Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1641
Simon started his career writing comedies, first for radio shows, then for television shows, and ultimately for his plays. As David Richards notes in his review of Lost in Yonkers for the New York Times Magazine , during the 1980s, pain ‘‘slowly crept into the comic world of Neil Simon.’’...
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Simon started his career writing comedies, first for radio shows, then for television shows, and ultimately for his plays. As David Richards notes in his review of Lost in Yonkers for the New York Times Magazine, during the 1980s, pain ‘‘slowly crept into the comic world of Neil Simon.’’ This is definitely the case with Lost in Yonkers, which takes its characters to painful emotional depths. In fact, as Richards notes, Simon was originally afraid that "audiences might not find it funny enough.'' However, as many critics note, Simon strikes an effective balance between tragedy and humor in Lost in Yonkers. Perhaps this is most apparent in the volatile dinner scene where Bella reveals her intentions to marry and start a business. In her entry on Simon for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Koprince notes, "This scene, which actually begins in a comedic manner, demonstrates Simon's ability to move his audience from laughter to tears—even within the space of a few minutes.'' Simon relies on humor not only to offset the play's tragic qualities but also to emphasize certain aspects about his characters.
The humor in the play is transmitted mainly through dialogue. In many cases, this humorous dialogue is uttered by one character at the expense of another. This is most true in the case of Grandma Kurnitz, who becomes the butt of many jokes. Simon has a specific purpose in doing this. He is attempting to emphasize Grandma Kurnitz's toughness. Many of the jokes about her refer to her steel-like attitude and demeanor, which frightens Jay and Arty, in particular. These two boys, in an effort to deal with their nervousness about their grandma, crack jokes about her. When they first arrive at their grandma's apartment in the very beginning of the play, they are obviously not happy about being there. Jay says about their grandma, "When I was five, I drew a picture of her and called it 'Frankenstein's Grandma.'’’ This depiction of Grandma Kurnitz, drawn by Jay when he was a small child, and therefore very honest, is also an accurate depiction of what others think about Grandma Kurnitz in the play. In addition, even before meeting Grandma Kurnitz, the audience has a laugh at her expense and forms a picture of her as a monster. Jay and Arty make several other humorous comments about Grandma Kurnitz's toughness. For example, when they are trying to find ways to make money to help out their father, Arty says, "What if one night we cut off Grandma's braids and sold it to the army for barbed wire?''
This effect increases as others talk about Grandma Kurnitz's scariness. For example, when Bella talks about her mother's effect on one of Gert's old boyfriends, she is not intending to be funny, but it is comedic. Bella says, ‘‘My sister, Gert, was once engaged to a man. She brought him over to meet Grandma. The next day he moved to Boston.’’ Once again, comments like this reinforce the idea of Grandma Kurnitz as a horrible monster. Grandma Kurnitz's long sections of dialogue at the end of the first scene, where she refuses to let Jay and Arty stay with her—even though it could mean the death of Eddie—further underscores her negative qualities.
Simon uses humorous dialogue to emphasize the qualities of other characters as well. When the audience first meets Uncle Louie, he arrives on the scene unexpected. The boys, and the audience, are drawn into Louie's fast-talking, street-style dialogue, which often culminates in jokes. For example, when Jay and Arty are having a hard time concentrating on what Louie is saying because they are focusing on his holstered gun, he puts the gun in his waistband. Jay asks him if it is loaded, and Louie says, ‘‘Gee, I hope not. If it went off, I'd have to become a ballerina.’’ In another instance, Arty is surprised to find that Louie has slipped a five-dollar bill into Arty's pocket while they were talking. Louie says, "These fingers were touched by genius. I could have been a concert violinist, but the handkerchief kept fallin' off my neck.’’ Louie's humor sometimes takes a turn for the lewd, as when he asks Arty to check his pajama bottoms, presumably for any more five-dollar bills. When Arty says,"There's nothing there,’’ Louie responds, ‘‘Well, don't worry. You're young yet,’’ implying that Arty is not yet sexually mature. After a series of rapid-fire jokes like these, Arty says that ‘‘He's incredible. It's like having a James Cagney movie in your own house.''
Louie's humor can have a dark edge, too, as when he is discussing his potential death. Louie knows he is wanted by the mob, and he has been living his life on the run. As a result, before he goes to sleep in the same room as Jay and Arty, he says, ‘‘So unless something unforeseen goes wrong, I'll see you in the morning pals.’’ Although this is not laugh-out-loud funny, it is a sort of dark humor, which further underscores the idea of Louie as a tough gangster type. Louie makes other jokes about grim subjects, such as the war. When he and Arty are discussing the horrid quality of Grandma Kurnitz's mustard soup—which Arty says he could taste even ‘‘if I didn't have a tongue’’—Louie references the brutality of the war in an offhand manner. Louie says about the German General Rommel, ‘‘Right now he's rollin' across Egypt, cuttin' through the whole British army. Tough as they come .... But if Momma wanted him to eat the soup, he would eat the soup.’’
Gert is another character that has jokes made at her expense. She suffers from a breathing condition—which she developed during her painful childhood with her mother—where she says the first part of a sentence breathing out and the second part of the sentence sucking in. In the beginning of the play, Jay describes it as follows: "I once saw her try to blow out a candle and halfway there she sucked it back on.’’ This comment and the other humorous ones like it depict Gert as a weak, sick woman. In fact, in their discussions with their uncle Louie, Jay and Arty find out more about how Gert developed this condition. Louie says, "Gert used to talk in her sleep and Mom heard her one night sayin' things she didn't like. So Gert didn't get supper that week. Until she learned to sleep holdin' her breath.’’
However, when it comes to audience perception, Bella is perhaps the character whose image is most affected by jokes. From the beginning, Jay and Arty tell jokes about their aunt Bella, though not in an intentionally mean way. In fact, some of these jokes are not jokes at all, in the sense that they are true. Many jokes are based in fact but inflated to give them an increased comedic quality. In the case of Bella, however, many of the things that the boys or others say about her are not embellished at all. For example, when Jay and Arty are discussing Bella's education, Arty is surprised to find out that Bella went to high school. As Jay notes, it was only ‘‘A little. She missed the first year because she couldn't find it.’’ While this is a humorous comment, it is also true. So is the fact that Grandma Kurnitz used to beat on Bella the most, because Bella was slow to begin with and so got many things wrong. As Jay notes, when Bella got confused and gave a customer more ice cream for the same price, her mother would react violently. Jay says, "And if Grandma saw it, Whacko! Another couple of IQ points gone.’’ Because these humorous comments about Bella are based in facts that the audience can see for themselves, the audience is led to believe that Bella is slow and cannot do much of anything for herself.
Ultimately, Simon's use of humor is an effective way to trap the audience and reverse their expectations. For the entire play, the various jokes about or by the characters help the audience grow accustomed to thinking about each character in a certain way. At the end, however, Simon turns the tables. Grandma Kurnitz, who is depicted as a monster throughout the play, is shown to be a sad woman who has faced her share of tragedies and developed misguided defense mechanisms as a result. Uncle Louie, who is depicted throughout as an irresponsible gangster who makes jokes about death and only watches out for himself, turns out to be a responsible brother. He gives Bella the money she needs to pursue her dream (even though she chooses not to use it). He also joins the army. Although his enlistment is technically a way of escaping the mob, with his loads of money he could have chosen to take many other, safer routes. Instead, he chooses to put his life on the line fighting for his country. Gert is depicted throughout the play as a weak, sick individual. However, as the boys find out at the end of the play, she only has her breathing condition when she is at her mother's house. Other than that, she lives her own life and even risks her mother's wrath by helping out Bella.
