<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> A CURIOUS LIFE <BR> The first time I acted was before I even remember. At age <BR> two, I was a street urchin in a mythical Asian kingdom in a <BR> stage version of The Emperors New Clothes. It was 1947, <BR> and the show was performed in a Victorian Gothic opera house, <BR> long since demolished, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. A black and white <BR> photograph from that production shows me at the edge of a crowd <BR> of brightly costumed grown-up actors. Standing nearby is my sister <BR> Robin. She is four, two years older than I, and also a street urchin. <BR> We are both dressed in little kimonos with pointy straw hats, and <BR> someone has drawn dark diagonal eyebrows above our eyes,<BR> rendering us vaguely Japanese. I am clearly oblivious, a faun in the <BR> headlights. I stand knee-high next to a large man in a white shift <BR> and a pillbox hat who appears to have a role not much bigger than <BR> mine. He reaches down to hold my hand. He is clearly in charge <BR> of me, lest I wander off into the wings. There is very little in the <BR> photograph to suggest that, at age two, I have a future in the theater.<BR> But I do. Later that season, in the same old opera house, I was <BR> already back onstage. I played one of Noras children in A Dolls <BR> House by Henrik Ibsen. I dont remember this performance either <BR> (and theres no photographic record of it), but Robin was there once <BR> again, playing another of Noras children and steering me around <BR> the stage as if I were an obedient pet. In that production, the role <BR> of Torvald, Noras tyrannical husband and the father of those two <BR> children, was played by that same fellow in the white shift from The <BR> Emperors New Clothes. In a case of art imitating life, my onstage <BR> father was my actual father. His name was Arthur Lithgow.<BR> Thus it was that my curious life in entertainment was launched, <BR> before I was even conscious of it, on the same stage as my father. So <BR> it is with my father that I will begin.<BR> Arthur Lithgow had curious beginnings, too. He was born in the <BR> Dominican Republic, where, generations before, a clan of Scottish <BR> Lithgows had emigrated to seek their fortunes as sugar-growing <BR> landowners. Im not sure whether these early Lithgows prospered, <BR> but they enthusiastically intermarried with the Dominican population.<BR> One recent day, as I was walking down a Manhattan sidewalk, <BR> a chocolate brown Dominican cabdriver screeched to a stop, leaped <BR> out, and greeted me as his distant cousin.<BR> Young Arthur got off to a bumpy start. Evidently, his father (my <BR> grandfather) was a bad businessman. He was naive, overly trusting, <BR> and cursed with catastrophic bad luck. He and a partner teamed up <BR> on a far-fetched scheme to patent and peddle synthetic molasses. <BR> The partner absconded with their entire investment. My grandfather<BR> sued his erstwhile friend, lost the suit, and moved his family <BR> north to Boston, to start all over. At this point, his bad luck asserted <BR> itself. He fell victim to the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918, died within <BR> weeks, and left my grandmother a widowpenniless, a mother of <BR> four, and pregnant. Arthur was the third-oldest of her children. He <BR> was four years old. Growing up, he barely remembered even having <BR> a father.<BR> But the situation for this forlorn family was far from hopeless. My <BR> grandmother, Ina B. Lithgow, was a trained nurse. She was smart, <BR> resourceful, and just as hard-nosed as my grandfather had been soft<BR> headed. He had left her with a large clapboard house in Melrose, <BR> Massachusetts, and she immediately set about putting it to good <BR> use. She flung open its doors and turned it into an old folks home. <BR> All four of her children were recruited to slave away as a grudging <BR> staff of peewee caregivers, in the hours before and after school. The <BR> oldest of these children was ten, the youngest was three. Child<BR> labor laws clearly did not apply when the survival of the family was <BR> at stake.<BR> At some point in all this, Ina came to term. She gave birth to <BR> a baby daughter who only lived a matter of days. Swallowing her <BR> grief, and regaining her strength, she went right back to work.