Neil Simon Essay - Critical Essays

Neil Simon American Literature Analysis

A natural gift for wit and humor and a decade’s experience writing television comedy in the 1950’s enabled Simon to create enormously amusing plays from the very beginning of his career. Even in Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park, Simon had mastered the one-liner, the clever and witty reply that catches an audience by surprise and compels it into explosive laughter.

Take, for example, Victor Velasco’s quip upon entering the nearly barren one-room apartment of Paul and Corie Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. Their furniture has not yet arrived, but Corie announces that “we just moved in”; looking around the barren room, Velasco replies, “Really? What are you, a folksinger?” Initially, the audience is surprised by the apparent incongruity of the remark; then, within milliseconds, they realize that there is a certain aptness in the reply, given the circumstances. The laughter is boisterous because surprise triggers it, and then the laughter is sustained because aptness justifies it. Simon had polished this technique in his early writing for such television comedians as Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, and Jackie Gleason. In the introduction to volume 2 of The Collected Plays of Neil Simon (1979), Simon recalls that writing humorous dialogue for his film The Goodbye Girl was much easier than trying to write “a funny lead-in to Jo Stafford’s next song” on the old Garry Moore Show.

Although his ability to create uproarious laughter endears Simon to the general populace, it has done little to impress many critics, who see comedy as a thought-provoking genre and who associate steady, boisterous laughter with mind-numbing television situation comedies. Simon himself has been sensitive to this critical disparagement of his work and has attempted throughout his career to make his comedies more “serious” without sacrificing the laughter that he loves to create and that his audiences pay to enjoy. As early as The Odd Couple, Simon was attempting to go beyond the gag-comedy, one-liner format of Come Blow Your Horn and Barefoot in the Park. As reported in a 1979 Playboy interview, Simon’s original conception for his famous play about Oscar and Felix was to make it a black comedy.

Transcending his one-liner format and gaining more respect from the critics did not come easily. By 1979, Simon was secure in his commercial success, having turned out popular hits on Broadway and in Hollywood for nearly twenty years. Yet in the introduction to volume 2 of his Collected Plays, Simon admitted that he was still suffering from insecurity as a writer, and he openly confessed to neurosis, an ulcer, and envy over his good friend Woody Allen’s success with the motion picture Manhattan (1979), which had led reviewers to call Allen “the most mature comic mind in America.”

Simon acknowledged in that same introduction that people ranked his plays in terms of aesthetic extremes, judging them anywhere from “a delightful evening” to “worthy of Moliere.” Those who ranked his plays as “a delightful evening” were essentially admitting that the plays, although very amusing, could only be considered entertainment. Those who ranked his plays as “worthy of Moliere” were asserting that his comedy should be taken as seriously as the plays of such classic comic writers as Aristophanes, William Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.

Very few mature and responsible critics would go that far, and a much more fruitful comparison for Simon’s work is with that of playwright Alan Ayckbourn, who is often referred to as the “English Neil Simon.” Both are prolific, writing very amusing plays about conventional middle-class people. The chief value in the comparison is that Ayckbourn’s work has received a far more positive reception from the serious-minded critics, which may enable one to deduce what the critics find lacking in Simon.

The more positive critical assessment of Simon’s work, however, which began with the response to Chapter Two, seems at least partially justifiable; his later, semi-autobiographical plays are indeed different from his earlier comedies. Chapter Two does not seem to depend so much on one-liners and boisterous laughter. Written as a response to the death of his first wife, Chapter Two finally turned the focus of Simon’s plays toward dramatic narrative, toward the situations in which he put his characters. The play opens, quite typically, with a wisecracking character named Leo Schneider, but when Leo’s brother George is introduced, the pain that George feels over the loss of his wife Barbara begins to dominate the opening scene and create genuine pathos. The play does have sections where the one-liners predominate, but overall, the play focuses on the courtship of George and his new girlfriend, Jennie, and the portrayal in the last act of their posthoneymoon conflict is as genuine and moving as the pathos in the first scene. Those more serious qualities also appear prominently in Lost in Yonkers and in the plays of Simon’s autobiographical trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. As Simon entered the twenty-first century, he continued to bask in the increased critical respect generated by these plays.

Critical opinion, however, is seldom unanimous. Although the new plays were clearly different, critics such as the redoubtable John Simon of New York magazine suggested that Neil Simon had simply substituted one commercial formula for another—that the gag writer had merely been replaced by a sentimental writer. So, although the disparagement of Simon’s work abated, not all voices were raised in praise.