Finally, and most important, Bella is depicted throughout the play as a baffled woman who gets confused easily. By the end of the play, Bella has taken the first steps toward maturity, taken on her mother with intelligent and meaningful speeches, and is attempting to move on with her adult life.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Lost in Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2664
It is difficult to discuss Simon's Lost in Yonkers without focusing on Grandma Kurnitz. All action, whether comedy or drama, is focused on this one women, who is both tyrant and protector, manipulator and mini-dictator. She dominates the play, just as she dominates her stage family. Grandma Kurnitz is not likable, and stage comedy is often dependant on the audience's ability to like a character, or at least, to identify in some way with a character's actions or motivations. Simon does not develop Grandma Kurnitz's personality sufficiently, nor does he provide enough depth to her personality to make her actions understandable. As a result, she emerges as a cruel figure, who is not especially likeable. In an effort to work as much comedy as possible into the script, Simon gives the two young grandsons many of the play's comedic one-liners, when what really needs more probing and stage time are the reasons for Grandma Kurnitz's cruelty to her children and grandchildren. When it comes to comedy, American audiences want a happy ending, and so because he has built his reputation on writing comedy, Simon creates an ending for his play that offers some hope for the family's survival. This ending is the one place in the play where Simon disappoints.
In 1991, Lost in Yonkers won both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, thereby providing some level of validation for Simon's many years as a playwright. Gary Konas, the editor of Neil Simon: A Casebook, says in his introduction to this collection of essays, that in the past, Simon has enjoyed little respect from theater critics and academics, who think that a serious playwright does not write comedy, nor should a serious playwright enjoy commercial success. Simon, of course, writes comedy very well, and his plays have been hugely popular with American audiences. For many of his works, Simon draws on his background as a Jewish American living in a post-Holocaust world, endeavoring to tell an honest story even though the story is not about his own life. Simon is always aware of his audience's expectations for comedy, and so he concentrates on providing a tidy ending that leaves the audience feeling good about the play and the characters on stage. Simon also rarely makes his characters religiously Jewish; instead, they are culturally Jewish and thus more easily understood by a non-Jewish audience. In this case, Grandma Kurnitz's Jewishness provides some brief clues to her past. She escaped the Holocaust, but Grandma Kurnitz is still a victim of that same tragedy, and her responses to life are meant to be understood as a response to those events.
The audience's first real knowledge of Grandma Kurnitz comes from the oldest grandson, Jay, who says that, "When I was five, I drew a picture of her and called it 'Frankenstein's Grandmother."' In her essay, ‘‘Beyond Laughter and Forgetting: Echoes of the Holocaust in Lost in Yonkers,’’ Bette Mandl suggests that the reference to ‘‘Frankenstein's Grandma,’’ is appropriate, since the grandmother ‘‘does take on monstrous proportions during the course of the play, because she becomes identified with the distant horrors that are at the heart of Lost in Yonkers.'' Simon's Jewish mothers are usually portrayed on stage as loving and gentle women. Yet, in Lost in Yonkers, the stage directions establish a different sort of Jewish mother, one who is depicted more as a harsh German matron, a stereotype drawn from countless Hollywood films. Simon describes Grandma Kurnitz as a woman for whom, "authority and discipline seem to be her overriding characteristics.’’ She is someone who "would command attention in a crowd’’ and who speaks ‘‘with few but carefully chosen words, with a clear German accent.’’ On stage, the playwright must often depend on stereotypes to define his characters since there is little time to really establish an identity. The audience must know in only a few moments who and what a character is. In casting Grandma Kurnitz in the mold of the cold unapproachable German matron and less as a loving Jewish mother, Simon raises some interesting questions about this woman's life. For instance, did the Nazi's succeed in destroying Grandma Kurnitz's Jewish culture, her love of family and children and prevail in transforming her into their own ideal? Mandl suggests that in Lost in Yonkers, the German Nazi matron and the Jewish mother/grandmother become conflated and that this conflation is representative of the psychological havoc that Grandma Kurnitz imposes on her American family. Her own misery and unhappiness are so much a part of her life that she cannot find any happiness with the family that remains. At some point in the past, Grandma was that loving Jewish mother that Simon's audience expect to see in his plays, but because of the Nazi horror taking place in Germany, she has emerged as both a victim of the Nazi terror and a villain in her own family. Grandma cannot distinguish between her life in Germany, her life in America, and her life in Yonkers, any more than she can find her Jewish self amid the harsh German matron who has emerged to control her life.
In addition to the image of Grandma Kurnitz as a German matron, the depiction of this strong Germanic woman is unsympathetic for other reasons. Simon is writing Lost in Yonkers more than forty years after the Holocaust ended. In the years immediately after World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors were urged to forget what had occurred, to create new lives and not dwell on the past. Perhaps it was guilt at not having done enough to help that motivated this desire for silence, or maybe the horror of seeing pictures of so much death and destruction overwhelmed the public, and they just did not want to be reminded that the victims of this horror were individuals, each with their own story of suffering. It would be many years before the world was prepared to hear these stories, but by the time that Simon is writing Lost in Yonkers, the Holocaust has become more visible. Instead of actually dealing with Grandma Kurnitz's past, Simon provides this explosive character with such throwa-way lines as, ‘‘I stopped feeling because I couldn't stand losing anymore.’’ Simon's audience is ready to hear about Grandma's past, but all that Simon provides is an occasional, under-developed hint of loss. Additional detail and character development would have made Grandma Kurnitz more sympathetic and infinitely more interesting. Another problem that gets in the way of sympathizing with Grandma Kurnitz is the thick German accent that only reminds listeners of who it was who perpetrated the Holocaust. It seems like a simple point, but many Jews, especially Jews in America can barely tolerate a German accent. Lost in Yonkers is not autobiographical, and Grandma Kurnitz does not have to be German to be a victim of anti-Semitism. Even before the Holocaust, anti-Semitic pogroms devastated families across Europe, and so with only a few changes to the text, she might as easily have been Russian, Czech, Polish, or any one of several other nationalities who fell victim to anti-Semitism. It is easy to assume that Grandma Kurnitz is German because the audience is not supposed to sympathize with her. In essence, Simon does everything he can to make Grandma Kurnitz cruel and unlikable. What is difficult to understand is why.
