The Governess, a one-act play by Neil Simon, was written in 1973. The play consists of a brief scene taken from another Simon play, The Good Doctor. Strictly speaking, The Good Doctor is not a play but a series of vignettes or short sketches, and thus, The Governess is able to stand alone as a one-act play. The Good Doctor is sometimes labeled a musical, but strictly speaking, the play has only some musical accompaniment, rather being a musical itself. The Governess contains no music.
The Governess is based on a short story, "A Nincompoop," by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. The play is a satire on innocence, trickery, and money and involves the interaction between two characters, the mistress and the family governess, whose innocence the mistress fails to appreciate as an important value. The action takes place in Russia at the turn of the century. Simon's use of Chekhov was a departure from his previous plays, since The Governess is not set in contemporary New York and does not focus on New York life.
The Governess first opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theater on November 27, 1973, as part of the The Good Doctor. The play ran for 208 performances and received several Tony Award nominations, including Best Featured Actress in a Play (a win for Frances Sternhagen, playing the mistress), Best Featured Actor in a Play, Best Original Score, and Best Lighting
design. The Governess is available as act 1, scene 3 of The Good Doctor, which is included in The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volume II, published in 1979 by Random House.
Marvin Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx in New York City. He is the youngest son of Irving, a garment salesman, and Mamie, who worked a series of part-time jobs to help with family finances while her husband traveled for his job. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1944, at age sixteen, and began taking classes at New York University, where he joined the Army Air Force Reserve program. The following year, Simon was sent to Colorado for military training at Lowry Field, where he also attended the University of Denver and where he taught himself to write comedy by watching comedians. When he received a discharge from the military in 1946, Simon returned to New York and began writing television comedy sketches with his brother, Danny, for Goodman Ace at CBS. In 1953, Simon married Joan Baim. The couple would eventually have two daughters, Ellen and Nancy. In 1956, the writing partnership ended when Danny chose to change careers and begin directing television shows. Simon continued to write for comedy shows and received Emmy Award nominations for comedy writing in 1956, 1957, and 1959. By 1957, Simon had decided to try playwriting and began writing his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, which proved to be a success on Broadway in 1961.
Simon's second play, Barefoot in the Park, was even more successful when it premiered on Broadway in 1963; it was quickly followed by The Odd Couple (1965), which received Tony Awards for acting and directing and for Simon as author. Simon was a success as a playwright and soon had several plays on Broadway at one time. Sweet Charity (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), and The Sunshine Boys (1972) were also huge successes and quickly found their way to film, as had Simon's earlier works. Simon's wife died in 1973, leaving him with two daughters, ten-year-old Nancy and fifteen-year-old Ellen. That same year, Simon married Marsha Mason only a few months after they met, when she auditioned for a part in The Good Doctor. In the years that followed, Simon continued to write successful plays, including California Suite (1976) and Chapter Two (1977), as well as screenplays, such as The Goodbye Girl (1977). Simon and Mason, who starred in several of Simon's plays and in the films he wrote, were divorced in 1982.
The autobiographical trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), and Broadway Bound (1986) earned Simon several awards, but most important, finally established Simon as a success with the critics, who had previously provided mixed reviews of his work. In 1987, Simon married Diane Lander. They were divorced the following year, but remarried in 1990. Simon was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers in 1991. In 1995, he was a Kennedy Center Honoree and in 1997 received the William Inge Theater Festival Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater. Simon and Lander were divorced a second time in 1998. They have one adopted daughter, Bryn. Simon married Elaine Joyce in 1999. He has continued to write plays and screenplays, including The Dinner Party in 2000 and Rose's Dilemma in Page 76 | Top of Article 2003. During his career, Simon has written more than thirty plays and nearly as many screenplays.
The Governess opens with a brief statement from the writer, who addresses the audience with a few comments about the previous scene in The Good Doctor. The writer than makes a few remarks about the scene that is to appear next, The Governess. The writer explains that the stories he is telling are not intended to paint a harsh picture of the world, at least no harsher than life really is, but he does note that some people are trapped in a harsh reality. The writer suggests that the story of the mistress and the governess is just such a story—one of harshness.