Barefoot in the Park

First produced: 1963 (first published, 1964)

Type of work: Play

A newly married couple irons out superficial differences and agrees to live happily ever after, finding happiness for the bride’s mother in the bargain.

In Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds Corie and Paul Bratter have completed their six-day honeymoon and are moving into their first apartment. Corie is romantic, impulsive, and enthusiastic, while her husband is a proper, careful, even “stuffy” young attorney who is more concerned with his budding legal career than he is with helping to build their love nest and perpetuating the honeymoon atmosphere. Soon Corie and Paul quarrel, Paul questioning Corie’s judgment and Corie questioning Paul’s sense of romance and adventure. Complicating their discord is Corie’s attempt to enliven the life of her widowed mother, Ethel. Against Paul’s advice, Corie tricks her mother into a blind date with their eccentric neighbor, Victor Velasco, who skis, climbs mountains, and is known as “The Bluebeard of 48th Street.”

By the end of act 2, the question of the blind date has precipitated such a conflict between Corie and Paul that they agree to divorce, and in act 3, they fight over the settlement before Paul stalks out. Ethel and Velasco, however, reveal that they have found romance. Ethel has rediscovered her vitality, while Velasco has decided that he must act his age and settle down. After the new lovers depart, Paul returns, outrageously drunk, having walked barefoot in the park in the middle of winter to prove that he is not a “fuddy-duddy.” The newlyweds are reconciled and promise to live happily ever after.

Even in his first play, Simon had mastered the qualities that would make him enormously successful. First and foremost, Barefoot in the Park is clever and hilarious, filled with snappy dialogue and witty one-liners. One of the most famous of his “running gags” (a joke repeated for laughs) appears in this play. Because Paul and Corie’s apartment is on the fifth floor of their building, nearly all the characters suffer extreme exhaustion in the climb. The joke is carried throughout the play but continues to elicit laughter because Simon always finds a different angle when he repeats it.

Nevertheless, the limitation that has haunted Simon throughout his career is present: The humor of the one-liners overwhelms the potentially literary elements of the play. There is a clear sense that the characters and plot are simply serving as framework for the funny lines. As a result, the dramatic conflicts in the play do not seem real or deeply felt.

In act 3, for example, when Paul and Corie are arguing about their divorce, Simon manages to maintain the rich humor of the play, but he is not able to create a convincing sense of conflict at the same time. Corie exclaims that she wants Paul to move out immediately, and as Paul angrily begins to pack his suitcase, Corie says, “My divorce. When do I get my divorce?” Paul replies, “How should I know? They didn’t even send us our marriage license yet.” The one-liner reestablishes the play’s frivolous tone and creates the impression that there is really little at stake. There is no satiric attitude toward either point of view, no comic judgment of anyone’s folly, and really no thought process, only the explosive laughter that comes from the line. The dominant tone created by the one-liners suggests that this marital discord is both trivial and temporary, a condition that will be resolved painlessly in a happy ending.

Simon does attempt to make a serious point in his play, asserting that moderation will make everyone happier and that marriage is too important an institution to take lightly, but his sentiments strike most critics as conventional and not thought-provoking. Ironically, Simon’s penchant for safe sentiments traps him in this play. At a pivotal moment, when Corie’s mother is counseling Corie about how to resolve the marital conflict and get Paul back, Simon gives the mother some marriage-saving “wisdom” that dates the play and made it seriously anachronistic within a decade. What seemed to Simon in the early 1960’s to be conservative, conventional wisdom would soon become sexism in the 1970’s:It’s very simple. You’ve just got to give up a little of you for him. Don’t make everything a game. Just late at night in that little room upstairs. But take care of him. And make him feel important. And if you can do that, you’ll have a happy and wonderful marriage.

The Odd Couple

First produced: 1965 (first published, 1966)

Type of work: Play

Two men, one divorced and sloppy, the other newly separated from his wife and very tidy, discover that they cannot live together.

The Odd Couple was not merely another Neil Simon hit: It might be considered the greatest hit of his career, if popularity is measured by the kind of impact a play has on American culture. The Odd Couple ran on Broadway for nearly one thousand performances, then was made into a film (1968), then into a very successful network television program (1970-1975), and then recast in a female version (1985), in which the two roommates are played by women. These facts alone would be significant indications of popularity, but Simon’s play has had such an impact on American life that the phrase “odd couple” has become part of American folklore. Many may not remember the names of the two men or which was the messy one, but nearly every adult is familiar with the situation to which the phrase “odd couple” refers and can use the phrase to describe similar situations.

The Odd Couple refers to Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. Oscar, the messy one, is divorced...

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