Perhaps it’s all the talk of theater, but my drama-class instincts come rushing back when I hear him say the E-word so proudly, and I do a double take. But I shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve been dancing around the question of elitism all evening.
And for good reason. No mere triple Harvard graduate (A.B., M.A., and Ph.D.) is sitting in the Coop Café last Wednesday evening. The former New York Magazine Theater reviewer and current Bloomberg News Drama Critic and Harper’s Book Reviewer is one of the most erudite, powerful, and notoriously unforgiving critics of his time. Not many men can print that Barbra Streisand’s nose “towers like a ziggurat made of meat” without getting sued.
Careers turned on his acerbic tongue, and enmity followed it. The New York Drama Critics Circle voted to refuse him membership in 1969.
Actress Sylvia Miles once overturned a plate of spaghetti onto his head at a restaurant.
Theater critics and actresses who often sparred could come together in agreement one point: they all detested John Simon.
Yet here he sits, 80 years old and perfectly arranged from tie to penny loafers, facing the charge of snobbery that’s shadowed his entire career.
It’s a charge he seems to embrace.
BEING JOHN SIMON
It’s hard work becoming a snob.
Simon left his native Yugoslavia as a boy, exploring theater during grade school in England and the United States. He organized one play during a brief stint of “very undistinguished service” at an Air Force professional school, but lacked cooperative actors. “The ones around me wanted to do as little as possible,” he recalls. “In fact, to do nothing.”
At college, Simon ran a dramatic group called the Harvard Radio Workshop, “a dramatic group that depended on the kindness of the Harvard Crimson Network,” he says with a smirk, “which kindnesses were not always as kind as one would like.”
The Crimson Network was a radio station affiliated with this newspaper during Simon’s college career, but the network and The Crimson severed ties in 1947.
He even tried his hand at playwriting; however, thanks to a permanent marker and some mischievous chums, his play, “Death, There Is None,” became derisively known on campus as “Death, here is one.”
Simon also took a stab at criticism, reviewing theater for the Harvard Advocate—back in the days when the Advocate actually published. Two rave reviews later, though, the magazine refused his services; “‘nothing could be that good,’ they told me.” For once in his career, Simon had been fired for gushing. “Well,” he muses, “it didn’t brand me for life.”
IN THE LINE OF FIRE
Yet as often as he has been on the blunt end of a pen, Simon is no stranger to sharp criticism.
He recalls performing Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” for a group of soldiers while he was a student at Harvard. Simon’s director individually circled the room, telling the actresses in his company that, “you’re playing for soldiers; over-act!” When the director reached Simon, his tone relaxed, and he said, “John, just do what you’ve been doing.”
More surprising, though, is the amount of energy Simon spends effacing himself.
He pokes at the three new, massive anthologies of his work, even during an interview intended to promote them—noting that they exclude many of his favorite articles. “If a book’s going to be heavy, it can be a little heavier. Let’s face it, there are some heavy doors, and if you’re going to have a doorstop, you might as well have the heaviest.”
Nor is he beyond lambasting his own writing. “I criticize my own sentences as I’m about to write them to make them as perfect as I possibly can. I think I’m my own sternest critic. If I can do it to myself, I’ll certainly share it with the rest of the world!”
‘GLORY IN THE DARK’
Yet Simon stands even more steadfastly by his proudest moments. He still remembers a fuse blowing just before he was about to deliver a monologue during a performance at the Brattle Theatre during his undergrad days—and the theater fell pitch black.
In the incipient chaos, Simon calmly continued with his lines, and not a single audience member moved. “My moment of glory in the dark,” he calls it.
So why would an actor who understands the pitfalls of stage-acting bite so harshly at others’ hiccups?
“I don’t think any [critic] sets out to be vicious. You try to be just, and you try to be entertaining, and where those two things meet is the locus of the review. And that can be hurtful to the person who is the butt of the joke, so to speak. But it can’t be helped, because you want to be both just and entertaining.”
Simon’s justice is no longer of the here and now, a fact he embraces with unwavering pessimism. “People just produce [art] in a cheap way, in an easy way,” he laments, “and they don’t care if a thing has lasting value. It’s a change in mentality that has overcome the world, and I can’t see anything that’s going to reverse this process.”
“On the other hand,” he adds, “if their standards are sufficiently low, they might be satisfied with junk.”