After the writer provides his few comments, the play begins with the mistress sitting at a desk on stage, her account book open in front of her. She calls for Julia, the children's governess. At Julia's name, the writer interjects the word "trapped," which recalls his earlier remarks about people who are trapped in a harsh world. The audience immediately understands that the governess is one of those trapped people. When Julia appears, she is told by the mistress not to look down but to look her mistress in the eyes. Although Julia looks up at the mistress as instructed, her head immediately drops down again. She has learned the respectful and subservient position that is required of the servant class.
The mistress begins by asking Julia how the children are doing in French and mathematics, but it is clear that the mistress is not really interested in the answers that Julia provides. Julia is again asked twice in quick succession to lift up her eyes and look at her mistress. After the second request, Julia lifts her eyes and is told that she does not need to be afraid to look people in the eye. The mistress also tells Julia that if she thinks she is inferior, that is how people will treat her. Julia is deferential and exceedingly polite to her mistress, providing short answers to all of the mistress's questions and instructions. In response, the mistress simply remarks that the governess seems a quiet girl, but something in the mistress's manner suggests that being quiet is not really a compliment but rather a character flaw.
The mistress tells the governess that she has been called to meet with her to settle the family account: she is to be paid. When the mistress reminds Julia that the family agreed to pay her thirty rubles a month, Julia is surprised and says she was promised forty rubles. In response, the mistress claims that the usual fee is thirty and that if Julia kept her head up and looked people in the eye, she would hear more accurately. The mistress insists that Julia heard incorrectly; when the mistress again says thirty rubles, as if speaking to someone of low intelligence, Julia simply agrees that the mistress is correct. The mistress tells Julia that she has been employed for two months, but Julia disputes that accounting and claims she has been employed for two months and five days. The mistress again insists that she is correct and that Julia should write things down and keep better records. Once again, the governess agrees.
When Julia has agreed to the revised length of her employment, the mistress begins deducting days of salary. First nine Sundays are deducted, but of course, Julia did not agree to not being paid on Sunday. When instructed to think of the Sunday agreement, Julia still cannot recall that particular agreement. At this point, the mistress tells Julia to look up at the mistress, as if doing so will help her recall the memory. When Julia looks at her mistress, she simply agrees that she is not to be paid on Sunday. Next the mistress deducts three holidays, Christmas, New Year's Day, and Julia's birthday, but Julia insists that she worked on her birthday. Page 77 | Top of Article The mistress replies that Julia did not need to work on her birthday, but if she insists that she did work, then she will be paid. When asked by the mistress if she insists on being paid, Julia backs down yet again.
Next the mistress deducts for the four days one of the children was sick, but Julia replies that she still taught the second child, who was not sick. The mistress reminds Julia that she was hired to teach two children, and asks if she is supposed to be paid her full salary for doing only half the work. Julia says no, and the four days are deducted. Next are the three days that Julia had a toothache and was told she could quit at noon, but Julia insists she worked until four in the afternoon. However, as she has since the very beginning of their conversation, the mistress looks at her accounting book and insists that Julia did not work after lunch. Julia agrees once again with her mistress and even thanks her, although for what exactly is not clear. The next deduction is for a broken teacup and saucer. Julia responds that she only broke the saucer, but the mistress says a cup is no good without the saucer. In a condescending tone, the mistress says that the teacup and saucer were heirlooms, but she is willing to only deduct two rubles. Julia once again thanks her mistress.
The next deduction is for ten rubles for a jacket one child tore while climbing a tree. Although Julia told him not to climb the tree, ultimately she is still responsible, according to the mistress. Julia is also responsible for the children's shoes that were stolen by a maid who was discharged for the theft. When Julia insists she is not responsible for this loss, she is told that she was hired to keep her eyes open, and they were apparently on the clouds that day. Earlier the complaint was that Julia looked down at the floor and not at her mistress; now the complaint is that she looks at the clouds and daydreams. The mistress deducts another five rubles. Another ten rubles are deducted for money that was advanced to Julia previously. Julia insists she did not receive an advance on her salary, but the mistress says she wrote it down. Why would she write it down if it did not happen? Julia responds by saying she does not know why the mistress would write down something that did not happen, and when challenged again by her mistress, the governess quietly agrees to the reduction. After all of the deductions, the governess is to receive fourteen of the eighty rubles owed to her for working two months and five days.
