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 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.
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
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.