The Prisoner of Second Avenue
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
Neil Simon, one of the most popular of twentieth-century American dramatists, is known for his comedies that often examine the tensions that can arise among family members or between men and women living in New York. In his play, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which ran on Broadway for 788 performances beginning in 1973, Simon's comedy turns darker as he explores the devastating effect that city life can have on a middle-aged couple. In early 1970s, when the play takes place, New York City was beset by financial problems, high crime, and strikes that made daily life often inconvenient and sometimes dangerous. The play chronicles Mel and Edna's struggle to survive city life, coupled with noisy neighbors, faulty plumbing, and the loss of employment, and to maintain a measure of dignity in the process.
Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, New York, to Irving, a garment salesman, and Mamie Simon. He grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan, during the Great Depression. After he graduated from high school, Simon joined the army and wrote for military publications while he took classes at New York University and the University of Denver.
After his discharge in 1946, "Doc" Simon, a nickname he earned as a child from impersonating
the family doctor, began a career as a comedy writer for several television shows, including The Phil Silvers Show and Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. In 1961, when his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, appeared on Broadway, Simon turned his talents to playwriting.
Several of Simon's plays have autobiographical elements taken from his childhood as well as his relationships with his four wives, including dancer Joan Baim, who died while they married, an event that inspired Simon's Chapter Two, and actress Marsha Mason, who starred in several stage and film versions of his plays. Plays influenced by events in his childhood often involve coming-of-age stories, while those that reflect his marriages explore the tensions that can develop between men and women in relationships.
Simon has received Emmy Awards for his television work, the Tony Award for Best Play for The Odd Couple in 1965, for Barefoot in the Park in 1966, for Sweet Charity in 1968, for Plaza Suite in 1969, for Promises, Promises in 1970, for Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1972, for The Prisoner of Second Avenue in 1973, and for The Sunshine Boys in 1978. In 1975, he was awarded a special Tony Award for his overall contributions to the theater. He has earned several other writing and drama awards as well as Oscar nominations. He was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1983 and received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers. Simon was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1995, and in 2006, he received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is available in The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, volume two, which was published by Plume in 1979.
Act 1, Scene 1
The Prisoner of Second Avenue takes place in a Manhattan apartment from midsummer to December, most likely in 1971. Mel and Edna Edison have been living on the fourteenth floor in this small apartment for six years. When the play opens, Mel is sitting alone anxiously in the dark at 2:30 a.m., moaning "Ohhh, Christ Almighty," which wakes up Edna. When she asks him what is wrong, he replies, "Nothing," and tells her to go back to bed, but then he keeps moaning. She soon gets him to admit that he cannot sleep because it is freezing in the apartment due to the broken air conditioner and asks what she can do to make him feel more comfortable. She notes that he has been tense for a week.
Mel then complains about the ugly pillows on the couch and declares that he is tired of the apartment, the building, and the entire city as they listen to the jarring street noises. He claims that he is more sensitive to noise, including the ones emanating from the apartment next door, where two German stewardesses entertain nightly guests. As he bangs on the wall, yelling at them to be quiet, he cracks it. Mel then orders Edna to call the superintendent in the morning and demand that the crack be fixed, along with the air conditioning and running toilet, insisting that he will not pay for any of it.
When Mel admits that tranquilizers no longer help calm him down, Edna begins to worry about him, which sets him off on a rant about everything that is wrong with the city and the world, including the lack of safe, good tasting food and the smell of garbage that permeates the air. Edna argues that he has to accept city life or leave Manhattan, but Mel insists that he will stay and exercise his right to protest. After he yells at a barking dog from his terrace, voices from above tell him to be quiet, but he just hollers back at them.
When Edna tries to get him to calm down, he screams at her. After he finally starts to relax a bit, he admits that he has not been sleeping well and that he feels he is losing control. Edna tries to reassure him that everyone is feeling that way in the city and suggests that he go back to his analyst. Mel tells her though that the doctor is dead and that therapists cost too much anyway.
When Mel declares that he is worried about losing his job, Edna says that they could move somewhere that does not cost as much, but Mel refuses to take her advice seriously. Then the stewardesses from next door call and complain about the noise, which sets Mel off on a tirade again, insisting that Edna "bang back" on the wall. The scene ends with the voice of news commentator Roger Keating, reporting on the long list of the city's problems.
Act 1, Scene 2
A few days later, Edna has come into the apartment and discovered that they have been robbed. When Mel comes home, she explains that she went to the store for a short while, and since she lost the door key, she left the apartment unlocked. The robbers took everything, including the liquor and Mel's suits. Edna is frightened, while Mel fumes to the point where he loses control, screaming and throwing ashtrays on the floor. He then admits that he was fired four days earlier but did not tell her because he hoped that he could find a new job. As he promises that he will find something, Edna insists that she has confidence in him.
Mel gets increasingly agitated about their lack of money as Edna tries to calm him down, telling him that they will get by. As he rants about the money that they have spent on useless things and about how he was mistreated by his company, a voice from an above apartment calls down to him to quiet down. When he refuses and yells back at the voice as he is standing on his terrace, he gets hit with a bucket of water from above, which drenches him. The scene closes with Edna wiping him off, trying to assure him that everything will work out.
Act 2, Scene 1
Approximately six weeks later in mid-September, Mel is wandering around the apartment in his bathrobe, grimmer and angrier than in the first act. When Edna comes home from her job as a secretary to make him lunch, she rushes, since she only has half an hour. She has a difficult time getting Mel to talk to her. He admits that he is frustrated by his failed attempts to find a job and humiliated by the fact that Edna is working.
He then begins to explain to Edna that "the social-economical-and-political-plot-to-undermine-the-working-classes-in-this-country" is preventing him from finding a job. He has heard this on the radio talk shows and believes that "the human race" has hatched this "very sophisticated, almost invisible" plot "to destroy the status quo" and insists that he is a victim of it.
Edna gets increasingly agitated during this rant to the point where she determines that he needs to see a therapist. While Mel ignores her and begins to plan his revenge, which involves burying those trying to destroy him with snow, Edna calls the doctor, insisting that her husband must see him as soon as possible. The scene closes again with the voice of Roger Keating, reporting that the governor has been mugged and that city workers are on strike.
Act 2, Scene 2
Two weeks later, Mel's brother Harry and three sisters, Pauline, Pearl, and Jessie, meet at Mel's to discuss his situation and how they can help. The sisters talk about Mel's childhood while Harry tries to get them focused on Mel's financial troubles. He proposes that they all chip in to pay for Mel's doctor bills, but the sisters are reluctant to finance them if they last more than a few months. Harry, however, insists that Mel is their responsibility and deserves their help for as long as he needs it.
- Melvin Frank directed a film version of the play in 1975, starring Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, with a screenplay by Simon. Bancroft subsequently received a BAFTA Film Award nomination, and Simon was nominated for a WGA Screen Award. The film was available as of 2006.
- L. A. Theatre Works's unabridged cassette version, produced in 2001 and read by Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, was available as of 2006.
When Edna arrives, Harry proposes his plan, and she is deeply touched but asks if they could buy a summer camp for him instead. Edna is certain that if Mel gets out of the city and into the country, he will regain his mental health. After Harry rejects the plan, arguing that Mel does not have any business sense, a heavily sedated Mel appears after just having taken a walk. The scene ends with the voice of Stan Jennings, who has taken over reporting duties from Roger Keating after the latter was mugged.
Act 2, Scene 3
Six weeks later, in mid-December, Edna is on the phone, trying to get someone to restore the water and electricity to the apartment. When Mel arrives, he declares that he is not going back to his incompetent doctor and will instead work out his problems himself. Edna, who is getting increasingly upset about the lack of water and electricity, tearfully tells Mel that her company has gone bankrupt, and she is out of a job. Like Mel had done at the beginning of the play, Edna begins to rant about all of the city's problems, claiming that all she wants is to be able to take a bath. She implores Mel to bang on the pipes as she banged on the wall for him to try to get someone to pay attention to her. In order to calm her, Mel agrees to move with her out of the city.
Harry arrives, offering Mel money for the summer camp. When Mel refuses, Harry leaves, and he and Edna argue about Harry's offer. Their shouts prompt a voice from above to tell them to shut up. As Mel tries to apologize to his neighbor, he is hit again with a bucket of water. As he stands on the terrace in a state of shock, it starts to snow. Edna and Mel look at each other, and he goes to the closet and takes out his shovel. The play closes with Roger Keating's voice, warning residents of the upcoming snow storm and asking them to work together to shovel everyone out.
Edna Edison is a loving, supportive wife whose main concern is her husband's welfare. She has adopted a traditional role in marriage, taking care of the household while her husband works outside of the home. When he becomes agitated about their living conditions, she tries to offer alternatives that she thinks will benefit both of them and continually tries to revitalize his confidence in himself. She is not a dishrag, however. When Mel gets verbally abusive, she stands her ground, insisting that he treat her with respect.
When Edna is forced to switch roles with Mel, she tries to devote herself to her job while maintaining her steadfast support of her husband. She rushes home to prepare his lunch and check up on his emotional state, running herself ragged in the process. As a result, she experiences the same level of frustration as Mel has endured and so ends up collaborating with his plans for vengeance by the end of the play.
