The Odd Couple

by Neil Simon
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

The Odd Couple has been Neil Simon's greatest popular success, running for 964 performances in its Broadway debut and then spawning a popular movie version, an even more popular television series, and eventually a kind of sequel or "female version" that tells the same story with the genders reversed. Added to these successes is the fact that all of these manifestations of his play have entertained the public for more than thirty years as regional and amateur theatre groups continue to perform both versions of his play and television stations rerun the movie and sitcom series. But Simon has always been more popular with audiences than he has been with critics—who tend to classify him as a merely entertaining comedy writer rather than as a serious artist with a comic vision.

In 1965, The Odd Couple was Simon's third straight comedy hit (the 1962 musical Little Me had been less successful with audiences despite Simon's collaboration as librettist). The critics had responded in 1961 to his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn, with reserved praise, finding it (in New York Times critic Howard Taubman's words) a pleasant "confection," a play with "hilarious moments" that "aims low" and only seeks "to entertain." This would become the general critical opinion of Simon's work throughout his career, as his next two hits, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, gathered basically similar responses. Through succeeding decades the critical response might vary slightly from play to play but the overall assessment stayed roughly the same. Consistently recognized as a sound theatrical craftsman and a genuinely funny writer, the critics nonetheless found Simon lacking in intellectual and emotional depth and often reduced him to the simple epithet, "gag-man."

Reviewing the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple, Taubman found the opening scene "one of the funniest card sessions ever held on a stage" and the play's humor "unflagging" but labelled the play finally as a "farce," and not of the "higher art" of "true comedy." Taubman's appreciation of the play's hilarity was thorough and genuine but he finally had to separate himself from the audience's more unreserved applause.

Some critics, like Walter Kerr, have been kinder to Simon during his career; Kerr, for example, once called Simon "a man of sense, using just the jigger and a half of substance that will make a decent drink." Other critics, like subsequent Times writers Frank Rich and John Simon (no relation), have been generally harsher. John Simon once proclaimed that Neil Simon's work was "devoid of ideas" and "an outrage … against human intelligence and art." He admitted that "audiences, of course, may find trash to their taste; but the critic's first task is to identify it as such. Then, if people still want to eat it, let them; only let no one pretend it's food." Academicians have generally been harshest of all when they deign to comment on such a popular writer. College and university professors well-studied in classic comic dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere (pronounced "Mole-yair") and even more contemporary writers like Alan Ayckbourn (pronounced "ache-born") and Joe Orton have often been brutal with Simon. For example, in the third edition of Contemporary Dramatists, Martin Gottfried admits that "Neil Simon must be reckoned with if only because he is the most popular playwright in the history of the American theatre" but adds that "Simon is generally dismissed as a hack." Similarly, Gerald Berkowitz, writing in Players magazine begins by declaiming that "Neil Simon is a critical embarrassment … it is universally agreed that [his plays] offer no specific insights into the human condition." But even critics as harsh as these must admit to certain strengths in Simon's comedies, most notably the indisputable fact "that a Neil Simon comedy makes the audiences laugh, and [that] this laughter is louder, longer and more constant than that produced by any other modern dramatist," according to Berkowitz.

On the other hand, Simon has had his champions. In fact, two book-length critical assessments of his work are both quite effusive in their praise. Edythe McGovern, in her Neil Simon: A Critical Study, puts Simon in a class with writers like Moliere and George Bernard Shaw who "successfully raised fundamental and sometimes tragic issues of universal and therefore enduring interest without eschewing the comic mode." Of The Odd Couple McGovern asserts that Simon has "captured the essence of incompatibility among humans who repeat again and again their self-defeating patterns of personality." In Neil Simon, Robert Johnson asserts that "Neil Simon has not received as much critical attention as he deserves," and that "Simon's work also explores a larger number of serious themes and points of view than he is credited with presenting." Johnson concludes that "Oscar and Felix's attempt to share living quarters … is the most captivating dramatization of incongruity Simon has yet created."

The individual interested in Neil Simon's comedies can come to his or her own opinion about the merit of Simon's comedy or about The Odd Couple in particular by seeking out learned definitions of comedy and comparing them to a multitude of works in literature and in the popular media.

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