Life Lessons from Moss Hart

Recently a friend invited us to see Act One at the Lincoln Center Theater. Act One is a dramatization of Moss Hart’s wonderful autobiography of the same name. The book was originally published in 1959, but it is still amazingly fresh and relevant today.

Hart was one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. He collaborated with George S. Kaufman on You Can’t Take It with You, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and other shows in the 1930s. He was also a sensitive and successful director, his credits including My Fair Lady; and an accomplished screenwriter. Hart wrote Gentleman’s Agreement, Hans Christian Andersen, and A Star Is Born.

Hart came from a desperately poor family. He had no formal schooling beyond the 8th grade and he wrote a play that was produced for Broadway at the age of 20. It was a monumental flop during its out-of-town run, but, still, no mean feat.

Act One depicts Hart’s early years, and his first successful production, Once in a Lifetime, began his long collaboration with the already very successful George S. Kaufman. Prior to the play, we were treated to an introduction to Hart and Act One by Professor Larry Maslon of the Tisch School of the Arts. I was struck by Professor Maslon’s rumination from Hart that closed his introduction: “I have had many successes and many failures in my life. My successes have always been for different reasons, but my failures have always been for the same reason: I said, ‘Yes’ when I meant ‘No.’”

Saying yes when we mean (or ought to say) no helps us avoid difficult conversations, bad news, and other unpleasant encounters. It is also a recipe for failure, in the theater and in most other endeavors.

Saying yes is almost always easier than saying no. It not only avoids the conflict and disappointment inflicted by a “No,” it responds to our need to be liked and thought of as a team player. Saying no takes greater confidence—confidence in yourself and in your beliefs. Most important, saying no puts the prime consideration—whether it is the play, the organization, or the student—first.