October 1999

Neil Simon

Don’t stop the show
Interview by
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Playwright Neil Simon's first autobiographical work, Rewrites [1996], ended with the death of his first wife Joan after 20 years of marriage. Simon recently talked to BookPage about his latest book, The Play Goes On, which continues to the present.

BookPage: Why split your life into two volumes?

Neil Simon: I really couldn't go on past Joan's death because I didn't want to trivialize it. And The Play Goes On has turned out to be a fuller, richer book on its own. Also, the first book was my first attempt at writing full-length prose. This time I knew more about the editing process, how it all works. It was easier.

BP: Easier technically or emotionally?

NS: Both. Once you've opened yourself up, it's best to go all the way. The first book was a love story about falling in love with the theater and with Joan. The second goes quite a few steps farther in talking about the price you pay for writing all those plays, for putting yourself on the line all the time before an audience.

BP: Were you surprised by which memories were the most painful, or the most pleasurable?

NS: It's always painful when you're writing memoirs because you've got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were. The most pleasure came from remembering the start of a relationship that you thought would last forever or the starting of a play, and caring for that play about as much as you care for a newborn baby in the family. Then there's the disappointment when the play or the marriage doesn't work.

BP: It seems that Joan, your second wife Marsha Mason, and other family members often inspire your plays.

NS: I've just finished my 31st play, and actually only five have been based on my marriages, like Barefoot in the Park with Joan, and maybe five on my family. The rest have come out of my mind, my own creation.

BP: Tolstoy said a writer meets all of his characters before he's 12 years old.

NS: If I'm allowed to disagree with Tolstoy . . .

BP: He just stepped out.

NS: Fine. I'll ignore him. A lot of your personality is formed before you're 12, obviously, but only a few of my plays, like Broadway Bound and Brighton Beach Memoirs, use characters from my childhood. The more mature plays are affected only by my adult experiences.

BP: What do you mean in The Play Goes On by saying you've waited all your life to write Lost in Yonkers?

NS: It is probably the most honest play I've ever written. I did the best and dug the deepest I ever did. I was making up the story, but I tried to capture the characters as I do in my semi-autobiographical plays. I spared nobody in that play.

BP: You seem to be writing all the time.

NS: I work a regular five days a week like anybody else and take vacations. I work consistently, no matter what. I admit, when I took a four-week vacation to Europe with my family this year I got up every morning at 6:00 to work on fixing The Dinner Party, a new play set to open in Los Angeles in December. I won't give away the story, but it deals with six characters at a posh dinner. It's a dissection of their marriages and divorces.

BP: Relationships are your basic theme. And your characters, who are often very specifically from New York backgrounds, play well on stages in many different countries.

NS: The Odd Couple has the universal theme of the difficulty of two people living together. Others also do well, in Europe especially, but what surprised me is that The Sunshine Boys—and I'm only going by the royalty checks—plays everywhere in the world. I thought those two aging comedians were specifically New York.

BP: Your plays often translate well from stage to movies and TV, too.

NS: Not always, and I never write a play with an eye to film. And I don't like losing the words, as you have to, when I'm asked to turn a play into a movie. It's not a matter of ego . . . I'm just better able to create the character for an audience through words rather than through actions. I much prefer writing an original movie with the screen in mind to transferring a play to the screen.

BP: You mention Chekhov as an influence.

NS: I go to see plays all the time, and whenever I see Chekhov, I'm amazed at how this Russian play strikes home to me living 100 years later in New York City. I'm drawn to him because of his way with characters and their relationships with each other.

BP: You tell many backstage stories in The Play Goes On, but you really don't talk about individual performances.

NS: I don't want to restrict the life of a play to a particular production. The original actors might leave after the first six months, and I want the play to last 30 or 40 years. You write for the character, not the actor on the stage, unlike films, where they might ask you to write a part to fit Mel Gibson or Julia Roberts even if the producer hasn't hired them! You never do that in a play.

BP: Is the germ of a new play for you a character, or the story, or the theme?

NS: All at once. I start with the characters but try to find almost simultaneously what situation they're in, what links them together. After about 25 or 30 pages, you think there's not enough stationery in the world to put down the whole story. That's the best feeling possible . . . It's still a mystery to me, how the plays come page by page, where they come from. Writers feel like a middleman, standing with pen in hand over the page. A force greater than me stands above telling me what to write. That may sound romantic, but that's how it feels.

BP: "Pen in hand"?

NS: You get attached to the way you write, and I'm attached to notebooks. That's where I really write the plays. Just two or three pages at a time, then I transfer to the typewriter and rewrite while I type . . . That's the first rewrite! I don't use computers . . . I'm someone who needs to see the page right away in my hand.

BP: Does the writing get harder?

NS: Getting plays produced is harder, but I think if you have a truly good play it's not going to disappear, even with the tougher economics of Broadway and the competition of musicals and hits from Britain.

BP: The marriage and divorce themes of the play you're revising, The Dinner Party, dovetail with the conclusion of The Play Goes On, after your third divorce.

NS: I'm a marrying man. I've never left a marriage. If Joan hadn't died, we'd still be married today. But just as human beings can be born with genetic faults, I think some marriages have a genetic flaw that can cause them to die.

BP: At age 70 you still believe in marriage, in general and for yourself?

NS: I don't like dating or just living with a woman. I like to create a relationship, a marriage. And almost all of my marriages have involved children, so I'm really a family man as well. I'm going with someone now . . . She, I hope, will be the last marriage.

BP: A new play. A new marriage. The play goes on.

NS: Yes.

Charles Flowers, a freelance writer in Purdys, New York, recently received the Stephen Crane Literary Award.

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