The Odd Couple
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
NEIL SIMON 1965
When The Odd Couple appeared on Broadway in March of 1965, Neil Simon was already a fairly well-known playwright. His successful comedy, Come Blow Your Horn, had initiated his Broadway career in 1961 and Barefoot in the Park in 1963 had been an even bigger hit. But The Odd Couple, with its unforgettable pair of mismatched roommates, made Simon a cultural phenomenon, and he subsequently became in his own lifetime the most commercially successful playwright in the history of theatre. After its long run on Broadway, The Odd Couple was turned into a successful film in 1968 and then became a popular television series (on the American Broadcasting Company network) running from 1970 to 1975. Thus, Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar, the “odd couple” of the title, were steadily prominent in the popular entertainment industry for ten years and, as a result, became a part of American culture. Though some may forget which one was “sloppy” and which one “neat,” almost everyone understands the phrase “odd couple” as a way of describing a mismatched pair. The television show is still syndicated in reruns, the movie version appears frequently on television, and regional and local theatre groups mount productions of the play with great regularity. In 1985 Simon responded to the continued popularity of his odd pair by writing a female version for Broadway, in which all the characters’ genders were reversed. Though not as popular as the original play, this new version helped perpetuate the “odd couple” as one Page 164 | Top of Articleof the most memorable pair of characters in the history of commercial theatre.
Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, New York, the younger son of a father who sold cloth fabric to the dress manufacturers in Manhattan’s garment district. At the age of fifteen Simon teamed with his older brother Danny to write comedy sketches for the annual employee party of a Brooklyn department store; their success in this endeavor convinced Simon that he wanted to be a comedy writer. He and Danny eventually wrote sketches for popular radio and television shows, but the partnership split in 1954 and Neil went on to write for television comedians like Sid Caesar, Garry Moore, Phil Silvers, Red Buttons, and Jerry Lewis.
Though successful enough to earn two Emmy Awards for television writing in 1957 and 1959, Simon found writing for television unfulfilling and in the fall of 1957 began working, in his spare time, on his first play. Come Blow Your Horn, based on his relationship with Danny and their parents, took him three years to write, and he went through twenty-two completely different versions. When the finished Come Blow Your Horn finally appeared on Broadway in 1961, however, its success launched Simon’s playwriting career. His second comedy, Barefoot in the Park (1963), was based on the life he and his first wife, Joan Baim, had lived in a small apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village. With a young Robert Redford in one of the lead roles this comedy was even more successful than his first. In his third and most famous comedy, The Odd Couple, Danny served as the model for the meticulous Felix Ungar. By all standards, the play was an enormous success. By the mid-1960s Neil Simon was rich, successful, and very famous. He was so prolific with his comedy hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s that he sometimes had as many as four shows running simultaneously on Broadway.
In 1973, Joan, Simon’s wife of twenty years, died of cancer. Simon subsequently married actress Marsha Mason, who would star in several productions of his work. His Chapter Two (1977) was based on Simon’s complex emotional response to Joan’s death and his second marriage. While still a comedy, this play represents a turning point in Simon’s career, introducing more serious shadings to his palette. Many of his subsequent plays adopted this new pattern and from 1983 to 1986 a trilogy of such autobiographical plays—Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound —won Simon greater praise from critics. In the 1990s, his fourth decade of play writing, Simon’s success continued, and in 1996 he published the first half of his memoirs, Rewrites, which covers the period from his birth to the reception of Chapter Two.
Act I: The Initial Poker Game
The Odd Couple opens on a hot summer night in the large, twelfth-floor apartment of New York City sportswriter Oscar Madison. A few months earlier, before Oscar’s wife left him, the apartment had reflected the modest luxury of its Riverside Drive neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But the apartment is now a mess because Oscar is very sloppy and his weekly poker game is in progress. Dirty dishes, empty bottles, half-filled glasses, ashtrays, and other messes created by the poker game have been added to the discarded clothes, old newspapers, magazines, mail, and disarrayed furniture that are part of Oscar’s everyday sloppiness.
As the curtain rises on this smoke-filled room we see Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie around the poker table. They are concerned about the unusual lateness of one of their regular poker players, Felix Ungar. Oscar enters from the kitchen with food for his buddies, the phone rings. It’s Oscar’s wife complaining about his overdue alimony payments. Two more phone calls, one from Murray’s wife and another to Felix’s wife, Frances, inform everyone that Felix is missing because earlier in the day his wife declared an end to their twelve-year marriage. The poker players worry that the sensitive Felix might be contemplating suicide, and when he finally arrives at Oscar’s apartment they try to pretend that everything is normal while simultaneously interpreting everything Felix does as a preamble to suicide. Felix admits that earlier in the day he swallowed a whole bottle of pills but then vomited them up. After heartfelt expressions of concern, Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie go home, and Page 165 | Top of ArticleOscar tries to console Felix, massaging his neck and back, pouring him a drink. When Felix hums and hops from leg to leg, bellowing like a moose to clear his ears, we get an indication of the eccentricity that might have led his wife to expel him. Felix confesses that he was unbearably obsessive about such things as petty finances, cleaning house, and cooking. Oscar sympathizes by describing the traits that led his wife to leave him. He invites Felix to move in with him, admitting that he doesn’t like living alone. Felix agrees, imagining all the ways he can help Oscar—from fixing things to cooking and cleaning. During this discussion, Felix’s wife calls but only to find out when Felix is coming back for his clothes (she wants to have the bedroom repainted). Felix declares his acceptance of the failed marriage and starts to clean up Oscar’s apartment, responding to Oscar’s goodnight by calling Oscar by his wife’s name, Frances.
