Autobiography can be a treacherous enterprise. Drama by John Lithgow, is exemplary of the best of the genre.
Some authors use the occasion to rewrite their lives, as if they could retrospectively do it all over again. Some craft something like a legal brief, seeking to justify prior actions, even the unjustifiable. Some withhold so much as to drain the story of all interest. Many today outsource the effort, draining their words of life force.
Professional actors have an additional challenge: their fame gathers an audience, but their craft stirs skepticism. Are they simply playing a role?
Note the qualifier: “professional” actors. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, actors. If nothing else, we turn to acting skills.
John Lithgow’s Drama could be read as a one-man show. A theatrical performance.
Appropriately, it begins and ends with recollections of his father Arthur Lithgow. The elder Lithgow, himself an actor, director and producer of note, has an ongoing place in his son’s development.
John Lithgow does not hold back in recounting his own failings and failures, even when omissions might be forgiven on account of his youth at the time. He appears to hold the view that to an artist, including an actor, everything in life can be used to advance understanding. Perhaps that enables him to better serve the readers, moving his own ego needs out of the picture a bit.
Lithgow’s evocation of his college years is interesting. He matriculated in the autumn of 1963. Serendipity placed him at Harvard at the zenith of the Camelot moment. He could not have known that he was experiencing the end of an era. His first freshman semester was jarred by the Kennedy assassination in Dallas; his final senior semester was bracketed by the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
His memories of Harvard are warm but not unduly sentimental: “However you responded to the pressures of the place, one thing was clear: to thrive at Harvard, or even to survive there, you must stake out some domain where you can succeed, and move into it like an invading army.”
Inevitably, Lithgow went all-in for acting. His combination of ambition and desire to learn and improve are constants through the remainder of the book, which focuses on his early years of struggle and accomplishment. Though the chronological thrust of the book ends with the 1970s, he intersperses subsequent developments throughout. This is the point where, in his words, his adolescence was finally, fully resolved. His education ended; he commenced on the road of his life, finding happiness in a marriage that has endured the subsequent three decades.
I recommend this book most highly. Aspiring actors need little encouragement to turn to the counsel of one of the great actors of our time. So, too, his many fans.
Serve to Lead argues that the lives of artists offer many lessons for those who seek to serve by leading. Their lives are, to a large extent, self-created by acts of will, even defiance. They must continually learn and adapt. And their progress and struggles and reverses are, to a greater or lesser extent, visible to others, sowing occasions for learning.
For these reasons, Lithgow’s messages resonate further than his many admiring fans and colleagues. Drama shares the wisdom of a master of the art of living.
John Lithgow | Drama