Monday, November 7, 2011

Drama by John Lithgow - A Book Review

This is the audio book that, for the past month, has made the effort of daily transportation around Seattle much more bearable and entertaining. In general I am a bit skeptical of actor memoirs. As fun as some of the famous name dropping can be, it rarely sustains for a whole book. Plus, acting and writing are such different skills that the prose in most books of this kind lays pretty flat on the page.

Fortunately, these problems are well avoided here. First, John Lithgow's heartfelt, honest and lively memoir spends most of its time in his years leading up to his film and TV career that he is mostly know for now. The book's subtitle, "An Actor's Education," is very fitting. This is the story of how Lithgow grew into acting. There certainly are some great anecdotes late in the book about his ten years in the 1970's on Broadway and his encounters with a young Meryl Streep, an inspiring Mike Nichols and a passionate Jose Quintero. But the heart of the book is the young Lithgow's immersion in the theater, mainly through the work of his father, Arthur Lithgow, a tireless director, actor and producer of theater, mainly Shakespeare, that had his son John in and around the stage constantly from a very early age.

Malcolm Gladwell could easily have used Lithgow's story as an example for his book about success, Outliers. One of Gladwell's points in that book is that anyone who becomes a stand out expert in their field, an outlier, has somehow accumulated 10,000 hours of practice at it to do so. Based on young John's exposure to his father's Shakespeare festivals and his eventual roles in those shows, my guess is he logged half of those 10,000 hours before he even went to college.

This brings us to the other reason why this memoir rises above most other celebrity books of its kind. Before Lithgow had entered college, he had not only acted in a ridiculous number of shows, many of them by Shakespeare, but had seen productions of almost every play in the Shakespearean canon, and many of them in multiple productions. This exposure, amongst others I am sure, has given John Lithgow a tremendous respect for and sensitivity to language. He has written a number of children's books, all of which are robust in their poetry. Here, not a single person, play or event gets mentioned without an elegantly distilled portrait being painted for the reader. For those who choose to have the book read to them in the audio version by the author himself, as I did, are in for an even bigger treat, in that the actor's delightful expressiveness adds an intimate layer to the already engaging story. Its like having John Lithgow over for a glass of wine. Each time he takes a sip, you immediately say "and then what happened?"

Anna Christie with Liv Ullmann 1977
I personally could have done without the chapter late in the book that describes his affair with Liv Ullmann that brought his first marriage to an end. Yet it does help round out the picture of his life on and off the stage that probably would have seemed to perfect had this brutally painful episode not been included.

That aside, the book, which is based on a one person play the author did a few years back, is a love letter not only to his father but to the world of the theater. Anyone who has worked on the stage will find a kindred spirit in Lithgow. His love for the art is moving and inspiring and will charm and win-over even the most cynical of thespians.

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