Act II, Scene 1: The Second Poker Game
Two weeks later, about eleven at night, another poker game is in session, but this time the apartment is immaculately clean. Felix appears from the kitchen with carefully prepared food and reminds all the players to use their coasters to preserve the carefully applied finish on the table. Some of the players, like Vinnie, are quite pleased with the new atmosphere. Others, like Oscar and Speed, are aggravated by the excessive concern for tidiness. The game breaks up prematurely and Murray is the last to leave, commenting on how happy he thinks Oscar and Felix must be living the bachelor life. But in the argument that ensues following Murray’s departure, Oscar makes it clear that he is very unhappy living with the excessively tidy Felix. He asserts that Felix is obsessive about controlling things, including his own emotions, and ought to loosen up, relax, and have more fun. But when Felix tries to express his anger by throwing a cup against the door, he hurts his shoulder. Oscar’s plan for loosening up and having more fun is to invite to dinner two attractive sisters from the upstairs apartment. Gwendolyn and Cecily Pigeon are British (they say “solicitor” instead of “lawyer”). Oscar met them on the elevator a week earlier, and he is eager to get to know them better. Felix, however, feels a loyalty to his estranged wife that makes “dating” seem wrong to him. Following an argument, Felix finally relents and agrees to help entertain the Pigeon sisters—
provided he can cook the dinner. He calls his wife to ask for her recipe for London broil.
Act II, Scene 2: An Evening with the Pigeon Sisters
A few days later, about eight at night, the dining room table is set elegantly for four. Felix is in the kitchen when Oscar enters cheerily. But Felix is angry because Oscar had told him he would be home at seven and that the sisters would arrive by seven-thirty. The dinner, planned for eight o’clock, is nearly ruined. Gwendolyn and Cecily arrive and they all sit, but Felix does not join the conversation until he comments, quite inappropriately, on the weather. When Oscar goes into the kitchen to fix drinks, Felix becomes the center of attention for the Pigeon sisters and tells them how much he misses his wife and children. This is not what Oscar had in mind for trying to romance the women, but Gwendoyn and Cecily find Felix “sensitive.” When Oscar comes from the kitchen with their drinks all three are crying. Felix rushes into the kitchen to inspect his burned London broil and when he dejectedly returns, Gwendolyn and Cecily suggest that they all go upstairs to their apartment for dinner. The sisters leave to prepare but Felix tells Oscar he won’t go because it would mean being unfaithful to his wife and children. Oscar goes upstairs alone,
angrily accusing Felix of being unwilling to change, suggesting sarcastically that if he wants to commit suicide the apartment is indeed twelve floors from the pavement.
Act III: The Last Poker Game
The next evening, about seven-thirty, the apartment is set up for yet another poker game. Felix is vacuuming when Oscar comes in, still angry about the previous evening’s failure with the Pigeon sisters. They argue and Oscar begins to sabatoge Felix’s efforts at cleaning, finally throwing a plate of linguini against the kitchen wall. Oscar gets Felix’s suitcase and demands that Felix move out. Felix leaves just as the other poker players arrive. His friends are worried about him but have started to play poker nonetheless. The doorbell rings and Gwendolyn, Cecily, and Felix appear. They have come for Felix’s things because he is going to move in with the Pigeon sisters for a few days until he gets settled. Oscar and Felix shake hands just as Oscar’s wife calls on the phone. Oscar sent her money to pay all his alimony, and he expresses a desire to talk with her again. As he is going out the door, Felix promises to come back for the next week’s poker game. The poker game begins and Oscar admonishes the players to be careful of their cigarette butts.
Oscar Madison is the “messy” half of this famous “odd couple.” Oscar takes pity on his best friend, the newly separated and nearly suicidal Felix Ungar, and invites Felix to live with him in his New York City apartment. Within two weeks, however, Oscar regrets the invitation. The 43-year-old Oscar is carefree, pleasant, and very appealing as a character. When asked by one of the poker players what kind of sandwiches he’s serving, Oscar looks under the bread and says, “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches.” The green, he says, is “either very new cheese or very old meat.” At the end of the play there is a suggestion that Oscar’s experience with Felix has provoked a change in his personality because Oscar’s last words in the play are an admonishment to the poker players to be less messy. In both the original Broadway stage production in 1965 and in the movie version of 1968, Oscar
was played by Walter Matthau. In the five-year television series beginning in 1970, Oscar was played by Jack Klugman.
Murray, one of the poker players, is a policeman and a methodical, even slow, thinker. He is also very gentle and caring, and demonstrates the most concern for Felix. Murray is fairly unflappable, but he is also a bit simple and naive.
