(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

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 as another proof that Ibsen, who is too often confused with the Ibsenites, is not simply a bourgeois realist, a polemist, lacking in beauty. Simon convincingly shows the play to be “original yet universal, poetic yet witty, savage yet humane, symbolic yet earthy,” but his answer to the question, Why, then, is it not a beloved and popular masterpiece? is perhaps too facile: it lacks a hero and love interest.

Simon can think of no greater loss to world drama than the death at twenty-three of the genius Georg Büchner, author of Woyzeck and Danton’s Death. He defends Danton’s Death, too, against various objections. One of its achievements is the way the poetic style corresponds to “the acrid, bittersweet, and finally wormwoodlike laughter that is the true subject, the dramatic vision” of the play. When justifiable occasions for praise arise, Simon’s enthusiasm is boundless. Woyzeck and Danton’s Death anticipate “the essential elements of realism, poetic realism, naturalism, impressionism, expressionism, Sachlichkeit and magic realism . . . black humor and the theater of the absurd.” The piece on Cyrano de Bergerac is the first of several two- and three-pagers. It is “not a great play, merely a perfect one”—pure theater. Another negligible bit that does not illuminate by juxtaposition is the comment on the exhibition The Theater of Max Reinhardt. He was a “ham of genius,” “an impure artist,” “whose achievements were ambiguous.”

Having contended that “constructive criticism” is mythical, Simon offers the closest thing in “Proposals.” Lower prices and bigger stars are his facetious answers to the urgent question, “Can Drama Be Saved?” Drama is “doomed to slow, lingering extinction . . . unless the public acquires some taste, education and culture, which is easily the most utopian of all my suggestions.” Neither television nor the movies can help us “Toward the Conquest of Inner Space.” Living gestures and words in the theater “can penetrate deeper than any lens ever will.” Here Simon reiterates a proposal he makes often: American theater needs vast national, state, and private endowment to promote a genuine theatrical culture of “civilized minorities.” Just as important is the need for a crash program to develop directors. The three last directors of stature—Elia Kazan, William Ball, and Mike Nichols—have as many weaknesses as strengths, and Kazan and Nichols have gone over to film, along with the new directors of talent. One of Simon’s most eloquent and pertinent proposals is for a revival of old one-acters by great playwrights. “Should Albee Have Said ’No Thanks’?” to the Pulitzer Prize, that “unnecessary evil,” is not one of the questions likely to be asked throughout the duration of this book’s usefulness. Simon’s answer, Yes, is of limited interest. More interesting is his “Advice to the Hatelorn,” whose letters outnumber those of his fans five to one. Simon poses the question, Who “is more likely to be right: the critic or the irate complainer?” He rejects the democratic answer that “everyone’s opinion about theater is as good as anyone else’s.”

The essays in...

(The entire section is 3026 words.)