Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
Felix in The Odd Couple isn’t a watcher—or a doer. He’s stuck. He’s reached a certain point in his life and developed no further. Most of my characters are people who are stuck and can’t move. The grandmother in Lost in Yonkers has been stuck for the last seventy years. The mother in Broadway Bound—she’s really stuck.
I never think of the plays as being hits when I write them. Well, I thought Rumors, of all plays, would be a really good commercial comedy if I wrote it well. I thought The Odd Couple was a black comedy. I never thought it was going to be popular, ever.
I thought The Sunshine Boys wouldn’t be a popular play, but it was very well received. Chapter Two was another one I doubted, because when you touch on a character’s guilt, you touch on the audience’s guilt, and that makes them uncomfortable. Yet the play turned out to be very successful because it was a universal theme. Lost in Yonkers is an enormous success, but I thought I was writing the bleakest of plays. What I liked about it was that I thought it was Dickensian—two young boys left in the hands of dreadful people. What I was afraid of was that I would hear words like melodrama.
I wrote The Good Doctor soon after I learned my wife had a year and a half to live . . . . I was reading Chekhov’s short stories and decided, just for practice, to translate one of them into my own language, my own humor. I knew it was a diversion. After a performance, a woman grabbed me in the foyer and said, This is not Neil Simon!
God’s Favorite is an absurdist black comedy about Job that was written as an outcry of anger against Joan’s death. My belief in God had vanished when this beautiful young girl was dying . . . . so, I wrote . . . a black comedy and it did help me get through that period. Sometimes you write a play just for the sake of working at it.
With Lost in Yonkers I suddenly heard from critics who said, This is a new voice for Neil Simon. We want you to go deeper and deeper into this area. At the same time other critics complained . . . . It’s not as funny as the old plays. They wanted Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. I could have spent my whole life writing the Barefoot in the Parks and Odd Couples, which I certainly don’t denigrate, because I love them—but where would I have gone with my life? I would have been standing still, grinding out the same story time after time after time.
What I’ve done, I think, is take the best of me and the best of my observations and try to deepen them to reform them and reflesh them. At some point along the way you discover what it is you do best.
Recently I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett’s biography. When he was about forty-four years old, he said he wanted to write monologue. It was his way of expressing himself to the world. He was shy too. In a sense, I think many of my plays are dramatized monologues. It’s like sitting around the fire and telling you the story of my life.
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 XI of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.