Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846
Neil Simon was one of the most successful commercial playwrights in the history of theater and likely the most recognizable of American playwrights. In creating a steady stream of Broadway hits, starting with Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Simon garnered numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1991. Though critics often found his work to be sentimental, predictable, and shallow, Simon was consistently popular with Broadway, regional, and community theater audiences. In his most popular period, the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, Simon at times had as many as four hits running simultaneously on Broadway.
The Odd Couple is probably the best-known Simon comedy, owing not only to its strikingly comic situation and distinctive main characters but also to the commercially successful spin-offs from the play—a well-received film adaptation in 1968, an enormously popular television series that ran from 1970 to 1975, and a female-version sequel in 1985. Simon’s plays, and especially his early plays, typically generate belly laughs through carefully orchestrated comic conflict, brisk pace, and extremely witty dialogue freely punctuated with comic one-liners. The Odd Couple has all of these.
The theme of The Odd Couple, if it has one, involves human incompatibility and the observation that compromise is necessary in any kind of marital-like relationship. Oscar and Felix illustrate that men who do not get along with their wives will probably be incompatible with others in precisely the same way. Regardless of the situation and genders involved, effective compromise in human relationships is rare. To some, however, this description of thematic elements in The Odd Couple might seem excessively academic. Do Simon’s plays really exist to investigate thematic issues? Some find his plays, and especially his later plays, convincing in their treatment of serious thematic issues, while others find nearly all of his plays quite shallow. A large majority, however, simply assert that Simon’s plays are just “good entertainment,” and that the theme of a Simon play is not intended to be profound.
The comedy of Simon in general and of The Odd Couple as a particular example ultimately raises the larger and very important issue of whether craftsmanship, the quality of making a thing well, suffices for literary quality and lasting literary fame. Whatever the answer to that question, there is no doubt that in terms of comic theater, Simon is an adept craftsman. Casual as his style might seem, in The Odd Couple, Simon leaves nothing to chance. Within the overall architecture of the play, which is amazingly tight and efficient, nearly every word is carefully chosen for its desired effect. For example, the first act of the play, busy as it is, merely establishes what the conflict will be (the “marriage” of an “odd couple”); the second act demonstrates this conflict in action; and the final act resolves the conflict. The success of the play, of course, depends on the intensity and interest generated by the Oscar and Felix relationship, but The Odd Couple is theatrically effective because it creates and maintains this focus without appearing too obviously to do so.
Nearly the first third of the play features mainly the poker players, who are interesting in themselves but function primarily as a way of introducing the eccentric and conflicting personalities of Oscar and Felix. They characterize Felix before he arrives and react to both Oscar and, once he arrives, Felix. After a brief period with Oscar and Felix onstage alone, the poker players return at the beginning of the second act. Here the reaction of Speed and Roy to Felix’s compulsive neatness mirrors Oscar’s point of view, while Murray and Vinnie, who like the new atmosphere created by Felix, contrast with Oscar’s response. Simon then uses the Pigeon sisters to advance the conflict between Oscar and Felix without reiterating the issue of Felix’s obsession with cleanliness. In the scenes with Gwendolyn and Cecily, Felix’s eccentricity takes the form of loyalty to his wife and family. This behavior further alienates him from Oscar but for slightly different reasons, which gives variety and texture to the conflict. In the final scenes of the play, Simon brings back the poker players and the Pigeon sisters to create a pleasing symmetry in the resolution of the conflict.
Simon’s craftsmanship is even more obvious on the level of comic dialogue, where he is the undisputed master of the witty one-liner. In act 1, for example, Roy says of Oscar’s refrigerator, “I saw milk standing in there that wasn’t even in the bottle.” The image of milk defying gravity surprises at first, then surprise turns to laughter when the exaggeration is seen as in some way appropriate—the milk was left in the refrigerator so long that the container disintegrated and left a sour solid. Simon’s skill with such verbal constructions is a testimony to his brilliance with language and to his training in the early 1950’s as a gag writer for television. Unsympathetic critics have faulted Simon for his reliance on the humor of one-liners, but there is no denying that he excels at their creation.