Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon (born 1927) has become America's most prolific and popular dramatist. His tragicomic plays expose human frailties and make people laugh at themselves.
One of America's favorite playwrights, Neil Simon has been relieving audiences of their anxieties, fears, and worries by making them laugh at their own foibles for almost forty years. His portrayals of individual angst and dysfunctional family relationships, while exaggerated, manage to hit a nerve every time. Simon takes the audience through laughter to tears and back, as he explores life's emotional truths. A prolific writer, he has written and had produced more Broadway hits than any other American playwright, making him the wealthiest dramatist in history. Numerous Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards and nominations, and special achievement awards have followed. His contribution to the arts and to popular culture in the twentieth century was recognized in 1995 when he received Kennedy Center Honors from President Bill Clinton. As part of his tribute to Simon the President said, "He has written a string of magnificent hit plays unprecedented in the history of the American theater. Audiences found them so funny that, at first, few people noticed the gentle, deep, and sometimes sharp truths behind the comedy…. We saw the flaws and foibles and faults, but always, through them all, the indomitability of the human spirit."
Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, in New York, on the Fourth of July in 1927. The Great Depression brought difficult times for the family. His father, a garment salesman, periodically disappeared, leaving his wife to support their two sons by working at Gimbel's department store and relying on family and friends. After they divorced, Simon lived with relatives in Forest Hills, in the Queens borough of New York City. Simon and his older brother developed a very close relationship, and during their teens wrote and sold material to standup comics and radio shows. It was his brother who encouraged him to pursue writing while in the United States Army Air Force Reserve program He attended college also at this time. His childhood fixation with comedy stuck, and he learned to write comedy by studying the work of his favorite comics-Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner.
After being discharged from the army, Simon got a job in the mailroom of Warner Brothers thanks to his brother who worked in the publicity department. They began collaborating again, and from 1947 to 1956 worked as a team writing comedy for television hits such as the Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers Shows. Simon continued writing comedy for four years after his brother quit to become a television director. Some of television's top shows were showcases for his work, including the Sid Caesar and Garry Moore Shows. The pleasure was fading, however, and he turned his energies to playwriting in 1960.
Simon's first play, Come Blow Your Horn, was a modest hit; but it was followed shortly thereafter with Barefoot in the Park, a runaway hit that ran on Broadway for four years. His third play, The Odd Couple, introduced two characters that have become American icons-Felix and Oscar, two men estranged from their wives who move in together to save money, and find that they have the same problems living with each other as they did with their wives. The story lines usually presented conflicts between two people, and were filled with funny one-liners that brought the house down. While not entirely autobiographical, Simon makes no secret about using personal experiences or those of his friends for material. Come Blow Your Horn was about two brothers who moved away home and shared a bachelor apartment (just as Simon and his brother did); Barefoot inthe Park was the story of newlyweds adjusting to married life (reminiscent of his own marriage); and, of The Odd Couple Simon once commented, "[the story] happened to two guys I know-I couldn't write a play about Welsh miners." The Odd Couple had a two-year run on Broadway, won Simon his first Tony Award, and has been adapted to television and film several times.
Critics often belittled Simon's work on the basis that he sacrificed character and plot development for laughs, to the extent that some plays were hardly more that a series of one-liners. In the 1970s, he made a conscious effort to add depth to his work by treating serious issues within a comic framework. He presented tragicomedies such as The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the story of a man in a mid-life crisis who seeks solace in extramarital affairs; and The Gingerbread Lady, in which a one-time singer, who is now an alcoholic, struggles to make a comeback; and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which witnesses the nervous breakdown of a recently fired executive. Some applauded his new "real life honesty, " while others still criticized his characterizations as being superficial.
Simon continued to depict characters grappling to handle their feelings in difficult situations, and releasing tension with humor. He began to share more of himself and his life, including boyhood fantasies of escape from the emotional turmoil of his family, and the frustration and despair of coping with his wife's terminal illness. In a 1996 interview with Randy Gener for American Theatre, Simon commented, "I was writing plays that made people laugh. I wanted a response from the audience that would make up for whatever it was that was missing from those formative years of mine." For him, laughter provided a sense of comfort, fulfillment, and approval to replace insecurity, fear of abandonment, and later the futility of loss. During this period he wrote The Sunshine Boys, The Good Doctor, California Suite, and Chapter Two, whose leading character, a widower, feels guilty and miserable over falling in love and remarrying much as Simon had.