Harry Edison, Mel's older brother, generously offers to pay for Mel's therapy, even amid the protests of his sisters who are worried about how long it will take to cure him. Harry is confident of his own judgment that Mel has no business sense and so initially refuses to give him money for a summer camp. Yet his loyalty to his brother eventually supersedes his concerns, and he decides to give the money unconditionally. Simon suggests that Harry could be motivated by his desire to be the favorite in the family, a position, he claims, he never achieved.
Jessie Edison criticizes her brother Mel but insists that, since he is the baby of the family, his behavior must be excused. She does not want to think about the implications of his present behavior and tries to comfort Mel when he arrives at the apartment. Her tears betray her concerns about him, yet she would rather go shopping than face the reality of his situation.
Since Mel Edison has adopted the traditional role of head of the household, his ego takes a major blow when he loses his job and can no longer support himself and his wife. At that point, the tensions that he has lived with for six years become overwhelming and cause him to harbor paranoid notions that he is the victim of a conspiracy to undermine the working class in the United States. He tries to maintain his sanity by venting his emotions and lashing out to those closest to him, including his wife and his neighbors.
His inability to cope with the pressures he faces causes a mental breakdown. Simon glosses over the details behind his recovery but suggests that his departure from corporate America helps to restore his self esteem and his sanity. He reveals the magnanimous side of his nature when he is ready to forgive his neighbor for her slanderous assault on Edna, but when he is humiliated a second time by her, his need for revenge overtakes his humanity, and he plots her destruction.
Pauline Edison defends her brother Mel against her sisters' attacks. She has always found excuses for his behavior. She also seems more grounded in reality than her two sisters, consistently correcting their memories about him.
Pearl Edison is the most practical sister and tries to control all of her siblings, insisting to Edna, "We just want to do the right thing."
Male and Female Roles
Simon characterizes Mel as a traditional man who is devastated when he loses his job because that is what defines him. He has tolerated all of the irritations of daily city life for six years until he is fired, which causes him to feel worthless. His wife becomes an outlet for his anger and frustration as well as those nearby who threaten his peace. Edna also plays a traditional role at the beginning of the play as she suffers with Mel through the troubles that arise, remaining supportive by continually trying to assure Mel that everything will work out for them. However, there is a limit to the abuse that she will take. Proving herself to be more rational than her husband, Edna tries to get him to recognize that she is living in the same situation with the same set of problems and that "you either live with it or you get out."
Their roles reverse, however, along with their temperaments, when Edna gets a job. Mel then becomes the more passive member of the family, caused in part by his medication, taking long walks around the city and beginning to work through his problems. This time, when the neighbor yells down to them to be quiet, Mel apologizes rather than feeling that he has to stand up to her. Ironically, Edna adopts this role, baiting the woman regarding the water she threw down previously at Mel. The tensions of working in the city, coupled with the other indignities of life there, have made her as tense and irritable as Mel has been, especially when she is fired as well. By reversing traditional roles for men and women and creating similar consequences for each, Simon illustrates the damaging effects that living in an urban jungle can have on an individual, male or female.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Neil Simon wrote the screenplay for The Out of Towners, a film about a young Ohio couple vacationing in New York who are forced to face many of the same problems that drive Mel and Edna to the brink of insanity. View the film and compare and contrast the couples and their response to the chaos of the city. How do you account for the differences? Prepare a PowerPoint demonstration comparing The Prisoner of Second Avenue and this film.
- After researching the subject of coping mechanisms, prepare to lead a discussion of how Mel and Edna could have found healthier ways to remedy their situation.
- Determine if all of the events announced by the reporter at the end of most scenes in the play really happened. Prepare a report that presents an in-depth look at the problems New York City faced in the late 1960s and 1970s. Include a discussion of whether those problems were resolved.
- Write a story or autobiographical essay that focuses on the frustrations of urban living.
Mel feels imprisoned by his world, surrounded by nameless, faceless tormentors who compound his misery. After he loses his job, the walls of the small apartment close in on him as he paces back and forth into every corner. The apartment becomes a microcosm of the city. Whether he is inside freezing or outside roasting, "Either way," Mel claims, "they're going to get me." Mel sees no exit from this prison, eventually acknowledging that he is too old to play baseball or begin a new career running a summer camp. By the end of the play, the city has defeated Mel, who is reduced to fantasizing about revenge plots. In all, the play seems darkly about how an individual is powerless to create change in a certain kind of urban landscape fraught with its own difficulties.
C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon define "black humor" as "the use of the morbid and the absurd for darkly comic purposes in modern fiction and drama." Simon uses both verbal and situational black humor to express Mel's bitter response to his situation as well as its absurdity. Mel uses verbal humor in the form of sarcasm and self-deprecation as a defense mechanism. He tries to alleviate his own sense of failure by belittling his wife, when, for example, Edna suggests that they move to another country where the cost of living is cheaper, Mel responds: "All right, call a travel agency. Get two economy seats to Bolivia. We'll go to Abercrombie's tomorrow, get a couple of pith helmets and a spear gun." He tries to poke fun at his own situation and thereby lighten it when, after Edna demands, "Don't talk to me like I'm insane," he responds, "I'm halfway there, you might as well catch up."
Situational black humor occurs throughout the play, most notably at the end of each act when Mel is drenched with the water. Both instances provide comic relief in the form of slapstick comedy, but they also are moments of intense humiliation for Mel that heighten his angst, revealing the uselessness of his attempts to fight back against the injustices of his world.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1971: Between 1965 and 1971, reported crime rates in New York City rise by 91 percent.
Today: Violent crime rates go down in the United States and in New York during the first years of the twenty-first century, but in 2005, they start to rise again.
- 1971: On January 14, twenty-five thousand members of Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in New York City go on strike.
Today: Labor unions are weakened by plant closings, especially those in the auto industry and in job outsourcing to overseas companies where labor is cheaper.
- 1971: On June 13, racists attack a Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, which results in hundreds being injured.
Today: Minorities have gained prominent positions in business and government, including former secretary of state Colin Powell and Hispanic senator Jon Corzine.
New York City in the Early 1970s
Sheridan Morley, in his review of the play for Spectator, writes that The Prisoner of Second Avenue "deals with a moment in history when not only the central character but Manhattan itself was on the brink of a total nervous collapse." The events that occurred in 1971, the probable year in
which the action of the play takes place, illustrate this pervasive deterioration. City police went on strike along with eight thousand state, county, and municipal employees and local members of the Communications Workers of America. Crime rates soared while two city policemen were murdered and participants in a Puerto Rican Day Parade were attacked. In September, riots broke out in New York State's Attica Prison, which lasted for several days. When order was restored, thirty-two prisoners and eleven guards and police were dead.
Social institutions were strained to the breaking point in the 1970s. Rising rates of inner city poverty, drug use, and youth crime overwhelmed police and social services. Many residents, especially the white middle class, fled the city, eroding the tax base. By the end of the decade, almost a million people had left the city, a population loss that would not be regained for twenty years. All of these factors contributed to the fiscal crisis that emerged in the 1970s, which pushed New York to the edge of financial collapse. Mayor John Lindsey feared that he would have to declare the city bankrupt. Initially, President Gerald Ford refused to provide federal money for the city, but after severe criticism from the New York City press, he eventually approved a loan.
While some of Neil Simon's plays are not well received by critics, audiences love just about all of them. The Prisoner of Second Avenue, however, earned some strong reviews like the one from Cliff Glaviano in the Library Journal, who writes, "Simon takes a good look at apartment life, career and role reversals, a nervous breakdown, and the love, torture, care, or inertia that somehow keeps a couple in a relationship for many years." He praises both the style of this "classic American comedy" that "at points" is "laugh-out-loud funny" and filled with "fast-moving dialog with nonstop Simon quips and jokes" as well as its themes, claiming that "it offers sensitive insight into the human condition."
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Philip Brandes criticizes "dramatic ironies so broad you could drive a truck through." He also finds fault with "those relentless one-liners, capping dialogue that predictably opts for cleverness at the expense of truth," as when "a Simonized breakdown polishes the rough edges of schizophrenia to more comfortable contours." Yet he concludes, "while the production has its problems, it works in unexpected ways," especially in the darkness of its comedy.
Sheridan Morley, in his review for Spectator, finds "a couple of rather uneasy comic turns in a curiously and uncharacteristically clumsy construction," noting that four of the play's characters appear only at the end of act 2.
Reviewers disagree over whether the play is dated. Brandes claims that it is, along with Morley who calls it "a time-warped slice of urban history." Yet Glaviano insists that if the audience can "add a cellular phone or two, … it's life in 2000."
Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and British literature and film. In the following essay, she examines the play's theme of urban survival.
Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue is set in Manhattan during the early 1970s, a time of great turmoil for New York City as it struggled to deal with a fiscal crisis, high crime rates, and population loss. In his article, "The Ominous Apple," Peter Tietzman notes that the play was a response to Simon's negative view of the city during that period. As quoted by Tietzman, Simon claims: "people were so alienated and so fearful that they were separating themselves from contact. And not without cause." The play is his "statement about those urban ills" as well as his exploration of how the system's failures can cause an erosion of humanity as each individual's primary motive becomes survival.