Cecily Pigeon is a little more uninhibited than her sister, Gwendolyn; she is the one who makes such suggestive remarks as, “Oh, we’ve done spectacular things but I don’t think we’d want it spread all over the telly.”
Though the Pigeon sisters seem almost indistinguishable, Simon describes Gwendolyn as the “mother hen.” Like her sister Cicely, Gwendolyn is in her 30s, British, attractive, and works as a secretary for the Slenderama Health Club. She is a little slower mentally than her sister—she has trouble remembering Felix’s name.
Roy is Oscar’s accountant and a man with an acute sense of smell. He is the poker player who complains most about air quality and bad odors in Oscar’s apartment. In the second act he storms from the game because the fastidious Felix has put disinfectant on the playing cards.
As his name implies, Speed is always in a hurry. He is the impatient poker player —sarcastic, complaining, and even a little mean. As the curtain rises on Murray shuffling the cards with agonizing slowness, the caustic Speed has the play’s sharp first line: “Tell me, Mr. Maverick, is this your first time on the riverboat?”
Felix Ungar is the “neat” member of the “odd couple,” originally played on Broadway by Art Carney (he also played the character Norton on the popular Jackie Gleason television comedy The Honeymooners ). In the movie, the role was rendered by Jack Lemmon, and in the television series Tony Randall portrayed Felix. A 44-year-old news writer for CBS, Felix responds to his wife’s decision to end their marriage by considering suicide, but in Simon’s comic world, attempted suicide is funny rather than serious; the compulsively tidy Felix sends his suicide note to his wife in a telegram. Oscar claims that Felix’s problem is an obsession with control and urges Felix to “let loose” once in a while, to do something he “feels” like doing rather than always doing what he thinks he’s “supposed” to do. At the end of the play, when Felix accepts the invitation from the Pigeon sisters to stay in their apartment, he is perhaps demonstrating a less conventional aspect of his personality.
Vinnie, the last of the poker players, is nervous and eccentric. At the initial poker game he is constantly checking his watch because he wants to leave early—he’s departing for a vacation in Florida (in July) the next morning.
Order and Disorder
When two good friends newly separated from their wives decide to live together, the arrangement fails miserably because the two friends have personal habits and domestic lifestyles that are diametrically opposed. Felix likes to live in an extremely ordered and tidy living space while Oscar not only tolerates living in disorder and messiness but even seems to prefer it.
Simon is more interested in creating compelling character types and raucous laughter than he is in investigating ideas, but to the extent that The Odd Couple deals with theme it focuses on the friction between radically different personalities. There is never a sense that either Oscar or Felix is “right” and the other is “wrong.” They are simply different and attempting to live together was a bad idea. Oscar initiated the idea because he was lonely and concerned for Felix, but in his carefree approach to life he did not anticipate the conflict that should have been apparent from his knowledge of Felix’s habits. Oscar describes Felix as “a panicky person” obsessed with controlling everything in his life. Specifically, Felix panics when he is confronted with disorder in any form, and he attempts to “fix” things by restoring his concept of order thus giving himself the illusion of control. When Felix accepts the invitation to live with Oscar, he characteristically adopts the very behavior patterns that drove his wife to dismiss him. At the end of Act I, Oscar repeatedly asks Felix to go to sleep, but Felix insists on staying up to clean, saying he needs pencil and paper “to start rearranging my life.” He says,“I’ve got to get organized,” and the malleable Oscar finally gives in. When Felix unconsciously calls Oscar “Frances,” Felix’s wife’s name, it is clear that Felix is looking to Oscar as some sort of substitute for the relationship he had with his wife.
Public vs. Private Life
Oscar and Felix are best friends, but before moving in together they share only a public life with one another. When they finally share a living space, they discover that the pressures of private life are much more demanding. The transition from “good friends” to pseudo “husband and wife” tests compatibility in a way that only experience can prove. The same living space and the experience of round-the-clock sharing magnifies differences and makes the discord inescapable and intolerable. Oscar and Felix were certainly aware of their personality differences before they lived together, but they encountered these differences only briefly in their public relationship, largely at the Friday night poker game. In Act III, when Oscar throws Felix’s suitcase on the table and insists that Felix leave, he says, “all I want is my freedom.” Even with his unusual tolerance for disorder, Oscar cannot live in inescapable proximity with behavior that is so different from his own. He admits that it’s not a question of right or wrong: “It’s not your fault, Felix. It’s a rotten combination.”
Very clearly, Simon is suggesting that heterosexual marriages can also suffer from the same hopeless conflicts when they exchange a “public” relationship for an intimate and “private” one. Simon communicates this theme by drawing attention to the way the relationship between Oscar and Felix is very much like a marriage. In Act I, when Oscar is trying to convince Felix to take advantage of his offer, he says, “I’m proposing to you. What do you want, a ring?” In the second scene of Act II, Oscar and Felix sound like the cliched married
couple when they argue—“If you knew you were going to be late, why didn’t you call me?” Similarly, the opening of Act III, when Oscar and Felix are not “talking,” perfectly mimics the archetypal marriage spat. When Oscar tells Felix he must leave, he says, “it’s all over, Felix. The whole marriage. We’re getting an annulment.” And Felix responds, “Boy, you’re in a bigger hurry than Frances was.”
