Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey

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Joel Grey is an icon, of that there is no doubt. As the Master of Ceremonies, or Emcee, in Cabaret, he created that role with the writers that made his career, but the parallels go far deeper than just the role.

Well-written and engaging, this book charts Grey’s life from his youth, when he was Joel Katz, and performed with his father, and then was a star of the nightclub scene, which he hated – since he always wanted to be seen as a serious actor.

That, and heterosexual. These desires; to become a world-renowned actor and to beat the homosexual feelings that had “plagued” him since he started fooling around with boys at the age of ten, are the main drive of the book. Whilst he achieves the former, he never manages to achieve the latter. The book is a document of a section of gay men a few generations ago who felt the crushing desire to conform and have a wife and kids – it should be noted that Grey seemed to desperately want a family of his own, independent of this conformity – and he stamped down his homosexuality as much as possible, which is very sad. However, interestingly, Grey doesn’t veer away from his failings with his marriage to his wife, Jo. He browbeat her into marrying him, into having his child, and ultimately to give up her promising career (she was also an actor on broadway) as HE was the star, not her – he couldn’t deal with her having her own career and when they had their second child, Grey got his way and she gave up work.

There is much discussion of the Emcee and the notion that although he’s smiling and inviting and asking you to come play, he is callous and soulless underneath and the parallel between Grey and the Emcee rings out loud and clear, in the way he treated his wife. They had happy times, sure, but I never got past the sense that his wife had to subsume herself to his career, his way, and that was that. And when, years later, he confessed that he had been with men years ago, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and she divorced him. Much like his Emcee, I found Grey utterly engaging although not at all sympathetic.

That is, until the end, when he says that after his divorce, now that he’d finally dealt with all of his guilt, shame and fear about being gay, that he hoped he would meet a man that he would have a connection with the way he did with Jo, but that that never happened. He concludes that he is a better family man, than a gay man. And despite his selfishness, there was a love between him and his wife, and now that he was free to be himself, I did hope that he’d find a little happiness but that appear to be the case.

A fascinating memoir, that at times flies by years and lingers over others (the book could’ve been longer in parts, more detailed in others), that is a portrait not only of a bygone era of nightclub acts, variety shows and the “golden age” of Broadway, but of a man who excels at being someone else because he could never truly be himself.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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