(Marvin) Neil Simon 1927–
American dramatist and scriptwriter.
Simon is among the most commercially successful playwrights in the history of American theater. While some critics share Jack Kroll's opinion that a Simon work is an "anthology of gags disguised as a play," audiences have consistently applauded such comedies as Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), The Sunshine Boys (1972), and California Suite (1976). Several of Simon's plays have been made into popular films, and he has also written a number of original screenplays as well as the books for several musicals.
Much of Simon's comedy is a reflection of his own values and experiences. Come Blow Your Horn (1961), for example, is based on the adventures of Neil and his brother, Danny Simon, after they left home for the first time. Chapter Two (1977) deals with the death of Simon's first wife and the agonies and joys of his subsequent courtship and remarriage. In Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) Simon contemplates his childhood and examines the implications of growing up Jewish in New York City in the 1930s.
Relationships are at the heart of Simon's plays. Many of them revolve around the more turbulent aspects of family life: sibling rivalry, infidelity, divorce, the gender and generation gaps, selfishness, insecurity. According to prevailing critical views, Simon's message is that a relationship need not be destroyed simply because it needs some work. A theme which recurs throughout his plays is the emptiness of a life without commitment. Other subjects examined by Simon within the context of relationships are the benefits of choosing moderation over extremes and the value of compromise (Barefoot in the Park); lack of communication, and expectations versus realities (Last of the Red Hot Lovers, 1969); the decay of modern society and the threat of aging to one's sense of worth (The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1971); and the problems of old age (The Sunshine Boys).
Most critics believe that Simon's strength lies in his witty, unpretentious approach to everyday incidents in middle-class, urban life, things familiar to the majority of his audiences. While some have admitted to being mystified by the popularity of Simon's humor, which they perceive as simplistic and sometimes directionless, others recognize his ability to touch and hold his audience in play after play. His proponents contend that all his works contain serious themes within a humorous framework; his detractors claim that he buries his serious themes in an overabundance of gags and one-liners. Despite such critical controversy, Simon's works have enjoyed consistent audience appeal.
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7.)