<BR> To my father, Ina must have been downright scary as she fought <BR> to keep her household afloat. But fifty years later, when I was a <BR> child, little of the fierce, formidable pragmatist was left. She had <BR> mellowed into my gentle and adorable Grammy. Comfortable <BR> in that role, she was witty and mischievous, and entertained her <BR> grandchildren with long bedtime recitations of epic poems she had <BR> learned as a girlThe Wreck of the Hesperus, The Skeleton in <BR> Armor, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Only recently did it <BR> occur to me that, fifty years before, in the midst of all that hardship, <BR> she must have bestowed the same storytelling riches on her own <BR> fatherless children.<BR> I picture my father eight years old, bleary-eyed and dressed for <BR> bed in hand-me-down pajamas. It is an evening in 1922. He is with <BR> his two older sisters and his younger brother, huddling around their <BR> mother on a worn sofa in the darkened living room of their Melrose <BR> home. He is a pale, thin boy with reddish-brown hair. He is quiet, <BR> bookish, and a little melancholy, miscast in the role of man of the <BR> house, which fell to him when his father died. Tonights poem is <BR> The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay, by Oliver Wendell Holmes. I <BR> picture young Arthur listening with a kind of eager hunger, marking<BR> the meter, savoring the suspense, and devouring all those exotic <BR> new words. He is only a child, but I suspect he already knows, he <BR> can feel in his bones, that storytelling will define his later life.<BR> And so it did. Growing into adolescence, Arthur commandeered <BR> a little room on the top floor of the Melrose house and immersed <BR> himself in books. Ghostly storytellers had found their most attentive<BR> listener: Rudyard Kipling, Washington Irving, Robert Louis <BR> Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott. And as he worked his way through all <BR> these timeworn treasures, he made a life-changing discovery. As <BR> an older man, my father described the moment when he caught a <BR> fever: he came across the plays of William Shakespeare. Reading <BR> from a single hefty volume of the Complete Works, the teenage boy <BR> proceeded to methodically plow through the entire vast canon.<BR> A few years later, such literary passions sent Arthur westward to <BR> Ohio, to Antioch College, in Yellow Springs. There his love of <BR> storytelling evolved into a love of theater. At Antioch, he poured his <BR> energies into student productions. Cast as Hamlet in his senior year, <BR> he caught the eye of an infatuated freshman, a Baptist ministers <BR> daughter from Rochester, New York, named Sarah Price. When <BR> Arthur graduated, he headed straight to New York City, where he <BR> joined the legions of aspiring young actors scrabbling for work in <BR> the depths of the Depression. Within months of his arrival, he was <BR> astonished to find Sarah Price on his doorstep, having dropped out <BR> of Antioch to follow him east. With no reasonable notion of what <BR> else to do, he married her. It was a marriage that was to last sixty-<BR> four years, until his death in 2004.<BR> By the time my conscious memory kicks in, it was the late 1940s <BR> and the couple were back in Yellow Springs. In the intervening <BR> years, Arthur had turned his back on New York theater; he had <BR> taught at Vermonts Putney School; he had worked in wartime <BR> industry in Rochester; and he had completed basic training in the <BR> U.S. Army. Just as he was about to be shipped out to the South <BR> Pacific, I was born. Arthur was now the father of three children. <BR> According to army policy, this made him eligible for immediate <BR> discharge. He seized the opportunity and rushed home to Rochester.<BR> The next stop for the burgeoning young family was Ithaca, New <BR> York, where the G.I. Bill paid for Arthurs masters degree in<BR> play writing at Cornell. A year later, he was working as a junior faculty <BR> member in English and drama at his Alma mater, Antioch College. <BR> He was also producing plays for the Antioch Area Theatre in the <BR> old Yellow Springs Opera House. Among those plays were A Dolls <BR> House and The Emperors New Clothes. A year after that, when I was <BR> approaching four years old, I start to remember.<BR> The Lithgow family lived in Yellow Springs for ten years. When <BR> we moved away, I had just finished sixth grade. Those ten years <BR> would prove to be the longest stretch in one place of my entire <BR> childhood. Ive only been back to Yellow Springs twice for fleeting <BR> visits, and the last visit was almost thirty years ago. Even so, it is the <BR> closest thing I have to a hometown.