Grandma's family may be safe in America, but in her eyes, they will never be safe from the dangers that all Jews face in an anti-Semitic world. During her meeting with her grandsons as she tells them that she does not want them living with her, Grandma Kurnitz tells the boys, ‘‘You don't survive in dis vorld vitout being like steel.’’ Grandma Kurnitz rejects her children and grandchildren so that they will learn survival skills; they must learn to survive in a world that does not want them because they are Jewish. She has survived, but she has survived so damaged that she is unable to provide for her children or grandchildren's emotional needs, nor can she satisfy even their most basic need for love. In Grandma Kurnitz's world, such needs are unimportant in the face of the need just to survive. Even though her whole focus is on removing all signs of weakness in her children, Grandma Kurnitz fails to recognize that her emotionally stunted children are only existing and not really surviving very well. Mandl says that it is Grandma Kurnitz who makes her grandsons less safe in America even as it is Hitler who puts Jewish children at risk in Europe. In fact, Louie is the only child who appears to have survived his childhood and his mother without succumbing to her many efforts to crush all evidence of weakness. Instead, his form of rebellion is to put himself at risk in a life devoted to crime. Louie provides a genuine foil to Grandma. He teaches the boys to resist, to fight back, to develop moxie. According to Mandl, when the two boys learn to survive in their grandmother's house, they are enacting ‘‘a fantasy in which they are 'armed' to resist the threat of the war against the Jews that impinges psychologically on life in Yonkers.’’ If they can survive their grandmother's cruelty, they are strong enough to survive anything that they might experience as Jews. Ironically, through the lessons of living with Grandma Kurnitz, the boys are also being taught to resist the German oppressor who has brought her own oppression to America with her. It is not Hitler whom the boys need to fear; it is their grandmother. At the end of the play, Louie leaves to go to war. It is important that he is leaving to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific, not to fight in the war against the Germans. Louie heads for the Pacific because he has been fighting Germany, in the guise of his mother, his whole life. In a different war, he would rather fight the Japanese.
The two boys, Jay and Arty, learn endurance from the months they spend with their grandmother. They do survive her, but children should not have to survive their grandmother. At the end of the play, the boys are leaving to live with their father. Arty is more of a child at thirteen and so he is the one to kiss Grandma Kurnitz goodbye. As the youngest child, he is still hoping to be loved and to share love. He is quicker to forgive, and thus he is the one to kiss her even though she is undeserving of his love or kisses. At 16, Jay sees the time with their grandmother as a test of their ability to endure. Jay says, "we made it, Arty. Ten months here and we're still alive. We got through Grandma and we're alright.’’ Having survived their grandma, they can survive anything. In the final act, the audience also learns that Grandma might have helped Eddie with his money problems, and it would not have been necessary for him to be separated from his sons, just months after his wife's death. Even in her final scene, Eddie's mother is unrelenting as she declares that, ‘‘Eddie has to do things for himself.’’ She forced him to survive. It was cruel, but in her eyes it was necessary. In these moments, Simon is creating some honest and fascinating family dynamics, but then he abruptly remembers that he needs a happy ending and suddenly Grandma Kurnitz begins to mellow. She almost jokes with her two grandsons and, in a final moment, abdicates control to her grown daughter Bella, who only months earlier could barely raise the courage to speak to her mother.
Mandl questions whether allowances might be made for Simon's failure to be true to his characters; after all, he is a comic playwright—he is not writing tragedy. But, Simon has created tragic characters in Grandma Kurnitz and her emotionally damaged children, and the audience deserves to see a resolution to their conflicts. Simon appears to lack faith in his own ability as a dramatic playwright, and he cannot resist evoking the comedic elements. William Shakespeare often combined tragedy and comedy, but by the end of Act V, there was never any doubt that a tragic ending would bring resolution to the play. Simon only toys with the audience as he hints at the tragedy of this family. The idea of a destructive mother is not new—consider Euripides' Medea—but a play that ends without resolution or without the gods punishing those who are responsible for such destructive evil, fails to resound with the audience. Simon never provides a tragic hero and fails to punish the representation of evil. It is not clear whether Grandma Kurnitz's children love her—perhaps they all do, although for some, they may fear her as much as love her. It is equally not clear that any of them hate her, and to be hated seems somewhat of a necessity at the end of this play. Grandma Kurnitz deserves to be hated. Grandma Kurnitz is not the tragic hero. In a true tragedy, the boys' father would succumb to his heart ailment, something that Simon teases the audience with throughout the play, and Arty and Jay would be forced to continue their existence with their grandmother. By the final act, the father has returned and the boys are rescued.
Still another part of the ending rings false. Bella's liberation from her destructive mother at play's end is too pat, too hopeful, and too contradictory to the characterization that has thus far been presented. In the first scene of act 2, Bella could not even tell her mother about her plans to marry a local theater usher unless the rest of the family was present to provide emotional and protective support. They were even required to sit in certain predetermined locations before she could begin to speak, and even then, she needed her siblings and her nephews to help her tell the story. Yet, the audience is to believe that in only three days Bella was able to completely reevaluate and transform her personality to one of strength so that nine months later, the roles have been reversed and Bella is in control. In the past, Bella was able to show only minimal strength when she refused to allow her mother to send the two nephews away. All of Bella's encounters with men (she suggests there were many) are carefully hidden from her mother to avoid any confrontation. Bella has no history of strength from which to draw, and so, only in an idealized situation could the ending that Simon constructs have any truth. In an interview with Jackson R. Bryer, Simon relates that seeing A Streetcar Named Desire taught him that "humor could come out of a very different place in a play.’’ The question remains why he thinks there is an obligation to locate humor in his plays. This is especially important because Simon tells Bryer that when he goes to see a play, he would ‘‘much rather see a drama than a comedy.’’ Simon sees himself as writing a drama that happens also to be funny. He thinks that real life is like that, a mixture of drama and the ridiculous, and of course, it is. But, if he wants real life, the ending of this play does not work. Simon remains true to his comedic tradition, but Lost in Yonkers is a play that lacks the tragic identity that Simon might have constructed if he had trusted himself more. A Lost in Yonkers that dealt seriously with a Holocaust survivor might have established Simon as a serious dramatic playwright and left the audience hungry for more.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on Lost in Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, as an adjunct professor in the university honors program.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604
As a perfect blend of Neil Simon's signature one-liner comedy and heartfelt emotional drama, Lost in Yonkers explores the dysfunctional lives of the Kurnitz family living through a tumultuous year in 1942. After the death of their mother, Jay and Arty Kurnitz are sent to live with their hardened old grandmother while their father, Eddie, works as a traveling salesman. For the next ten months, they discover the tortured existence that plagues their family--from Aunt Bella's childlike need for love to Uncle Louie's thrill-seeking toughness, to Aunt Gert's choking nervousness. At the center of all this pain is Grandma Kurnitz, a German Jew who has chosen to shut herself off from the world rather than deal with any more emotional trauma.
As J. Kroll says in his Newsweek review "Going Bonkers in Yonkers," "Simon gives us a nuclear family that clearly has some photons missing." The boys' struggle to maintain a normal life in abnormal circumstances, combined with Bella's insistence on achieving the happiness she has always wanted, forces the entire family to face each other, their fears, and their own individual views on what it means to be truly alive. Though the struggle threatens to break them apart, it ultimately brings some ability to cope, if not to heal, and redefines the relationships of the Kurnitz family.
The setting of the play greatly affects and reflects the internal tension of the Kurnitz family. In 1942, as World War II begins to change virtually all aspects of the American scene, life and death are daily issues confronting the entire nation. The pain and shock of Pearl Harbor is still fresh, tens of thousands of young American men are being sent to battle, millions around the world are dying, and being a Jewish German American has taken on a whole new significance. As Eddie says, ‘‘[I]f my mother didn't come to this country thirty-five years ago, I could have been fighting for the other side.... Except I don't think they are putting guns in the hands of Jews over there.’’ Suddenly, being alive is more than just the natural state of things, it is good fortune, and it is something that could be taken away at any time. This realization may be new to the national consciousness, but it has been the driving fear gripping Grandma Kurnitz for most of her life. For her, the only thing that is really important in life is life itself. She reminds Louie, "Live—at any cost I taught you’’ and tells Arty, ‘‘It's only important that you live.’’
