Introduction

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Simon, (Marvin) Neil 1927–

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Simon is an American playwright and screenwriter who has enjoyed tremendous popular success. He is a master of the one-liner; however, many critics feel that this style reduces his characters to mere vehicles for the delivery of his jokes. His plays are excellent entertainments, but many critics contend he could do more serious work with his verbal talents and gift for dialogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Brendan Gill

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I begin to perceive that I may have been unfair to Neil Simon in pursuing over the years a theory about him which has been, after all, entirely inside my head and not his, and which I have therefore had no reason to grow impatient with him for failing to live up to. The awkward fact of the matter is that I have thought I could detect a certain figure in the brightly colored wall-to-wall carpet of his work, but Mr. Simon has now made it plain that the figure isn't there and never was there; moreover, he has proceeded to pull the carpet itself right out from under me…. After Mr. Simon's dazzling "Barefoot in the Park," which, though but an airy, negligible anecdote, filled a whole evening with delight, I wondered whether he wasn't going to lead comedy in a new direction—one in which a continuous free association of homely, amusing small talk would take the place of the usual carefully carpentered box of self-triggering gags and predictable sudden reversals of fortune. It was evident that Mr. Simon had what amounted to a genius for badinage, and it occurred to me that he could elevate this into an art form of his own, blessedly free of the Victorian clutter that has hobbled the comedies of most of his Broadway contemporaries. To my dismay, Mr. Simon has shown no interest in becoming a sort of Beckett of banter. His plays have grown ever more cautious and better made, which is to say more old-fashioned, and his latest hit, "Last of the Red Hot Lovers,"… is by far the most old-fashioned play in the Simon canon. With this one, he strikes me as marching straight back into the nineteenth century; it is a curious development, but I have learned my lesson, and wild horses could not drag from me a portentous generalization about it….

[Simon] holds "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" to be something new for him; he calls it a serious comedy, and I fear that he intends to display a still greater degree of seriousness in the future. It is a grave misreading of his gifts, for Mr. Simon's so-called seriousness has a banality of insight not easily to be distinguished from that of soap opera. When he tries to dramatize his no doubt deeply felt emotions in respect to old age and death, to say nothing of such abstractions as goodness and decency, he rises with difficulty to the level of a high-school essay…. Mr. Simon's clumsy grapplings with Real Life are being saluted as signs of a newfound compassion and a new breadth of vision on the part of the mature playwright. They are nothing of the sort…. "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" is a very funny play … but it is also synthetic, and compassion and breadth of vision would have been thoroughly out of place in it. (p. 64)

Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1970 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 10, 1970.

John Simon

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When will playwrights learn that it takes more than a string of funny lines to make a comedy? Actually, Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady purports to be more than a comedy, and the lines, for the most part, are less than funny. Less than funny for several reasons. 1) They traipse over the same old terrain, from sex-starvation to unquenched-thirst jokes, from kinky-sex to show-biz in-jokes, from Mafia to Polish jokes. (There are no elephant jokes.) You may not have heard precisely these jokes before, but your surprise is no greater than at hearing the triumphal march from Aida played on water glasses. 2) There are too many of them. Hardly ever is anyone, regardless of age, background, or calling, allowed to speak in anything but funny lines. Whether he is touched, anguished, or crushed, it is all converted into jokes. They end by tripping one another up, and a joke slipping painfully on the peel of the previous joke is no laughing matter. 3) The jokes do not, except superficially, rise out of character or an individual way of looking at the world. (p. 301)

Jokes are not really funny in a vacuum; or at most are funny only one at a time…. Jokes must grow out of some meaningful human soil, must tell us something also about the teller, about a society, about life itself. They need the resistance of a hard surface off which to bounce: bits of dialogue, realities, that are not funny. And if the play is to have any value, they must aim at something more ambitious than a mere detonation in the auditorium—something, perhaps, resembling the truth. (pp. 301-02)

[Simon in The Gingerbread Lady has failed to provide his] character with dimensions, let alone stature. Whether this particular person is saved or goes under interests us only insofar as she is sufficiently particularized and developed for us …; or conversely to the extent that her predicament is seen in the context of show business, society, or some other larger force that brings the individual to her knees. (p. 302)

John Simon, "'The Gingerbread Lady'" (1970–71), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of The New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 301-03.

John Simon

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[The Sunshine Boys is a play] where gagwriting is ostensibly subordinated to pathos, and underlying the comedy is a supposedly serious theme…. The significant plot concerns a once famous vaudeville team, Lewis and Clark…. (p. 444)

The story is exiguous but presumably will serve as scaffolding for the exploration of such great topics as What Was the Glory of Burlesque?, Where Has That Old-time Humor Gone?, What Is to Become of Beloved Entertainers Grown Aged?, Is Greasepaint Thicker Than Friendship in the Theater? and Can Man Laugh Away His Mortality? There may be one or several worthy plays in this, but none can survive burial alive under 10-Gags-10 per minute—some new, more old, a few funny, many dreadful, but all of them marching, skipping, somersaulting at you without respite. The humor itself is sternly limited in scope: insult jokes, speaker's-stupidity jokes, geriatric sex jokes, and show-biz in-jokes. Although [Clive Barnes] has compared this alleged comic masterpiece favorably to Molière and Shaw, one glance at Don Juan and the difference slaps you in the eye.

