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Critic Cornered

What's the wellspring of a reviewer's style? For notably acerbic and unflinching Frank Rich of the Times, it was a childhood of conflict and pain.

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"But you're not that horrible after all!" someone exclaimed after meeting me at a party recently. Since I write reviews for a living, I didn't bat an eye. I know mid-level corporate functionaries who regularly fire other human beings for a living -- take away their livelihoods, for crying out loud -- and no one walks up to them at parties and congratulates them for being not too horrible. But write a bad review of a lousy book or movie or play, and people figure you're Cruella De Vil in real life.

I couldn't help thinking of this as I read Frank Rich's memoir. By 1993, when he ended his thirteen years as the chief drama critic for the New York Times, Frank Rich had come to be known as "the Butcher of Broadway," but the Frank Rich that emerges in the pages of his new memoir is far more Dalmatian than De Vil. As he recalls here in prose that is almost willfully plain and unstylish (aping as it does a child's-eye view of the events it describes), Rich, who was born in 1949 and grew up in what was then referred to in whispers as "a broken home," was often subject to physical and mental abuse at the hands of his stepfather, an unbalanced Washington, D.C., attorney who beat his children and eventually caused his wife's death in a car crash.

This Dickensian narrative couldn't be further in tone or spirit from what you could call his other autobiography: Hot Seat, the thousand-page 1998 collection of his theater criticism, which everywhere displays the razor-sharp judgments and poison-tipped barbs for which the adult Rich became famous. ("The intended Stephen King pyrotechnics," he wrote of the famously ill-fated musical version of Carrie, "wouldn't frighten the mai tai drinkers at a Polynesian restaurant.") But you don't have to be a theater buff -- I'm certainly not -- to find Ghost Light intriguing. For in the end, it shows you how child and critic, victim and judge are related.

In some ways, Rich's childhood was just an extreme version of the irony-laden life of the Eisenhower era, where outward banalities (the identical driveways in his leafy Washington neighborhood "jut like tongues from garage to street") concealed hidden traumas. In both his theater reviews and, since 1994, his columns on the op-ed page of the Times, Rich has always been a stylish and pointed writer, and although Ghost Light's prose is sometimes too self-consciously stripped-down and earnest, its description of a split-personality baby-boomer childhood is particularly evocative: You get the kitschily naïve earnestness of the pop culture of the time (at camp he makes a cutting board in the shape of Wilbur the Pig) and the emotional ugliness no one wanted to acknowledge, too. Rich's stepfather, Joel Fisher, is particularly well drawn. A tyrannically grandiose lawyer who boasted of his connections to LBJ, Fisher oscillated with terrifying unpredictability between encouragement of young Frank's theatrical obsession and embarrassing, sometimes violent outbursts. The author's resistance to after-the-fact adult irony makes the latter all the more harrowing: At one point, the young Frank earnestly wonders whether the trips to the theater were "worth being hit by Joel."

Still, the beginning of Rich's book could have been cut down; while you can see why he wanted to include every memory, not every one adds to the narrative as a whole. Things pick up about a third of the way through, when his obsession with the theater kicks in. Here, the directness of his style serves him well. Stories about abused children being rescued by some private passion can seem perilously movie-of-the-week, but Rich presents his early fascination with theater so matter-of-factly from the very beginning that it never feels pat. I happen to loathe musicals, but I found myself eagerly awaiting each new trip to the theater. You can certainly see why Rich did. For him, the recordings of new musicals that his parents bring home to him, the shoebox dioramas of plays he'd seen that he builds in his attic room, and especially his trips to Washington's National Theatre and, sometimes, to New York ("a Salk vaccine" against Washington and all it means) -- all these became the "glittering consolation prize" for his early emotional troubles.

Occasionally, I couldn't help wondering whether some of the connections between Life and Art weren't something only the grown-up Rich could have made. Every emotional trauma Rich experienced seems to have been accompanied by the soundtrack of a new musical or play that conveniently offered ironic comment on the real-life goings-on. (The last cast album Rich's natural father brings home before leaving his mother is The Most Happy Fella.) But what makes Ghost Light so appealing is that despite its profound if understated emotional investment in the saving power of art, it's never mindlessly starry-eyed, as so many showbiz memoirs can be. Part of its appeal is, if anything, the way it charts the evolution of the young Rich's critical sensitivity. Schooled by the harsh realities of real life, Rich was able, even as a boy, to detect optimistic banalities in art. "In The Odd Couple," he dryly comments at one point, "we never saw the divorced men's children, wherever and whoever they were."

And yet by the end of his book, when he had learned both from his own experience and from a gay theatrical manager who became a beloved mentor that "theater could not be a substitute for life," it is deliciously impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. (The mentor, who later died from AIDS, Rich implies left a profound mark on Rich's work. One of the distinctions of his reviews was how they avoided the condescending clichés about gay theater -- and life -- from the very beginning.) The mental equipment the author brings to thinking about "real life" is, you realize, as inflected by his love for theater as his appreciation for theater is inflected by his tart experience of lived life. That overlapping between the two realms is beautifully underscored in the writing itself: "Empty houses of any kind . . . held a terror for me," he observes at one point. And in the memoir's last page, as Rich prepares to leave the difficult family from which he has, at whatever price, learned so much, he returns home from the theater one last time and sees his parents' house, totally dark save for one tiny light that his mother always left on in the kitchen -- a self-conscious if beautifully understated allusion to the tradition that gives his memoir its title: the "ghost light," the single bulb left burning onstage in every theater to scare away the ghosts.

Rich's memoir is clearly meant to scare away some ghosts of his own, but it's to his enduring credit that he puts his early emotional trauma in a larger and ultimately more meaningful context. Unlike most memoirs, which are mere exercises in self-indulgence, Ghost Light sheds an interesting light of its own, illuminating the complex personal wellsprings of aesthetic and intellectual passions. Critics can often seem cruel; everyone assumes that we have "personal axes" to grind, without wondering what the "personal" may really refer to. Rich's book reminds you that the napalm-laden one-liners and the passionate disdain for inauthentic junk originate, like the raves, in love. Or, maybe better, in gratitude: Wouldn't you want to save from harm the thing that saved you?


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