosen to work inside permit us to see only as far into the world as Frank can see. His troubles at home, however, are the exception. If Act One , written in the buttoned-up 50’s, was in part a response to Moss Hart’s years of psychoanalysis with Dr. Lawrence Kubie, Ghost Light , written in an age of widespread confession by a man who is now himself the divorced father of two children, brings renewed focus to age-old questions. When Frank was growing up, children with irreconcilable parents were presumed to be better off if their mother and father found happiness with new partners. Smart kids like Frank were supposed to be too sophisticated to let themselves become victims of divorce. Mr. Rich describes with brutal accuracy the day his abusive stepfather destroyed his one remaining illusion: “that I was a boy from a broken home who was not himself broken.” The principal ghost in Ghost Light is his parents’ brief, fragile happiness, and it is their legacy that Mr. Rich means both to ward off and to honor with the image of a “ghost light,” a single bulb left burning center stage in an empty theater so that complete darkness cannot invite a ghost to move in.

In spirit, Ghost Light is a direct descendant of Moss Hart’s coming-of-age classic, the inhaling of which was for Frank a crucial rite of passage. But whereas Hart in 1959 wrote a fairy tale that takes the initiate, step by step, away from poverty, through years of perseverance outside the closed stage door and into the heart of a Broadway hit, Mr. Rich remains fixed on the other side of the curtain, his progress marked by ever-more-acute perceptions made from increasingly advantageous seating. From the rear of the house, Ghost Light captures cameos of big-time show people in the midst of the creative process; Jerome Robbins, Irving Berlin, Josh Logan and Zero Mostel are distantly glimpsed, as is a dress rehearsal of Fiddler on the Roof , written by Joe Stein, the father of Mr. Rich’s best friend from summer camp. But the inner workings of theatrical production remain unexplored while the author gives unremitting, detailed accounts of what never fails to be, for him, the talismanic ritual of getting theater tickets–even for shows he’s already seen.

Act One left you hungry to write a play. Ghost Light , though infused with a love of theater equally intense and contagious, leaves you hoping that one day you’ll know someone who can get you good seats to a revival of The Music Man . Or, to put it another way, who grows up wanting to be a drama critic?

Ghost Light leaves its hero at the gates of Harvard Yard. Sharp as he was, as a freshman Mr. Rich didn’t see the dream job looming. But the fact that he had already chosen theater as the medium in which to heal himself, and that he later proved to be the American theater’s

ideal critic for 13 seasons, is no coincidence. Only someone whose family was vaporized could write as alertly as Mr. Rich did as critic and chronicler during the plague years that devastated the theater, or as sensitively as he does here as a foster child of the theater “family.” Better than most, he understands why the theater protects misfits on both sides of the curtain against the darkness that, for a few hours, the brightly lit stage has defeated.

David Michaelis is the author of N. C. Wyeth: A Biography (Knopf) .