Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon (born 1927) has become America's most prolific and popular dramatist. His tragicomic plays expose human frailties and make people laugh at themselves.
One of America's favorite playwrights, Neil Simon has been relieving audiences of their anxieties, fears, and worries by making them laugh at their own foibles for almost forty years. His portrayals of individual angst and dysfunctional family relationships, while exaggerated, manage to hit a nerve every time. Simon takes the audience through laughter to tears and back, as he explores life's emotional truths. A prolific writer, he has written and had produced more Broadway hits than any other American playwright, making him the wealthiest dramatist in history. Numerous Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards and nominations, and special achievement awards have followed. His contribution to the arts and to popular culture in the twentieth century was recognized in 1995 when he received Kennedy Center Honors from President Bill Clinton. As part of his tribute to Simon the President said, "He has written a string of magnificent hit plays unprecedented in the history of the American theater. Audiences found them so funny that, at first, few people noticed the gentle, deep, and sometimes sharp truths behind the comedy…. We saw the flaws and foibles and faults, but always, through them all, the indomitability of the human spirit."
Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, in New York, on the Fourth of July in 1927. The Great Depression brought difficult times for the family. His father, a garment salesman, periodically disappeared, leaving his wife to support their two sons by working at Gimbel's department store and relying on family and friends. After they divorced, Simon lived with relatives in Forest Hills, in the Queens borough of New York City. Simon and his older brother developed a very close relationship, and during their teens wrote and sold material to standup comics and radio shows. It was his brother who encouraged him to pursue writing while in the United States Army Air Force Reserve program He attended college also at this time. His childhood fixation with comedy stuck, and he learned to write comedy by studying the work of his favorite comics-Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner.
After being discharged from the army, Simon got a job in the mailroom of Warner Brothers thanks to his brother who worked in the publicity department. They began collaborating again, and from 1947 to 1956 worked as a team writing comedy for television hits such as the Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers Shows. Simon continued writing comedy for four years after his brother quit to become a television director. Some of television's top shows were showcases for his work, including the Sid Caesar and Garry Moore Shows. The pleasure was fading, however, and he turned his energies to playwriting in 1960.
Simon's first play, Come Blow Your Horn, was a modest hit; but it was followed shortly thereafter with Barefoot in the Park, a runaway hit that ran on Broadway for four years. His third play, The Odd Couple, introduced two characters that have become American icons-Felix and Oscar, two men estranged from their wives who move in together to save money, and find that they have the same problems living with each other as they did with their wives. The story lines usually presented conflicts between two people, and were filled with funny one-liners that brought the house down. While not entirely autobiographical, Simon makes no secret about using personal experiences or those of his friends for material. Come Blow Your Horn was about two brothers who moved away home and shared a bachelor apartment (just as Simon and his brother did); Barefoot in the Park was the story of newlyweds adjusting to married life (reminiscent of his own marriage); and, of The Odd Couple Simon once commented, "[the story] happened to two guys I know-I couldn't write a play about Welsh miners." The Odd Couple had a two-year run on Broadway, won Simon his first Tony Award, and has been adapted to television and film several times.
Critics often belittled Simon's work on the basis that he sacrificed character and plot development for laughs, to the extent that some plays were hardly more that a series of one-liners. In the 1970s, he made a conscious effort to add depth to his work by treating serious issues within a comic framework. He presented tragicomedies such as The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the story of a man in a mid-life crisis who seeks solace in extramarital affairs; and The Gingerbread Lady, in which a one-time singer, who is now an alcoholic, struggles to make a comeback; and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which witnesses the nervous breakdown of a recently fired executive. Some applauded his new "real life honesty, " while others still criticized his characterizations as being superficial.