The 1980s took the intermingling of honesty and humor to new levels of intimacy. With the advent of Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, Simon develops the stories and conflicts among several characters, rather than presenting a one-on-one confrontation. The series begins telling the story of an adolescent middle-class Jewish American boy growing up amid a dysfunctional family and yearning to escape. Biloxi Blues, chronicled the boy's coming of age and the stunning reality of facing anti-Semitism while in the army -again mirroring some of Simon's personal experiences. The third, Broadway Bound, took audiences into the boy's young adulthood as he struggled to establish his career, and saw with new clarity the problems in his parents' relationship-Simon claimed writing the play was instrumental in resolving the relationship with his mother.
Simon uses writing as a coping mechanism for life's ups and downs, and explores a variety of mediums. When his third marriage broke up, he wrote Rumors, a farce, and Jake's Women, in which he introduces "ghosts"-good and bad experiences of two marriages and their impact on the third. Meanwhile, he has found time to write original screenplays, as well as many adaptations of his plays for the screen. His screenplays include: The Heartbreak Kid; The Goodbye Girl, which won an Academy Award nomination in 1977 and a Golden Globe Award for best screenplay the following year; Seems Like Old Times; The Lonely Guy; and The Slugger's Wife.
The playwright keeps pealing away layers of psychological insight. He began the 1990s with Lost in Yonkers, a painfully funny story of the long lasting impact an abusive mother has on her grown children. William Henry III, writing in Time, noted: "At the heart is … a mother who was physically and psychologically abusive and four middle-aged children who still suffer the weaknesses she inflicted in teaching them to be strong." In many plays the hardened protagonist has a soft heart underneath; not the mother in Lost in Yonkers. She never responds to the pleas of her retarded child for affection; she turns her back and walks out the door without a word-a poignant and sad ending for a playwright known for "schtik" comedy. The play was a success, and in 1991 earned both the Antoinette Perry Award for best play and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in drama.
His next works turned back in time to reflect and reminisce about the days of writing comedy for legends such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Sid Caesar. Laughter on the 23rd Floor is a far cry from the dramatic characterizations in Lost in Yonkers and Jake's Women. The play is a behind-the-scenes look at writing comedy by committee, as a group of men shout fast one-liners, each trying to top the other. While funny, critics had a field day talking about the lack of plot and depth of these characters.
In a similar, though much less superficial vein, Simon wrote a book entitled Rewrites in 1996. The book is a memoir of his early career during which time he wrote hits such as Barefoot in the Park, and enjoyed an extremely happy marriage that ended too early when his wife lost her battle with cancer. The book received mixed reviews; People Weekly commented that it "doesn't live up to the creativity it documents." As Simon has often found, his own work is a hard act to follow.
Simon continues to explore new terrain in his writing. In 1997, he further developed the ghost devise first used in Jake's Women, and introduced his first major Black character in Proposals. In an interview with David Stearns for USA Today he said, "It is one of the most loving plays I've ever written. There's also a lot of anger. Because love is the main theme in the play, I was trying to cover all the aspects of it-those who get it and those who don't." As President Clinton remarked when presenting the Kennedy Center Honors to Simon, "he challenges us and himself never to take ourselves too seriously. Thank you for the wit and the wisdom."
American Theatre, October 1996.
Newsweek, March 4, 1991.
People Weekly, December 16, 1996.
Time, March 4, 1991; December 6, 1993.
USA Today, October 2, 1997.
Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, in New York, on the Fourth of July in 1927. His father Irving, a garment salesman, disappeared from time to time, leaving his wife, Mamie, to support their two sons by working at a department store and by relying on family and friends. After his parents divorced, Simon lived with relatives in Forest Hills, New York. Simon received the nickname "Doc" as a child because he was always pretending to be a doctor, listening to people's heartbeats with a toy stethoscope (an instrument used to listen to sounds inside the body). He also loved comedy films and was often thrown out of movie theaters for laughing too loudly.
