On 26 August this year, the world lost one of its great playwrights, Marvin Neil Simon.
Born in 1927 on 4th July (a reason for celebration in America for more than one reason) he wrote plays, movies and comedy sketches that entertained and moved people for over half a century. Born and bred in New York city, he was attracted to the movies of the early comedians as an escape from a chaotic family life with his parents’ on-again-off-again marriage and he vowed, at the age of seven, to become a comedy writer so as to gain independence from his emotional family situation. And this is exactly what he did, writing initially with his brother Danny. They were soon in demand for television and found themselves working for The Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers shows as part of a team of writers that included Carl Reiner, Max Brooks and Woody Allen.
In 1961, Simon spread his comedy wings with his first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn and, over the next 40 years, he wrote more than 30 plays including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Sunshine Boys, Chapter Two, They’re Playing Our Song, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Broadway Bound, Jake’s Women, The Goodbye Girl and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. So prolific was he that in 1966 he had four plays running simultaneously in different Broadway theatres. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he also wrote screenplays for over 20 films.
Despite comedy frequently playing the Cinderella role to drama, acknowledgement came Simon’s way, initially with Emmy Awards for his television work and followed by and a range of theatrical awards for his plays including Tony awards for The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers. The themes and humanity of his work continued to deepen and, in 1991, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (for Lost in Yonkers). He was also the only living playwright to have a Broadway theatre named after him.
The comedy tradition that Simon grew up in had its roots in American vaudeville, saw its heyday in American radio and television and continues today in plays, television and stand-up comedy. Simon became a master of the genre, not just in one liners and comic situations, but in his understanding of the human situation and his capacity to counter pain with humour.
Like many of his contemporaries, Simon’s family had emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States where they endured the Great Depression and two world wars. They knew the pain of separation and relocation, of trying to forge a new community in an unfamiliar land and they brought with them a unique type of humour as a way of dealing with life’s harshness. Simon understood this humour as a way of coping because sometimes you have to laugh so that you won’t cry.
A Neil Simon comedy doesn’t therefore deal with fanciful or eccentric situations but with the everyday lives and problems of ordinary middle-class people. From the 1970’s he added greater depth to his writing by concentrating on characters who struggle to handle their feelings in difficult situations and who release tension with humour.
He took his mix of honesty and humour to new levels when in 1983, he began writing the semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound) recounting the coming-to-age of a middle-class Jewish American teenager (guess who?) growing up in a troubled family.
The final play in the trilogy, Broadway Bound, which opens at New Theatre on Thursday 15 November, incorporates many of Simon’s themes: a family growing up, growing old and growing apart with some members embracing change while others want things to stay as they are; a young man on the verge of manhood entertaining a career choice that his family doesn’t understand. Simon presents the strengths and weaknesses of each of his characters with tenderness as he too seeks to move on by putting the bitterness of childhood behind him.
I first fell in love with Simon’s work when, as an acting student, I was cast in my first production, Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. In the intervening years I’ve spent a lot of time in Brooklyn, New York with friends who have the same background as Simon, the same self-deprecation and the same way of combating pain with laughter. I leaped at the opportunity to direct Broadway Bound as a homage to New York to Neil Simon and to all of us struggling to play graciously the cards that life deals us.