Neil Simon On Playwriting IX

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

(When) my parents would take me to visit family, they’d offer me a cookie or a piece of fruit, but no one spoke to me, because they knew I had nothing to contribute. I wasn’t offended. I just thought it was the accepted norm. And that led me to believe that I was somehow invisible . . . . To me, invisible seemed the greatest thing you could be! If I could have one wish, it was to be invisible. First of all, you could go to any baseball game you wanted to. Free. You could go into any girl’s house and watch her get undressed! But it works another way too. It means there’s no responsibility. You don’t have to integrate, to contribute. This becomes a part of your personality.

I’m not quite sure who I am besides the writer. The writer is expressive, the other person can sit in a room and listen and not say anything. It’s very hard for me to get those two people together. In the middle of a conversation or a confrontation, I can suddenly step outside it. It’s like Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde without the necessity of taking the potion. It’s why the Eugene character speaks to the audience in the trilogy—because in a sense he is invisible. The other characters in the play don’t see him talking to the audience. They go right about their business. As I wrote it, I thought, I’m now living my perfect dream—to be invisible.

In all three of my marriages I’ve been accused of this separation: You’re not listening to me . . . .  I could be looking at (my wife) and not thinking about what she’s saying. It’s rude. It’s selfish, I guess. But it’s what happens . . . .  one of the worst and most frightening examples of that was the first time I was ever on television. I went on the Johnny Carson show . . . .  I walked out and froze. I thought, My God, I’m out here, I’ve got to deliver something, I’ve got to be humorous, that’s what they expect of me. I sat down opposite Johnny Carson and he asked his first question, which was fairly lengthy. After the first two words I heard nothing. I only saw his lips moving . . . . When Johnny’s lips stopped, I was on. But I had no answer because I’d never heard the question. So, I said something like, That reminds me . . . and went into something completely irrelevant that fortunately was funny and we just seemed to move on with the conversation. It happens while I’m speaking to students at a college or university. I’ll be talking. I’ll look over the room and see one face not interested, and I’m gone, I’m lost. I wish I were out there, sitting among the invisible, but I’m up there having to deliver . . . . In a sense, being in this office, I am invisible because I can stop. When I’m writing, there’s no pressure to come up with the next line. I always need that escape hatch, that place to go that’s within myself. I’ve tried coming to terms with it. I feel, as long as it doesn’t bother someone else, I’m happy with it. When it does bother someone else, then I’m in trouble.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part X of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

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