Simon strengthens this aspect of the theme by calling attention to the marital and near-marital relationships that surround Oscar and Felix. It’s clear that Speed’s marriage has its rocky moments because he compares the aggravation he feels in the poker game to the aggravation he gets at home. Murray responds to Oscar’s pretending on the phone that he is having an affair with Murray’s wife by saying, “I wish you were having an affair with her. Then she wouldn’t bother me all the time.” Murray perhaps speaks for the general skepticism about marriage by saying, “twelve years doesn’t mean you’re a happy couple. It just means you’re a long couple.” In contrast with these rocky relationships, Vinnie appears to have a happier marriage, dedicated as he is to his frequent travels with his wife. In direct contrast to Oscar and Felix, the Pigeon sisters seem to live together without serious conflict—perhaps because, unlike Oscar and Felix, they are so much alike.
Finally, Simon puts this theme into perspective by using the public relationships between the poker players as a backdrop for Oscar and Felix. The poker players meet once a week and as a result know one another well, but their apparent camaraderie is never tested by the more demanding situation of living together over a long period of time. And Simon is careful to show that their relationships are filled with potential conflict and tension due to personality differences. The irascible Speed, for example, seems always on the verge of quitting the group. But at the end, even Felix vows to come back to the next poker night. He’s not going to “break up” the game because “marriages may come and go, but the game must go on.”
Change and Transformation
The only way that marriages survive is through the compromise that must occur when inevitable conflicts arise. Oscar and Felix’s experience shows that some conflicts are too great for compromise, but they point the way toward the necessity for compromise by demonstrating slight changes in their personalities by the end of the play. Oscar’s change becomes clear when he receives a phone call from his ex-wife and reveals that he paid up his alimony in full. He says, “you don’t have to thank me. I’m just doing what’s right.” Oscar’s relationship with his wife and son appear to be improving because he has become a more responsible husband and father. And, of course, he ends the play with his admonition to the poker players to “watch your cigarettes, will you? This is my house, not a pig sty.”
The change in Felix is much more mysterious. Moving in even temporarily with the Pigeon sisters, nearly total strangers, is something Felix would not have been able to do when the play began. But is he merely “loosening up” as Oscar suggested he ought to? Or is he making a huge change and considering a romantic relationship with either or both of the sisters? As he gathers his things in Oscar’s apartment, Felix passes the poker players and smiles in a way that is open to interpretation. When he moves in with Gwendolyn and Cecily will he try to tidy up their lives the way he attacked Oscar’s? There is no way to know, but it is clear that he has gone through some kind of change for he asks Murray to tell his wife that “if I sound different to her, it’s because I’m not the same man she kicked out three weeks ago.”
While the play’s ending leaves Oscar and Felix’s future relationship open to some speculation, it seems reasonable to assume that the two men will not live together again. It is interesting to note then, that the popular television series presumed a different scenario. In the television situation comedy version of The Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix remain roommates, each having reached a kind of mutual tolerance for the other’s idiosyncracies. The series did, however, preserve much of the friction between the two characters, in order to maintain comical conflicts similar to the play. This is something of a reversal of Simon’s suggested outcome, but one that can be seen as necessary to perpetuate a weekly comedic series.
In November of 1963, Simon sold the screen-rights for The Odd Couple to Paramount Pictures before he had even written a single word of the play upon which the movie was eventually based. In his memoir, Rewrites, Simon quotes the single sentence he and his agent used to close the deal: “‘Well, it’s about two men who are divorced, move in together to save money to pay their alimony, and have the same fights with each other as they did with their wives.’”
This anecdote illustrates the effectiveness of the play’s main dramatic conflict. One sentence was all Paramount needed to know that Neil Simon could deliver another hit. The inherently funny conflict between the fussy Felix Ungar and the messy Oscar Madison is subtly established by the end of Act I, is effectively intensified in Act II and the beginning of Act III, and then finally is resolved by their separation and small changes in personality at the end of the play. The conflict is comically ironic because the solution the two men come up with for their separate divorces ends up creating yet another kind of divorce.
In Simon’s memoir he recounts that the most difficult part of writing the play was writing the resolution of the conflict in Act III. From the beginning of the rehearsal period, it was clear that the first two acts were effective but that the third act was a disastrous failure. This last act did not get a satisfactory rewrite until well after the first out-of-town performances had begun and Simon had realized that the key to resolving the conflict was bringing the Pigeon sisters back into Act III.
What was not obvious in Simon’s one-sentence synopsis for Paramount is that the conflict was based on the clash of extremely different personality types. Ultimately, it is the creation of Oscar and Felix as an “oil and water” mix that makes it possible for The Odd Couple to be tremendously funny.
Simon creates these contrasting character types with the effective use of theatrical detail, most notably with carefully crafted dialogue. Sometimes it is the words of the character himself that establishes the “type” as when when Oscar enters hurriedly in Act I carrying a tray with beer, sandwiches, a can of peanuts, and already opened bags of pretzels and chips. In the visual context of the slovenly apartment, Oscar’s balancing act with the snacks already characterizes him as the probable source of the living room mess but his opening words very subtly reinforce this impression. The impatient poker players ask Oscar if he’s “in” or “out,” that is, whether or not he plans to play this hand. “I’m in! I’m in!” Oscar says, “Go ahead. Deal!” Vinnie asks,“Aren’t you going to look at your cards?” and Oscar answers, “What for? I’m gonna bluff anyway.” The messy condition of Oscar’s apartment has prepared the audience to understand his carefree type immediately, and his opening words characterize him perfectly with elegant economy.