When the play opens, middle-aged Mel Edison is beset by problems in his small, overpriced, Manhattan apartment. When he and Edna moved in six years ago, Simon explains in the stage directions, "they thought they were getting … all the modern luxuries and comforts of the smart, chic East Side. What they got is paper-thin walls and a view of five taller buildings from their terrace." They also acquired a broken air conditioner that refuses to go above twelve degrees and music coming through the walls from the apartment next door where German airline stewardesses nightly entertain a steady stream of men. Any attempts to relieve the annoyances inevitably fail: when Edna tried to get the superintendent to fix the air conditioner, he could not find anything wrong with it, and when Mel tries to quiet down the stewardesses, he bangs on the wall, cracking it but getting no other response.
Mel's troubles are not confined to his apartment. The city itself seems to be conspiring against him. The temperature outside is a sweltering eighty-nine degrees at 2:30 in the morning, and traffic noise and the stink from uncollected garbage seep in even with the windows closed. Inside or out, Mel claims, "Either way they're going to get me."
The noise and the stink and the freezing temperature, however, are not the primary reasons Mel cannot sleep. He paces his apartment in the middle of the night because he has lost his job. After revenues declined three million dollars that year, his company fired forty-three people in one afternoon. Mel understands how difficult it will be to find another job at age forty-seven in a city that is facing fiscal crisis. Although he declares to Edna, "I still have value, I still have worth," Mel later admits that his situation has begun to scare him. He tells her, "I'm unraveling … I'm losing touch … I don't know where I am half the time … or who I am any more. I'm disappearing."
Mel's frustrations and fears cause him to lash out at everyone in his immediate vicinity, including Edna, repeatedly blaming others for his misery. He faults her for the broken air conditioner and toilet that will not stop running, insisting, "I asked you a million times to call that office" and then attacks her decorating skills, berating her for keeping "ugly little pillows" on the couch. As Edna tries to find remedies to their situation, suggesting that they could move out of the city, Mel becomes sarcastic and ridicules her ideas to the point where Edna declares, "Don't talk to me like I'm insane." His attacks on her increase in intensity until he ends up screaming at her.
Edna tries to deflect her husband's verbal assaults, arguing, "Mel, I'm a human being the same as you. I get hot, I get cold, I smell garbage, I hear noise," and declaring, "I'm not going to stand here and let you take it out on me." Yet Mel insists, "If you're a human being you reserve the right to complain, to protest. When you give up that right, you don't exist any more." His protests, in the form of rants against the city and outbursts directed toward his wife and his neighbors, work as a defense mechanism and so help him cope to a degree with his situation. Mel, however, has become a part of the problem, intensifying the angst of those around him, which inevitably redoubles his own.
The newscasts at the end of most scenes link Mel's troubles to those of other beleaguered New Yorkers who, like him, face municipal strikes, muggings, robberies, and unsanitary conditions. In his efforts to retain a measure of sanity, Mel lashes out at his neighbors, trying to exact revenge for the nuisances and humiliations he has suffered. They, however, are tormented by their own city-bred annoyances and so give it right back to him, which only increases his misery. At the end of the first act, after his rantings have prompted angry voices from the apartment above to insist that he lower his voice to prevent the children from waking up, Mel merely screams louder to the point where he is drenched with a bucket of water, the ultimate humiliation. He struggles to cope by fantasizing about burying the neighbors in a foot of snow in retaliation for the injustice.
The city's failure to improve living conditions for its citizens soon begins to drive Edna to the breaking point as well. She must endure her husband's tirades, his insistence that she keep banging on the walls to quiet the neighbors, and a significant loss when everything is stolen from their apartment. She faces the same pressures Mel had at work, when she accepts a secretarial position. She also worries each day about how to help Mel regain his mental health. When she eventually is fired, she wonders whether "the whole world [is] going out of business," and when the apartment loses electricity and water, Edna adopts Mel's tactics, insisting that he bang on the pipes until the super restores the water so that she can take a bath.
By the end of the play, Mel has survived his nervous breakdown, but Edna's loss of employment causes tensions to rise again as the two begin arguing about accepting money from his brother. Their voices once more prompt other tenants to call down to them, but this time with a much more vitriolic tone, which generates a war of words between Edna and her neighbors. It appears though that Mel has learned to cope with the indignities of life in an urban jungle when he offers his apologies to the voice from above. Unfortunately, he only gets another bucket of water dumped on him for his troubles.
The play's final irony comes in the newscaster's call at the end of the play for New Yorkers to "live together and work together in a common cause" as a snowstorm threatens the city. While they watch the snow increasing in intensity, Mel, with Edna's silent approval, grabs the snow shovel from the closet, preparing for his revenge. Ultimately, through this final act of humiliation and subsequent plan for vengeance, Simon promotes a grudging respect for Mel and Edna in their refusal to be defeated by the city as they return to their survivors' mentality, determined to fight back in the urban warfare that has made them prisoners of Second Avenue.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Prisoner of Second Avenue, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Jackson R. Bryer
In the following interview, Simon discusses his work, how his playwrighting emerged from TV and radio writing, the plays and playwrights that impressed him, his writing process, and his evolution as a writer.
A critic has described Neil Simon as "relentlessly prolific." By virtually any accepted standard, he is the most successful playwright in the history of the American theatre. In thirty years, his 26 Broadway shows (including revivals of Little Me and The Odd Couple) have played a total of well over 15,000 performances. When The Star-Spangled Girl opened in December 1966, Simon had four Broadway productions running simultaneously. Despite this popular success and general critical approval, Simon did not win his first Tony Award for Best Play until 1985 (Biloxi Blues), although he had won the Tony for Best Author of a Play for The Odd Couple in 1965. His most recent play, Lost in Yonkers, won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1991.
Simon's Broadway productions include the plays Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), The Star-Spangled Girl (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), Last of the Red-Hot Lovers (1969), The Gingerbread Lady (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1972), The Good Doctor (1973), God's Favorite (1974), California Suite (1977), Chapter Two (1977), I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980), Fools (1981), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), Broadway Bound (1986), Rumors (1988), and Lost in Yonkers (1991). His 1990 play, Jake's Women, closed before reaching New York. He has written the books for the musicals Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Promises, Promises (1968), and They're Playing Our Song (1979). Besides the adaptations of several of his plays for the movies, his screenplays are The Out-of-Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, Murder By Death, The Goodbye Girl, The Cheap Detective, Seems Like Old Times, Only When I Laugh, Max Dugan Returns, The Slugger's Wife, and The Marrying Man.
Born, like George M. Cohan, on the Fourth of July, in 1927 in the Bronx, New York, he grew up there and in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan with his only sibling, his brother Danny. He early received the nickname "Doc" for his ability to mimic the family doctor. When their parents, Irving (a garment salesman) and Mamie (who often worked at department stores to support the family during her husband's frequent absences), divorced, the two boys went to live with relatives in Forest Hills, Queens, and Simon attended high school there and at DeWitt Clinton in Manhattan. After brief military service at the end of World War II, he worked for several years with his brother as a comedy writer for radio and television. In 1953, he married Joan Baim, a dancer, who died of cancer in 1973. His second wife was actress Marsha Mason; he is now married to Diane Lander. He has two grown daughters and a step-daughter.
This interview was conducted on January 23, 1991, in Simon's suite at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, while he was preparing Lost in Yonkers (then playing at Washington's National Theatre) for its Broadway opening. The interview was transcribed by Drew Eisenhauer.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In Simon's romantic comedy Barefoot in the Park (1963), a young man and woman, whom the author claims are the younger version of Mel and Edna, struggle to cope with life in New York as they learn to adapt to each other's personality and temperament.
- Simon's autobiographical Chapter Two (1977) explores the pain a middle-aged New Yorker experiences after the death of his wife and the guilt he feels when he remarries soon after. That guilt causes major problems in his new relationship.
- New York: An Illustrated History, by Ric Burns, James Sanders, and Lisa Ades, was published in 2003 as a companion to Burns's popular PBS series. The authors supplement a comprehensive social and political history of the city with photographs, paintings, and newspaper headlines.
- Jane Mushabac and Angela Wigan's A Short and Remarkable History of New York City (1999) offers a brief but comprehensive overview of the city and a timeline of its development. The book is an excellent resource for those beginning a study of the city.
[Bryer: ] You always say that very early on you knew you wanted to be a playwright.
[Simon:] I wanted to be a writer very early on. It's not quite true about the playwrighting thing. I started writing the first play when I was thirty and got it on when I was thirty-three, so that's fairly old to be starting as a playwright.
Most young people want to write poetry or want to write novels. When you knew you wanted to be a writer, was it always writing plays that you wanted to do?
I started out with different aims and ambitions. I grew up in the world of radio so the first couple of jobs I had were in radio and then television. I think I was setting my sights for film. I'm not quite sure when I decided to do plays. I know when I actually did so which was after years of working on Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, and The Bilko Show. I said I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing this—writing for someone else—I wanted to do my own work. So I started writing the first play, Come Blow Your Horn, and it took me almost three years to do the twenty-some complete new versions before I got it on. When I did get it on, I said, "My God, three years!" and I was exhausted. I had only taken other little jobs just to make a living, since I had a wife and two children. But once the play hit, Come Blow Your Horn subsidized the next one which was a musical, Little Me, and that subsidized writing Barefoot in the Park, and then I was making enough money so I could do this full-time.
