Frank Rich(Photo: Jeffrey Henson Scales)
Frank Rich
(Photo: Jeffrey Henson Scales)
Ghost Light, by Frank Rich
(Random House, 399 pages, $24.95)

During his years as chief drama critic of The New York Times, Frank Rich pooh-poohed the idea that a reviewer can wield real power in the American theater. He invited ridicule with a sophistical mantra: "Critics don't close shows, producers do." Yet, as testament to the clout Rich claims he never had, wags dubbed him the "Butcher of Broadway." Celebratory huzzahs echoed up and down the Rialto in 1993 when, after reviewing plays for 13 years, he left his newspaper's arts section to write a regular column for the Op-Ed Page.

In his uncompromising Times reviews, Rich displayed a knack for transforming visceral reactions into quotable flourishes. To Rich, the senior prom in the Broadway musical Carrie "look[ed] like the sort of cheesy foreign-language floor show one flips past in the nether reaches of cable television." Chess, with "the theatrical consistency of quicksand" and a "drab color scheme to match," was "about nothing except the authors' own pompous pretensions." And Sarah Brightman, ingenue of The Phantom of the Opera, "simulate[d] fear and affection alike by screwing her face into bug-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked poses more appropriate to the Lon Chaney film version" than the Lloyd Webber musical. The anti-Rich faction, quite a passionate crew during his tenure as reviewer, might have countered the critic's famous mantra with sophistry of its own: "Okay, Frank; you may not be powerful but your prose certainly is."

Ghost Light: A Memoir, Rich's elegiac new book, evokes his hometown of Washington, D.C., in the 1950s with a nostalgia and musicality that bring to mind James Agee's prose-poem "Knoxville: Summer, 1915" at the outset of A Death in the Family. "To be an American kid" in the Eisenhower era, Rich writes, "was to live in a sparkling, hopeful world where ignorance really was bliss. Parents spoke in euphemistic private codes rather than say anything that might mar the tableaux of contentment they tirelessly constructed for wide young eyes." Ghost Light charts the author's progress as he cracks the grown-ups' code, investigating betrayals by the adults who held sway in his world. Rich's mellifluous narrative voice is frequently at odds with the asperity of the book's subtext; it's clear that for Rich, now over 50, the bitterness of puberty and its aftermath hasn't abated.

This exquisitely structured memoir recalls the ignominy of coming from a "broken home" in a day when divorce was still stigmatized. Ghost Light proceeds from one jolting event to another, beginning with the parental break-up (Rich's father moved out) and the consequent realignment of household power. The author recalls his parents trying, with a profound lack of empathy, to treat each rough passage of family life--including their new romantic alliances and, later, step-siblings and half-siblings--as ordinary, unremarkable. Most alarming for young Frank was the accelerating influence of an angry, controlling stepfather who not only married the former Mrs. Rich but also micro-managed most aspects of her life.

As a palliative for the stinging, fetid wound of adolescence, Rich took refuge in Washington's National Theatre, first as a paying customer and, subsequently, as a weekend ticket-collector. Watching the musical comedies of Broadway's golden age (such as Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, and Hello, Dolly!), the future Times' reviewer found his mind exploding with clever associations and critical insights. For young Rich, the theater was the one place where, no matter what happened, "a closing would always be followed by an opening" and "an empty house would always become full again."

In Ghost Light, Rich portrays himself as a fresh-faced enthusiast scurrying through school, arts camp in the Berkshires, the obligatory teen tour of Europe, and a summer journalism course at Northwestern--rushing inexorably toward the most prominent position in American theatrical journalism. Rich's dismal portraits of his well-meaning mother, absentee father, and sometimes brutal stepfather (all dead and defenseless now) create a gloomy, overpowering counterpoint to the author's Horatio Alger depiction of himself. The prevailing tone of Ghost Light is akin to the tone of The Kiss: A Memoir, Kathryn Harrison's controversial recollection of incest with her biological father, and Anything Your Little Heart Desires: An American Family Story, Patricia Bosworth's rueful commentary on codependency. But those two 1997 books are more emotionally comprehensive, more inwardly focussed. What Ghost Light leaves largely unexplored and completely unexplained is how the pubescent juggernaut that Rich recalls himself to have been climbed out of the nasty domestic stew he remembers.

Rich's writing is so persuasively melancholy that it's unlikely to occur to the reader until the book is finished that the circumstances of the author's upbringing weren't nearly as dire as the author believes. Unfulfilled yearnings; insensitive parents; the discomfort of being trapped, at least until college, in a sour environment--any reader is likely to have suffered as much. What's more, the hardships that Rich describes are mitigated by the luxury of his upper-middle-class home, the supremely privileged nature of his education, and the love and encouragement that seem to have been available in abundance from well-meaning, if hardly ideal, relatives.

What's more striking than the self-pity of Ghost Light is that, for all of Rich's beautiful, broody prose, the book affords no access to the narrator's heart or soul. Memoirists aren't obligated to share their inmost secrets; but what distinguishes great autobiographies (Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for instance) and autobiographical fiction (A Death in the Family comes to mind again) is the occasional flash of light in the midst of the soul's dark night and the revelation of what, deep inside, sped the child toward adulthood and prevented him or her from being victimized by unfortunate beginnings.

One scours Ghost Light in vain for a clue as to what, other than that well-known enthusiasm for theater, defined schoolboy Rich and fueled his perseverance. Even the book's most confessional moments seem self-involved and remarkably short on self-understanding. The reminiscences of dating and sexual discovery, for instance, have a defensive sound, as though meant to assure the reader that, yes, this author copped a feel every now and then, like any normal guy. And the recollected bewilderment about an adult friend (Rich's first friend in professional theater, also dead and defenseless) who may have been homosexual seems designed to fend off suspicion that the narrator ever considered doing anything like that.

Again and again, Rich speaks of childhood and adolescence as mystifying and disorienting; but his doleful rhetoric doesn't bring that confusion to life. Recalling the day during his freshman year at Harvard when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Rich writes about "knowledge" rather than feeling: "Knowledge means little without wisdom and I was a long way from wisdom," he says. "The theater had showered me with love, but I had yet to learn how to love anything but it." This passage, like many in Ghost Light, is discursive when one would expect the author to surrender to the emotive. Here, as in most of the book, Rich fails to utilize adult wisdom to revivify the conflicting feelings that battered his insides during the time remembered.

Whiny as it may be in places, Ghost Light is distinguished from the genre of routine family "pathography" by the very thing that made Rich's play reviews so remarkable. Just as Rich the reviewer used to convey to Times readers how it felt to be in a particular playhouse on a particular night, Rich the memoirist rekindles the magic that theater worked on the melancholy of his early years. For the young Rich, what occurred on stage seems to have been more vivid, more real, than what happened in the rest of his life. The theater illumined his boyhood like the "ghost light" or single bulb that burns around the clock to keep bad spirits from haunting an empty auditorium. And the theater lights up his memoir, imbuing the best sections with the power and pizzazz of the "eleven o'clock number" in a first-rate Broadway musical. "Everything's coming up roses--this time, for me," the choicest pages seem to sing. At the end of the last chapter, one lays aside Ghost Light with the hope that soon there'll be a sequel that starts with Rich as an eager Harvard Crimson reviewer covering the Boston tryouts of New York-bound plays and concentrates on how he transformed himself into the demon Butcher of Broadway.