To Simon, the basic unit of playmaking is the joke. Not the word, the idea, the character, or even the situation, but the gag. It kills him if here and there a monosyllable resists funnying up, if now and then someone has to make a move that won't fracture the audience. Note how many lines in Don Juan don't try in the least to be funny—which is why those that really are hit us, and why life and thought are allowed elbow room in the play. (p. 445)

John Simon, "'The Sunshine Boys'" (1972–73), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of The New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 444-45.

Catharine Hughes

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God's Favourite … is another of Simon's attempts to be taken seriously on the way to the bank….

[Simon's problem is that he is clever] but here as elsewhere, very little of the humour flows from the characters; the efforts at profundity are shallow and unrewarding. Jokes all too often fall back on quick references to brand names (Lemon Pledge furniture polish, Perdue chicken, Bic Banana pens), TV shows ('Hollywood Squares') and the like. It is a cheap, easy and regrettably, all too frequently accepted, substitute for genuine humour. (p. 35)

Catharine Hughes, in Plays and Players (© copyright Catharine Hughes 1975; reprinted with permission), February, 1975.

Harold Clurman

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"Constant pleasure," said Voltaire, "is no pleasure." The geyser of gag lines in Neil Simon's latest spurt, California Suite, is virtually incessant…. Occasionally I heard a spot of dialogue which struck me as particularly bright but, when I left the theatre, I could not remember the stuff…. There is hardly any character or psychology … not immediately recognizable, and [virtually] no complexity of situation…. The scenes are sustained by jocular repartee rather than living speech. If we were to take this show seriously—if anyone can—I would be obliged to say that the attitude toward the personages involved is not only shallow and vulgar but basically callous. There is moreover an element of smug hypocrisy in the compost, for in each instance we are assured that everybody really loves everybody and there are no hard feelings. Fun is fun, so everyone, including the author, is forgiven.

If there are those who would maintain that I am being priggish about all this because I fail to acknowledge the grain of "truth to life" in these sketches, I can only reply that if such is the fact, my most bilious suspicions about the state of our civilization would have been confirmed. And they are not comic! (p. 30)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), July 3, 1976.

Julius Novick

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[Simon delightedly immerses] himself in the minutiae of modern American upper-middle-class existence, which no one conveys with more authority—or, anyhow, more assiduity—than he…. Simon can see the eternal, if at all, only as an aspect of the temporal; for him, "the troubles of our proud and angry dust" means that the cleaning lady didn't come in this morning.

The problem with Simon for serious critics is that he is good enough to make them angry that he isn't better. There is something very real and recognizable in his work—something that leads them to demand from him more perspective on the world he writes about than he has. Along with the something real in his work is something very glib; and, paradoxically, it is the reality that makes the glibness so frustrating to contemplate….

Neil Simon's work is a true expression of his constituency—that is why it is so successful. How you feel about him is inseparable from how you feel about the people he depicts. (p. 53)

Julius Novick, in The Humanist (copyright 1976 by the American Humanist Association; reprinted by permission), September/October, 1976.

John Simon

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Chapter Two is being heralded as a deepening of Neil Simon's art. It is certainly every bit as much deepening as it is art. The play is admittedly based on Neil Simon's and Marsha Mason's courtship and marriage. George Schneider, a novelist, has lost his beloved wife from cancer; Jennie Malone is an actress who has lost a rather less beloved husband by divorce. Pimping for George is his younger brother, Leo, a theatrical agent; pimping for Jennie is her chum Faye, a queen of the soaps. Against all sorts of likelihood, George and Jennie meet, love, and marry, and start having difficulties, because George is afraid that happiness with the absolutely perfect Jennie means unfaithfulness to the memory of the absolutely perfect Barbara. Finally, though, things settle down blissfully, while Leo and Faye, both unhappily married, try their hand at some unsuccessful and ludicrous adultery. They, clearly, are intended as some sort of comic relief from the supposedly serious drama of George and Jennie, but they end up as standard Neil Simon characters making sure that the play does not get too "high" for the audience.

There's no danger of that, however. As one of the characters observes, "I have already tried transcendental meditation, health foods, and jogging, and I am now serenely, tranquilly, and more robustly as unhappy as I have ever been." I quote this for two reasons. First, because it is merely an updated version of the Horatian naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret: try to drive Neil Simon out of Neil Simon with a pitchfork, and he comes rushing right back in. But also, there is the fact that, a few days later, I can no longer remember whether it is the hero or heroine who speaks that line. The characters in Simon are interchangeable because, with minor differences, they are all Neil Simon: accumulations of wisecracks, machines that chop life down to one-liners, and humanoid contraptions, miserable for the sake of being comically miserable. This might even be all right if you did not have the feeling that the author so unabashedly adores them for being that and no more than that. (pp. 155-56)

Simon's characters have no ideas, and do not exist in any sort of existential or social context…. It may be that farce writers have usually dealt with obsessive characters in a rather sealed-off space; in that case, I can only say that Simon's obsessions strike me as less compelling, less real even, than most good farceurs'. (p. 156)

John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1978 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Spring, 1978.

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