Yet anything beyond simply existing has become too difficult for Grandmas Kurnitz to bear. The hardships that she has suffered throughout her life have caused her to steel herself against any kind of emotional attachment or sentimentality. In particular, the deaths of two of her children created such pain and guilt that, as she says, ‘‘I stopped feeling because I couldn't stand losing anymore.’’ Gerald Weales states in his Commonweal article ‘‘Downstairs, Upstairs’’ that ‘‘the death of a beloved child taught her to wall herself off from all affection that might make her vulnerable to new pain.’’ Grandma Kurnitz's stony attitude towards life is manifested in the way she raised and continues to treat her children and grandchildren. Her insistence that they be strong has instead emotionally crippled her children to the point that they cannot function as normal adults. Grandma Kurnitz's perspective on life has sucked the life right out of every one she is supposed to love.
Louie Kurnitz seems to be the one who has most taken his mother's teachings to heart. He, too, has made himself hard against the world, and he engages in a profession that provides him with the only emotions he can still feel—excitement and danger. His involvement with organized crime suggests that he doesn't really value his life and that ‘‘it's only fun when there's a chance a gettin' caught. Nothin' sweeter than danger.'' Louie prides himself on being even tougher than his mother is, but to the extent that the appearance of being tough is more important than life itself. It is worth risking his life to prove that he can take anything that anyone hands him. Even Grandma Kurnitz recognizes that Louie's twisted hardness is beyond anything that she tried to teach him, and she refuses to accept his "filthy money.'' Louie's view on life has been distorted by his need to be the toughest person he knows, besides his mother.
It is the most unlikely member of the Kurnitz family who challenges her mother's status quo. Bella is described by Jay and Arty as "closed for repairs'' because she has the mental capacity of a child. Yet it is her childlike sensibilities that allow her to see through her mother's emotional iron curtain to a world where life and love are joyful experiences, not painful ones, and she desperately craves a life where she can receive as much love as she is willing to give. Bella needs for life to be more than simply existing. She wants to feel all the emotional ups and downs that her mother has been avoiding and from which she has tried to protect Bella.
Grandma Kurnitz worries about Bella being around other people and getting "too excited,'' but emotional stimulation and expression are exactly what Bella wants. She goes so far as to see the same movie over and over again just so she can be with an usher who says he wants to marry her. She even resorts to emotional blackmail to get what she wants by threatening to move to the Home and leave her mother all alone. The climax of the play occurs when Bella finally confronts her mother with her desire to find love and exposes the reasons behind her mother's decision to push away all emotion. As David Richards states in The New York Times Magazine article "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," Bella gives a "wrenching plea for the right to love someone who will love you back in a world where steelier emotions normally prevail.’’ Bella's pursuit of the emotional richness that is necessary for happiness changes the family dynamics. Her unwavering resolve to reach beyond her limitations and gain what she needs eventually forces her mother into accepting a broadened life for Bella.
Caught in the middle of all this turmoil are Arty and Jay. Having previously been sheltered from their grandmother by their recently deceased mother, the boys are the outside force that sweeps into the Kurnitz home. They notice that ‘‘there's something wrong with everyone on Pop's side of the family,’’ and they bring with them a normalcy that their aunts and uncle have never known. Arty and Jay defiantly refuse to be sucked into the emotional void that their grandmother has created, and despite the realization that they have to get along for their father's sake, they fight against their grandmother's definition of what it means to be strong. Following their own sense of strength, their efforts at self-preservation actually exercise more strength than any other family member has, especially their own father. Eddie is an emotionally and physically weak man, beaten down by years of neglect from his mother. As Eddie says, ‘‘I am the weak one. I am the crybaby.... Always was.’’
Despite his years of living with a loving wife and trying to forget his past, Eddie still collapses under the weight of his mother's harshness and is unable to stand up for himself or what he needs in front of her. His sister Gertrude is the same way. She becomes so nervous in her mother's presence that she actually has trouble breathing. The very air she needs to live is sucked away from her in her mother's self-imposed void. Yet outside the home she is much better. As Gert says, ‘‘I don't have it that much. It's mostly when I come here.'' Arty and Jay have seen what their grandmother's lack of love has done to their father, aunts, and uncle, but their understanding of what is really important in life brings them through. ‘‘Ten months here and we're still alive. We got through Grandma and we're alright'' means more than just not physically perishing, it means that their emotional lives are intact as well. Jay and Arty have passed through the gauntlet, learning some important lessons and bringing some hope into the lives of their elders along the way.
In his aptly titled article ‘‘Laughter on the Brink of Tears'' for Time, William A. Henry III describes Lost in Yonkers as a play about "a mother who was physically and psychologically abusive and four middle-aged children who still suffer the weaknesses she inflicted in teaching them to be strong.’’ On the surface, this description is true. Yet the play is much more; it is also a testimony to the value of life and love, the value of family, and the value of never giving up. Every member of the Kurnitz family has suffered some sort of great loss or tragic death, but it is only through the acceptance of this loss and the continued search for joy and love that any real life can be achieved. Those, like Grandma Kurnitz, who shut themselves off from any emotion become merely glorified ghosts, while those, like Bella, who embrace life's possibilities are truly living. The true meaning of life is about what is allowed in, not what is kept out.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Lost in Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Kerschen is a freelance writer and a researcher in education.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7402
A critic has described Neil Simon as ''relentlessly prolific.’’ By virtually any accepted standard, he is the most successful playwright in the history of the American theatre. In thirty years, his 26 Broadway shows (including revivals of Little Me and The Odd Couple) have played a total of well over 15,000 performances. When The Star-Spangled Girl opened in December 1966, Simon had four Broadway productions running simultaneously. Despite this popular success and general critical approval, Simon did not win his first Tony Award for Best Play until 1985 (Biloxi Blues), although he had won the Tony for Best Author of a Play for The Odd Couple in 1965. His most recent play, Lost in Yonkers, won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1991.
Simon's Broadway productions include the plays Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), The Star-Spangled Girl (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), Last of the Red-Hot Lovers (1969), The Gingerbread Lady (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1972), The Good Doctor (1973), God's Favorite (1974), California Suite (1977), Chapter Two (1977), I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980), Fools (1981), Biloxi Blues (1985), Broadway Bound (1986), Rumors (1988), and Lost in Yonkers (1991). His 1990 play, Jake's Women, closed before reaching New York. He has written the books for the musicals Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Promises, Promises (1968), and They're Playing Our Song (1979). Besides the adaptations of several of his plays for the movies, his screenplays are The Out-of-Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, Murder By Death, The Goodbye Girl, Seems Like Old Times, The Cheap Detective, Only When I Laugh, Max Dugan Returns, The Slugger's Wife, and The Marrying Man.
