Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
Walter Kerr gave me one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever had. In the first line of his review of The Star-Spangled Girl, he said, “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway.” That was exactly what had happened.
A week prior to the opening of the play you know if it’s going to work or not . . . . (T)he opening night of Little Me, Bob Fosse and I were standing in the back of the theater. The producers had allowed a black-tie audience to come from a dinner to the theater. They’d eaten, they’d had drinks, they all knew each other—that’s the worst audience you can get. About three-quarters of the way through the first act, a man got up, so drunk he could hardly walk, and staggered up the aisle looking for the men’s room. As he passed Bob and me he said, This is the worst piece of crap I’ve seen since My Fair Lady! Go figure out what that means.
Billy Wilder, whom I respect enormously, once confided in me that drama’s a lot easier than comedy. He found some of the brilliant dramas he wrote, like Sunset Boulevard, much easier to write than the comedies. Comedies are relentless, especially a farce like Some Like It Hot. Rumors was the most difficult play I ever wrote because not only did every moment of that play have to further the story, complicate it and keep the characters in motion—literal motion, swinging in and out of doors— but the audience had to laugh at every attempt at humor. You don’t have five minutes where two people can sit on a sofa and just say, What am I doing with my life, Jack? Am I crazy? Why don’t I get out of this? You can do that in a drama. You can’t do it in a farce.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I went to the theater a lot. There was always a Tennessee Williams play to see or a great English play. It was such an education. I learned more from bad plays than from good ones. Good plays are a mystery. You don’t know what it is that the playwright did right. More often than not you see where a work fails. One of the things I found interesting was that a lot of comedy came from drunks on the stage. If a character was drunk he was funny. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to write characters that are as funny as drunks but are not drunk. In other words, bring out the outrageousness of them and the only way you can do that is to put them in such a tight corner that they have to say what’s really on their minds. That’s where the humor comes from.
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 XVI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.