Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880
Rewrites: A Memoir traces Neil Simon’s early life and his writing career from the drafts of his first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1960), through the Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys (1972). Originally conceived as a full- length autobiography, this memoir is in many ways a tribute to Simon’s first wife Joan, ending with her death in 1973. (Actress Marsha Mason, his second wife, is identified only as “someone who would eventually play an important part in my life.”) A beautiful, spirited woman, Joan is recalled with unstinting love and admiration. Simon has included family photographs that underscore his tenderness toward her and his gratitude for her support of his dreams. The final chapter on her death from breast cancer is intense and moving. Simon’s early years provide an interesting perspective for his work. He was born on July 4, 1927, to Irving Simon, a fabric salesman in New York City’s garment district, and Mamie Levy Simon. His mother used to tie him to his high chair with a rope to keep him from falling out, a practice that he holds responsible for the claustrophobia he still suffers from, although he has found some relief through psychoanalysis. During his childhood, his parents separated several times. His father would simply walk out and not come back, leaving his mother almost penniless, without a job or skills. In desperation, she took in boarders to keep his older brother Danny in school and rented out the kitchen table for card games (twenty-five cents per person, per game). Simon recalls standing with his mother in front of a woman’s house, waiting to confront his wayward father. Trapped between his unhappy parents, he found his escape from the ugliness in a library or motion picture theater.
Even when he was at home, Irving Simon was a man who kept his distance. He alternately humiliated and ignored his wife and sons. One Fourth of July (Neil’s birthday), Irving brought home fireworks and distributed them to the neighborhood children, but not to his sons. Later, however, he did introduce Neil and Danny to some men who booked entertainment for summer resorts, thus starting the boys on their writing careers.
At nineteen, after a stint in the Air Force, Neil began to write comedy sketches with Danny for CBS. The brothers continued to produce weekly variety sketches at Tamiment, the resort where Neil met Joan Baim in the summer of 1953. They were married that September in Manhattan’s Criminal Courts Building with their parents attending, although his were not speaking to each other. Their first apartment in Greenwich Village was cramped, with a sinkette, a stove, and a hole in the skylight. This apartment, five flights up, would later become the setting for Simon’s second play, Barefoot in the Park (1963), a romantic comedy about a newlywed couple. The young heroine was modeled on Joan.
The Simon brothers continued to write humorous sketches for television. When television moved west to California, the brothers went with it. Danny settled there, happily writing for the networks, while Neil continued to shuttle between Los Angeles and New York, winning Emmys for his work on comic Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and the Sgt. Bilko Show, starring Phil Silvers.
In the spring of 1957, Simon was asked to write two variety sketches, heavy with physical humor, for a Jerry Lewis television special. It was not an experience he relished, and he offers a scathing portrait of Lewis, “half child, half cheetah. . . . a spastic, aging bellhop.” Simon hated Hollywood; his dream was to get out of television and write for Broadway. As always, Joan encouraged him.
Simon’s career in the theater did not begin fortuitously. Come Blow Your Horn, his autobiographical comedy, required three and a half years and twenty complete revisions before it was ready. On opening night, a man dropped dead in the balcony during the first act. Surprisingly, the play was a success.
Simon rejected an offer to write the $75,000 screen adaptation (which would star Frank Sinatra) in order to concentrate on theater. He feared becoming a “playwrote,” a playwright with a single comedy to his credit, but he seemed to fear writing more. Back in his New York office, he spent a few weeks throwing darts. When a tax-sheltered investment recommended by his business manager found him the owner of a herd of frozen Wyoming cattle, he began to write in earnest.
In 1964, he began to write screenplays as well, even though he knew he was primarily a stage playwright. He tried to retain play dialogue in the screenplays, not always successfully, and missed the close collaboration with the director that he enjoyed in the theater. Perhaps his most unfortunate experience emerged in connection with his original screenplay for After the Fox (1966), an Italian-American film. Director Vittorio De Sica wanted Simon to collaborate with his own writer, Cesare Zavattini, although neither writer spoke the other’s language. Their interpreter was passionately expansive in Italian but terse in English, and the results were often disastrous. In addition, while Simon preferred to focus on the characters, Zavattini wanted to make social statements. Other events in Italy marred production: the rivalry of the film stars and their demands for private limousines on the narrow mountain roads, a waiters’ strike during a holiday, and strikes by railway and electric company workers. To his horror, Simon found himself trapped on an elevator, a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Finally, a woman wearing a purple dress on the set caused an all-out panic in the Italian crew that Simon still does not understand.