Born, like George M. Cohan, on the Fourth of July, in 1927 in the Bronx, New York, he grew up there and in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan with his only sibling, his brother Danny. He early received the nickname "Doe" for his ability to mimic the family doctor. When their parents, Irving (a garment salesman) and Mamie (who often worked at department stores to support the family during her husband's frequent absences), divorced, the two boys went to live with relatives in Forest Hills, Queens, and Simon attended high school there and at DeWitt Clinton in Manhattan. After brief military service at the end of World War II, he worked for several years with his brother as a comedy writer for radio and television. In 1953, he married Joan Baim, a dancer, who died of cancer in 1973. His second wife was actress Marsha Mason; he is now married to Diane Lander. He has two grown daughters and a step-daughter.
This interview was conducted on January 23, 1992, in Simon's suite at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, while he was preparing Lost in Yonkers (then playing at Washington's National Theatre) for its Broadway opening. The interview was transcribed by Drew Eisenhauer.
[Bryer:] You always say that very early on you knew you wanted to be a playwright.
[Simon:] I wanted to be a writer very early on. It's not quite true about the playwrighting thing. I started writing the first play when I was thirty and got it on when I was thirty-three, so that's fairly old to be starting as a playwright. Most young people want to write poetry or want to write novels. When you knew you wanted to be a writer, was it always writing plays that you wanted to do?
I started out with different aims and ambitions. I grew up in the world of radio so the first couple of jobs I had were in radio and then television. I think I was setting my sights for film. I'm not quite sure when I decided to do plays. I know when I actually did so which was after years of working on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, and The Bilko Show. I said I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing this—writing for someone else—I wanted to do my own work. So I started writing the first play, Come Blow Your Horn, and it took me almost three years to do the twenty-some complete new versions before I got it on. When I did get it on, I said, ' 'My God, three years!’’ and I was exhausted. I had only taken other little jobs just to make a living, since I had a wife and two children. But once the play hit, Come Blow Your Horn subsidized the next one which was a musical, Little Me, and that subsidized writing Barefoot in the Park, and then I was making enough money so I could do this full-time.
So, in a sense, your playwrighting grew out of writing for TV and radio in that writing for TV and radio was basically working within a dramatic form? That's what really led to the playwrighting.
Right. I started off just writing jokes for newspaper columns and things and then working on Your Show of Shows and Bilko. Your Show of Shows was writing sketches and Bilko was like a half-hour movie; so I was learning the dramatic form. Then I worked for about two years with Max Liebman, who was the producer of Your Show of Shows, doing specials. It was a very good education for me because we were updating pretty famous musical books of the past—Best Foot Forward and Knickerbocker Holiday. We would throw the book out completely and use the score; we would sort of follow the story line but use our own dialogue. So I was able to step in the footprints of previous writers and learn about the construction from them.
What was the purpose of those? Were they for television?
Yes. We did about twenty of them, two shows a month. One show would be a book show. A couple of them were originals; one was The Adventures of Marco Polo, and we used the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff. So I was really learning a lot about construction. I had made a few abortive attempts to write plays during that time—one with another writer on the The Bilko Show—and it was going nowhere. I always had my summers off because in those days we did 39 shows a year on television in consecutive weeks and you had something like thirteen weeks off in the summer in which I would try to write plays; and I would say, ' 'Wow, this is tough!’’ Finally, I went to California to do a television special—for Jerry Lewis of all people. I had quit Your Show of Shows—it had finally gone off the air—and so I was free-lancing. I went out there for six weeks. In about ten days I wrote the whole show and I said to Jerry Lewis, ‘‘What' ll I do, I've got all this time?'' He said,' 'I've got other things to do. Just do what you want until we go into rehearsal.’’ And I started to write Come Blow Your Horn, which was almost a satirical or a farcical look at my upbringing with my parents. I was on the way but it took three years to do that, as I said.
As a child, and as a young adult, did you read plays and did you go to the theatre?
I went to the theatre. I read quite a good deal. I went to the library; I used to take out about three books a week, but they weren't about the theatre. It wasn't until I was about fourteen or fifteen that I saw my very first play, Native Son, the Richard Wright book and play.
A strange thing for a fourteen or fifteen year-old to go see, wasn't it?
There was a local theatre in upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights where I lived. It was called the Audubon Theatre. It used to be a movie house and then they used it for acts—sort of vaudeville acts but I wouldn't really call it vaudeville. They started doing that all over New York at the time when the theatre was truly flourishing. You not only played Broadway, you could go to Brooklyn and Manhattan and the Bronx and there were theatres that did their versions of plays that had closed on Broadway. So I went to this local theatre and Native Son and was mesmerized by what the theatre could do. I had also acted in plays in public school and in junior high school, so I had a little glimpse of that; but acting is a lot different from writing. I think that slowly, as my parents started to take me to the theatre more, mostly musicals (I remember seeing Oklahoma!; it was—for its time—so innovative and so original), in the back of my mind I thought about that. But all during those years I was working with my brother and I thought that the only way to write a play was to do it by yourself, because one needed an individual point of view. Even if we were to write about our own family background, his point of view would be completely different from mine, and so it would get diminished somehow and watered down. When I wrote Come Blow Your Horn, I never even told him about it. It meant that I would have to make a break with him after ten years of writing together. The break was pretty traumatic. It was worse than leaving home because one expects that, but this was breaking up a partnership that he started because he was looking for a partner. He doesn' t like to work by himself, and he always noticed and encouraged the sense of humor I had. I didn't have a sense of construction; he had that, and I was wonderful with lines and with the comedy concepts. Finally, when I did Come Blow Your Horn, I knew I had to step away. Partly I think it had to do with my being married; I began to feel my own oats and wanted the separation.
Can you speak at all about plays or playwrights that impressed you, influenced you, early or late?
Well, it was any good playwright. I didn't have favorites. In terms of comedy, I guess maybe Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. A play that neither one of them wrote, Garson Kanin' s Born Yesterday, I thought was a wonderful comedy, and I liked Mr. Roberts too; but I was as intrigued by the dramas as I was by the comedies. It wasn't until sometime later that I decided what I wanted to write was drama and tell it as comedy. I was such an avid theatregoer, especially when I first married Joan. You could go to the theatre then twice a week and not catch the whole season on Broadway and even off-Broadway. Streetcar Named Desire probably made the greatest impression on me, that and Death of a Salesman. These are not comedies. Although I knew I was not up to writing a drama as yet, I thought when I wrote something it would be from a comedy point of view. If you could have written one play that was written by somebody else, what would that play be?
The question has been asked a lot and I generally say A Streetcar Named Desire. I have a certain affinity for that play; so does everyone else in America for that matter, I think. Death of a Salesman.I thought was maybe the best American play I've ever seen—but it lacked humor. The humor that I saw in Streetcar Named Desire came out of a new place for humor. It came out of the character of Stanley Kowalski saying, ‘‘I have this lawyer acquaintance of mine’’ and talking about the Napoleonic Code. It was the way he talked that got huge laughs, and I knew that this was not comedy; it was character comedy and that's what I aimed for later on. If I were able to write a play, an American play, I would say it would be Streetcar.
The same quality is present in The Glass Menagerie, too. That play also has some very funny moments in it, but they grow very organically out of Amanda and out of her situation.