So, in a sense, your playwrighting grew out of writing for TV and radio in that writing for TV and radio was basically working within a dramatic form? That's what really led to the playwrighting.
Right. I started off just writing jokes for newspaper columns and things and then working on Your Show of Shows and Bilko. Your Show of Shows was writing sketches and Bilko was like a half-hour movie; so I was learning the dramatic form. Then I worked for about two years with Max Liebman, who was the producer of Your Show of Shows, doing specials. It was a very good education for me because we were updating pretty famous musical books of the past—Best Foot Forward and Knicker-bocker Holiday. We would throw the book out completely and use the score; we would sort of follow the story line but use our own dialogue. So I was able to step in the footprints of previous writers and learn about the construction from them.
What was the purpose of those? Were they for television?
Yes. We did about twenty of them, two shows a month. One show would be a book show. A couple of them were originals; one was The Adventures of Marco Polo, and we used the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff. So I was really learning a lot about construction. I had made a few abortive attempts to write plays during that time—one with another writer on The Bilko Show—and it was going nowhere. I always had my summers off because in those days we did 39 shows a year on television in consecutive weeks and you had something like thirteen weeks off in the summer in which I would try to write plays; and I would say, "Wow, this is tough!" Finally, I went to California to do a television special—for Jerry Lewis of all people. I had quit Your Show of Shows—it had finally gone off the air—and so I was free-lancing. I went out there for six weeks. In about ten days I wrote the whole show and I said to Jerry Lewis, "What'll I do, I've got all this time?" He said, "I've got other things to do. Just do what you want until we go into rehearsal." And I started to write Come Blow Your Horn, which was almost a satirical or a farcical look at my upbringing with my parents. I was on the way but it took three years to do that, as I said.
As a child, and as a young adult, did you read plays and did you go to the theatre?
I went to the theatre. I read quite a good deal. I went to the library; I used to take out about three books a week, but they weren't about the theatre. It wasn't until I was about fourteen or fifteen that I saw my very first play, Native Son, the Richard Wright book and play.
A strange thing for a fourteen or fifteen yearold to go see, wasn't it?
There was a local theatre in upper Manhattan, in Washington Heights where I lived. It was called the Audubon Theatre. It used to be a movie house and then they used it for acts—sort of vaudeville acts but I wouldn't really call it vaudeville. They started doing that all over New York at the time when the theatre was truly flourishing. You not only played Broadway, you could go to Brooklyn and Manhattan and the Bronx and there were theatres that did their versions of plays that had closed on Broadway. So I went to this local theatre and saw Native Son and was mesmerized by what the theatre could do. I had also acted in plays in public school and in junior high school, so I had a little glimpse of that; but acting is a lot different from writing. I think that slowly, as my parents started to take me to the theatre more, mostly musicals (I remember seeing Oklahoma!; it was—for its time—so innovative and so original), in the back of my mind I thought about that. But all during those years I was working with my brother and I thought that the only way to write a play was to do it by yourself, because one needed an individual point of view. Even if we were to write about our own family background, his point of view would be completely different from mine, and so it would get diminished somehow and watered down. When I wrote Come Blow Your Horn, I never even told him about it. It meant that I would have to make a break with him after ten years of writing together. The break was pretty traumatic. It was worse than leaving home because one expects that, but this was breaking up a partnership that he started because he was looking for a partner. He doesn't like to work by himself, and he always noticed and encouraged the sense of humor I had. I didn't have a sense of construction; he had that, and I was wonderful with lines and with the comedy concepts. Finally, when I did Come Blow Your Horn, I knew I had to step away. Partly I think it had to do with my being married; I began to feel my own oats and wanted the separation.
Can you speak at all about plays or playwrights that impressed you, influenced you, early or late?
Well, it was any good playwright. I didn't have favorites. In terms of comedy, I guess maybe Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. A play that neither one of them wrote, Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday, I thought was a wonderful comedy, and I liked Mr. Roberts too; but I was as intrigued by the dramas as I was by the comedies. It wasn't until sometime later that I decided what I wanted to write was drama and tell it as comedy. I was such an avid theatregoer, especially when I first married Joan. You could go to the theatre then twice a week and not catch the whole season on Broadway and even off-Broadway. Streetcar Named Desire probably made the greatest impression on me, that and Death of a Salesman. These are not comedies. Although I knew I was not up to writing a drama as yet, I thought when I wrote something it would be from a comedy point of view.
If you could have written one play that was written by somebody else, what would that play be?
The question has been asked a lot and I generally say A Streetcar Named Desire. I have a certain affinity for that play; so does everyone else in America for that matter, I think. Death of a Salesman I thought was maybe the best American play I've ever seen—but it lacked humor. The humor that I saw in Streetcar Named Desire came out of a new place for humor. It came out of the character of Stanley Kowalski saying, "I have this lawyer acquaintance of mine" and talking about the Napoleonic Code. It was the way he talked that got huge laughs, and I knew that this was not comedy; it was character comedy and that's what I aimed for later on. If I were able to write a play, an American play, I would say it would be Streetcar.
The same quality is present in The Glass Menagerie, too. That play also has some very funny moments in it, but they grow very organically out of Amanda and out of her situation.
Yes. Even in Eugene O'Neill, who really lacks humor, I found humor in Long Day's Journey, in James Tyrone's meanness with money—turning out the light bulbs all the time and being so cheap. That was a play that I said to myself when I saw it, "I could never write that but I would love to write like that," to write my own Long Day's Journey. I have an oblique sense of humor; I see comedy—or humor, not comedy (there's a difference)—in almost everything that I've gone through in life, I'd say, with the exception of my wife's illness and death. Humor has become so wide open today that it's almost uncensored on television. It's all part of the game now. As I said, Long Day's Journey impressed me very much early on, and the writings of August Wilson impress me very much today. There's great humor in them and great sense of character and story-telling; it's almost old-fashioned playwrighting, in a way. There are not many playwrights who write like he does.
I think some of the humor in O'Neill comes from the Irish quality in those plays, the whole Sean O'Casey tradition of Irish drama where the humor and the seriouness are very closely juxtaposed; and I wonder whether there isn't something similar in the Jewish idiom, with humor coming out of serious situations. Do you feel that is a factor in your own plays?
I'm sure it is, but I find it a very difficult thing to talk about because I'm unaware of anything being particularly Jewish. This present play, Lost in Yonkers, is about a Jewish family but rarely is it mentioned or brought up. But the humor comes out of the Jewish culture as I know it. It's fatalistic; everything bad is going to happen. In the opening scene, the father talks about his troubles with his wife dying, being at a loss about what to do with the boys and so worried about how they're going to look well and be presented well to the grandmother. It's all out of fear; there's no sense of confidence, because he knows what he's up against. The mother is, I think, more German than Jew, because she was brought up in Germany, and her culture is German. So one doesn't ever get a picture that she was brought up in a Jewish home in which they paid attention to the services. I would doubt very much if they were Orthodox Jews. But it's there someplace, and it's so deeply embedded in me and so inherent in me that I am unaware of its quality. When I write something I don't think, "Oh, this is Jewish." At one time I thought I did, that I needed Jewish actors, but I found that people like Jack Lemmon or George C. Scott or Maureen Stapleton were equally at home with my material and they gave great performances. I rarely work with Jewish actors now; there are very few of them in Lost in Yonkers. However, in making the film of Brighton Beach Memoirs, when we did not get Jewish women to play the mother and the sister, it didn't sound right. Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey, as wonderful as they are, did not sound right. To the gentile ear it may not sound wrong, but still the audiences are aware that something is not quite organic. They don't know what it is; they can't name it. The difference came when Linda Lavin played in Broadway Bound and was right on the button and had the sense of truth. I think it's true too with O'Neill. He doesn't have to have Irish actors but Jewish actors playing O'Neill would have to have a very wide range to be able to do it well.
You have always said you stopped writing for TV because you wanted control, because you wanted to be on your own, not to have network executives and ad men running your creative life. But didn't the same sort of thing start to happen after a bit when you started to write for the stage, where producers like Saint-Subber wanted you to write a particular kind of play?
Saint used terms that no longer exist; they come from the turn of the century. He talked about "the carriage trade," those people, not necessarily Jewish, maybe New York society or wealthier people, who we wanted to appeal to as well. When I wrote Barefoot in the Park I think in an earlier version I made them a Jewish family without saying so. Saint said stay away from that because we're going to miss the carriage trade, so to speak; so maybe I was aware of it. Certainly it was in The Odd Couple, with Oscar Madison, only because Walter Matthau played it. I was aware of that in the beginning and then gradually got away from it until I got specifically Jewish when I was writing the autobiographical plays. In Chapter Two, something made me lean toward an actor like Judd Hirsch playing the leading character George because I knew the cadences and the attitudes came from me, so I thought that character had to be Jewish but I didn't call him Jewish. In these plays—I'm talking about "The Trilogy" (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound) and about Lost in Yonkers—they are Jewish families, you can't get away from it. Some plays are just not; Barefoot in the Park was not necessarily at all. The Odd Couple has proven not to be because it's the most universal play I've written. They do it in Japan as often as they do it here now. It's done all over the world constantly because it is such a universal situation. Two people living together cannot get along all the time and it made it unique that it was two men. It seemed like such a simple idea that you thought surely someone would have written a play about it, but no one ever did up until that time. It was the idea or concept that made it so popular and then the execution.