Simon and his older brother Danny were very close. During their teens, they wrote and sold material to standup comedians and radio shows. It was his brother who encouraged him to pursue writing while in the United States Army Air Force Reserve program. Simon also attended college at this time. His childhood love of comedy stuck, and his writing was inspired by the work of his favorite comics—Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and Ring Lardner (1885–1933).
Writing for a living
After being discharged (let out) from the army, Simon got a job in Warner Brothers' mailroom—thanks to his brother, who worked in the publicity department. They began working together again, and from 1947 to 1956 they wrote comedy for television shows starring Jackie Gleason (1916–1987) and Phil Silvers (1911–1985). Simon continued writing comedy after his brother quit to become a television director, and his work appeared on some of television's top shows. The pleasure was fading, however, so he began writing plays in 1960.
Simon's first play, Come Blow Your Horn, was a modest hit. It was followed shortly thereafter with Barefoot in the Park, which ran on Broadway for four years. His third play, The Odd Couple, introduced two famous characters, Felix and Oscar, two men with failing marriages who move in together to save money and find that they have the same problems living with each other as they did with their wives. Simon's storylines usually presented conflicts between two people and were filled with funny one-liners.
Simon admitted that he often used personal experiences or those of his friends for material. Come Blow Your Horn was about two brothers who moved away from home and shared an apartment (just as Simon and his brother had); Barefoot in the Park was the story of newlyweds adjusting to married life (similar to his own marriage); and of The Odd Couple Simon once commented, "[The story] happened to two guys I know—I couldn't write a play about Welsh miners." The Odd Couple had a two-year run on Broadway, won Simon his first Tony Award (an award given every year for achievement in the theater), and was adapted to television and film several times.
New approach to drama
In the 1970s Simon made an effort to add depth to his work by treating serious issues with comic touches. He presented works such as The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the story of a married man in a mid-life crisis who has a series of affairs; The Gingerbread Lady, in which a one-time singer, who is now an alcoholic, struggles to make a comeback; and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which witnesses the nervous breakdown of a recently fired business executive.
Simon continued to create characters who struggled to handle their feelings in difficult situations and who released tension with humor. He began to share more of himself and his life, including boyhood dreams of escaping from his family problems and the difficulty of coping with his wife's terminal illness. During this period he wrote The Sunshine Boys, The Good Doctor, California Suite, and Chapter Two, whose main character, a widower, feels guilty over falling in love and remarrying, much as Simon had. He also wrote several screenplays, including The Goodbye Girl, which was nominated (put forward for consideration) for an Academy Award in 1977.
Even more personal works
Simon took his mixing of honesty and humor to new levels in the 1980s. Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in a trilogy (series of three works) of semiautobiographical (some-what based on his own life) plays, tells the story of a middle-class Jewish American teenager growing up in a troubled family. Biloxi Blues deals with the boy's coming of age and facing of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jewish people) while in the army. Finally, Broadway Bound takes audiences into the boy's young adulthood, as he struggles to establish his career and sees the problems in his parents' relationship more clearly. Simon claimed that writing the play helped him address the problems he had with his own mother.
When Simon's third marriage broke up, he wrote Jake's Women, in which he introduces "ghosts"—good and bad experiences of two marriages and their effect on the third. He began the 1990s with Lost in Yonkers, a painfully funny story about the effect an abusive mother has on her grown children. The play was a success, and in 1991 it earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Simon's next work, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, is a behind-the-scenes look at writing comedy by committee, as a group of men shout one-liners, each trying to top the other. Critics found it funny but talked about the lack of plot and depth of the characters. Simon received Kennedy Center honors in 1995 from President Bill Clinton (1946–) for his contribution to the arts and to popular culture in the twentieth century. In 1996 Simon wrote a book entitled Rewrites, a look back at his early career. The book received mixed reviews; PeopleWeekly commented that it "doesn't live up to the creativity it documents."
In 1997 Simon introduced his first major black character in Proposals. In an interview with David Stearns for USA Today he said, "It is one of the most loving plays I've ever written. There's also a lot of anger. Because love is the main theme in the play, I was trying to cover all the aspects [elements] of it—those who get it and those who don't." In 1999 Simon was honored by ringing the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange as part of the Exchange's Bridging the Millennium program, which honored leaders of the twentieth century whose achievements continue to enrich humanity.