<BR> In the first show of mine that I actually remember, I had a lousy <BR> part. I was the Chief Cook of the Castle in a third-grade school <BR> production of The Sleeping Beauty. It took place in broad daylight <BR> on a terrace outside The Antioch School. This was the lab school of <BR> Antioch College, where I was receiving a progressive, fun, and not <BR> very good education.<BR> As the Chief Cook, my entire role consisted of chasing my <BR> assistant onto the stage with a rolling pin, then dropping to the <BR> <BR> ground and falling asleep for a hundred years at the moment Sleeping<BR> Beauty pricks her finger. I must have known what a bad part <BR> it was, but perhaps because of that I took particular care with my <BR> costume. I persuaded my father to make me a chef s hat befitting <BR> the Chief Cook of the Castle. With surprising ingenuity, he folded a <BR> large piece of poster board into a tall cylinder, then fashioned a puffy <BR> crown at the top with white crepe paper. The hat was almost as tall <BR> as I was. I was delighted.<BR> Now well just cut it down to half this height and itll be<BR> perfect, my father said.<BR> Oh, no, Dad! I said. Leave it!<BR> But youll run onstage and itll fall off your head, he reasoned.<BR> No, it wont! I insisted. This is the hat of the Chief Cook of <BR> the Castle! Its got to be very tall! Leave it!<BR> The next day, I carried the lordly hat into my classroom. My <BR> schoolmates were awestruck.<BR> Its beautiful! said Mrs. Parker. But shouldnt we cut it down <BR> to half this height? Youll run onstage and it will fall off your head.<BR> No, it wont! I exclaimed. This is the hat of the Chief Cook <BR> of the Castle! The most important cook in the entire kingdom! Its <BR> got to be very, very tall!<BR> My vehement arguments prevailed. The performance was that <BR> afternoon. When my cue came, I ran onstage and my hat immediately<BR> fell off my head. After the show, I chose not to answer the eight <BR> or ten people who asked, Why did they give you such a tall hat?<BR> This was perhaps the first instance of the extravagant excess for <BR> which I would one day become so well known. But considering <BR> what my father was up to at the time, such grandiosity is hardly <BR> surprising.<BR> My father was producing Shakespeare on an epic scale. In the <BR> summer of 1951, in league with two of his faculty colleagues, he <BR> launched Shakespeare Under the Stars, otherwise known as the <BR> Antioch Shakespeare Festival. It was to last until 1957. The plays <BR> that had sparked the imagination of that lonely boy in an attic room <BR> in Melrose, Massachusetts, came to life on a platform stage beneath <BR> the twin spires of the stately Main Hall of Antioch College. In every <BR> one of those summers, my fathers company of avid young actors, <BR> many of them freshly minted graduates of Pittsburghs Carnegie <BR> Tech, would achieve the impossible. Each season they would open <BR> seven Shakespeare plays in the course of nine weeks, rehearsing in <BR> the day and performing at night. Once all seven had opened, the <BR> company would perform them in rotating repertory, a different play <BR> every night of the week, for the final month of the summer. In 1951, <BR> the company began with a season of Shakespeares history plays. By <BR> 1957, they had performed all of the others as well, thirty-eight in <BR> all, many of them twice over. My father directed several of them <BR> and acted in several more, with an exuberant flamboyance that <BR> banished forever his boyhood shyness. <BR> Were the shows any good? In those days I thought they were <BR> magnificent. To my young eyes these were the greatest stage actors <BR> in the country, my father was the finest director, and Shakespeare <BR> couldnt possibly be performed any better. As the years passed, I <BR> began to doubt my childhood impressions. How good could the <BR> productions have been with such hasty rehearsals, such threadbare <BR> costumes, and such an untested troupe? A twenty-six year old King <BR> Lear? A professors wife as Olivia? Grad students sprinkled among <BR> all the minor parts? Though I never lost my sense of awe at the <BR> magnitude of my fathers achievement, a certain skepticism crept in <BR> when I grew to be a theater professional myself. <BR> <p> <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Drama</b> by <b>John Lithgow</b> Copyright © 2011 by John Lithgow. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.