When she hears the total, Julia turns away crying but still agrees with her mistress's total accounting. The mistress claims to be sensitive to tears, which cause her pain, and she asks why Julia is crying. Julia tells her mistress that the only money given to her was three rubles for her birthday, which were given to her by the mistress's husband. Immediately, the mistress exclaims that the three rubles were not entered into the accounting book and promptly deducts them from the money owed to Julia. Now she is to receive eleven rubles. When the mistress asks if Julia wishes to check her accounts, Julia says there is no need. The mistress places eleven coins on the desk, and Julia is told to count the money. When she says it is not necessary, the mistress insists. Julia counts the coins, and only ten are present. However, the mistress insists that Julia must have dropped one coin. She is told to keep the ten coins and if the eleventh is not found, they can discuss it next month. Julia agrees, thanks her mistress, and tells her she is kind.
In the concluding lines of The Governess, the mistress asks Julia why she thanked her. Julia replies that she thanked her mistress for paying her the money owed to her. The mistress is incredulous and asks if Julia did not realize that she was being cheated. There were no notes in her accounting book. Indeed, the mistress made it all up, deducting rubles for whatever reason she could find. The mistress admits she was cheating Julia and yet she continued to thank her. She wants to know why. Julia responds that in previous jobs, she was not paid at all. The mistress is incensed and says that Julia was cheated in the past and that the mistress was just playing a joke on her governess. Although it was a cruel lesson, the mistress claims that Julia is too trusting, which is dangerous. She then hands Julia an envelope with the remainder of the eighty rubles owed to her. Julia simply agrees with her mistress again and turns to leave the room. The mistress stops her and asks if she is really as spineless as she appears. The mistress asks why Julia does not protest or stand up for herself. The mistress also asks if it is possible to be so simple and innocent. At this point the mistress's words are cruel and she intends them to be, as if she is trying to awaken Julia to the dangers she faces in her innocence. The play ends when Julia turns back to the mistress with a slight smile and says yes, it is possible for a person to be as innocent as the governess appears.
Julia, the Governess
When the audience is introduced to the governess, she is responding to a summons from her mistress. In fact, the governess has rushed into the room, since she knows that a summons is not to be ignored. Julia remains standing while the mistress sits. From her stance, with downcast eyes, the governess appears to be a quiet, unassuming, subservient member of the staff. She keeps her eyes on the ground, does not look at all at her mistress, and patiently waits for her mistress to speak to her. The governess knows her place in the household and her role in this society. Julia quietly acquiesces to everything her mistress says, regardless of how obvious it is that the woman is wrong. Although the governess questions the injustice she faces, it is not because she does not know she is being exploited. Julia does question her employer's words, but she is not in a position to protest. Julia is a member of the servant class. She is a domestic in a wealthy household, and she understands that her role is to accept whatever is given to her. She tells her mistress that in previous households, she was not paid anything for her work. The exploitation of the working class is something Julia understands and has faced before. The governess is not stupid, nor is she unaware that the mistress is cheating her, but because of her position in the household, she is unable to demand justice.
When the play opens, the mistress is seated at a desk with an accounting book open in front of her. It is clear from her position and the open book that she is the person in the position of authority in this dialogue. The mistress has summoned the governess, who rushes into the room. Julia's rushing into the room suggests that the mistress demands a prompt response when a servant is summoned. The mistress is a bully. She holds a position of authority and uses it to harass the governess. The mistress devises a joke, as she calls it, which is intended to teach a lesson to her governess that if she is so trusting of people, she will be cheated. However, the mistress is incapable of realizing that the governess is not trusting or innocent; because of her position in the household, she is unable to protest when she is cheated. Whether the governess is trusting or not does not matter, but the mistress is so unaware of the ramifications of social stratification in her society that she thinks tormenting the governess is an acceptable way to teach her a lesson. Interestingly, the mistress is completely unaware that she is cruel or unjust to the governess. When the governess tells the mistress that she had not been paid anything in her previous places of employment, the mistress says that Julia was cheated. Julia knows this, of course, but she is unable to do anything about it. The mistress is so insulated from the struggle of the lower classes that she thinks they are unaware when they are cheated. It is the mistress who is an innocent about the ways of the world, not the governess.