Neil Simon’s plays are to some extent autobiographical. His ideas emerge from his own life and from lives he has observed. When Danny, newly divorced, moved in with a divorced friend and psychological opposite, The Odd Couple (1965) began to take shape. A less successful play, The Star-Spangled Girl (1966), sprang from an overheard political argument between playwright Paddy Chayevsky and the wife of an astronaut. Simon’s own midlife crisis, his desperate attempt to join the sexual revolution, triggered the wry Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969).
Contrary to the popular view of him as “King of the One- Liners,” Simon maintains that he does not write jokes; he does not even know any. A joke is something to be memorized, neither wit nor humor, and from the beginning he has hated them. “No matter how funny lines are, they’re nothing more than funny lines if they do not push the play forward. It’s what happens to characters in the story that interests an audience,” he says. In Simon’s work, his emphasis on character is one of his most notable traits.
Although he believes that writing comedy may bring popularity and success, he is convinced that writing drama brings respect. With The Gingerbread Lady (1970), which concerns an alcoholic actress who self-destructs because she always makes the wrong choices, Simon began to explore the darker side of human nature, a direction he has continued to pursue. His producer advised him not to alter the script, but this play was not what people expected from Neil Simon. Out-of-town reviews were generally negative, and the producer wanted to close the play. Simon, however, determined to rewrite it and send it on to New York. He identifies this incident as the moment when he first began to trust his own inner voice. In the title role, Maureen Stapleton won an Emmy.
Rewrites is an appropriate title. In the course of this memoir, Simon exemplifies, without moralizing, the hard work of writing, not the myth of sudden and complete inspiration. His diligence during rehearsals is impressive. He watches, listens, revises, trying the lines in different ways. He continues to rewrite during out-of-town tryouts, before a play ever appears in New York.
The book contains some plums for those interested in writing. Advice to young playwrights is sprinkled generously throughout. Simon contends that one can learn more from seeing bad or mediocre plays than from watching the best, because it is easier to recognize what will not work in a play than what will. He advises listening to, not watching, the actors read the script in order to catch weak spots in the dialogue. Laughter in the wrong places also requires attention. He respects his audiences and knows he cannot slip anything past them.
Although Simon writes about human behavior, he chooses to observe rather than research. He prefers not to plot plays to the end; instead, they unfold and surprise him. He likes to use titles that are phrases already in the language because they are easier to remember. Most important, he loves his work.
The book does have some structural weaknesses. Simon intersperses events from his writing life with scenes from a traumatic childhood and comments from the present, and the resulting chronology is often confusing. His style can be glib and facile, with a profusion of one-liners, like the play dialogue for which he is noted. At times he seems uncomfortable in his candor, as when he confesses joining the ranks of unfaithful husbands.
On the other hand, he has a fine ear for anecdotes and knows how to tell a story. Witness his account of Sid Caesar, angry at a producer’s comment, who suddenly tears the sink from the washroom wall with his hands. At another time Simon, unaware that he is romancing a gangster’s girlfriend, comes perilously close to extinction. When he develops severe back pains, a highly recommended doctor treats Simon and a roomful of patients by placing straws in their nostrils—along with what he later discovers is cocaine.
Simon notes that he completed twenty-nine plays in thirty-four years, many of which have been made into films. He mentions his first Tony Award (for his breakthrough play The Odd Couple) but says nothing of later awards, which include a second Tony and the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, and the 1995 Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement. Reflecting on his life and the price of success, he recalls author John Steinbeck’s comment on fame: “Remember, you can still only eat two eggs a day.” An intensely private man who was cut off early from his emotions, Simon still finds it difficult to ask even a slight favor—a cup of tea, for example. Shyness, fame, and the act of writing have continued to isolate him.
This book indicates there is more depth to Neil Simon than he is generally credited with having. His later plays, which having deepened in intensity, fuse humor and melancholy into a mature vision. As he explains, “Although I always found the absurdity of how we live our lives, I always looked for the pain when I wrote about it. Writing about it . . . allows you to look at it from a distance, objectively . . . and you begin to see a common truth that connects us all.”
Sources for Further Study
American Theatre. XIII, October, 1996, p. 90.
Chicago Tribune. October 16, 1996, V, p. 3.
Denver Post. October 27, 1996, p. G13.
Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, August 1, 1996, p. 1135.
Library Journal. CXXI, September 1, 1996, p. 180.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 29, 1996, p. 1.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 29, 1996, p. 13.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, August 19, 1996, p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle. October 11, 1996, p. C1.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, September 22, 1996, p. 3.
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