A Man of Wit and Wisdom
He walks in with a wisecrack. Neither the intellectual pomp inherent in the lecture format, nor the stolid, somber Eliot House library can dampen his compulsive sense of humor. "The plays are the essence of me," he says. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is the essence of his plays; his wit flows so effortlessly, so smoothly that it seems innate. Neil Simon, apparently can't help being funny.
Someone asks whether his success has been a burden. "Less so than unsuccess," he replies. Another member of the audience wants to send her screenplay to an agent. "Should I just address the script?," she presses. "I'd put an address on it, yes." he says. Someone else inquires how he distinguishes writing a play from writing a film script. He makes a few thoughtful remarks, pauses, and then adds, "Also, I write the words 'a film' on the screenplay's title page."
As his answers suggest, Simon does not profess to be a great dramatic theorist; he offers no analysis of the origin of comedy, including his own. He defines his talent as a gift that comes "from deep within me," eschewing any deeper analysis of his motivation. If not laden with intellectual insights, his statements frequently posses a quiet eloquence. When someone suggests that his plays convey no messages but are simply laugh riots, he replies that light-heartedness can express a deeper meaning. Many of his comedies focus on people paralyzed by a sense of inadequacy.
Indeed, Simon himself does not always feel confident about his talent. Reinforcing this sense of insecurity is his love-hate affair with the drama critics. Some invariably like his work; others, he declares, walk into the theater hating the play. Claiming he lacks confidence, he willingly accepts the verdicts of those he respects. "I like critics who say to me, 'This is valid, I like it, but you need more work,'" he remarks. However, Simon often finds the opinions of reviewers contradictory or otherwise unhelpful; and then he stops listening to them. "Critics want everything to be either comedy or drama. I say that when life decides to be either entirely funny or entirely serious, then so will I," he explains.
Simon admits that he has felt restricted, to some extent, by his reputation as America's foremost comic playwright. Yet no matter what direction his work takes, the comic spirit is always an integral part of his writing. Much as he admires Woddy Allen, he could never write an Interiors: "You can't do anything serious without comedy," Simon argues, adding that his plays often encourage the audience to laugh at basically tragic human situations. "I put it all down, and if some see it funny and some tragic, it's all right with me," he notes.
Simon insists that he never tries to "write funny." The humor comes when he has correctly set up the situation and the characters. He begins a project with only a general plan; too detailed an outline kills his writing's spontaneity. "In a way, making an outline of a play (a technique he once, but no longer, uses) robs you of the joy of discovery." When it comes time to write, Simon starts at the beginning and has an idea of the conclusion, though often he does not use that ending. Sometimes the characters take off in their own directions and the scene flows by itself. When he's in the middle of a terrific scene and the juices are flowing full force. Simon says he literally cannot get up from the chair.
At his best, Simon says he feels not like a writer but like some sort of secretary, a middleman between the characters and the paper. Furthermore, he believes in the playwright's axiom that "great plays are not written, but rewritten." Rewriting, Simon feels, is "like taking a test, finding out the answers, and then taking the test again the next day." He admits that he has often been tempted to rewrite some of his past plays, but always opts to start a new play. "Every time I believe that this will be the perfect one, but of course it never will. If it is, I might as well stop working," he says.
In his search for the perfect play, Simon's style has noticeably matured, though he smiles at the notion of dividing his career into periods of "early Simon" and "mature Simon." The early plays, he feels, were all on one level, devoted to getting the fun out of a funny situation; he now digs deeper psychologically and is willing to explore human traumas more openly. A wide difference in Simon's handling of painful experience divides Come Blow Your Horn, his first production, from Chapter II, his latest straight play. Come Blow Your Horn transformed the attempts of Simon and his brother to break away from home into a mechanically riotous farce. Chapter II, on the other hand, recreated his efforts to build a new life after his wife's death so sensitively that critics hailed the play as a breakthrough in his writing.
From the beginning, Simon's writing has contained deep autobiographical overtones. For instance, the one-room attic apartment in Barefoot in the Park resembles the garret he and his wife lived in during the first year of their marriage. His characters, like their creator, tend to come from New York Jewish middle-class backgrounds. "Everything I write is about New York," he notes.
It is therefore understandable that after several years of the California lifestyle, Simon has again taken an apartment in New York (this one with more than one room). Like one of his characters in California Suite, he criticizes Los Angeles as a "place of mediocrity." In contrast to a New York luncheonette, in which he can overhear several different conversations at the same time, Simon thinks car-oriented L.A. limits his exposure to the people with whom he works. Simon enjoys making movies but not the town in which they are made. "I couldn't be a playwright in L.A.," he remarks.
And Simon considers himself primarily a playwright. Even while he rejoices over the young and diverse audiences his films can reach, one senses that his first allegience lies in the theater. The stage gives him a special thrill; a play represents a "love affair that ends on opening night." But that affair almost always has a happy ending. "One of my greatest joys," he declares, "is to stand in the back of a theater and hear the audience laugh."
Which they invariably do.