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.

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.

A Life in American Theatre.

If you go to any college orientation, it’s easy to pick out the theatre major wannabes.  While the business majors are making contacts and the proto-engineers are using their smartphones to game and/or calculate maximum spillage in their latest prank, the theatre majors are busy being theatrical.  Other students wear clothes; the theatricals show up in layers. Layers and layers of rehearsal outfits which can be removed or rearranged as needed, along with an overly large carrier of some kind that also looks like a refugee from the consignment store.  Once inside, it’s hard to get theatre majors out the door again.  They aren’t friendly during interviews, they are effusive (or moribund, if they’re channeling a Method Actor).  An English Major is ten minutes late for class; the Theatre Major appears just before he/she is declared dead.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And, concealed into the folds of rehearsal layers or tucked into the overlarge carrier are the proto-drama major’s tools of the trade: their Starbucks card, a few B&W headshots, a book on acting by Stella Adler (read), another by O’Neill on masks (not read) and Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One.   When you see one of these young and theatrical types, knock them down, grab their copy of Act One and run for the exit.  They can draw on the memory of you mugging them to prepare for some future role and you can get a good read.  When it comes to a life in the theatre, there is no better story than this one.

Hart was the Horatio Alger of 20th century American Theatre, a child of immigrants from the poorest slum in New York whose success and drive allowed him to build the kind of life that (according to one critic) God would have built…if he only had the money.  But it didn’t come easy.  There was no Julliard at that time, no AADA, or film school for those who wanted a life in the industry.  There was only the stage and how you got in depended on connections or drive.  Moss got there by drive, first taking the worst jobs in the least stable productions (where getting paid was still a gamble) and then inching his way up to something better.  Along the way he saw the Catskills resorts at its best and some declining stars at their worst and realized that he needed a life behind the footlights.  Hart was a director and a playwright but not an actor.  His idea of how sound would affect silent pictures became a satire on Hollywood that attracted the biggest playwright on Broadway at that time: George S. Kaufman.
It’s difficult to describe Kaufman in terms of contemporary theatre.   He started out as a journalist and drama critic (like Shaw) and became a playwright, someone infatuated with the rhythm of a spoken line as well as the idea it presented.  He was a sought-after play-doctor, for his ability to see the structural flaws in developing vehicles and correct them.  Harvey Fierstein does some of that these days and, like Fierstein, Kaufman was known to act, on occasion.  He was a fearsome director, a tireless worker and the most intimidating person in the world, according to Moss Hart but he was also a generous collaborator and, as Act One shows, a firm believer in the practice of “Kill Your Darlings.”
Kaufman and Hart’s first comedy, “Once in a Lifetime” is a study in Hollywood excess and early performances included a third act in an expensive, bird-themed nightclub set that was hilarious to look at but it stopped the action cold.  Another Broadway legend, Sam Harris (the man who partnered with George M. Cohan for years) mentioned after one dreary, show-killing point how loud and tiring the whole show was.  There was never a scene where a couple of the actors could simply talk over the events, he said and give him a chance to rest.  Hart took the suggestion seriously and rewrote the entire act, scrapping the expensive, already paid for set and adding the quiet interlude needed before the mayhem of a finale begins.  That quiet, third-act moment is necessary for the audience and whenever I’ve seen one in other productions, I know it was put in because the playwright heeded the advice of Moss Hart and Sam Harris.  George Kaufman agreed and when “Once in a Lifetime” opened to rave reviews, Kaufman made sure Hart got most of the credit (financially and publicly) for the hit.

The plural of genius: Kaufman & Hart

It’s a shame Hart never wrote the follow-up to this vivid theatrical autobiography because there was so much for him to cover: the string of plays and musicals he wrote and/or directed, his screenplays (including Garland’s “A Star is Born” and “Hans Christian Anderson), but it wasn’t in the cards.  Moss Hart died when he was still in his fifties and two of his shows (Camelot and My Fair Lady) were still running on Broadway.  Instead, he left behind a widow, two children, the theatrical legacy of a wunderkind and an autobiography theatre majors still pore over.  Let the sagacious and elderly rethink their lives reading Shakespeare; Act One is when you need to feel young.
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