Harper hb $26.95
At once a recounting of how an actor developed his craft and how a man came to understand his father, John Lithgow’s Drama is a breezy memoir with touches of the quirkiness which marks his career.
Lithgow takes the reader through his early years; his father moved the entire family repeatedly so he could set up Shakespeare festivals in different cities. Lithgow became a master of adaptation, of fitting into whatever school or social situation he encountered, never admitting his shyness or his great desire to be accepted. He took to the stage as a young boy, playing bit parts and helping with the business of stage work when he was not in school. He details the breakneck pace and staging of his father’s work, beginning to question the authority of the man who introduced him to theater. He also pursued studio art, thinking he might find a career in painting.
Moving from Princeton HIgh School on to college, he pursued what he knew best. Harvard had no theater major, but had ample opportunity for aspiring thespians to act in amateur productions. Lithgow threw himself into acting. He began to refine his craft. Again, however, he felt distant from the typical Harvard student, unable to sit easy with the smug assurance that money and promise of family position gave many of his peers.
As his Harvard years passed Lithgow grew further from his father. He decided to found his own acting company, a troupe which promptly failed. To the surprise of both parents, he married a woman six years his senior. He received a post-graduate Fulbright to study drama in England, and his wife accompnaied him where she had a highly successful career educating dyslexic children. Lithgow faced being drafted for the Vietnam War at the end of his studies in England. In great detail he explains how he acted his way out of the draft, concluding he had lied rather than acted, and in so doing had disgraced acting.
Having revealed in some detail the emotions and decisions which guided him as a child and young man, in the second half of the memoir Lithgow takes a more conventional approach to how his professional career developed. His sharp departure from his father’s methods are underscored. This part is less interesting and more formulaic than the early part of his work. Although the reader sees an adult finally coping with the shortcomings of his father, and being thankful for what he had learned from his father, the work does not have the immediacy or vividness of the first half. He ends in 1980 before he became a widely-known actor.
By far the most heartfelt part of the book, however, is his introduction. In this, he talks about coming home in his 50s to care for his ailing parents. He talks about seeing his father diminished and languid. Lithgow finally hits upon a way to revitalize his father’s last days: he reads aloud the stories his father had read to him as a child. Father and son are united again in the great joy of storytelling.