Which of your plays gave you the most trouble and which was the easiest?
Rumors gave me the most trouble because of the necessities of farce. One has to get the audience to dispel their sense of truth, and they must believe in the premise even though we know it's about three feet off the ground. It has to be filled with surprises, and it has to move at a breakneck pace. People have to be in jeopardy constantly; the minute the jeopardy stops and they can sit back and relax, it's like a train that runs out of steam. And it has to be funny every minute. It was like constructing a murder mystery, an Agatha Christie mystery in which you are kept in suspense, only it had to go at a much greater pace than any of Agatha Christie's stories. I wanted to do it because I wanted to try the form. In a sense I was buoyed by watching an interview with Peter Shaffer, whom I respect enormously. I think he's a wonderful playwright. Amadeus is one of my favorite plays, again a play with a great concept—an original one—about professional jealousy. The interviewer said, "Why did you write Black Comedy?" And he said, "Well, it was a farce, and everyone wants to write one farce in their life." I had tried bits and pieces of it; the third act of Plaza Suite, with the father and mother trying to get the girl out of the locked bathroom, is a farce. But it only ran for thirty minutes and it wasn't a full-blown piece, so I wanted to try that. That was the most difficult. None of them come easy.
What happened with Brighton Beach was interesting. I wrote thirty-five pages and stopped and put it away for nine years; and when I came back to it, somehow the play had been written in my head over those nine years without thinking of it so I wrote it completely from beginning to end without stopping. But that's only the beginning of the process. You can never say any play is written easily because you write it once, and then you write it again, and then you write it again; then you have a reading of it, and then you go into rehearsal in which you write it ten more times. So they all present their difficulties. But I can't think of any one play where it was really easy, where I didn't have a difficult time with it.
Have your writing methods changed over the years? You say you wrote Come Blow Your Horn twenty times. Is that still true, that you write a play over and over again, or do you find that you're getting better at it?
If I do write it over and over and over again, it means that the play has some serious flaw. I wrote Jake's Women seven times, almost from beginning to end, before I put it on the stage; so I never really corrected the serious flaw. With this play, Lost in Yonkers, the first version was fairly close to what we have now. I did two more versions before we went into rehearsal but I had less trouble with the construction of the play. It just seemed to lead to the right thing. It has to do with the beginnings of the play, with how each of the characters is introduced and how each of them has his own problem. Manny Azenberg, our producer, has always said that if I reach page thirty-five it is almost always a "go" project. Sometimes I get to page twenty-five or so, and I start to look ahead and say, "What are you going to write about? What else could possibly happen?" I've come up with some wonderful beginnings of situations and don't always know where they're going but sort of know what they're going to be.
Billy Wilder, the director, once said to me (he was talking about a film but I think it applies to a play as well), "If you have four great scenes, you've got a hit." He says if you don't have those great scenes then you're not going to make it. When I wrote The Sunshine Boys, the whole play came to me at once in a sense. Since I fashioned it somewhat (even though I didn't know them) after the careers of Smith and Dale, and got the premise that they had not spoken to each other in eleven years and then they were being offered this job to work together and didn't want to speak to each other, I said, well, they've got to get together. That's the first funny interesting conflict, then the rehearsal, then the actual doing of the show on the air. I knew that they could cause great conflict and problems with each other, and then there would be the denouement of finally getting together. I said there's those four scenes. I don't think about that all the time, but that time I knew where it was going—there was a play there—so I sat down with some sense of confidence.
Others just unfold themselves. When I was writing Lost in Yonkers, I knew I had these four characters in my mind. I had witnessed somebody who has this dysfunction of not being able to breathe properly and I never thought about using it; but it suddenly came to mind in this dysfunctional family which the mother has created. When you write you're always trying to catch up with your thoughts. They're ahead of you, like the carrot in front of the rabbit or the horse. If it's always there ahead of you then you know that each day that you go to work you will be able to write something. It's awful when you are writing a play and you get to page forty and you come to your office in the morning and say, "Well, what do I write today? Where does it go?" I want to leave it the night before saying to myself, "I know what that next scene is tomorrow" and I look forward to the next day.
How do you get started on a play? Do you usually start with an idea, or with a character?
First it starts with a desire, to write a play, and then the next desire is what kind of play do you want to write. When I finished Broadway Bound, I said I do not want to write another play like this right now. I've done a play that in degrees develops more seriously because I thought that Broadway Bound dealt more truthfully with my family and with the kind of writing I wanted to do than anything I had done in the past. I did not have an idea for the next one, and so sometimes you just play around with an idea. I said I wanted to write a farce, and I just sat down and thought of the opening premise. It literally started with how it looked. Most farces are about wealthy people. They're not about people who are poor because their lives are in conflict all the time. They must be satirical; you want to make jabs at them socially. These were all fairly prominent people, and I wanted them all to show up in black tie and their best gowns because I knew whatever it was that I was going to write they would be a mess at the end of the evening—either emotionally or physically—with their clothes tattered and torn. I thought of it as a mystery. I had no idea where it was going. The host had attempted suicide and was not able to tell them what happened, the hostess wasn't there, and there was no food: that's all I knew. I had read (I read a great deal of biographies of writers and artists) that Georges Simenon wrote most of his murder mysteries without knowing who was going to be murdered and who the murderer was. He picked a place, a set of situations, just something that intrigued him. I think almost anyone can sit down and write the first five pages of a murder mystery because you don't have to leave any clues. You just think of some wild situation that sounds interesting. It's only the really great mystery writers who know where to take it. The Thin Man is one of the most complicated books I've ever read. I don't think Dashiell Hammett is given enough credit. That's really literature, that book. What was your original question?
How you got the ideas for plays.
I never really can remember the moment, maybe with a few exceptions. The Odd Couple came out of watching my brother and the man he was living with at that time. They had both just gotten divorced, had decided to live together to cut down expenses, and they were dating girls. I said what an incredible idea for a play. Barefoot came out of my own experiences with my wife. Strangely enough, Barefoot in the Park started in Switzerland. The first version of it—this really happened—was when my wife and I went on our honeymoon to St. Moritz, Switzerland, met an elderly couple, and decided to go hiking with them. My wife then—Joan died in '73—was a wonderful athlete and she and the older man were practically jumping up this mountain while his wife and I staggered behind, and I was angry at Joan for being able to jump like a goat up this mountain. Then I realized that it had too exotic an atmosphere and I wanted to locate it in a place where one could relate to it more. I thought about that tiny apartment that we actually lived in that was five flights up and had a shower and no bath; it had a hole in the skylight in which it snowed. So I used all of those things. You don't know that when you're sitting down to write it. It's an adventure; it's really jumping into this big swimming pool and hoping there's going to be water when you hit.
How has the experience of writing musicals and writing films been different and why do you continue to do them when you don't need to? Why have you continued to write in collaborative situations and seemingly against the whole idea of wanting to be independent?
I do it because I think I have to keep writing all the time. Each year I want to be doing something. I wouldn't know how to take a year off and do nothing. I would feel it a wasted year of my life, unless I did something else productive that I love—but I haven't found anything. I think that even at this age I'm still growing and that I want to do as much as I can before I can't do it anymore. Again, I think, what do you want to do following what you have just done? I was about to start another play that I had in mind but I still haven't quite licked where it's going and I'm not ready to do it. It's not that I won't have anything on next year, but I won't have anything to work on. So I'm toying with the idea of doing a musical now which is like a breather, even though the musical is a much more collaborative and a much more debilitating effort than anything else in the theatre could be. The movies have been in the past—some of them—such good experiences that I was usually eager to do one again. The movie industry has changed enormously. I did ten films with Ray Stark. Nine of them were successful and one was terrible. But for all of them, Ray Stark was the producer; he always got me a good director, always got a good cast, and was really the blocking back for me, the runner, with the studio. I almost never had to deal with the studio. This last experience I had, The Marrying Man, was enough to make me say I never want to do a film again.