Sometimes Felix and Oscar are effectively characterized by what others say about them. The third Page 171 | Top of Articleline of the play, for example, is Roy’s “Geez, it stinks in here,” a line that is quickly followed by Vinnie’s,“What time is it?” Roy’s line implies that the yet-to-appear host is the main cause of the mess they find themselves in, an impression he solidifies with a later line, “You know, it’s the same garbage from last week’s game. I’m beginning to recognize things.” Felix doesn’t enter until nearly half-way through the first act, but when he does the following comment from Murray has already characterized Felix as one who organizes his life in a way very unlike Oscar—“Hey, maybe he’s in his office locked in the john again. Did you know Felix was once locked in the john overnight. He wrote out his entire will on a half a roll of toilet paper! Heee, what a nut!”
As fictional creations, Oscar and Felix, like the other characters in the play, are “types” rather than multifaceted characters. They mostly embody single, predominating traits—as in Oscar the carefree, irresponsible, and sloppy type and Felix the precise, uptight, and extremely orderly type. Multifaceted characters are generally considered more artistically sophisticated, but character “types” can be used to great artistic purpose, as in the novels of Charles Dickens for example. Simon draws his character types precisely, using carefully crafted dialogue to reveal their characteristics.
When one thinks of comedy one thinks first of laughter, and the The Odd Couple generates belly laughs, mainly because of the verbal cleverness captured in its “one-liners.” The “one-liner” is a short response in which the character’s retort surprises because of exaggeration or incongruity. For example, when Murray agrees to eat the “brown” sandwich that Oscar brings out of the kitchen, Roy says, “are you crazy? His refrigerator’s been broken for two weeks. I saw milk standing in there that wasn’t even in the bottle.” The laugh comes from the surprising and exaggerated image of milk so sour it has become a solid substance. Simon perfected his skill at one-liners writing for television shows in the 1950s and no dramatist has ever been more adept at this skill. It has, however, been something of a hindrance to his reputation as a serious artist. Though audiences have been enthusiastic in their response to Simon’s comedies, critics have generally been less admiring, often citing the reliance on “one-liners” as a cheap trick more appropriate to the world of sitcom entertainment than the world of art.
1965 was a period of considerable turmoil in the United States because President Lyndon Johnson, despite his claims to the contrary, was escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and many citizens (mostly young people) were protesting, especially on college campuses around the nation. In February, a month before The Odd Couple opened on Broadway in March, U.S. bombers were retaliating against North Vietnamese forces for attacks on American military advisors in South Vietnam. By March the first deployment of U.S. combat troops was landing in Da Nang and student protests had begun to mushroom. In May, a nation-wide student protest including more than 100 U.S. colleges proclaimed its opposition to the war. Despite this public outcry, Congress authorized the use of U.S. ground troops in direct combat operations and by the end of June full-scale combat involving American troops had commenced. Continued anti-war rallies ultimately divided the American public between “hawks” and “doves,” those who supported the escalation of the war and those who opposed it. Often these lines divided on grounds of age and education, with college faculty and students usually leading the ranks of the “doves.” As draft calls were doubled to enlist troops for Vietnam, university enrollments rose sharply with young men taking advantage of the draft deferral for college students as a way of avoiding military service.
Adding to the turmoil created by Vietnam were continuing tensions over race relations. In Selma, Alabama, throughout February and March, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading civil rights protests against state regulations that limited black voter registration. Demonstrations were marred by violence as 200 Alabama state police used whips, night sticks, and tear gas to control the largely black crowds. The Governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace, finally refused police protection for the demonstrators and President Johnson responded by sending 3,000 U.S. National Guard troops to Selma. Elsewhere, in New York City’s Harlem, on February 21, civil rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated by black extremists as he prepared to deliver a speech asserting the need for peaceful coexistence between blacks and whites. In the Watts section of Los Angeles in August, race riots erupted in this predominantly black section of
the city and nearly 10,000 rioters destroyed 500 square blocks of the city and caused an estimated $40 million of damage. In 1965, race relations in America were obviously volatile and even dangerous to peace and public safety.
An idealistic youth culture in America responded to this turmoil by asserting its belief in the power of a non-denominational spiritual awareness. Poet Allen Ginsberg coined the term “flower power” when anti-war demonstrators responded to Oakland city police with a strategy of non-violence. Images of young people inserting daisies in the barrels of police anti-riot weapons helped popularize the epithet. Identifying more with Eastern religions than with traditional Christianity, these “flower children” embraced “love” and “peace” as attainable foundations for social and political order. This movement was led by “gurus” like Ginsberg, the Hare Krishnas, and Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary, who espoused the use of consciousness-altering drugs such as LSD and marijuana.
