Neil Simon Simon, Neil - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Neil Simon 1927-

(Full name Marvin Neil Simon) American comedy writer, playwright, and screenwriter

Neil Simon's career as a writer of comedy has been marked by a series of successes which have turned his name into a recognizable theatrical commodity. Simon began his early work during the golden age of television in the 1950s for weekly programs featuring Sid Cesar, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons, and Phil Silvers. Simon continued his long career as a Broadway playwright with a string of hits season after season, to work in Hollywood writing original screenplays and adapting his stage plays for film. The hallmark of his comedy from the simpler, lighthearted early plays to the later darker ones has been the comic presentation of perplexing and even painful experience.

Biographical Information

Neil Simon was born in New York City, in the Bronx, into what would now be called a dysfunctional family. His father, Irving Simon, was a garment salesman who regularly abandoned the family for long stretches. His woe-beset mother, Mamie Simon, worked at Gimbel's department store in order to support the family. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School at sixteen, entered New York University in the U.S. Army Air Force reserve program, and was sent by the Army to Colorado where he attended the University of Denver. After he returned from the army in 1946, Simon got a job at the New York offices of Warner Brothers, where his older brother Danny worked. When they heard that Goodman Ace, the comedy writer and radio personality was looking for material, the brothers submitted some of their work and were hired to write for him. For the next fifteen years Simon wrote for the foremost radio and television comedians and contributed sketches for Broadway reviews like New Faces. In 1961, with the success of Come Blow Your Horn, Simon began a career as the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history. Simon also regularly adapts his plays for film and has written a number of original screenplays.

Major Works

Had he never written anything after 1961, Simon would still be remembered as a major contributor to enormously successful television programs which were watched weekly by millions, and for which he won several Emmy Awards. In 1961, however, his play Come Blow Your Horn inaugurated a second immensely successful career as a Broadway writer who has enjoyed a record number of hits. Among them are The Odd Couple (1965) about two divorced men who share an apartment and recapitulate with each other the problems that destroyed their marriages, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) which is about the terrors of living in New York City. Additionally, Simon penned the smashes The Sunshine Boys (1972) about aging vaudevillians and The Brighton Beach TrilogyBrighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), Broadway Bound (1986)—which are all drawn from his family life and passage from home. With Lost in Yonkers (1991), Simon won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Desk Award. Simon also won a Tony for Biloxi Blues in 1985.

Critical Reception

Although Simon's work at first was neglected by serious critics, and he was often considered a gag writer or a writer of situation comedy for Broadway, most of Simon's plays have been box office smashes. Much of Simon's work earns favorable reviews from daily newspaper reviewers and often draws audiences in record numbers. After his initial success with lighter comedies, Simon began to write plays with a darker edge. Critics and audiences deemed some of these like The Gingerbread Lady (1970), God's Favorite (1974), and especially Fools (1981) as weaker than Simon's regular contribution. Simon himself closed Jake's Women (1992) the first time around before it got to Broadway. But he came back even stronger, writing plays which more deeply explored pain and conflict, finding laughter inside adversity, with the autobiographical Brighton Beach Trilogy, and the award winning Lost in Yonkers.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Come Blow Your Horn [with Danny Simon] 1961

Little Me [adaptor; based on the novel by Patrick Dennis] (musical) 1962

*Barefoot in the Park 1963

*The Odd Couple [revised 1985] 1965

The Star-Spangled Girl 1966

Sweet Charity [adaptor; from the screenplay The Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini] 1966

*Plaza Suite 1968

Promises, Promises [adaptor; from the screenplay The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond] 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 1976

*Chapter Two 1977

They're Playing Our Song 1978

I Ought to Be in Pictures 1980

Fools 1981

*Brighton Beach Memoirs 1982

*Biloxi Blues 1984

Broadway Bound 1986

Rumors 1988

Lost in Yonkers (musical comedy) 1991

Jake's Women 1992

Laughter on the 23rd Floor (comedy) 1993

London Suite 1995

The Out-of-Towners 1970

The Heartbreak Kid [adaptor; from the short story by Bruce Jay Friedman] 1972

Murder by Death 1976

The Goodbye Girl 1977

The Cheap Detective 1978

Seems Like Old Times 1980

Only When I Laugh 1981

Max Dugan Returns 1983

The Lonely Guy [with Ed Weinberger and Stan Daniels] 1984

The Slugger's Wife 1985

The Marrying Man 1991

Rewrites 1996

*Simon also adapted these plays for film.

Helen McMahon (essay date October 1975)

(Drama Criticism)

“A Rhetoric of American Popular Drama: The Comedies of Neil Simon,” in Players Magazine, Vol. 51, No. 1, October, 1975, pp. 11-15.

[In the following essay, McMahon argues that Simon introduces serious themes in his plays, which challenge accepted attitudes and practices, only to later trivialize them and reinforce a conservative status quo.]

Critical opinion of Neil Simon's plays during his fourteen years as a playwright has been, in general, mocking and pejorative; yet his plays just as consistently have been box office hits. Almost all of them have been converted into films, a television series derived from The Odd Couple ran for several years, and his...

(The entire section is 3823 words.)

Robert K. Johnson (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

Neil Simon, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 16-22, 34-42, 43-51.

[In the following excerpts, Johnson argues that the third act of The Odd Couple, is flawed because Simon has created such fully realized characters that he is unable to manipulate them convincingly for the happy ending he has contrived. Johnson also states that in Plaza Suite Simon is showing that outward success may not be enough, and that Last of the Red Hot Lovers does not meet the challenge it sets for itself to mediate the conflict between self-isolating cynicism and concerned human contact.]


It is significant that Simon originally...

(The entire section is 10360 words.)

Jackson R. Bryer with Neil Simon (interview date 1991)

(Drama Criticism)

“An Interview with Neil Simon,” in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991, pp. 153-76.

[In the following interview, Simon discusses his plays, his development as a playwright, how he writes, Hollywood, the role of the actor, and his disinclination to be a director.]

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...

(The entire section is 11798 words.)

James Lipton with Neil Simon (interview date Winter 1992)

(Drama Criticism)

“Neil Simon: The Art of Theater X,” in The Paris Review, Vol. 34, No. 125, Winter, 1992, pp. 167-213.

[In the following interview, Simon discusses the development of his plays from light to dark comedies.]

Legend has it that on his deathbed the actor Edmund Gwenn answered director John Ford's “What is dying like?” with a reflective, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

By any measure—quantity, quality, popular success, renown—Neil Simon is the preeminent purveyor of comedy in the last half of the twentieth century. Like the work of most writers of comedy, from Aristophanes to Woody Allen, Simon's humor is written to be...

(The entire section is 14315 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Bryer, Jackson R. “Neil Simon.” In The Playwright's Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, pp.221-40. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995, 316p.

An interview touching on Simon's life, times, and works.

Gilman, Richard. “A Hit and A Success.” In Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961-1970, pp. 198-200. New York: Random House, 1971, 319p.

An appreciative review of Barefoot In the Park as being better than other Broadway hits.

Kerr, Walter. “Money and Uglier Matters.” In God on the Gymnasium Floor, and Other Theatrical...

(The entire section is 296 words.)