I did have good experiences doing The Heartbreak Kid and The Goodbye Girl, even Murder By Death. Murder By Death is not a great work of art but it's great fun. In my reveries I used to wish that I were older in the Thirties and in the early Forties and could write for Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart. One of the great thrills I had in Hollywood was when I met some of these people and they said, "Gee, I wish I could have done a picture with you!" When Cary Grant said that to me, I said, "Wow, what I've missed!" Those actors who were, I think, in some ways (the best of them) superior to some of the actors we have today, carried none of the weight that the actors do today. Now even a small star, a starlet, has something to say about the picture. I will deal with the director always, with the producer seldom but sometimes, the studio hardly ever, and with an actor never. I will listen to an actor's inabilities to find what he needs to accomplish in a part and try to accommodate that, but not because he wants to be portrayed in a certain way. On the stage Manny Azenberg and I must have fired eight to ten actors over the years because we found they were not fulfilling what we wanted. An actor's training is mostly with dead playwrights, so when they do the classics they don't expect any rewrites. I want them to feel the same thing. I rewrite more than anybody I know; I just do it over and over. I'm still giving pages and new lines on Lost in Yonkers and will do it until we open. But they'll always come to you and say, "I'm having trouble with this line. Can you think if there's another way of me saying it that makes it more comfortable?" I'll say, "I'll rewrite it if it makes it more comfortable for the character, not for you." When they understand that then we can find a way to do it.
To give you a really good example of the difference between films and plays for me, a director of a play will come to me and say, "What do you think about this section? I'm not so sure that this is working. Do you think you could find something else?" And I'll either agree with him or disagree with him and write it or rewrite it, but he does nothing about it until I rewrite it. He'll even come to me about a sentence or a couple of words. That play is sold to the films, and he becomes the director. He shoots the film, then invites me to the first cut, and three major scenes are missing. I say, "What happened to those scenes?" He says, "They didn't work for me." It now has become his script; it's not mine anymore. And the only way to control that is to direct your own films which I don't want to do. I'm not a director. I don't want to spend all that time. I love writing. I hate directing. I hate hanging around the rehearsals. I do it when I'm working and I need to do something, but just to stand there and watch—I don't want to do it. So I do the films, but I'm not really very happy with them. Musicals are something else, because when you work with some of the best people (I worked with Bob Fosse a number of times and I thought he was really a genius; I worked with Michael Bennett a few times, even a little bit on Chorus Line), that's great fun. That's like being invited to the party, so you just do it.
You talk about rewriting. When you're readying a play like Lost in Yonkers and you're doing the rewriting, to whom are you responding when you do the rewrites? Is it purely your own responses when you're in the theatre? Or do you also respond to critics, or the director, or an actor?
All of them. Not an actor so much, a director yes, a critic sometimes. If a critic says something that's valid, and especially if it's backed up by another critic who hits on the same point, I say, "I've got to address this." When you're writing it over and over again and then you're in rehearsal and you're out of town and you start to try it, you've lost all objectivity. Now you need the audience to be objective for you (and they are totally) and you listen to them. Sometimes the actor will come to me and say, "This line isn't getting a laugh." And I say, "I never intended it to." They assume that everything they should say when the situation is comic should get a laugh. I say, "No, no, no, this is character; it's pushing the story ahead." That never happens in any of the dramatic scenes in Lost in Yonkers. Very few of those lines were ever changed because they don't have the difficulty in expecting a reaction from the audience. I rewrite just watching what it is that I hear wrong. And sometimes I can watch a play and after about eight or nine performances, I say, "I don't like that." There was a producer who once said to me, "Only look at the things that don't work in the play. The good things will take care of themselves, don't worry about that. Don't say, ‘I know this stuff doesn't work but look at all the good things I have.’" He said, "The bad things'll do you in every time." So I concentrate on the bad things; and after I get whatever I think is unworthy of the play out, then I start to hear it more objectively. I stay away for two or three performances and come back and say, "We need something much better than that." When you first see that play up on a stage for the first time in front of an audience, all you care about is that the baby is delivered and is well and has all its arms and legs and moves. Then you say, "OK, now starts its education."
I teach a course in Modern American Drama, and many of the playwrights in the course, people like John Guare and Beth Henley, are considered by the "establishment" to be serious playwrights who write plays that contain comic moments. Neil Simon, on the other hand, is considered a writer of funny plays that are occasionally serious. That strikes me as unfair because, especially in the most recent of your plays, like "The Trilogy" and now Lost in Yonkers, the proportion of humor to seriousness is if anything less comedy than in, say, Crimes of the Heart.
Crimes of the Heart is a comedy.
Yes, but Henley is considered a serious playwright.
I don't consider it necessarily unfair. I just think it's inaccurate. Unfair means that I'm being picked on for not writing serious, which is better than comedy, which I don't hold to be true. For the most part, I think I have written, with the exception of Rumors and the musicals (starting even with The Odd Couple), a serious play which is told through my own comic point of view. There are no serious moments in The Odd Couple; but when I first sat down to write it, naive as this may be, I thought it was sort of a black comedy, because in most comedies up to that point, there were always women in the play and a romantic relationship. Here there were none; the relationship was between these two men. Plaza Suite, with a husband and wife getting a divorce after twenty-three years, was basically a serious play that had comedy in it. The audience at that time was so trained to laugh at what I wrote that, in Boston, Mike Nichols and I kept taking out all the funny lines in the first act—and they found other places to laugh.
I write with a sense of irony and even with lines that are not funny, sometimes the audience senses the irony when they are sophisticated enough and they see the humor. That's why I always need really good productions for the plays to work. I once met a woman who said, "You know, I've never been a fan of yours." and I said, "Oh, that's OK." and she said, "Now I'm a big fan!" and I said, "What happened?" She said, "Well, I come from"—it was either Wyoming or Montana—and she said, "I've only seen dinner theatre productions of your plays in which they would play all the plays on one superficial level. They played it all as comedy, and then I read the plays and I said, this isn't comedy at all." I remember people walking out of Prisoner of Second Avenue confused because some would say, "This wasn't funny." I didn't mean it to be funny; I thought it was a very serious subject, especially at that time. It was the beginning of people being so age-conscious with the man of forty-eight years old losing his job and finding it very difficult to start all over again which is true even today. That to me was a serious play that had a great deal of comedy.
I use the comedy in a way to get the audience's attention and then sort of pull the rug from underneath them. That's how I view life: things are wonderful, things are going along just great, and then a telephone call comes and just pulls the rug from under you. Some tragic thing, some tragic event, has happened in your life, and I say if it can happen in life I want to do that in the theatre. It took a long time to convince audiences and critics that one could write a play that way. I remember reading Lillian Hellman saying, "Never mix comedy and drama in the same play; the audiences won't understand it." They say to me, "What are you writing?" and I'll mention something, and they say, "Is it a comedy?" I say, "No it's a play." They say, "Is it a drama?" and I say, "It's a play. It has everything in it."
When you look back over your career to date, how has Neil Simon changed as a playwright? In other interviews you've mentioned the idea of the tapestry play, that you're now writing about more than two people as the focus of the plays. I assume that's one way, but are there other ways that you see your plays changing?
Well, in a glacier-like way. They move slowly; I don't make sudden overnight changes. I think back to Chapter Two, which was the story of the guilt a man feels who has lost a spouse and feels too guilty or is made to feel too guilty by his children or other relatives to go ahead in another relationship. There were people who spent the next fifteen or twenty years or the rest of their lives never moving on with it. In my own case, I was encouraged by my daughters to move on when I met somebody else. But still you get that kick of guilt, not a high kick, a kick in the gut, of guilt much like the survivors of the Holocaust when those who lived felt guilty all their lives. So the man in the play was not able to give himself the enjoyment and the latitude of exploring this new relationship without always pulling in the guilt of being alive and his wife being dead. Around that point, it's what I started to look for in almost every play. I think if there's any change it's that way. It's not necessary for me to be conceived of as a serious playwright because the word is so bandied about I think that it gets misinterpreted, serious meaning the intention is lofty. It isn't any loftier than comedy can be, but I don't write a pure comedy anymore, with the exception of Rumors where I intentionally did. I try to write plays about human emotions. I don't write plays about society. I find I can't. They become very current plays, and I like plays to be able to last for fifty or a hundred years or so. These are plays that contain serious subject matter. Lost in Yonkers is very well disguised, not that I meant it to be, but I couldn't open up the play showing the tragic side of Bella. It only came out when she was confronted with this chance to better her life and she didn't quite know how to do it and didn't get the permission of her mother who was the one who stunted her growth in the first place. That has to be built to, and I see how the audience is taken by surprise as it goes on. If they leave after that first act, they say, "It's nice, it's funny, it's cute." And then the second act just hits them so hard. It's what you leave the theatre with, not what's going on in the beginning of the play, that's important.
Perhaps this analogy will seem far-fetched to you, but one could say that it took O'Neill almost his whole creative life to write a play like Long Day's Journey, where, as he said, he "faced his dead at last." He had started to do it with Ah, Wilderness! in a more light-hearted way. Ah, Wilderness! and Long Day's Journey are really the same play but one is weighted towards a comedic treatment and the other towards a more tragic approach. It seems to me that you could say the same thing about Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound: Brighton Beach Memoirs is your Ah, Wilderness!, and Broadway Bound is your Long Day's Journey. You started to confront your family directly in Brighton Beach, particularly through Eugene's narration in a comic way, and then in Broadway Bound you did so much more seriously.
There was a really valid reason for that. With Brighton Beach my mother was still alive, so she could come and enjoy it and Biloxi Blues as well. She died after that so she never saw Broadway Bound. I would not have written Broadway Bound if my parents were alive. I couldn't have put them up on the stage that way. I don't think I put them in an unsympathetic light certainly, but in a truthful one in a way. I was probably harsher on my father than I was on my mother; at that time in our lives, I really think she was the one who caused the anguish in the family. But I have more of an understanding of him now having lived through some of the same things myself.