The Writer, Kuryatin
The writer's role is very brief. At the beginning of the play, he comments on the previous scene and then provides a few words about the action that is to follow. In a sense, the writer functions similarly to a chorus in a Greek tragedy. He comments on what has occurred and provides a preview of what is to occur next. The writer is sometimes identified as Simon by critics, although the part is not played by the playwright on stage.
The Governess opens with comments from the writer about the harshness of the world for those who are trapped. The governess is one of those trapped individuals who exists in a dependent state. She is dependent on the honesty and good will of her employer. The governess is the object of her employer's "lesson," which is designed, according to the mistress, to teach the governess that she needs to assert herself if she is to avoid being exploited. The irony is that it is the employer who is exploiting the governess. What the mistress does not grasp is that Julia is not allowed to protest or to demand justice. As a household servant in a wealthy household, she is entirely at the mercy of her employers. In her rush to teach Julia a lesson, the mistress exploits Julia's innocence, and in doing so, she treats the governess harshly. The governess is indeed trapped. She reveals at the end of the conversation that her previous employers have not always paid her as promised. She is, accordingly, grateful that the mistress is going to pay her anything Page 79 | Top of Article at all, even though she is entitled to much more. This episode reveals the oppression and helplessness of the governess, who needs a job desperately enough that she is forced to agree to deductions from her salary that she knows to be wrong. The mistress finds the oppression of her children's governess entertaining. She knows that she is in control and that the governess cannot object, and she makes that point several times when she asks the governess if she disagrees with the many deductions from her salary. The mistress and her accounting book are the ultimate authority, and the ultimate oppressor.
Much of the story of The Governess is based on the ability of the mistress and the governess to see and understand what is happening during their conversation. The mistress repeatedly tells the governess to lift up her eyes and look at her mistress. The governess keeps her eyes cast down toward the floor; but in truth, she actually sees what the mistress does not see—the cruelty of Page 80 | Top of Article her employer. At the end of the play, the mistress justifies her cruelty by explaining that she had hoped to teach the governess the lesson that she should not be so trusting of other people. The mistress explains that the world is a very dangerous place for people who are so trusting. When Julia does not protest the injustice of the lesson inflicted by her mistress, who easily admits that she has been cruel, the mistress asks if it is possible for a human being to be treated so badly and not protest the treatment. She wonders if it is possible for someone to be so innocent. The governess responds that it is possible. In the original Chekhov short story, "The Nincompoop," on which Simon based The Governess, the mistress refers to the governess as a nincompoop, which is a slang term referring to a foolish person or a simpleton. Although the mistress thinks that her governess is spineless and foolish, or perhaps a simpleton, for allowing herself to be exploited, the play reveals that it is the mistress who is doing the exploiting. It is the mistress who is the foolish one. She does not see this, of course, but the governess does understand. The small smile on Julia's face as she exits the stage reveals that she understands the irony of the lesson that the mistress was trying to teach, even though the mistress lacks any understanding herself. Although the mistress spent much of her time with the governess instructing her to look up and look at her mistress, it was the mistress who did not see the cruelty of the lesson being taught.
The mistress also fails to see that the structure of the household puts the governess at a disadvantage in any dialogue with her employer. The governess never forgets that she is an employee and that she has no authority and no possibility of achieving justice in a dispute with her employer. The mistress's constant instructions to look at her reveal that it is the mistress who is ignoring her position. Simple fairness and a position of authority suggest that the mistress is entrusted with treating her employee with kindness, but the mistress does not see or understand that it is she who violates Julia's trust. However, Julia clearly sees that she is being cheated. She does not see until the end of the conversation that the mistress perceives the entire interview as a joke, but she does see the unfairness and cruelty in the actions of her employer. Her employer never sees that her actions have been unkind.
