FINAL DRESS by John Houseman
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In this third volume (1955-74) of his remarkable, quietly epic autobiography, Houseman branches out still further--into television, opera, academia, and film-stardom--but his greatest passion, wit, and anger remain firmly invested in the theater. ""At the age of fifty-four, with my ego swollen by recent victories, ambition had become the dominant and almost exclusive drive in my life."" So Houseman left his comfy mid-1950s position as a Hollywood producer, uprooted his family, and eagerly accepted the challenge of taking over the American Shakespeare Festival--with rocky yet triumphant results: hilarious/dreadful problems over the huge, dehydrating rubber costumes for King John (""that ghastly slurping was heard again and then repeated with increasing frequency as, one after another. . . the warriors of both armies began to collapse""); the infectious, noble, willful presence of Katharine Hepburn (sparring with Alfred Drake, confirming her star status via an ""insincere, embarrassing"" but memorable moment of ham-acting in Much Ado); a nightmarish interlude involving an actor's on-tour suicide; a bit of Redbaiting (with ""no fewer than five Fifth Amendment takers in the company""); good reviews and good box-office. But tensions with the Festival's board, including ""highly emotional"" old friend Lincoln Kirstein, escalated. And Houseman resigned in 1959--though he now acknowledges ambivalent motives (""whenever my wife. . . sees me growing righteously indignant she knows that I am up to something devious"") and his lifelong need ""to divide my energy among several unrelated and possibly conflicting activities. . . ."" Already having run the course with TV production, then (Playhouse 90, etc.), Houseman moved on to a disappointing return-bout with Hollywood (especially loathing the young Warren Beatty), peaked and became disenchanted with another theater company, directed opera, moved to Paris, began work on his memoirs. . . and got the invitation to direct the Drama Division of the Juilliard School. He couldn't resist the challenge; furthermore, there was the ""reluctant assumption that as I entered my sixty-fourth year my best days in show business were over."" Yet, even while coping with the massive problems of students, teachers, auditions, curriculum, and a Juilliard-based acting company, Houseman became deeply involved with other projects: taping the work of Martha Graham, later trying to persuade her to give up performing (a grim vignette); helping to guide the APA/Phoenix company led by brilliant, stimulating, unstable, bizarrely histrionic Ellis Rabb; and taking, as the director's last resort, that Academy-Award-winning role in The Paper Chase. Houseman is tough on those he's worked with, often tough on himself too. (After the death of beloved lighting-designer Jean Rosenthal: ""What unspeakable creatures we are! Here I am, bowed by grief, desolation and despair. . . . Yet all this was mingled with the almost pleasurable excitement I felt at the challenge of delivering a eulogy that will be admired, remembered and quoted by Jean's friends."") And the result, as before, is the very best kind of show-business memoir: introspective but never morbid, exhilarated but also derisively objective, and dense with exactly the right sort of telling, texturing details.

Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 1983
Publisher: Simon & Schuster