Remembrance of Playwright Past

Everyone remembers people and events that shaped and changed their lives.  Long after they leave the world’s stage, these individuals and events inform and direct us through memory.  That’s how I feel about Neil Simon’s plays; they are touchstones from my childhood. That’s reasonable: when I was young he was the King of Broadway. His movies set some of my first standards for comedy.  But, that was a long time ago and Mr. Simon hasn’t had a hit play in years. So, I’ve been reading plays by other authors.  Still, when I heard of his death, I did something I haven’t done for a while: I read something Neil Simon wrote.  Not his plays this time, but his memoirs.  And I’m still thinking about what I read.

Rewrites

Rewrites is Simon’s memoir of the first half of his life, and to some extent, it’s like his early plays.  This book covered his early, energetic years as a writer when hope was built on promise and potential.  The book is a charmer, and it confirmed two things I guessed but didn’t know before.  First, Simon’s stories all have strong autobiographical elements and that the art of plays is in the re-writing.

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According to Mr. Simon, the tradition of opening a new play out of town is part of the alchemy that creates a show.  Responses from Out-of-town audiences tell the cast and creative team what works and doesn’t work in the show.  And Simon rewrote the show after each early performance making the show tighter and funnier. Like Moss Hart’s Act One, Rewrites is a master-class in the art of playwrighting as well as a glimpse of American Theatre in the 60’s and 70’s.  But it’s also the story of a young, hopeful man

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The Marrying Man

In “The Play Goes On”, Simon’s sequel to “Rewrites”, one thing becomes clear:  Mr. Simon never escaped from his past.  After a childhood in an insecure, chaotic family, he tried to create a different life as an adult. Still, he never trusted the good times when they came.  And the early death of his first wife left a man who wanted to love again but couldn’t keep her ghost from haunting his later relationships.  It’s not surprising Simon remarried four more times.  It’s sad how his pursuit of happiness was often undermined by remembered joy.  This is the mature, tempered Neil Simon, less charming, less hopeful, a bit more self-serving. But whatever his shortcomings, the man possessed a work ethic and talent. And those things are why he’s remembered.

The Constant Writer

Celebrated or panned, joyful or depressed, married or single, Neil Simon remained one thing: a constant writer.  For more than 50 years he churned out at least that many plays and screenplays (as well as these Memoirs). His quick-fire wit and urban “comedy-dramedy” forms are imitated today.  And, if some of his jokes became horribly dated or if his last plays were less hit than miss, he still taught us a lot.   Simon wielded humor as a weapon as well as a shield and he showed us that, even in the middle of the worst time of your life, the right joke can still keep you going. And Laughter will help you prevail. Now, that’s a memory worth keeping.

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A spell-binding voice of uncertain truth: Lillian Hellman

I’m a big believer in role models.  While we are growing up, we emulate the behavior of those we admire, hoping we’ll be admirable too.  Eventually we sort our our own priorities and personalities but until then, it helps to have someone to follow.  Given all that, I probably could have picked a better person to imitate than Lillian Hellman.  For one thing, Lillian Hellman was a professional dramatist and I don’t like her plays.  As dramatic vehicles they are “theatrical” pieces where characters quiver, thunder or plot but rarely come to any realizations and the plays are aging as well as my old Earth Shoes.  In other words, not.  So Lillian’s plays are out.  Her integrity was attacked often and well, most notably when Mary McCarthy said, “Every word she writes is a lie—including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”  Those who tracked down the details suggest there’s some exaggeration in Miss Mary’s statement but not enough to acquit Miss Lillian.  So she wasn’t a good example there either. Nevertheless, I was looking for a unique voice and shimmering images of words when I found Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman.  One role model, made to order.

An Unfinished Woman was popular around the time I started looking for complex characters.  Like many adolescents, I believed that  unhappiness and ambiguity suggested a more developed, subtle mind and I wanted to become a complex, challenging woman.  I found my heroine in Miss Hellman, a woman who rarely suffered fools and never took the easy way out of a difficult situation.  I overlooked the extra pain she brought to herself and her friends because of the brave way she sailed into each disaster.

If we stick to verifiable facts, it is clear that Lillian was “a difficult child who grew into a difficult woman.”  Smart, insecure and argumentative, she recognized the virtues and failings of her charming, faithless father, his shy, dominated wife from Alabama and the segregated South she was raised in.  Observant and merciless, Lillian could also be a gigantic pain but there’s something interesting about a person who never chooses the comfortable, easy roads in life and on that scale Lillian Hellman is interesting.  She rejected the triple play of  childhood-to-marriage-to-motherhood that most American women of her generation repeated.  She carved out a place for herself in a notoriously difficult industry.  She also found politics and unerringly sided with whoever antagonized the most people in power.  If the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t trust her judgment, at least two friends did.  Both Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker trusted this woman’s angry judgment enough to make her their literary executor. If she made mistakes discharging those duties, (and there are those who suggest she made many) the errors were made in favor of guarding the privacy of her dead friends not enriching herself.   In those ways she could be seen as  trustworthy.

Eventually I read An Unfinished Woman as a memoir instead of a manifesto or guidebook and I’ve never developed Ms. Hellman’s tension or work ethic.  To tell you the truth, I don’t want to be that angry. I still admire her uncompromising battle with life and I appreciate her illuminating prose.  I just choose which battles I fight.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what she did.