Yes. Even in Eugene O'Neill, who really lacks humor, I found humor in Long Day's Journey, in James Tyrone's meanness with money—turning out the light bulbs all the time and being so cheap. That was a play that I said to myself when I saw it, ' 'I could never write that but I would love to write like that,’’ to write my own Long Day's Journey. I have an oblique sense of humor; I see comedy—or humor, not comedy (there's a difference)—in almost everything that I've gone through in life, I'd say, with the exception of my wife's illness and death. Humor has become so wide open today that it's almost uncensored on television. It's all part of the game now. As I said, Long Day's Journey impressed me very much early on, and the writings of August Wilson impress me very much today. There's great humor in them and great sense of character and story-telling; it's almost old-fashioned playwrighting, in a way. There are not many playwrights who write like he does.
I think some of the humor in O'Neill comes from the Irish quality in those plays, the whole Sean O'Casey tradition of Irish drama where the humor and the seriouness are very closely juxtaposed; and I wonder whether there isn't something similar in the Jewish idiom, with humor coming out of serious situations. Do you feel that is a factor in your own plays?
I'm sure it is, but I find it a very difficult thing to talk about because I' m unaware of anything being particularly Jewish. This present play, Lost in Yon-kers, is about a Jewish family but rarely is it mentioned or brought up. But the humor comes out of the Jewish culture as I know it. It's fatalistic; everything bad is going to happen. In the opening scene, the father talks about his troubles with his wife dying, being at a loss about what to do with the boys and so worried about how they're going to look well and be presented well to the grandmother. It's all out of fear; there's no sense of confidence, because he knows what he's up against. The mother is, I think, more German than Jew, because she was brought up in Germany, and her culture is German. So one doesn't ever get a picture that she was brought up in a Jewish home in which they paid attention to the services. I would doubt very much if they were Orthodox Jews. But it's there someplace, and it's so deeply embedded in me and so inherent in me that I am unaware of its quality. When I write something I don't think, ‘‘Oh, this is Jewish.’’ At one time I thought I did, that I needed Jewish actors, but I found that people like Jack Lemmon or George C. Scott or Maureen Stapleton were equally at home with my material and they gave great performances. I rarely work with Jewish actors now; there are very few of them in Lost in Yonkers. However, in making the film of Brighton Beach Memoirs, when we did not get Jewish women to play the mother and the sister, it didn't sound right. Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey, as wonderful as they are, did not sound right. To the gentile ear it may not sound wrong, but still the audiences are aware that something is not quite organic. They don't know what it is; they can't name it. The difference came when Linda Lavin played in Broadway Bound and was right on the button and had the sense of truth. I think it's true too with O'Neill. He doesn't have to have Irish actors but Jewish actors playing O'Neill would have to, have a very wide range to be able to do it well.
You have always said you stopped writing for TV because you wanted control, because you wanted to be on your own, not to have network executives and ad men running your creative life. But didn 't the same sort of thing start to happen after a bit when you started to write for the stage, where producers like Saint-Subber wanted you to write a particular kind of play?
Saint used terms that no longer exist; they come from the turn of the century. He talked about ' 'the carriage trade,’’ those people, not necessarily Jewish, maybe New York society or wealthier people, who we wanted to appeal to as well. When I wrote Barefoot in the Park I think in an earlier version I made them a Jewish family without saying so. Saint said stay away from that because we're going to miss the carriage trade, so to speak; so maybe I was aware of it. Certainly it was in The Odd Couple, with Oscar Madison, only because Walter Matthau played it. I was aware of that in the beginning and then gradually got away from it until I got specifically Jewish when I was writing the autobiographical plays. In Chapter Two, something made me lean toward an actor like Judd Hirsch playing the leading character George because I knew the cadences and the attitudes came from me, so I thought that character had to be Jewish but I didn't call him Jewish. In these plays—I'm talking about ‘‘The Trilogy’’ (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound) and about Lost in Yonkers—they are Jewish families, you can't get away from it. Some plays are just not; Barefoot in the Park was not necessarily at all. The Odd Couple has proven not to be because it's the most universal play I've written. They do it in Japan as often as they do it here now. It's done all over the world constantly because it is such a universal situation. Two people living together cannot get along all the time and it made it unique that it was two men. It seemed like such a simple idea that you thought surely someone would have written a play about it, but no one ever did up until that time. It was the idea or concept that made it so popular and then the execution.
Which of your plays gave you the most trouble and which was the easiest?
Rumors gave me the most trouble because of the necessities of farce. One has to get the audience to dispel their sense of truth, and they must believe in the premise even though we know it's about three feet off the ground. It has to be filled with surprises, and it has to move at a breakneck pace. People have to be in jeopardy constantly; the minute the jeopardy stops and they can sit back and relax, it's like a train that runs out of steam. And it has to be funny every minute. It was like constructing a murder mystery, an Agatha Christie mystery in which you are kept in suspense, only it had to go at a much greater pace than any of Agatha Christie's stories. I wanted to do it because I wanted to try the form. In a sense I was buoyed by watching an interview with Peter Shaffer, whom I respect enormously. I think he's a wonderful playwright. Amadeus is one of my favorite plays, again a play with a great concept—an original one—about professional jealousy. The interviewer said, ‘‘Why did you write Black Comedy?’’ And he said, ‘‘Well, it was a farce, and everyone wants to write one farce in their life.’’ I had tried bits and pieces of it; the third act of Plaza Suite, with the father and mother trying to get the girl out of the locked bathroom, is a farce. But it only ran for thirty minutes and it wasn' t a full-blown piece, so I wanted to try that. That was the most difficult. None of them come easy.
What happened with Brighton Beach was interesting. I wrote thirty-five pages and stopped and put it away for nine years; and when I came back to it, somehow the play had been written in my head over those nine years without thinking of it so I wrote it completely from beginning to end without stopping. But that's only the beginning of the process. You can never say any play is written easily because you write it once, and then you write it again, and then you write it again; then you have a reading of it, and then you go into rehearsal in which you write it ten more times. So they all present their difficulties. But I can't think of any one play where it was really easy, where I didn't have a difficult time with it.
Have your writing methods changed over the years? You say you wrote Come Blow Your Horn twenty times. Is that still true, that you write a play over and over again, or do you find that you're getting better at it?
If I do write it over and over and over again, it means that the play has some serious flaw. I wrote Jake's Women seven times, almost from beginning to end, before I put it on the stage; so I never really corrected the serious flaw. With this play, Lost in Yonkers, the first version was fairly close to what we have now. I did two more versions before we went into rehearsal but I had less trouble with the construction of the play. It just seemed to lead to the right thing. It has to do with the beginnings of the play, with how each of the characters is introduced and how each of them has his own problem. Manny Azenberg, our producer, has always said that if I reach page thirty-five it is almost always a ' 'go'' project. Sometimes I get to page twenty-five or so, and I start to look ahead and say, ' 'What are you going to write about? What else could possibly happen?’’ I've come up with some wonderful beginnings of situations and don't always know where they're going but sort of know what they're going to be.
