The calling that led to Frank Rich's career as chief drama critic of the New York Times not only helped him survive a turbulent childhood but provides the theme and narrative line of his memoir: "I was now destined to trace my childhood almost exclusively through an accelerating progression of plays, good and bad, that would captivate and kidnap me in circumstances both mundane and dramatic, in different cities, in the company of a multitude of audiences."
More than the story of Rich's childhood and adolescence, Ghost Light could well be described as the memoir of a calling. It began even before he was born, when his mother felt "transformed" by the songs of South Pacific, the premier musical of its era (and perhaps of the entire American theater). She listened to the record "over and over, she liked to recall, when it was time to go to the hospital and have her first baby." One of the child's earliest memories was of his mother singing songs from the musical and playing the record, explaining that it was from a Broadway "show" in New York and therefore "magical" to her; and so, it turns out, to her son.
Successive records of musical shows his parents brought home heightened the child's fascination, and though Broadway was far from his suburban DC home, young Frank was taken to a road company performance of Damn Yankees at Washington's venerable National Theatre. He went home to play the record and relive the show, wanting to learn "how each piece of the whole big Tinkertoy worked."
The "ghost light" of the title refers to the old theatrical superstition that if the stage is left dark a ghost will move in, so a single bulb is kept burning at center stage after everyone goes home. The term also has an eerie relevance to this memoir, for the author as a child suffered from night fears and insomnia, and a truly fearful menace entered his life when his mother remarried. Rich's mercurial stepfather, Joel, at first bears a harrowing resemblance to the nightmarish stepfather of another compelling memoir of the first rank, Tobias Wolfe's This Boy's Life.
The wheeling and dealing, larger-than-life lawyer Joel was alternately generous and abusive with his own children as well as his new wife and son. Though he never physically attacked Frank's sister, he lashed out at the boy in brutal scenes like this one in front of a crowd of onlookers at a family summer camp:
Joel slapped me to the ground with his huge hand. My brain felt as if it was knocking against my head. Then he grabbed me by the ankles and started dragging me up the road on my back, the dirt and gravel scraping against my skin. We were at the next building--some fifty yards away--before he dropped me in a heap in the center of the road.
Yet unlike Tobias Wolfe's stepfather, the volatile Joel was supportive and encouraging of Rich's talent and ambition, taking him to the theater, sending him to New York with tickets for Broadway plays, cheering his achievements and acceptance to Harvard. Rich is somehow able to give a balanced portrait of this brilliant and deeply troubled man who ended in a nursing home with terminal dementia.
Through the tension and fears of his stepfather's outbursts and his mother's tears, the theater served as solace, haven and home. When he got his first job as an usher at the National Theatre in high school and walked past the line of ticket buyers, he felt as if "some powerful, nameless spirit were rising within me, raising my whole being to a more elevated place, the sort of heaven people talked about in religious school but that I had never glimpsed before." He knew from then on that no matter what bad scenes erupted at home, "whatever else happened, I'd be remembered at the National Theatre and be at home there, if nowhere else."
Rich is able to convey the excitement for the theater he felt as a child, watching spellbound as
The lights shining on the curtain dimmed, too, plunging the theater into complete darkness. Then, just when the suspense became overwhelming, the whole audience holding its breath, the curtain did rise, ascending heavenward so fast (where did it go?) and revealing such an explosive cacophony of light and costumes and people singing and dancing that it was more than I could absorb. The whole whirligig of sights and sounds and bodies rushing forward seemed to be aimed directly at me.
The words of his compelling memoir seem aimed directly at us. Perhaps it's that quality of direct experience, without the artifice of fiction, that makes the memoir so popular now and has earned it a respected place in our literature.