Neil Simon On Playwriting XVII

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

I’m an uptight man who’s been married to three liberated women. Joan was the first liberated woman I ever met and the most unconventional. She introduced me to more ways of looking at life than I’d ever dreamed of. She was more adventuresome than I’d ever been . . . . Marsha was the same way. She was a feminist and had me marching in parades with a flag, yelling for women’s rights . . . .  Diane is an environmentalist, an ecologist, and also a fighter for the rights of women. Go over all the plays. With the exception of The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, you’ll find that the women are not only stronger but more interesting characters than the men.

I never feel threatened by women. I have enormous respect for them. I would also usually rather be with them than with men. I’m not much of a male bonder. I have male friends, obviously. I belong to tennis clubs. But in a social situation, I’d generally rather talk to a woman because it’s like a play—you’re getting the opposite point of view. You talk to a man, you’re getting your own point of view. It becomes redundant. But when you’re with a woman, that’s when the sparks fly, that’s when it’s most interesting.

I think I’ve been influenced by films, which have been influenced by television and commercials. Today you can see a one-minute commercial with about forty setups in it. There’s a need to pace things differently because the audience’s attention span has grown shorter. Biloxi Blues was the first major example of that because I had fourteen set changes. What also helped speed things along was that I started writing plays with larger casts, so there were many more entrances and exits . . . . I am influenced by new technologies and techniques, but that doesn’t mean I’m following the fashions. It just means that I’m moving to another phase in my career—I’m becoming less literal and more abstract.

I don’t go back to see my plays again, because they belong to someone else—to the actors and the audience. That process happens in a series of events. First, you finish writing the play and everyone reads it. Then you go into rehearsal. Day by day, it slowly becomes the director’s and the actors’. They’re still asking me questions. I’m still participating. I’m still the father of these children. They get onstage and soon the play is finished . . . .  After the play opens, I’m almost embarrassed to go backstage, because it’s the place that belongs to the director and the actors . . . .  It’s a very, very sad feeling for me. What happens eventually—it may sound cold—is that I disown them. I have no interest in seeing the plays again . . . . So, you give it up and go on to the next play.

Every time I write a play it’s the beginning of a new life for me . . . . I’m enjoying these days of writing, even though I see that the sun is setting.

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.

This is the last installment of the Neil Simon series.

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2 Responses to Neil Simon On Playwriting XVII

  1. Jo-Ann says:

    While I haven’t read many of these Simon installments I really liked this one: not only Simon’s discussion of women, in his plays and personal life, but also the comments about his plays no longer belonging to him, to the point of his feeling awkward around them.

    His realization of that underscores the uniqueness of Theater. It also reminds me of the deep nostalgia I feel when driving past the houses where I used to live. It’s not a good analogy but it’s as close as I can get.

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for the very nice comment, Jo-Ann. Glad you’ve enjoyed the Simon posts that you have read. Meanwhile, I’m kinda sad they’re all done — I’ve really had a lot of fun working to make them (all 17 of them!) short enough to post.

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