Billy Wilder, the director, once said to me (he was talking about a film but I think it applies to a play as well),' 'If you have four great scenes, you've got a hit.’’ He says if you don't have those great scenes then you're not going to make it. When I wrote The Sunshine Boys, the whole play came to me at once in a sense. Since I fashioned it somewhat (even though I didn't know them) after the careers of Smith and Dale, and got the premise that they had not spoken to each other in eleven years and then they were being offered this job to work together and didn't want to speak to each other, I said, well, they've got to get together. That's the first funny interesting conflict, then the rehearsal, then the actual doing of the show on the air. I knew that they could cause great conflict and problems with each other, and then there would be the denouement of finally getting together. I said there's those four scenes. I don't think about that all the time, but that time I knew where it was going—there was a play there—so I sat down with some sense of confidence.
Others just unfold themselves. When I was writing Lost in Yonkers, I knew I had these four characters in my mind. I had witnessed somebody who has this dysfunction of not being able to breathe properly and I never thought about using it; but it suddenly came to mind in this dysfunctional family which the mother has created. When you write you're always trying to catch up with your thoughts. They're ahead of you, like the carrot in front of the rabbit or the horse. If it's always there ahead of you then you know that each day that you go to work you will be able to write something. It's awful when you are writing a play and you get to page forty and you come to your office in the morning and say, ‘‘Well, what do I write today? Where does it go?’’ I want to leave it the night before saying to myself, ‘‘I know what that next scene is tomorrow’’ and I look forward to the next day.
How do you get started on a play? Do you usually start with an idea, or with a character?
First it starts with a desire, to write a play, and then the next desire is what kind of play do you want to write. When I finished Broadway Bound, I said I do not want to write another play like this right now. I've done a play that in degrees develops more seriously because I thought that Broadway Bound dealt more truthfully with my family and with the kind of writing I wanted to do than anything I had done in the past. I did not have an idea for the next one, and so sometimes you just play around with an idea. I said I wanted to write a farce, and I just sat down and thought of the opening premise. It literally started with how it looked. Most farces are about wealthy people. They're not about people who are poor because their lives are in conflict all the time. They must be satirical; you want to make jabs at them socially. These were all fairly prominent people, and I wanted them all to show up in black tie and their best gowns because I knew whatever it was that I was going to write they would be a mess at the end of the evening—either emotionally or physically—with their clothes tattered and torn. I thought of it as a mystery. I had no idea where it was going. The host had attempted suicide and was not able to tell them what happened, the hostess wasn't there, and there was no food: that's all I knew. I had read (I read a great deal of biographies of writers and artists) that Georges Simenon wrote most of his murder mysteries without knowing who was going to be murdered and who the murderer was. He picked a place, a set of situations, just something that intrigued him. I think almost anyone can sit down and write the first five pages of a murder mystery because you don't have to leave any clues. You just think of some wild situation that sounds interesting. It's only the really great mystery writers who know where to take it. The Thin Man is one of the most complicated books I've ever read. I don't think Dashiell Hammett is given enough credit. That's really literature, that book. What was your original question?
How you got the ideas for plays.
I never really can remember the moment, maybe with a few exceptions. The Odd Couple came out of watching my brother and the man he was living with at that time. They had both just gotten divorced, had decided to live together to cut down expenses, and they were dating girls. I said what an incredible idea for a play. Barefoot came out of my own experiences with my wife. Strangely enough, Barefoot in the Park started in Switzerland. The first version of it—this really happened—was when my wife and I went on our honeymoon to St. Moritz, Switzerland, met an elderly couple, and decided to go hiking with them. My wife then—Joan died in '73—was a wonderful athlete and she and the older man were practically jumping up this mountain while his wife and I staggered behind, and I was angry at Joan for being able to jump like a goat up this mountain. Then I realized that it had too exotic an atmosphere and I wanted to locate it in a place where one could relate to it more. I thought about that tiny apartment that we actually lived in that was five flights up and had a shower and no bath; it had a hole in the skylight in which it snowed. So I used all of those things. You don't know that when you're sitting down to write it. It's an adventure; it's really jumping into this big swimming pool and hoping there's going to be water when you hit.
How has the experience of writing musicals and writing films been different and why do you continue to do them when you don't need to? Why have you continued to write in collaborative situations and seemingly against the whole idea of wanting to be independent?
I do it because I think I have to keep writing all the time. Each year I want to be doing something. I wouldn't know how to take a year off and do nothing. I would feel it a wasted year of my life, unless I did something else productive that I love— but I haven't found anything. I think that even at this age I'm still growing and that I want to do as much as I can before I can't do it anymore. Again, I think, what do you want to do following what you have just done? I was about to start another play that I had in mind but I still haven't quite licked where it's going and I'm not ready to do it. It's not that I won't have anything on next year, but I won't have anything to work on. So I'm toying with the idea of doing a musical now which is like a breather, even though the musical is a much more collaborative and a much more debilitating effort than anything else in the theatre could be. The movies have been in the past—some of them—such good experiences that I was usually eager to do one again. The movie industry has changed enormously. I did ten films with Ray Stark. Nine of them were successful and one was terrible. But for all of them, Ray Stark was the producer; he always got me a good director, always got a good cast, and was really the blocking back for me, the runner, with the studio. I almost never had to deal with the studio. This last experience I had, The Marrying Man. was enough to make me say I never want to do a film again.
I did have good experiences doing The Heartbreak Kid and The Goodbye Girl, even Murder By Death. Murder By Death is not a great work of art but it's great fun. In reveries I used to wish that I were older in the Thirties and in the early Forties and could write for Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart. One of the great thrills I had in Hollywood was when I met some of these people and they said, ‘‘Gee, I wish I could have done a picture with you!’’ When Cary Grant said that to me, I said, ‘‘Wow, whatI've missed!’’ Those actors who were, I think, in some ways (the best of them) superior to some of the actors we have today, carried none of the weight that the actors do today. Now even a small star, a starlet, has something to say about the picture. I will deal with the director always, with the producer seldom but sometimes, the studio hardly ever, and with an actor never. I will listen to an actor's inabilities to find what he needs to accomplish in a part and try to accommodate that, but not because he wants to be portrayed in a certain way. On the stage Manny Azenberg and I must have fired eight to ten actors over the years because we found they were not fulfilling what we wanted. An actor's training is mostly with dead playwrights, so when they do the classics they don't expect any rewrites. I want them to feel the same thing. I rewrite more than anybody I know; I just do it over and over. I'm still giving pages and new lines on Lost in Yonkers and will do it until we open. But they'll always come to you and say, ‘‘I'm having trouble with this line. Can you think if there's another way of me saying it that makes it more comfortable?’’ I'll say, ‘‘I'll rewrite it if it makes it more comfortable for the character, not for you.’’ When they understand that then we can find a way to do it.
To give you a really good example of the difference between films and plays for me, a director of a play will come to me and say,' 'What do you think about this section? I'm not so sure that this is working. Do you think you could find something else?’’ And I'll either agree with him or disagree with him and write it or rewrite it, but he does nothing about it until I rewrite it. He' ll even come to me about a sentence or a couple of words. That play is sold to the films, and he becomes the director. He shoots the film, then invites me to the first cut, and three major scenes are missing. I say, ‘‘What happened to those scenes?’’ He says, ‘‘They didn't work for me.'' It now has become his script; it's not mine anymore. And the only way to control that is to direct your own films which I don't want to do. I'm not a director. I don't want to spend all that time. I love writing. I hate directing. I hate hanging around the rehearsals. I do it when I'm working and I need to do something, but just to stand there and watch— I don't want to do it. So I do the films, but I'm not really very happy with them. Musicals are something else, because when you work with some of the best people (I worked with Bob Fosse a number of times and I thought he was really a genius; I worked with Michael Bennett a few times, even a little bit on Chorus Line), that's great fun. That's like being invited to the party, so you just do it. You talk about rewriting. When you're readying a play like Lost in Yonkers and you 're doing the rewriting, to whom are you responding when you do the rewrites? Is it purely your own responses when you're in the theatre? Or do you also respond to critics, or the director, or an actor?