The Insulated World of Simon’s Play
As with most of his comedies, Simon’s The Odd Couple is not seriously concerned with the social, political, and cultural climate of the times in which he wrote. Simon admits that he is not a “political” writer but said in Rewrites: “[I] hope that my plays become a documentation of the times we lived in, at least from the perspective I had to view it all.” The Odd Couple might document an upper-middle-class New Yorker’s world in 1965 but it would certainly be a very insulated world, quite unconnected to the significant turmoil most of the country was experiencing outside of Oscar’s apartment.
It is most likely that this insulated quality derives from Simon’s dedication to light, comedic entertainment, a desire to provide the audience with an engaging but untroubling evening of laughter and sentiment. In fact, The Odd Couple might even have been designed to provide its audience with an escape from the sometimes gruesome realities that were taking place on the street and being reported on the evening news. As with most of Simon’s comedies, The Odd Couple is a pleasant night in the theatre rather than a disturbing or even thought-provoking one. Its most “serious” issue is divorce, and, in the spirit of light comedy, divorce is treated as a human experience without significantly troubling consequences or ramifications.
The Odd Couple has been Neil Simon’s greatest popular success, running for 964 performances in its Broadway debut and then spawning a popular movie version, an even more popular television series, and eventually a kind of sequel or “female version” that tells the same story with the genders reversed. Added to these successes is the fact that all of these manifestations of his play have entertained the public for more than thirty years as regional and amateur theatre groups continue to perform both versions of his play and television stations rerun the movie and sitcom series. But Simon has always been more popular with audiences than he has been with critics—who tend to classify him as a merely entertaining comedy writer rather than as a serious artist with a comic vision.
In 1965, The Odd Couple was Simon’s third straight comedy hit (the 1962 musical Little Me had been less successful with audiences despite Simon’s collaboration as librettist). The critics had responded in 1961 to his first Broadway hit, Come Blow Your Horn, with reserved praise, finding it (in New York Times critic Howard Taubman’s words) a pleasant “confection,” a play with “hilarious moments” that “aims low” and only seeks “to entertain.” This would become the general critical opinion of Simon’s work throughout his career, as his next two hits, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, gathered basically similar responses. Through succeeding decades the critical response might vary slightly from play to play but the overall assessment stayed roughly the same. Consistently recognized as a sound theatrical craftsman and a genuinely funny writer, the critics nonetheless found Simon lacking in intellectual and emotional depth and often reduced him to the simple epithet, “gag-man.”
Reviewing the original Broadway production of The Odd Couple, Taubman found the opening scene “one of the funniest card sessions ever held on a stage” and the play’s humor “unflagging” but labelled the play finally as a “farce,” and not of the “higher art” of “true comedy.” Taubman’s appreciation of the play’s hilarity was thorough and genuine but he finally had to separate himself from the audience’s more unreserved applause.
Some critics, like Walter Kerr, have been kinder to Simon during his career; Kerr, for example, once called Simon “a man of sense, using just the jigger and a half of substance that will make a Page 174 | Top of Articledecent drink.” Other critics, like subsequent Times writers Frank Rich and John Simon (no relation), have been generally harsher. John Simon once proclaimed that Neil Simon’s work was “devoid of ideas” and “an outrage . . . against human intelligence and art.” He admitted that “audiences, of course, may find trash to their taste; but the critic’s first task is to identify it as such. Then, if people still want to eat it, let them; only let no one pretend it’s food.” Academicians have generally been harshest of all when they deign to comment on such a popular writer. College and university professors well-studied in classic comic dramatists like Shakespeare and Moliere (pronounced “Mole-yair”) and even more contemporary writers like Alan Ayckbourn (pronounced “ache-born”) and Joe Orton have often been brutal with Simon. For example, in the third edition of Contemporary Dramatists, Martin Gottfried admits that “Neil Simon must be reckoned with if only because he is the most popular playwright in the history of the American theatre” but adds that “Simon is generally dismissed as a hack.” Similarly, Gerald Berkowitz, writing in Players magazine begins by declaiming that “Neil Simon is a critical embarrassment. . . it is universally agreed that [his plays] offer no specific insights into the human condition.” But even critics as harsh as these must admit to certain strengths in Simon’s comedies, most notably the indisputable fact “that a Neil Simon comedy makes the audiences laugh, and [that] this laughter is louder, longer and more constant than that produced by any other modern dramatist,” according to Berkowitz.
On the other hand, Simon has had his champions. In fact, two book-length critical assessments of his work are both quite effusive in their praise. Edythe McGovern, in her Neil Simon: A Critical Study, puts Simon in a class with writers like Moliere and George Bernard Shaw, who “successfully raised fundamental and sometimes tragic issues of universal and therefore enduring interest without eschewing the comic mode.” Of The Odd Couple McGovern asserts that Simon has “captured the essence of incompatibility among humans who repeat again and again their self-defeating patterns of personality.” In Neil Simon, Robert Johnson asserts that “Neil Simon has not received as much critical attention as he deserves,” and that “Simon’s work also explores a larger number of serious themes and points of view than he is credited with presenting.” Johnson concludes that “Oscar and Felix’s attempt to share living quarters. . . is the most captivating dramatization of incongruity Simon has yet created.”