The term "farce" is used to describe a particular form of dramatic comedy that relies upon elaborate word play or physical action to make the audience laugh. The plot of a farce moves quite quickly, not giving the audience much time to dissect the action or to consider it in depth. Farce is also characterized by absurdity, as in the case with Simon's play, in which the mounting deductions from Julia's salary, which the mistress itemizes, quickly reach a level where they no longer make sense. The situation is improbable, which is another characteristic of the farce. Justice is not an element of the farce although it may have a happy ending rather than a tragic one. The governess is paid what she is owed at the end of Simon's play, but she has been tortured emotionally, and for that, there is no justice. Since a farce tends to rely upon stereotypical characters, The Governess also fits that description. The Page 81 | Top of Article audience easily recognizes the mistress as a rich autocratic woman who is used to having her own way, while the governess is the easily cowed victim who is smarter than the mistress is willing to acknowledge. Farce relies upon the use of stock characters to make the humor work.
Irony is used to describe a situation in which reality is different from appearance. In some cases, irony refers to verbal irony, in which a character says something but means something that is exactly the opposite of what the words actually mean. In verbal irony the words are often humorous and are sometimes confused with sarcasm, but irony is less cruel than sarcasm. However, in drama, irony often refers to knowledge that the audience has but that the characters on stage lack. In The Governess, the mistress thinks that she is the wise one who is trying to teach her governess a lesson to protect her. The irony is that the mistress is the one posing the threat. Rather than teaching her governess a lesson that will protect her, the governess learns a lesson about the cruelty of her mistress. The greater irony is that the mistress is in fact the cruel person she describes to her governess. The mistress is the one who cannot be trusted.
One-Act Dramatic Structure
The Governess is a one-act play with prose dialogue, stage directions, and no interior dialogue. There are no soliloquies, and thus, the thoughts of the characters are reflected in their speeches, and all action occurs on stage. The actors address one another and not the audience. Although ancient Greek tragedies usually had five components, beginning with the prologos and ending with the exodos, they were not actually divided into acts (Greek comedies sometimes had six components). Editors in ancient Rome divided some Roman plays into five acts, but others were not divided until the Renaissance. The five-act dramatic structure began in the Renaissance and is found in the works of the Elizabethan playwrights such as William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action: exposition, complication or rising action, climax, falling action, and catastrophe or resolution. The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen combined the last two acts into one act, as he did with Hedda Gabler, which has four acts. Ibsen found the rigidity of the five acts paradigm too limiting and so wrote plays with two acts, four acts, and even the traditional five acts. During the twentieth century, audiences became more accustomed to three-act plays. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, one-act plays have been more widespread. Early in the twentieth century they were associated with vaudeville and comedy, but more recently one-act plays have featured serious themes and are often presented with other one-act plays at a single performance.
Simon's one-act play mostly follows the traditional structure of dramatic action. The exposition is at the beginning of the play when the audience learns that the governess has been summoned by her mistress so that an accounting of her wages may be made. The complication, or rising action, occurs when the mistress begins to deduct money from Julia's salary. The climax is the point of a drama when the action takes a dramatic turn. In this case, it occurs when the audience realizes that the mistress is deducting money unjustly and cheating her employee. The falling action signals the resolution of the plot. This occurs when the mistress admits that the entire scene was a cruel joke to teach the governess a lesson. The catastrophe is usually the death of the hero, but there is no formal catastrophe in this play. Instead, the play ends when it is revealed through Julia's smile that she has always understood that she was being cheated but was unable to protest the unjust treatment by her mistress.
