Neil Simon’s plays have so set the standard for American domestic comedy that they almost form a subgenre in themselves. His work is certainly marked by a distinct style and mastery of certain principles of comic writing. Though the mood, subject matter, and focus of his writing have developed over the years, the Neil Simon signature can still be read throughout.
His plays tend to be domestic comedies focusing on family life and relationships. Almost all are set in New York City and, explicitly or not, depict the concerns and values of middle-class, Jewish family life, writers and show business people, and Americans in touch with the liberal movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. As a keen observer of contemporary life, Simon fills his plays with recognizable topical references and details. Dealing with such themes as marriage, divorce, sexual liberation, and intergenerational conflict, his work effectively chronicles late twentieth century American lifestyles and values.
Coming as Simon did from a training ground in stand-up comedy and television writing, he is technically expert at coining and structuring one-line jokes. One-liners are not restricted to token “comic” characters; rather, they are distributed among all the characters in his plays. Furthermore, Simon is skilled at connecting the jokes and embedding them in the texture of the conflict in a way that reinforces the integrity of a scene. The jokes serve rather than divert the flow of action; they inform characterization rather than reduce characters to mere mouthpieces for the author’s wit. Simon supports his quick humor with characters who are clearly delineated, defined not only by their backgrounds, tastes, idiosyncrasies, and language but also by their larger objectives and outlooks on life. They are drawn with eccentricity and excess, but with sympathy and warmth as well. The tendency toward stereotypes and caricatures that Simon sometimes indulged early in his career gradually disappeared as he honed his craft.
Creating rich characters, Simon serves them well by carefully structuring his plays to maximize the potential for both conflict and humor. Knowing that the line between tragedy and comedy is a thin one, he heightens the stakes of his characters’ desires. Indeed, many a Simon play, drained of its wit, could easily be transformed into serious high drama, with situations worthy of Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg. The people of Simon’s plays are frustrated, sometimes nearly neurotic; they take their problems head-on and search earnestly for solutions. Like William Shakespeare, Simon lets the meaning of his plays inhabit the surface, so there is rarely a deep subtext to unearth. As his characters are generally intelligent and perceptive, they police one another against emotional subterfuge. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Simon does not utilize subplots but rather provides a single, clear conflict to propel the action.
Through more than two dozen plays and nearly as many film scripts, Simon has become the wealthiest dramatist in history and the most produced playwright on the contemporary American stage behind Shakespeare. More important, in addition to his supremacy over the popular American theater, his devotion to craft, hard work, simplicity, honesty, and diligence as a playwright have secured him a primary position in its literary annals.
Simon’s techniques are clearly evident in his first two major successes, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. Both plays are simply constructed, consisting of four scenes in three acts, taking place in a single locale within a span of several weeks, and built on the conflict between two distinctly defined characters.
Barefoot in the Park
Barefoot in the Park is about newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter. The young lawyer and his wife are moving into their first New York apartment, a living space too small,...
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- Critical Essays