The individual interested in Neil Simon’s comedies can come to his or her own opinion about the merit of Simon’s comedy or about The Odd Couple in particular by seeking out learned definitions of comedy and comparing them to a multitude of works in literature and in the popular media.
Nienhuis is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University. Here he discusses the mechanics of humor, Simon’s facility with comedy, and the playwright’s struggle to be recognized as more than a gag writer.
Neil Simon has been so successful financially and has become so popular with audiences that there is only one ambition left for him—to be taken seriously as an “artist.” The reluctance of critics to give him this respect continues to goad Simon and The Odd Couple is a worthy ground for examining this issue because it is his most famous play and still quite typical of his best work.
In the long history of English and American cultures there has always been a dichotomy between entertainment and art, but this cultural division and conflict has been intensified in America in the twentieth century as popular media have become more powerful and pervasive in American life. The radio, movies, television, cable television, and the wide availability of video recordings have made popular entertainment and popular culture an increasingly powerful force as we approach the beginning of a new century. Alongside or even against this rising tide of popular culture and entertainment stands a declining interest in books, in reading, and in classic literature. In some circles this situation is taken very seriously, as in the well-known book by social critic Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman claims that the public’s demand for entertainment has trivialized and even in some cases destroyed the culture’s capacities for rational discourse and careful analytical judgment. He compares the situation in twentieth-century America to the one in Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel, Brave New World, where “people will come to love their Page 175 | Top of Articleoppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Putting such diatribes aside, it is still clear that in the comedies of Neil Simon in general and in The Odd Couple in particular there is much to enjoy and admire. Initially, there is Simon’s verbal wit and his capacity for creating raucous laughter: The Odd Couple might be Simon’s most perfectly funny play. Those who study laughter analytically tell us that laughter usually comes from surprise—from our perception of incongruity, our delight in superiority, and our relief when forbidden subjects are brought out into the open so we can experience a release of psychic tension. In The Odd Couple our laughter comes predominantly from the surprise and perception of incongruity that occurs when we encounter Simon’s famous “one-liners.”
For example, in the play’s initial poker scene Murray chides Oscar for not paying his alimony, asking Oscar if it doesn’t bother him that his kids might not have enough to eat, and Oscar retorts: “Murray, Poland could live for a year on what my kids leave over from lunch!” This exaggeration takes us by surprise on many levels and can cause wild laughter in a typical audience. Psychologically, we probably are also laughing because we recognize that alongside the surprising incongruity there is a certain truth to Oscar’s remark—that Oscar’s wife still has plenty of money and that American children are very frequently spoiled. This is one way the comic one-liner can be described—sharp surprise from perceiving wild incongruity followed by a cognitive recognition that there is a paradoxical truth in the incongruity. The surprise catches our attention and the recognition gives us the pleasure of understanding. However, with Simon the weak link in the equation is usually with the recognition element. His one-liners are often fairly shallow on the cognitive side.
Compare, for example, a “one-liner” from Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet Mercutio has been fatally stabbed by Tybalt and Romeo says, “Courage, man, the hurt cannot be much” and Mercutio replies,“No, ‘tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church door, but ‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.” This will be funny even in the context of Mercutio’s death because the incongruities are so striking, but the difference is that the “recognition” part of the one-liner is so much more important than the surprising incongruity. Mercutio’s quip is a sad reminder of our own
mortality, a recognition that even a vital (though perhaps rash) human being like Mercutio can get caught very easily by mortal circumstances. Death will finally make the merry Mercutio “grave.” As Mercutio pays a price for his exaggerated vitality, perhaps too great a price to our way of thinking, Shakespeare insists that even in our laughter we must consider life in all its complexity. Even when he is being very funny, Shakespeare is more interested in the cognitive side of humor than he is in the belly laughs.
But Simon can also be appreciated for his exquisite theatrical craftsmanship; he is very adept at creating the effects he wants to achieve. The opening poker scene in The Odd Couple is a perfect example. Simon knew that if he established Oscar and Felix’s poker-playing buddies as an interesting
and varied group before he introduced Oscar and Felix themselves he would be able to prepare his audience much more effectively for the entrance of his main characters. And with characteristic theatrical skill Simon does this from the first moment of the play. The play opens with the striking visual impression of Oscar’s messy and smoke-filled apartment and of Murray, Roy, Speed, and Vinnie sitting around the poker table with two chairs empty. Vinnie has the largest stack of poker chips and one of the early jokes will be Speed’s impatience at Vinnie’s desire to leave early with his winnings. Vinnie is nervously tapping his foot and checking his watch but Speed is even more impatient, an emotion that will be highlighted throughout the play by Oscar’s eventual reaction to living with Felix. Roy is watching Speed and Speed is glaring “with incredulity and utter fascination” at Murray, who is shuffling the cards with aggravating slowness. Thus, Simon creates tremendous theatrical interest and laughter even before anyone has spoken a word. With this tableaux established so exquisitely, Speed’s line, which opens the play, creates a laugh that few comic playwrights can so easily create: Speed “cups his chin in his hand,’” ‘looks at Murray,” and says, “Tell me, Mr. Maverick, is this your first time on the riverboat?” Already the audience is hooked. They want to know about these men and how they relate to one another. They wonder who will fill the two vacant chairs. And when Oscar finally arrives on stage, it has been clearly established that one of the missing chairs belongs to an eccentrically fussy person named Felix and that the messy condition of this apartment is a result of the carefree attitude of the host. Even Simon’s critics usually agree that in terms of play construction and theatre craft, Neil Simon takes a back seat to very few comic dramatists.