An Atmosphere of Protest
In the early 1970s news in the United States was consumed by demonstrations against the Vietnam War. The Governess was a departure for Simon, who typically wrote plays that were autobiographical in nature and that were generally situated in New York City or that involved a world that could be identified as similar to New York. However, the years during which Simon was reading Chekhov were years of dramatic protests against the war, when demonstrators filled the streets. These demonstrations sometimes turned violent; people were killed and buildings were bombed. Many of the protests were centered on college campuses and led by college students. In May 1970, the tone of the
protests changed dramatically when four college students were shot and killed by national guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. The civilian massacre of villagers by U.S. soldiers at My Lai, which had become public during the spring of 1970, and the American invasion of Cambodia, also in the spring of 1970, further increased opposition to the war and led to even more demonstrations. In response to these events, a national student strike shut down more than 500 colleges and universities. An April 1971 demonstration in Washington, D.C., drew more than 500,000 protestors. The effect of several years of public demonstrations increased pressure on the Nixon Administration to end the war and withdraw the troops. In using Chekhov's short stories as a source for The Governess, Simon was moving from the memories of the Great Depression of his childhood in New York City to a country where poverty and economic injustice were even more pronounced than in the United States. Poverty in Russia eventually led to a revolution that changed the political picture in Russia and led to a revolution that destroyed the tsars and the aristocracy and resulted in the creation of the Communist Soviet Union. In the 1970s, the people's opposition to the war changed the United States and helped to end a war. Large public protests made clear that people wanted an end to the war. Past public protests had proven effective and were instrumental in changing society as part of the civil rights and women's rights movements.
While the opposition to the Vietnam War was the focus for many people, that was not the only cause of turmoil in 1973. The early 1970s were a time of economic recession in the United States. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, a punishment directed at the United States for its support of Israel during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, caused the price of gasoline to hit a new high. In 1972, gasoline prices were at about 30¢ a gallon. During the oil embargo, gas was rationed, long lines formed at gas stations, and the price of gas quadrupled to about $1.20 at the worst part of the recession. In some areas of the United States people waited in line for hours to buy ten gallons of gas. Gasoline sales on Sundays were stopped, oil to heat homes was sharply curtailed, and Congress lowered national speed limits to 55 mph. The oil embargo contributed to the fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Index from a
high of 1051 in January 1973 to 577 by December 1974, a drop of 45 percent during those two years. In addition, the Vietnam War was costly, and government spending for the war was much higher than expected. As a result, inflation hovered at 10 percent, interest rates climbed, and unemployment increased. The increase in fuel prices had a ripple effect on the entire economy, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. Questions about the Watergate political scandal and concerns about recession filled the news. Simon's play reflects many of those same themes.
Even before The Governess premiered on Broadway in November 1973 as a scene in The Good Doctor, Simon was a successful playwright. However, The Good Doctor was not considered Page 84 | Top of Article by critics to be one of his better plays, and the reviews were generally mixed in their evaluation of the different sketches. However, it is worth noting that The Good Doctor in spite of poor reviews, received several Tony Award nominations and even received a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
One of the more positive reviews of The Good Doctor was written by Clive Barnes, a New York theater critic. In his review for the New York Times, Barnes acknowledges the problems in this pairing of Simon and Chekhov. When the pairing works well, the results "are droll and enchanting," when it does not work, the results "are labored." Barnes notes that the character of the writer is designed to link the many sketches together, which provides some unity. The problem, suggests Barnes, is that some of the sketches, including that of The Governess, are "slender, one-dimensional character sketches"; and yet, some of the sketches "have more depth." According to Barnes, there is "much fun" to be found in The Good Doctor, "at least here and there." Calling Simon's use of Chekhov, "admirable," Barnes also admits that there are places "where the deft dialogue sounds out of joint with the period," and where Simon's modern approach does not work with Chekhov's characters.
In his review of the The Good Doctor for the New York Times, Walter Kerr is much less positive than Barnes. Kerr points out that The Good Doctor is neither the best of Chekhov nor the best of Simon. Kerr observes that the Chekhov stories that Simon chose for this play lack the necessary "stage energy" to work well. The stories are "brief to the point of cursoriness" and are meant to be briefly read. These stories lack the "living detail that makes for theatrical growth, theatrical suspense." In spite of the mixed reviews, The Good Doctor has continued to be staged since its 1973 debut; it is therefore useful to look at a more recent staging, such as the one in 2004 at the Arena Players Repertory Theatre in Long Island, New York. In a review for Newsday, Steve Parks notes many of the same issues that Barnes and Kerr mentioned more than thirty years earlier. Parks refers to the pairing of Chekhov and Simon as the pairing of an odd couple. Although Parks refers specifically to the staging as a major fault in this production, where Simon's humor is transformed into "a decorous corruption of vaudeville," Parks still places blame for the play's failure on Simon's use of sketches by Chekhov, for whom laughter "was not the best medicine." In spite of several generally mixed and quite often negative reviews, The Good Doctor is still frequently staged in theaters, as is The Governess.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the University Honors Program. In this essay, she discusses social class and hierarchy in The Governess.
