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Neil Simon is a master of comedy and one of the most popular dramatists in the history of the American theater. His plays, which range from light romantic comedy and farce to drama, have entertained Broadway audiences for almost five decades and have also been a mainstay for regional and amateur theater companies. Active as a writer for the screen as well as the stage, Simon has adapted more plays to movies than any other American dramatist and has written ten original screenplays.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From the Army to Showbiz
Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, New York, on July 4, 1927, and grew up in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights during the Great Depression. His parents had a stormy marriage; his father, a garment salesman, abandoned the family frequently during Simon’s boyhood, causing serious financial strain as well as emotional turmoil. ”I think part of what has made me a comedy writer, Simon told Richard Meryman in 1971, ”is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude.
After graduating high school at sixteen, Simon enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserve training program at New York University. In 1945 he was assigned to Lowry Field, Colorado, where he attended the University of Denver and worked—as did many creative types who were swept up in World War II—for a military publication, serving as sports editor for Rev-Meter. Simon later used his experience in the army as material for Biloxi Blues (1985), the second play in his semiautobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy.
After his discharge as a corporal in 1946, Simon launched his career in show business with his brother, Danny, writing comedy for CBS. For the next decade the Simon brothers collaborated in writing comedy sketches for radio and for television series, such as Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Simon continued to write comedy for television until the opening of his first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn, in 1961, to which he brought a gift for writing gags and one-liners and an instinctive knowledge of what would make an audience laugh. Recounting Simon’s first experience of living on his own, Come Blow Your Horn focuses on the theme of coming of age and follows the experiences of two brothers living as roommates, Simon’s first stab at the notion of the ”odd couple.” Critics found Simon’s first play slender in plot and overly dependent on stock characters, but they were uniformly impressed by Simon’s gift for witty dialogue. Running for 677 performances, Come Blow Your Horn marked an auspicious beginning to Simon’s theatrical career.
Finding a Voice in the Theater
Simon continued his autobiographical approach to playwriting in the romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park (1963), in which he affectionately recalled the early days of his marriage to his wife, Joan. (They married in 1953.) Rather than adopting the traditional “boy-meets-girl” framework of romantic comedy, Simon employed his favorite variation of that story line: the ”problem marriage” plot. The newlyweds portrayed in the play are deeply in love but of opposite temperament and have to learn the delicate art of compromise. Barefoot in the Park was a major critical and commercial hit, running on Broadway for 1,532 performances.
Simon’s next big hit, The Odd Couple (1965), was a natural outgrowth of Barefoot in the Park, since it, too, focused on the theme of incompatibility. Simon employed the same ”problem marriage” setup as in his previous comedy, but he altered it to depict a pair of heterosexual men, Felix and Oscar, who have separated from their spouses and now share an apartment. While Oscar is sloppy, irresponsible, and carefree, Felix is compulsively neat, fussy, and high-strung. The characters, and the notion of the ”odd couple,” have since transcended the play itself and become stock characters in television and big-screen comedy.
Keeping Up with the Times
Though Simon had established himself by riffing on domesticity, a sensibility that was shaped by the cultural values of the 1950s, he was attuned to the culture changing around him. Simon’s 1969 play Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a popular success, was inspired by the sexual revolution of the 1960s and focuses on the midlife crisis of Barney Cashman, whose anxiety at his disappearing youth leads him to attempt an affair. Barney proves to be a clumsy ladies’ man, however, and his three seduction attempts all end in failure.
In the early 1970s, as Simon was rounding the corner into middle age, he brought out The Sunshine Boys (1972), an ostensible tribute to the bygone art of vaudeville, focusing on two old comedians who reunite in an effort to revive their classic comedy act for television. But the play is also a sensitive look at old age, with the characters suffering not just the physical effects of time but also the dismaying loss of dignity that accompanies it. The play was both a popular and critical success, not just for subject matter Simon’s audiences could relate to, but because the jokes and one-liners he was known for worked particularly well in a play about comedians.
Loss and Rebirth
In July of 1973 Simon’s first wife, Joan, died of cancer at the age of thirty-nine. She and Simon had been married for nearly twenty years and were raising two daughters, Ellen and Nancy. (Simon later adopted Bryn, the daughter of his third wife, Diane Lander.) Devastated by grief, Simon wrote God’s Favorite (1974), a comic retelling of the biblical story of Job. As Simon explained in a 1991 interview, ”I could not understand the absurdity of a thirty-nine-year-old beautiful, energetic woman dying so young.” The play was Simon’s ”railing at God to explain to me why He did this thing.” Despite its heartfelt origins, however, the play was neither a popular nor a critical success.
Simon bounced back professionally, with a new collection of playlets, the crowd-pleasing California Suite (1976), and personally, with his marriage to actress Marsha Mason (b. 1942). Mason starred in a number of films based on Simon’s plays and screenplays, most notably 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, which was written for the screen. Simon’s next theatrical offering, Chapter Two (1977), is an autobiographical work dealing with Simon’s sorrow over Joan’s death and his mixture of joy and guilt about his remarriage a few months later. The play remains a romantic comedy despite its realistic portrayal of bereavement, ably blending the humorous with the poignant.