However, the critics have also been quick to point out that craftsmanship is only part of dramatic artistry. The most important aspect of art is what the writer has to say about human experience. The critics often refer to Simon as a mere “gag-man,” and if laughter were the deciding factor in evaluating comedy, Simon’s quality would be much easier to discern. Someone could simply use a machine to measure the audience’s laughter, and the longest and loudest guffaws might easily declare Simon the greatest of comic writers. But more academic critics have implied that volume and duration of laughter are not sufficient and perhaps not even necessary conditions for great comedy. In fact, many great comic moments provoke smiles rather than laughter and sometimes comedy even evokes pathos. What Page 177 | Top of Articleis essential to a great comedy appears to be not laughter but a provocative comic vision.
What is a “comic vision”? It is an approach to comedy that includes not only laughter but also a thoughtful, even philosophical way of looking at the human experience. The eighteenth-century English politician and man of letters Horace Walpole once said that “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” The tragic vision has been defined in many ways but perhaps tragedy shows us that our defeats can be partial victories. The comic vision, on the other hand, might show us that our victories always imply partial defeat, if for no other reason than that we can never completely extinguish our follies or life’s hardship and pain. In the most powerful comedies, the happy ending always has an alloy of harsh reality, as in the ending of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, for example, where many lovers are paired up and happy but the noble Don Pedro is left conspicuously alone.
Some of Simon’s comedies have flirted with darker materials, plays like The Gingerbread Lady (1970), God’s Favorite (1974), and Lost in Yonkers (1991), but they have been unconvincing for audiences and critics alike. Simon seems to lack the intellectual and emotional depth to tread in such waters, and The Odd Couple is yet another example. Johnson reports that Simon “originally envisioned The Odd Couple as ‘a black comedy,’” but there is nothing left of that original conception. Oscar and Felix are lovable eccentrics and their conflict has no convincingly serious or thought-provoking elements. This is perhaps clearest at the end when Oscar talks on the phone with his wife. Here Oscar becomes a merely sentimental hero as he turns over a new leaf and reveals that underneath he was always a better person than he appeared to be. Felix, on the other hand, departs shrouded in a little more mystery, but Simon does not exploit the thematic possibilities in this mystery and simply terminates the conflict between Oscar and Felix with an echo of the joke that closed Act I. Oscar and Felix address one another by their wives’ names, saying, “So long, Frances. So long, Blanche.” The audience will laugh once more at this verbal surprise because yet another incongruity has struck them. However, after the laughter passes there is no significant recognition phase where the incongruity reveals something thought-provoking and profound about Oscar, Felix, or human life in general.
Source: Terry Nienhuis, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
In this review, Taubman recounts the Broadway debut of The Odd Couple and praises Simon’s comedic skills.
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Source: Howard Taubman, review of The Odd Couple, in the New York Times, March 11, 1965.
In this review of the play’s original Broadway run, Kerr lauds The Odd Couple as a greatly entertaining evening of theatre.
Kerr was a longtime reviewer for the New York Times, as well as the author of several book-length studies of modern drama, he was one of the most influential figures in the American theater.
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Source: Walter Kerr, in a review of The Odd Couple in the New York Herald Tribune, March 11, 1965.
Bryer, Jackson R., editor. The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 221-240.
Interview with Simon responding to questions as varied as “how did you get started writing plays?” to “how do you feel about theatre critics?”
Johnson, Robert K. Neil Simon, Twayne, 1983.
The second and currently last book devoted to Simon’s work; includes chapter on The Odd Couple.
McGovern, Edythe. Neil Simon: A Critical Study, Frederick Ungar, 1978.
First book-length discussion of Simon; includes chapter on The Odd Couple.
Simon, Neil. Rewrites, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Simon’s autobiography through his writing of Chapter Two. Offers some interesting insights into his inspirations and writing processes.
Weise, Judith. “Neil Simon,” in Critical Survey of Drama: English Language Series, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1985.
An insightful analysis of Simon’s comedies in general (through Biloxi Blues) including perceptive commentary on The Odd Couple.
Berkowitz, Gerald M. “Neil Simon and His Amazing Laugh Machine,” Players Magazine, Vol. 47, no. 3, February-March, 1972, pp. 110-113.
Gottfried, Martin. “Simon, (Marvin) Neil,” in Contemporary Dramatists, 3rd edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
Kerr, Walter. “A Jigger and a Half” in his Thirty Plays Hath November, Simon & Schuster, 1969, pp. 297-301.
Konas, Gary, editor. Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
Simon, John. “Bad Things” in New York, January 13, 1975, pp. 54-55.
Taubman, Howard. Review of Come Blow Your Horn in the New York Times, February 23, 1961, p. 31.
Taubman, Howard. Reviews of The Odd Couple in the New York Times, March 9, 1965, p. 50; March 21, 1965, p. 1.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692700019