Even in a democratic society, such as that of the United States, class hierarchy, the division of wealth, and access to the means to improve one's life are often unattainable for all people. Imagine, then, life in a world in which a few wealthy people control the lives of the poor, who cannot escape their fate. This is the world created by Simon in The Governess. In this very brief one-act play, two characters hold center stage; one has power and one is powerless. The characterizations are brief and not well defined. In fact, both characters are little more than stereotypes who represent the rich oppressor and the poor victim, and yet, this brief drama raises important questions about honesty and justice and reveals the helplessness of those for whom there is no escape from oppression. The Governess is a critical examination of social hierarchy and the cruelty inherent in a system of social stratification that allows employers to exploit employees. Although classified as a farce, The Governess lacks the content that would make it a comedy. In spite of the fact that a farce generally refers to a drama that contains comedic elements, there is little humor to be found in this play. Instead, Simon transforms a Chekhov short story into a brief piece of social commentary that forces the audience to think about the economics that govern social hierarchy, role-playing, and truth.
Although based on Chekhov's short story, "A Nincompoop," Simon's transformation of the story into The Governess contains several changes that are important in understanding the underlying themes of social stratification and oppression. In Chekhov's story, the governess is immediately told to sit down upon entering the room. She is never told to look up or not to look at the floor. The deductions to her salary Page 85 | Top of Article are very quickly listed, and Julia expresses little opposition to the deductions. When she does object, the objections are voiced in a whisper. Perhaps the most significant change is in making the male master a female mistress. In changing the master in Chekhov's short story to a mistress in his play, Simon removes an important dynamic in the play—that of gender oppression. Julia is no longer a woman oppressed by a man. Instead, she is a woman oppressed by economics and social class.
The focus on Julia's eyes and where she directs her vision is another significant change that Simon incorporates into his adaptation of Chekhov's story. Chekhov never mentions Julia's eyes or where she happens to look. In contrast, Simon emphasizes Julia's ability to see the injustice perpetrated upon her. Throughout the play, there are many references to Julia's choosing not to look at her mistress. When called to a meeting by the mistress, Julia is especially deferential, looking down at the floor in a humble and unassuming manner. When told to look up at her mistress, Julia does so only for a brief moment and quickly looks down at the floor again. The mistress repeatedly asks Julia to look at her, but looking at her mistress is not something Julia does easily. At first the mistress equates Julia's not looking at her with thinking herself inferior, but the mistress also uses Julia's submissive stance as a way to take advantage of her, by making obviously outrageous deductions from Julia's salary and forcing her to agree to the deductions. At one point, the mistress demands that Julia look at her, as if looking at her mistress will help her recall an agreement that never existed. The mistress equates Julia's inability to "see" with guileless innocence, but in reality, Julia can see quite well. Rather than being naive, Julia's vision is based on knowledge. She has seen this kind of behavior before and knows that she has no recourse. Chekhov was critical of social stratification and of a world in which class designations allowed a small group of people to exploit the working poor, and these are criticisms that Simon also adopts and emphasizes in The Governess.
