The Playgoer: A Think-Piece on Neil Simon?

Custom Search

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Think-Piece on Neil Simon?

Yes, David Edelstein has written one.

An unusually compliemntary one, too. It's true, though, that the fame and success Simon achieved on stage is one of those phenomenons of a bygone era worth noting. I remember how back in 1990 or so the news that Jake's Women would be the first Neil Simon play close on the road before coming to Broadway was greeted as a sign of the apocalypse for the commercial future of not just this but any playwright Broadway. The meaning was that no longer could a play count on selling tickets based on the name of the playwright alone. Well, Jake's Women did finally make it to Broadway in 1992, and it wasn't that great. But the prophecy kind of came true anyway and 1990 seems as good a turning point in retrospect as any.

Personally I think the strengths Simon's legacy is not only his prolificness but his sheer craft. (The two go hand in hand when you think of it.) Of course, the downside of obsessive craft is formula, something he arguably fell into.

Edelstein is more fond of the oeuvre than am I (though I did muster a fitting tribute for the Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama), but his concluding paragraphs are poignant:

Neil Simon embodies a different age, when you tried out a play at the Shubert in New Haven, in Boston, in Philly, in Wilmington, and fiddled and handed the actors new lines as they were going onstage and tossed out whole acts if you needed to. ... The most entertaining stories in his memoirs are the ones in which he’s working on those plays out of town, stressed but in his element, measuring laughs and watching his audience watch his work.

But there’s a price to pay for watching an audience so attentively, for striving to find a too-harmonious balance between bathos and clownishness, for flattering and spoon-feeding instead of leading people somewhere they haven’t been. When that audience moves on (or dies out), the works don’t evolve. They remain a product of their era and place—forever of their time instead of perpetually new.
Seems like the price for any commercial artist, no?

1 comment:

Todd Wallinger said...

Commercial is not a four-letter-word. There are plenty of non-commercial playwrights who have failed to achieve timelessness as well.

What Simon did achieve is a crossover status that's sorely needed these days. His plays which were popular enough to attract people who never went to the theatre before, but human enough to make them want to see more.