In 2001, just about the same time his new play 45 Seconds from Broadway was opening, Simon was presented with the first Sarah Applebaum Nederlander Award for Excellence in Theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. As President Clinton remarked of Simon when presenting him with the Kennedy Center honors, "He challenges us and himself never to take ourselves too seriously. Thank you for the wit and the wisdom."
For More Information
Bloom, Harold. Neil Simon. Bloomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2002.
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Simon, Neil. The Play Goes On: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
SIMON, NEIL (1927– ), U.S. playwright. After working for television, Simon wrote his first successful comedy, Come Blow Your Horn (1961), which was followed by the book for the musical Little Me (1962), Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), Sweet Charity (1966), and Plaza Suite (1968). Some of these were successfully adapted for the screen.
Simon's play, God's Favorite (1975), based on the Book of Job, in which a "messenger from God" announces to a successful cardboard box manufacturer that his faith in God is to be put to test, was widely acclaimed.
Very often, Simon bases his plays on autobiographical experiences and observations. Three plays from the 1980s, sometimes referred to as the "Eugene Trilogy," parallel the growth of Simon from teenager to successful writer. Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984) centers on Eugene Jerome, a Jewish adolescent growing up in 1930s Brooklyn. The characters, particularly Eugene's family, are taken from Simon's own childhood memories; Stanley, the brother whom Eugene idolizes, is based on Simon's brother Danny. Biloxi Blues (1986) follows Eugene's experience in army basic training during World War ii. Away from his family and his Brooklyn neighborhood, he is confronted with fellow trainees from a variety of locales and backgrounds. Eugene also finds time to fall in love, lose his virginity, and confront an apparently psychotic drill instructor. In short, he grows up in this play. Broadway Bound (1987) relates Eugene and Stanley's attempt to break into comedy writing. The dissolution of their parents' marriage becomes fodder for their comedy sketches. At the end of the play, Eugene leaves home when his writing career takes flight, the boy at last becoming a man.
He wrote more comedies, among them The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972), The Sunshine Boys (1973), The Good Doctor (1974), Rumors (1990), Jake's Women (1993), and Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1995), a play based on his time as one of Sid Caesar's television comedy writers. His Plaza Suite (1971) and Chapter Two (1979) were made into films, as were The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) and The Sunshine Boys (1975). He wrote the screenplay for The Odd Couple ii (1998), a sequel to his play. His other writing includes the memoirs Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999).
[Robert L. DelBane (2nd ed.)]
SIMON, Neil. American, b. 1927. Genres: Plays/Screenplays. Career: Writer for television, 1951-60, for the stage and screen, 1961-. Publications: PLAYS: (with W. Friedberg) Adventures of Marco Polo: A Musical Fantasy, 1959; (adaptor with W. Friedberg) Heidi, 1959; Come Blow Your Horn, 1961; Little Me, 1962; Barefoot in the Park, 1964; The Odd Couple, 1966 (Tony Award); Sweet Charity, 1966; The Star-Spangled Girl, 1967; Plaza Suite, 1969; Promises, Promises, 1970; Last of the Red Hot Lovers, 1970; The Gingerbread Lady, 1971; The Prisoner of Second Avenue, 1972; The Comedy of Neil Simon, 1971; The Sunshine Boys, 1973; The Good Doctor, 1974; God's Favorite, 1975; California Suite, 1977; Chapter Two, 1979; The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 2, 1979, vol. 3, 1991; They're Playing Our Song, 1980; I Ought to Be in Pictures, 1981; Fools, 1982; Brighton Beach Memoirs, 1984; Biloxi Blues, 1986 (Tony Award); The Odd Couple (female version), 1986; Broadway Bound, 1988; Rumours, 1990; Lost in Yonkers, 1991 (Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize), screenplay, 1993; Jake's Women, 1993; Laughter on the 23rd Floor, 1995; Rewrites: A Memoir, 1996; London Suite, 1996; Neil Simon Monologues, 1996; Neil Simon's Proposals, 1998; The Play Goes On: A Memoir, 1999; Neil Simon Scenes, 2000. Address: c/o A. Da Silva, Da Silva and Da Silva, 502 Park Ave #10G, New York, NY 10022-1108, U.S.A.