So you think it was basically the death of your mother that enabled you to write Broadway Bound when you did?
It freed me to do it. I reveal things about her, her inability to be close and emotional. I don't remember ever being hugged by my mother as far back as being a child. I always knew that she loved me, but she was unable to show emotion. I did talk about something that happened to my mother personally, that she was burned in a fire; the grandfather talks about that. I don't go into it in Broadway Bound but it must have affected their marriage very much—how she was scarred. She was actually scarred on the front, not on the back as in the play.
And you never could have done that if she'd still been alive?
No, I couldn't. When O'Neill wrote Long Day's Journey he put it in a drawer and said it couldn't be done until twenty-five years after his death, which didn't happen of course; his wife had it done. I sort of felt that way. Chapter Two was cathartic for me. It helped me get rid of my own guilt by sharing it with the world. But Broadway Bound was not cathartic. It was an attempt to try to understand my family and my own origins. It's a play of forgiveness, and I didn't realize it until somebody associated with the play—the set designer or a costume designer—said after the reading, "It's a love letter to his mother." I had a very up and down relationship with my mother. I used to get angry at her very often, and I loved her too, but there was no way for either one of us to show it—and so there it is on the stage. I remember in real life once I gave a surprise birthday party for my mother—she really was surprised—and we brought out the cake. She couldn't smile or say, "This is wonderful." She just looked at me as she was about to cut the cake and said, "I'm still angry with you from last week when you did such and such." It was the only way she could deal with it. So when I wrote the play, what I had to do after listening to the first reading when I didn't have that scene about George Raft, I said I've got to show the other side of my mother, show her when she was happy. I like that when in the second act of a play, you begin to show what really is information that happened way before that, to give it late in the play.
Do you have a favorite among your own plays? The last one you wrote?
Yes, it's generally that. It suddenly becomes the one that you're working on; but when I think of my favorite, I think about what my experience was when I wrote it and put it on. Was that a good time in my life, in my personal life and in doing the play? With some of the plays I had terrible times doing the play yet the play came out very well; other times it was great fun doing it. I think the greatest kick I got on an opening night—when I knew I was sort of catapulted into another place in my life—was the opening night of The Odd Couple. It was accepted on such a high level by everyone. It was what you dream about—Moss Hart in Act One—the hottest ticket in town. That night was a terrific night!
What about as a craftsman? Which of the plays are you proudest of as a piece of writing?
Structurally I like The Sunshine Boys, and I like this one structurally.
The Sunshine Boys is my favorite Simon play so far because of the integration of comedy and seriousness and because of the organic nature of that integration. Maybe it's an accident of the subject matter because you're dealing with comedians.
You're dealing with comedians which gives you license for them to be funny. But the seriousness in the play was inherent too; it wasn't always written about because you knew that they were old, you knew they couldn't deal with things. One was really fighting for his way of life to continue, the other was quite satisfied to be retired and live in another way; so there was something classic about it. It just seems to hark back to another period in time. That play is done by more national theatres in Europe—in England or even Germany—because they relate to it in some part of their own culture, to the old vaudevillians and what's happened to them. They've died out. That's another play that sat in the drawer for six months after I wrote twenty-five pages of it until I had lunch with Mike Nichols and said, "I'm kind of stuck. I have a play." I started to tell him the idea and he said, "That sounds wonderful!" That's sometimes all I need; that's like a great review. "You really like that, Mike?" "Yes." And I went ahead and wrote the whole thing.
Can you think of plays that exceeded your expectations and plays that you had great expectations for that never reached them once you saw them on stage?
That's an interesting question because I think I always know what the reception is going to be. I'm rarely surprised. Sometimes I write a play knowing it's not going to succeed. There's a psychological subconscious will to fail after writing four or five hits—you don't deserve that much. I pick a subject matter that is so far out—something that I would not do right now. Not one that's more dangerous and that's taking more of a chance with an audience, but one that's almost guaranteed not to be commercially successful (not that I always know when it's going to be). The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park fooled me because they were so early in my career. I didn't know what to expect. When they were both such big hits, I was really shocked. But a play that I knew I wanted to write for a reason other than artistic or commercial success was something like God's Favorite.
God's Favorite was my way of dealing with my wife's death. It was Waiting for Godot for me; I could not understand the absurdity of a thirty-nine-year-old beautiful, energetic woman dying so young. It was railing at God to explain to me why He did this thing, so I used the Book of Job. One critic cried on television in his anger: "How dare you do this to the Book of Job!" Yet there were critics like Walter Kerr, a devout Catholic, who loved it, just adored it. And so I wasn't too surprised that we weren't a major success, but I learned in hindsight that it was not a Broadway play. It should have been done off-Broadway as Fools should have been. Fools I did in a way like Rumors. Again it was farce in a sense. I just loved the premise. It's almost Hebraic culturally like the towns written about by Sholem Aleichem in which there were stupid people (without ever going into the reasons why) and I had a curse in my town. I thought it was good. Mike Nichols came up and did it; we had a good time. If we had done it in a small theatre, it would have been fine—Playwrights Horizons or something like that—but not with the expectations of a Broadway audience paying whatever it was at the time, expecting a certain kind of play.
I remember when we did The Good Doctor, which was another play written during my wife's illness when they discovered that she would not live. I was just sitting up in the country and I wanted to write to keep myself going and I read a short story by Chekhov called "The Sneeze"; and, just to kill time, I dramatized it. And I said, "Gee, this would be fun, to do all Russian writers and do comic pieces—or non-comic pieces—by them." I couldn't find any, so in order to give unity to the evening I decided to do Chekhov because he had written so many newspaper pieces where he got paid by the word and I found as many of them as I could. Then when I tried them out of town some of them didn't work, so I wrote my own Chekhov pieces and some of the critics pointed them out and said, "This one is so Chekhovian." which wasn't his at all! I don't mean that as flattery to me but as not knowing by some of the critics. I remember a woman in New Haven coming up the aisle and she said to me, "This isn't Neil Simon." So I asked, "Do you like it or do you not like it?" She said, "I don't know. It's just not Neil Simon." I have to overcome their expectations of me so that they don't get to see what they want to see. It's like going to see Babe Ruth at a baseball game; if he hits two singles and drives in the winning run, it's not a Babe Ruth game.
How do you feel about the current relationship between the theatre and film and TV? It's a cliché that television is ruining the theatre, that we are a culture of filmgoers not theatregoers. Do you feel those are valid kinds of observations? You once said you thought the biggest obstacle to theatre was the price of theatre tickets. Do you think it's really that?
That's one of them. It's only one of them. No, there's enough money around, I think, for people to go to Broadway theatre. I think we've lost the writers more than anything. David Richards of the New York Times recently said to me, "Do you realize you may be the only one left around who repeatedly works for the Broadway theatre?" And I said, "Well, they're all gone." Edward Albee hardly writes at all. Arthur Miller has grown older and writes occasionally for the theatre but rarely for Broadway; it's usually for Lincoln Center or someplace else. David Mamet now would rather direct and write his own films. Sam Shepard was never a Broadway writer. There are no repeat writers—the Tennessee Williamses, the George S. Kaufmans, or even Jean Kerr in terms of comedy. You talk to anybody today, especially in California, and they will use writing as a stepping stone to becoming a director. They want to be directors; it has to be about control. Even a promising young writer like John Patrick Shanley has a big success with Moonstruck after he had small success in the theatre. We had said this is an interesting playwright, he does Moonstruck, and then he wants to direct—so he does Joe Versus the Volcano and I'm sure he just wants to keep on directing. Nora Ephron writes a couple of movies that are nice and now she wants to direct. I have no desire to direct at all. I see the soundness of it, in terms of movies. As I said before, I have no control over what goes on up on the screen or what's cut later. Between the director and the actors you lose all of that.
It's almost a mystery as to what's happened in the theatre. I think it's just changing. It's becoming regional theatre and the plays are in a sense getting smaller, not necessarily in their scope. Six Degrees of Separation is a wonderful play; I really like that play. I'm not so sure if it had opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theatre that it would have gotten the kind of attention, the demands for seats. It's viewed from a different perspective when it's presented in an off-Broadway atmosphere. You see what happens when they transfer plays. One of the few that transferred fairly well was The Heidi Chronicles, but even when you're watching The Heidi Chronicles, you say this isn't really a Broadway play. That could be a misnomer too because it makes it sound crass and commercial, but Amadeus is a Broadway play and I think it's a great play. I think most of Peter Shaffer's plays are wonderful plays: Five Finger Exercise and the one about the Incas, The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Tennessee Williams didn't write off-Broadway plays except at the end of his career when the plays got smaller in their scope. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a beautiful play, but it's got size to it, and there is no one around who does that anymore. It's changed, I guess maybe the way painting has changed. I don't know who the great portrait painters are anymore if they exist at all. I think it's economics that changes it. In the theatre now they are catering to an international audience. Who comes to America now but the people who have money—the Japanese or the Germans? They don't all understand English but if they go see a musical like Cats they don't have to. Even Phantom of the Opera—if you don't understand it you can still enjoy it. If a play runs two years it is amazing. Most musical hits will run ten years now. You can't get Cats out of that theatre. Phantom will be there forever. It will be interesting to see what happens with Miss Saigon because it has this amazing anti-American number. When I saw it in London, you could almost cheer it, but if when it opens in March this war is still going on there may be some repercussions.