With 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Simon returned to his life story as a dramatic source, warmly recalling his boyhood in New York City during the Depression. Played by Matthew Broderick in the Broadway premiere, the adolescent Eugene Jerome, who hopes to become a writer someday, speaks directly to the audience, revealing his family’s assorted financial and health problems. The play offers substantial hope that the family will nevertheless survive; according to Simon himself, it is the idealization of the family that has made Brighton Beach Memoirs one of his most widely performed plays. Simon turned Brighton Beach Memoirs into a trilogy with two subsequent plays: Biloxi Blues (1985), inspired by Simon’s time in the military, and Broadway Bound (1986), which follows the protagonist into his comedy-writing career. The most serious of the three plays, it inspired New York Newsdaf’s critic to write that Broadway Bound seemed ”as though a familiar Simon comedy were intertwined with an Arthur Miller play.
The Many Sources of Laughter
After an attempt at farce with Rumors (1988), which was a popular if not a critical success, Simon returned to form with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers (1991). Set in 1942, Lost in Yonkers is one of Simon’s darkest comedies, focusing on a dysfunctional Jewish family helmed by a stern, intimidating grandmother and populated by a variety of other eccentric characters. Less sentimental than the Brighton Beach trilogy and resonating with audiences as painfully true to life, Lost in Yonkers had a long run on Broadway and was soon after made into a feature film (1993).
In 1993 Simon found another rich source from his past to mine: his days as a comedy writer, in particular for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which formed the foundation for that year’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a fond look back at the Golden Age of comedy. Since then Simon has continued to turn out plays and scripts, his most recent work being the stage production Rose’s Dilemma (2003). In addition to his marriage to Mason, which ended in 1981, Simon was twice married to Diane Lander and is currently married to actress Elaine Joyce (b. 1950).
Works in Literary Context
When Simon created his play The Sunshine Boys (1972), about two vaudeville comedians, he wasn’t just picking the perfect subject matter for his favorite kind of joke—the one-liner. He was also paying homage to the long theatrical tradition that laid the groundwork for his own brand of theater. A peculiarly American format, vaudeville rose up in the late nineteenth century and featured a series of unrelated acts ranging from musical performance to dramatic readings to family skits. While by the 1930s vaudeville was mostly a thing of the past, two types of stage acts transcended the genre and went on to provide the basis for new kinds of shows: burlesque or striptease, and comedy. With the rise of radio and then television, comedy—in the form of sketches or one-liner-filled monologues—had found a new medium, and many of the early writers and performers were veterans of the vaudeville circuit. Sid Caesar, the impresario of classic TV comedy whose Your Show of Shows was one of Simon’s early employers, got his training by performing on the resort circuit, whose variety-show format borrowed much from classic vaudeville.
Works in Critical Context
The Brighton Beach Trilogy
While for most of Simon’s theatrical career critics had trouble seeing past his one-liners, the 1980s brought consistently positive reviews with the autobiographical trilogy of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. Speaking of the critical reception of Brighton Beach Memoirs, David Richards, who reviewed many of Simon’s plays, explained that ”the critics, who have sometimes begrudged the playwright his ability to coin more funny lines per minute than seems humanly possible, have now decided that he has a very warm heart.”
Brighton Beach Memoirs earned Simon some of the best reviews of his career. One critic wrote that Brighton Beach Memoirs has ”plenty of laughs,” but ”Simon avoids the glib, tenderly probing the often-awkward moments where confused emotions cause unconscious hurts. . . . Simon’s at his best, finding the natural wit, wisecracking and hyperbole in the words and wisdom of everyday people.”
Biloxi Blues was less of a smash than its predecessor, but garnered critical respect nonetheless. ”For all the familiarity of its set pieces,” Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times wrote, ”it feels like life, not ‘Gomer Pyle.”’ Critics have also been impressed with how Simon subordinates the play’s humor to its more serious concerns. David Richards claimed that Biloxi Blues ”may be the most touching play ever written about the rigors of basic training.”
Critics were also impressed by the sensitive portrayal of the hero’s mother in the final installment of the trilogy, Broadway Bound, as well as its insight into family life.
Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, remarked that the play ”contains some of its author’s most accomplished writing to date—passages that dramatize the timeless, unresolvable bloodlettings of familial existence as well as the humorous conflicts one expects.”
Lost in Yonkers
Simon received further critical recognition of his status as one of America’s major playwrights in 1991, when his play Lost in Yonkers won both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for best drama. The play, which tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish American family during World War II, is ”closer to pure surrealism than anything Mr. Simon has hitherto produced,” writes David Richards in the New York Times, ”and take[s] him several bold steps beyond the autobiographical traumas he recorded in Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.” The critic continues,
No longer content to dramatize divisive arguments around the family table, he has pulled the family itself out of shape and turned it into a grotesque version of itself. These characters are not oddballs, they’re deeply disturbed creatures. Were it not for his ready wit and his appreciation for life’s incongruities, Lost in Yonkers could pass for a nightmare.
- Koprince, Susan. Understanding Neil Simon. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
- Schiff, Ellen. ”Funny, He Does Look Jewish.” In Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas. New York: Garland, 1997.
- Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Walden, Daniel. ”Neil Simon’s Jewish-Style Comedies.” In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
- Bryer, Jackson R. An Interview with Neil Simon.” Studies in American Drama: 1945-Present (1991).
- Meryman, Richard. When the Funniest Writer in America Tried to Be Serious.” Life, May 7, 1961.
- Rich, Frank. Review of Broadway Bound. New York Times, December 5, 1986.
- Richards, David. ”The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights.” New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991.
- Sullivan, Dan. Review of Biloxi Blues. Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1984.
- Wallach, Allan. Review of Broadway Bound. New York Newsday (December 5, 1986).
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