Like the film criticism of Pauline Kael, John Simon’s theater criticism is in itself a dramatic event, and Simon is center stage. It is his “language as gesture” we hear and watch, and his reasoning is the action that develops. He tells us that Singularities has no “overarching theme other than Theater and, implicitly, the personality of the critic-essayist.” The two epithets most often hurled at him, or admiringly applied to him, are “elitist” and “acerbic.” Mingled, those two qualities are the ambience of the collection. He tells us we must “start thinking of theater as a high, perhaps even aristocratic and unpopular art.” “On Being an Elitist Critic” is the subject of the introduction to one of his books. He suffers fools viciously and is intolerant of any work that falls short of excellence. Critical wrath as an expression of genuine anger is no vice, he declares. Jacques Barzun praises him for the splendid violence of his arguments. Simon has often declared that a critic must be an artist, a teacher, and a philosopher who writes as well as any other artist. Criticism is a work of art that is significant while being entertaining. Criticism by consensus is fallacious. Objective, constructive, or destructive criticism is impossible.
It may be useful to know what background helped to produce this approach. Born in Yugoslavia, Simon came to the United States in 1941 when he was sixteen. He went to school in England and studied comparative literature with Harry Levin at Harvard; he was taught at Harvard, M. I. T., and Bard College. All genres were represented in his first collection, Acid Test (1963), which concluded with a section on other critics. He has served as drama critic for Commonweal, The New Leader, Hudson Review, and New York magazine. He has also been film critic for Esquire, The New Leader, and New York. Private Screenings (1967), Movies into Film (1971), and Ingmar Bergman Directs (1972) are his books on movies. Circulation for the publications for which he has written columns regularly is too limited for his criticism to have had the effect our culture needs.
In Singularities Simon has collected most of the pieces on the theater written over the decade 1964-1974. They are not reviews or critiques but essays, he insists. For his reviews of the same period, one may consult Uneasy Stages (1976). To persuade the reader that “single works are illuminated by juxtaposition,” that “themes and developments emerge” to reveal the critic’s “cumulative achievement,” Simon structures this collection of short pieces, some very short indeed, quite cleverly, focusing our attention with one-page introductions on “Appreciations,” “Proposals,” “Definitions,” “Fulminations,” “Appraisals,” and “Convictions.”
The epigraph is a puzzler. “No two on earth in one thing can agree,/ All have some darling singularity” (Charles Churchill, from The Apology, 1761). If Simon, who sees little singularity in the theater today, has a “singularity” among other critics, few of his subjects will find him “darling.” He approves of few of the plays, books, and people he dissects; most of his subjects fail to achieve the high classical standards he imposes. The first “popular misconception” Simon clears up for us is the one that assumes critics would rather be nasty than nice. To prove his gall is not unmitigated, he opens with “Appreciations” of three playwrights who have two things in common: their plays are classics and they are dead.
Ibsen is the playwright most often cited as a touchstone of excellence in these essays. Simon demonstrates his exegetical acumen in essays on Peer Gynt and The Wild Duck; peeling the layers of their complexity as if they were onions, he demolishes “charges” made against them over the years. He examines the construction and satirical meaning of Peer Gynt, its techniques of imagery, ambiguity, counterpart, symbolism, and character revelation. The Wild Duck is offered...
(The entire section is 3,050 words.)