One of the things that occurred to me when I was watching Lost in Yonkers the other night is that you're one of the cleanest playwrights I know, even though you write about very intimate things.
You write to what fits the play. There are all sorts of four-letter words in Rumors because these are very contemporary people. In Lost in Yonkers, you're dealing with the 1940's and you're not only trying to emulate a play that might have existed in that time, but certainly what life was like at that time. And that kind of language, street language, I at least didn't hear that much. I never heard it at home, except maybe in a violent argument between my mother and father. It's interesting to watch playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller who never resorted to that language but found another language that was more potent. In doing The Marrying Man with Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, which was just an awful experience, she did this scene in which she was sitting in a box at the opera in Boston. She used to be Bugsy Siegal's girlfriend but is found by this guy who's a multi-millionaire and they get married; they're forced to get married through no intention of their own. Later on, they fall in love and get remarried. She's sitting in Boston and a man in the box is annoying her as she's sort of kissing the ear of Alec Baldwin. He keeps shushing her and she says, "Oh, come on, this opera isn't even in English, you can't understand it"; and it goes on and finally she adlibs, "Oh, go f——yourself." And I said, "Wait, you can't say that." It had nothing to with my thinking that the language is offensive; it's so wrong for the character and for the tone of the movie. It's a movie that takes place in 1948. It's OK when the Alec Baldwin character and his four cronies are in the car. They use all sorts of language; but for her to use it in that place seemed so wrong for me. So it wasn't being prudish about anything; you've just got to use it where it's got some weight. Sometimes I would use "f——you" or whatever it is once in a play, and it has much more impact than just using it all the way through. I like it when David Mamet does it sometimes like in American Buffalo. It is said so often that it is no longer offensive. It bothers some people I know; they don't want to hear it. But it never bothers me. I think he writes in such wonderful rhythms and cadences that the language is so important, so precise.
Linda Lavin once said à propos of Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, in which she was then appearing: "People come to the theatre to see their lives verified. They haven't been offended. The life they lead hasn't been challenged, it's been reaffirmed." And I think you once said, "recognition" is what you'd like to see your plays be all about. Let me be a devil's advocate and say that one should come out of the theatre upset, as Edward Albee insists. I don't mean necessarily emotionally upset but something should have changed. You shouldn't have been patted on the head, you should have been disturbed. Lost in Yonkers can be a very disturbing play in that way.
Do you think you've changed in that respect?
Yes. I remember that when I did Plaza Suite and I wrote the first act about the husband who's having the affair with the secretary, the general manager for the play read it and said, "You can't do this play." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Do you know how many men come from out of town and meet their secretary or somebody and come to this play. They'll be so embarrassed." I said, "Good, that's what I want to do. I want to shake people up." So I don't think I was trying to reaffirm middle-class values. In Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, the man was trying to have an affair. I found him sort of a pitiful character not even being able to break through that. I saw him as an Everyman in a way who finally had the courage to try to break out but didn't know how to do it. Sometimes those labels stick with you. But as I said it's a glacier. It moves along and it changes and it pulls along the debris with it. I don't think I write that way. I think why I get bandied about a lot by critics is because of the success ratio. There must be something wrong when it appeals to so many people around the world. They hate it that I've become a wealthy person from the plays.
You can't be any good if you're wealthy!
Yes. I remember at the time reading about Tennessee Williams's wealth, which was relative compared to today's market, but he was a fairly wealthy man because he was so successful. But he also took such chances with plays like Camino Real. He was a poet and he made his reputation on plays like The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire. It's because I do write plays that for the most part are so popular. I never mind a bad review from a good critic who has liked some of the work in the past and then says, "No, you didn't do it this time." I say that's valid and I can accept it. I don't expect a rave from Frank Rich. Frank Rich always will find fault. He's tough to figure out because he'll write a very middling review of Brighton Beach and talk about its faults and at the end of it say, "One hopes there will be a chapter two to Brighton Beach." He finds fault with the play yet he wants to see a sequel to it! I had no intention of writing a trilogy, I just wrote Brighton Beach. When I read his notice I said, well, I'll do another play. You still don't think about a trilogy because if the second play fails, who wants to see the sequel to a failure? So I wrote Biloxi Blues, which he loved. It won the Tony Award, and so I did the third one which he again then finds fault with by saying, "I missed it being a great play." He gives it a negative sounding review by saying it almost reaches great heights but doesn't.
You have to steel yourself. You become very thick-skinned after a while because you're out there naked and they are writing about you personally. They don't write about your work as much as who you are in the reviews. In a way I think the theatre has been changed a lot by critics who are now looking to make names for themselves. It bothers me that critics are hailed as personalities. Siskel and Ebert, good critics or bad critics it makes no difference to me, I hate that they are celebrities and have such power. Fortunately, there are so many people who write reviews for films, and people generally make up their mind to go see a film before they read the reviews. Not so with the theatre. The reviews mean everything. If you get a bad review in the New York Times, you can still exist but you've got to overcome it.
No, that's not exactly true. You can still exist. Neil Simon can still exist. A lot of other people can't with a bad review in the Times.
Well, it depends on the play. There have been a few that have existed without it, but it's very hard. Rich loved Biloxi Blues and the first day after Biloxi Blues opened we did an enormous amount of business, twice what we did on Brighton Beach Memoirs. But Brighton Beach Memoirs ran twice as long as Biloxi Blues. The audience seeks out what they want and Brighton Beach, next to The Odd Couple, is played more than any play I've ever done. There is something about the idealization of the family in that play that we all dream about. They know it's an idealization. It's like looking back on your family album and seeing it better than it was.
But it's not Ah, Wilderness! It's not that sappy.
Well, those were sappier days.
There's a lot of what happens in Broadway Bound underneath the surface of Brighton Beach.
Oh, yes—the mother's hurt when she finds out that the father has had this heart attack and that the boy has lost all the money.
What do you think you've done differently in Lost in Yonkers? What would you say has inched the glacier forward with this play?
I've written about much darker people than I ever have before. I've written about normal people in dark situations before—the death of spouses, the break-up of marriages (tragedies in proportion to their own lives at that time like in Brighton Beach), anti-semitism and anti-homosexuality in Biloxi. But in this play, I really wrote about dysfunctional people and the results of a woman who was beaten in Germany who in order to teach her children to survive teaches them only to survive and nothing else. That's much further than I've gone in any other play, so it's deeper. It's why I want to do a musical next year because I need really sure footing to go on to the next place. That doesn't mean I need to write about people even more dysfunctional, but as a matter of fact the play that I've been working on and haven't been able to lick quite yet is about two people in a sanitarium who have had breakdowns and find solace in each other almost more than in the doctor. I've written about thirty pages of it and I've had it there for two years and I'm anxious to write it, but each play comes when its time is ripe. Who knows if at some point I lose faith in the musical I'm working on, I'll probably go back and start to write that play. Right now, all I want to do is get out of Washington, go home, rest, come back, do the stuff in New York. Then I forget all about Lost in Yonkers. They all become a piece of the past for me. I've learned from them, and then they only come up in interviews like this when you talk about them. I don't think of the plays. I don't try to remember or go back or ever read them and see what I've done to see how I could do that again. I want to go to some other place. I'm just hoping that there'll even be a theatre enough around for people to want to go see these plays.
Source: Jackson R. Bryer, "An Interview with Neil Simon," in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1991, pp. 153-76.
Brandes, Philip, Review of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, in Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1992, p. 14.
Glaviano, Cliff, Review of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, in Library Journal, January 2001, pp. 184, 185.
Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature, 5th ed., Macmillan, 1986, p. 58.
Morley, Sheridan, "Tricks not Treats," in Spectator, April 10, 1999, pp. 46, 47.
Simon, Neil, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, in The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Vol. 2, pp. 231-99.
Tietzman, Peter, "The Ominous Apple," in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland Publishing, 1997, p. 148.
Hischak, Thomas S., American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Hischak examines the new trends in American theater that emerged during the last few decades of the twentieth century. He includes an analysis of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, as well as of Simon's later plays.
Koprince, Susan, Understanding Neil Simon, University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
In this assessment of Simon's career as a playwright, Koprince provides detailed explications of the style and themes of several of his plays, concluding that Simon has often been wrongfully overlooked by scholars.
Simon, Neil, Neil Simon Monologues: Speeches from the Works of America's Foremost Playwright, Dramaline Publications, 1996.
Simon collects his best monologues in this book, which range from the serious to the comic. The collection offers a valuable tool for actors preparing for the plays as well as for students since a summary and analysis of each monologue is included.
———, Rewrites: A Memoir, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Simon reflects on his career and his personal life, from his childhood through his early years as a television comedy writer, to his huge success as a playwright into the 1970s. He includes a discussion of his art and the influences on it as well as honest accounts of his problems with writer's block and personal relationships.