Literature and Life
Few playwrights have achieved the success that Neil Simon has. Fifty years ago he had four plays on Broadway at the same time, each playing to standing room only audiences and receiving rave reviews. Today is Sunday and it is the day I have kept for writing about my favorite writers and/or books. Today will have two posts but first, it is with great sadness that I report that today is also the day of Neil Simon’s passing. This post is dedicated to Mr. Simon while the later post will be about a book of essays.
I learned to count collating pages of television scripts and the first time I read a play, the format felt right at home. Novels seemed a bit wordy but plays were a format I knew and loved. Neil Simon was one of my first playwrights to read and adore, although in hind sight much of his work was probably ill-suited for a young girl.
Marvin Neil Simon was an American playwright, screenwriter and author. He wrote more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, mostly adaptations of his plays. He received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. He has said that he wrote comedy because he wanted to make people laugh. His parents had a tempestuous marriage and escaping to the movies to watch comedies was one way Simon survived. “I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude … do something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting.”
Simon himself had a stated preference to writing in longhand and never used computers. He preferred thin ruled paper, often buying up a dozen or so pads or notebooks of it in London since it is very hard to find in the USA. He compared it to the lines of music manuscript paper and liked being able to see quite a bit of writing at one time. He emphasized the lyrical quality of dialogue and indeed his character’s speeches were like lyrical songs.
Neil Simon began creating comedy for which he got paid while still in high school, when at the age of fifteen, Simon and his older brother created a series of comedy sketches for employees at an annual department store event. To help develop his writing skill, he often spent three days a week at the library reading books by famous humorists such as Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and S. J. Perelman.
When asked by the Paris Review what his great gift was as a writer, Simon pointed to the “construction” of his comedies, which are typically built around a dilemma involving characters of opposing wills and wants. “By the time you know the conflicts, the play is already written in your mind,” Simon explained. “All you have to do is put the words down. You don’t have to outline the play, it outlines itself.” Elaine Joyce Simon wrote in the afterword to her husband’s collected “Memoirs: “If you’re looking for the heart and soul of Neil Simon, you’ll find everything you need to know in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ ”. Recent revivals of “The Odd Couple” and “Sweet Charity” have proven the timeliness of Neil Simon’s writings. The man who wanted to make us laugh is still doing it.
“Don’t listen to those who say, you are taking too big a chance. Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, and it would surely be rubbed out by today. Most important, don’t listen when the little voice of fear inside you rears its ugly head and says ‘They are all smarter than you out there. They’re more talented, they’re taller, blonder, prettier, luckier, and they have connections.’ I firmly believe that if you follow a path that interests you, not to the exclusion of love, sensitivity, and cooperation with others, but with the strength of conviction that you can move others by your own efforts, and do not make success or failure the criteria by which you live, the chances are you’ll be a person worthy of your own respects.” Rest in peace, Neil Simon and thank you.