All of them. Not an actor so much, a director yes, a critic sometimes. If a critic says something that's valid, and especially if it's backed up by another critic who hits on the same point, I say, ‘‘I’ve got to address this.’’ When you’re writing it over and over again and then you’re in rehearsal and you’re out of town and you start to try it, you’ve lost all objectivity. Now you need the audience to be objective for you (and they are totally) and you listen to them. Sometimes the actor will come to me and say, ‘‘This line isn’t getting a laugh.’’ And I say, ‘‘I never intended it to.’’ They assume that everything they should say when the situation is comic should get a laugh. I say, ‘‘No, no, no, this is character; it’s pushing the story ahead.’’ That never happens in any of the dramatic scenes in Lost in Yonkers. Very few of those lines were ever changed because they don’t have the difficulty in expecting a reaction from the audience. I rewrite just watching what it is that I hear wrong. And sometimes I can watch a play and after about eight or nine performances, I say, ‘‘I don’t like that.’’ There was a producer who once said to me, ‘‘Only look at the things that don’t work in the play. The good things will take care of themselves, don’t worry about that. Don’t say, ‘I know this stuff doesn’t work but look at all the good things I have.’’’ He said, ‘‘The bad things’ll do you in every time.’’ So I concentrate on the bad things; and after I get whatever I think is unworthy of the play out, then I start to hear it more objectively. I stay away for two or three performances and come back and say, ‘‘We need something much better than that.’’ When you first see that play up on a stage for the first time in front of an audience, all you care about is that the baby is delivered and is well and has all its arms and legs and moves. Then you say, ‘‘OK, now starts its education.’’
I teach a course in Modern American Drama, and many of the playwrights in the course, people like John Guare and Beth Henley, are considered by the ‘‘establishment’’ to be serious playwrights who write plays that contain comic moments. Neil Simon, on the other hand, is considered a writer of funny plays that are occasionally serious. That strikes me as unfair because, especially in the most recent of your plays, like ‘‘The Trilogy’’ and now Lost in Yonkers, the proportion of humor to seriousness is if anything less comedy than in, say, Crimes of the Heart.
Crimes of the Heart is a comedy.
Yes, but Henley is considered a serious playwright.
I don’t consider it necessarily unfair. I just think it’s inaccurate. Unfair means that I’m being picked on for not writing serious, which is better than comedy, which I don’t hold to be true. For the most part, I think I have written, with the exception of Rumors and the musicals (starting even with The Odd Couple), a serious play which is told through my own comic point of view. There no serious moments in The Odd Couple; but when I first sat down to write it, naive as this may be, I thought it was sort of a black comedy, because in most comedies up to that point, there were always women in the play and a romantic relationship. Here there were none; the relationship was between these two men. Plaza Suite, with a husband and wife getting a divorce after twenty-three years, was basically a serious play that had comedy in it. The audience at that time was so trained to laugh at what I wrote that, in Boston, Mike Nichols and I kept taking out all the funny lines in the first act—and they found other places to laugh.
I write with a sense of irony and even with lines that are not funny, sometimes the audience senses the irony when they are sophisticated enough and they see the humor. That’s why I always need really good productions for the plays to work. I once met a woman who said, ‘‘You know, I’ve never been a fan of yours.’’ and I said, ‘‘Oh, that’s OK.’’ and she said, ‘‘Now I’m a big fan!’’ and I said, ‘‘What happened?’’ She said, ‘‘Well, I come from’’—it was either Wyoming or Montana—and she said, ‘‘I’ve only seen dinner theatre productions of your plays in which they would play all the plays on one superficial level. They played it all as comedy, and then I read the plays and I said, this isn’t comedy at all.’’ I remember people walking out of Prisoner of Second Avenue confused because some would say, ‘‘This wasn’t funny.’’ I didn’t mean it to be funny; I thought it was a very serious subject, especially at that time. It was the beginning of people being so age-conscious with the man of forty-eight years old losing his job and finding it very difficult to start all over again which is true even today. That to me was a serious play that had a great deal of comedy.
I use the comedy in a way to get the audience’s attention and then sort of pull the rug from underneath them. That’s how I view life: things are wonderful, things are going along just great, and then a telephone call comes and just pulls the rug from under you. Some tragic thing, some tragic event, has happened in your life, and I say if it can happen in life I want to do that in the theatre. It took a long time to convince audiences and critics that one could write a play that way. I remember reading Lillian Hellman saying, ‘‘Never mix comedy and drama in the same play; the audiences won’t understand it.’’ They say to me, ‘‘What are you writing?’’ and I’ll mention something, and they say, ‘‘Is it a comedy?’’ I say, ‘‘No it’s a play.’’ They say, ‘‘Is it a drama?’’ and I say, ‘‘It’s a play. It has everything in it.’’
When you look back over your career to date, how has Neil Simon changed as a playwright? In other interviews you’ve mentioned the idea of the tapestry play, that you’re now writing about more than two people as the focus of the plays. I assume that’s one way, but are there other ways that you see your plays changing?
Well, in a glacier-like way. They move slowly; I don’t make sudden overnight changes. I think back to Chapter Two, which was the story of the guilt a man feels who has lost a spouse and feels too guilty or is made to feel too guilty by his children or other relatives to go ahead in another relationship. There were people who spent the next fifteen or twenty years or the rest of their lives never moving on with it. In my own case, I was encouraged by my daughters to move on when I met somebody else. But still you get that kick of guilt, not a high kick, a kick in the gut, of guilt much like the survivors of the Holocaust when those who lived felt guilty all their lives. So the man in the play was not able to give himself the enjoyment and the latitude of exploring this new relationship without always pulling in the guilt of being alive and his wife being dead. Around that point, it’s what I started to look for in almost every play. I think if there’s any change it’s that way. It’s not necessary for me to be conceived of as a serious playwright because the word is so bandied about I think that it gets misinterpreted, serious meaning the intention is lofty. It isn’t any loftier than comedy can be, but I don’t write a pure comedy anymore, with the exception of Rumors where I intentionally did. I try to write plays about human emotions. I don’t write plays about society. I find I can’t. They become very current plays, and I like plays to be able to last for fifty or a hundred years or so. These are plays that contain serious subject matter. Lost in Yonkers is very well disguised, not that I meant it to be, but I couldn’t open up the play showing the tragic side of Bella. It only came out when she was confronted with this chance to better her life and she didn’t quite know how to do it and didn’t get the permission of her mother who was the one who stunted her growth in the first place. That has to be built to, and I see how the audience is taken by surprise as it goes on. If they leave after that first act, they say, ‘‘It’s nice, it’s funny, it’s cute.’’ And then the second act just hits them so hard. It’s what you leave the theatre with, not what’s going on in the beginning of the play, that’s important.