Neil Simon On Playwriting XIII

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

The darkness in my plays reflects the way the world is now. The darkness in the plays, strangely enough, seems more beautiful to me. I think anything that is truthful has beauty in it. Life without the dark times is unrealistic. I don’t want to write unrealistically anymore.

I can’t write outside of my own experience. I’m not like Paddy Chayefsky who could go off and do six months of research and then write something extremely believable. I’d like to write about Michelangelo, but I don’t know Michelangelo. I don’t know what his life was like. I wish I could extend myself, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Resolution doesn’t mean a happy ending—which I’ve been accused of. I don’t think I write happy endings. Sometimes I have hopeful endings, sometimes optimistic ones. I try never to end the play with two people in each other’s arms—unless it’s a musical.

When I was writing three-act plays, a producer told me the curtain should always come down on the beginning of the fourth act. A play should never really come to an end. The audience should leave saying, What’s going to happen to them now? . . . . I can’t write a play as dark and bleak and wonderful as A Streetcar Named Desire.

I spend more time on the titles of plays than on the names of the characters. What I’ve tried to do over the years is take an expression from life that has a double entendre in it, for example, the musical Promises, Promises, so that every time people speak the words it sounds like they’re talking about your play. Or The Odd Couple—people sometimes say “they’re sort of an odd couple.” If you mention an odd couple now, you think of the play . . . . Come Blow Your Horn comes from the nursery rhyme. Barefoot in the Park came from what the play was about. There’s a line in the play that comes from my life, when Joan used to say to me, Stop being a fuddy-duddy. Let’s go to Washington Square Park and walk barefoot in the grass. Chapter Two was, literally, the second chapter of my life, after my wife Joan died . . . . Prisoner of Second Avenue was a good title for a play about a man who loses his job and is left to live in that little apartment on Second Avenue while his wife goes to work. He has nothing to do but walk around the room ’til he knows exactly how many feet each side is—so he’s literally a prisoner . . . . The Star-Spangled Girl was a better title than a play. I liked Last of the Red Hot Lovers. It seemed familiar. It comes from Sophie Tucker’s slogan: last of the red hot mamas. Lost in Yonkers—I love the word Yonkers and I wanted to put the play in a specific place. I said to myself, What in Yonkers? These boys are lost, Bella is lost, this family is all lost . . . in Yonkers. Jake’s Women is literally about a man named Jake and three women.

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 XIV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

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