Simon continued to depict characters grappling to handle their feelings in difficult situations, and releasing tension with humor. He began to share more of himself and his life, including boyhood fantasies of escape from the emotional turmoil of his family, and the frustration and despair of coping with his wife's terminal illness. In a 1996 interview with Randy Gener for American Theatre, Simon commented, "I was writing plays that made people laugh. I wanted a response from the audience that would make up for whatever it was that was missing from those formative years of mine." For him, laughter provided a sense of comfort, fulfillment, and approval to replace insecurity, fear of abandonment, and later the futility of loss. During this period he wrote The Sunshine Boys, The Good Doctor, California Suite, and Chapter Two, whose leading character, a widower, feels guilty and miserable over falling in love and remarrying much as Simon had.
The 1980s took the intermingling of honesty and humor to new levels of intimacy. With the advent of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, Simon develops the stories and conflicts among several characters, rather than presenting a one-on-one confrontation. The series begins telling the story of an adolescent middle-class Jewish American boy growing up amid a dysfunctional family and yearning to escape. Biloxi Blues, chronicled the boy's coming of age and the stunning reality of facing anti-Semitism while in the army -again mirroring some of Simon's personal experiences. The third, Broadway Bound, took audiences into the boy's young adulthood as he struggled to establish his career, and saw with new clarity the problems in his parents' relationship-Simon claimed writing the play was instrumental in resolving the relationship with his mother.
Simon uses writing as a coping mechanism for life's ups and downs, and explores a variety of mediums. When his third marriage broke up, he wrote Rumors, a farce, and Jake's Women, in which he introduces "ghosts"-good and bad experiences of two marriages and their impact on the third. Meanwhile, he has found time to write original screenplays, as well as many adaptations of his plays for the screen. His screenplays include: The Heartbreak Kid; The Goodbye Girl, which won an Academy Award nomination in 1977 and a Golden Globe Award for best screenplay the following year; Seems Like Old Times; The Lonely Guy; and The Slugger's Wife.
The playwright keeps pealing away layers of psychological insight. He began the 1990s with Lost in Yonkers, a painfully funny story of the long lasting impact an abusive mother has on her grown children. William Henry III, writing in Time, noted: "At the heart is … a mother who was physically and psychologically abusive and four middle-aged children who still suffer the weaknesses she inflicted in teaching them to be strong." In many plays the hardened protagonist has a soft heart underneath; not the mother in Lost in Yonkers. She never responds to the pleas of her retarded child for affection; she turns her back and walks out the door without a word-a poignant and sad ending for a playwright known for "schtik" comedy. The play was a success, and in 1991 earned both the Antoinette Perry Award for best play and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in drama.
His next works turned back in time to reflect and reminisce about the days of writing comedy for legends such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Sid Caesar. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a far cry from the dramatic characterizations in Lost in Yonkers and Jake's Women. The play is a behind-the-scenes look at writing comedy by committee, as a group of men shout fast one-liners, each trying to top the other. While funny, critics had a field day talking about the lack of plot and depth of these characters.
In a similar, though much less superficial vein, Simon wrote a book entitled Rewrites in 1996. The book is a memoir of his early career during which time he wrote hits such as Barefoot in the Park, and enjoyed an extremely happy marriage that ended too early when his wife lost her battle with cancer. The book received mixed reviews; People Weekly commented that it "doesn't live up to the creativity it documents." As Simon has often found, his own work is a hard act to follow.
Simon continues to explore new terrain in his writing. In 1997, he further developed the ghost devise first used in Jake's Women, and introduced his first major Black character in Proposals. In an interview with David Stearns for USA Today he said, "It is one of the most loving plays I've ever written. There's also a lot of anger. Because love is the main theme in the play, I was trying to cover all the aspects of it-those who get it and those who don't." As President Clinton remarked when presenting the Kennedy Center Honors to Simon, "he challenges us and himself never to take ourselves too seriously. Thank you for the wit and the wisdom."
Further Reading on Neil Simon
American Theatre, October 1996.
Newsweek, March 4, 1991.
People Weekly, December 16, 1996.
Time, March 4, 1991; December 6, 1993.
USA Today, October 2, 1997.