The mistress is a vain woman who thinks that her social position entitles her to be a bully and to harass her employee, which she disguises Page 86 | Top of Article as teaching the governess a lesson. The mistress is a shallow, thoughtless woman, more fixated on her superiority than on the feelings of those she employs. When she reduces the governess to tears, she is less concerned about Julia's feelings than her own. Although the mistress quickly demands the reason for Julia's tears, the purpose of her inquiry is not to express compassion or concern for the governess. Indeed, the mistress explains that she is sensitive to tears. The mistress is focused on how Julia's tears make her feel, and not what they represent to the governess. Julia's tears are important signifiers for the audience, since they allow the audience to fully appreciate the depth of her pain. Any desire to laugh at the extremity of the mistress's actions in deducting part of Julia's salary is erased when Julia cries. While the listing of deductions seems incredible, and even for a brief moment so unbelievable as to be humorous, Julia's tears remind the audience that the actions of the mistress are not funny.
Julia's tears have another purpose as well. In his essay "Liquid Politics: Toward a Theorization of ‘Bourgeois’ Tragic drama," Tom McCall argues that tears are an important manifestation of the physiological ability to identify with the suffering of others. In other words, when the audience sees Julia cry, they should be so touched by her suffering that they might also cry in sympathy. McCall explains that "‘the human heart’ has been touched if there are tears." Those who do not cry, suggests McCall, and remain unmoved at the tears and suffering of others are "virtual villains," since "villains have dry eyes." While the audience is unlikely to cry at Julia's tears, that is not because they do not sympathize with the governess. Instead, her character is not well defined or explored in Simon's play, which makes it harder for the audience to identify with her pain. However, as McCall suggests, "for virtuous characters, externalized sentiment remains grounded in feelings represented onstage as authentically felt." In other words, the audience knows that the pain the governess feels is authentic because her tears reveal the truth of her feelings. The mistress ignores those authentic feelings and forgets that the wealthy have a responsibility for those who are less fortunate and an obligation not to exploit people who are in need of help. Julia's tears are meant to remind the audience that the mistress has failed in this obligation. The lack of tears from the mistress signals to the audience that she has an inability to feel the pain of those who work for her and a lack of compassion for those in need.
The mistress is selfish and, despite her avowed reason for the cruel lesson she plays on the governess, she acts in this manner because it provides entertainment and a chance to demonstrate to the governess the superiority of her mistress. The governess is not as naive as the mistress thinks. Nor is she as guileless or as spineless as the mistress suggests. Instead, she is a victim of the mistress, who uses economics both to harass her employee and to control her response. The mistress never grasps that what she has done is cruel or hurtful. She cannot understand Julia's point of view because she does not understand what it means to be the victim of social inequity. Communication between these two different social hierarchies is hampered by the wide gulf between the women's experiences. The governess has worked before without being paid what she has been promised, and the mistress initially appears to be no different from these past employers. The mistress is willing to cheat her governess, and the governess is accepting of this because it repeats a previous experience.
At the beginning of the play, the writer mentions the harshness of the world for those who are trapped, and he insinuates that it is Julia who is trapped. The mistress's actions are dehumanizing, and the audience is meant to wonder at the deference the governess accords her mistress. Initially, it certainly seems as if Julia is the one trapped. She is a victim of her employer's choice whether to pay a salary or not. Since Julia mentions that she has not been paid in the past, it is clear that there is no justice for the lower classes. An employer can choose not to pay an employee if he or she so desires. In a sense, then, Julia is trapped in a social hierarchy that devalues her work. She understands the lesson that the mistress is teaching only too well. Interestingly, though, it appears that the mistress is also trapped in a world where she is incapable of understanding or respecting the feelings of another human being.
Good drama can expose injustice, engage the audience in a dialogue with the characters, and reveal the conflict that exists between the poor and weaker members of a society and those with greater economic and political power. In The Governess, Simon emphasizes the emotional and Page 87 | Top of Article financial burdens placed upon the lower class by the wealthier class who control the world in which they all must live. Neither Chekhov's short story nor Simon's play presents an ideological argument against either injustice or exploitation, but the story and play do illuminate the problems of social hierarchy and expose the cruelty of the upper class. By using a play that lasts less than ten minutes on stage, Simon forces his audience to use their own imaginations and powers of analysis to probe the complexities of the hierarchical relationship between these two women. In The Governess, Simon reveals the flaws of the society in which the mistress and governess live. By the end of the play, the audience is able to understand that it is not the governess who must see what she is like; it is the mistress who does not see her own cruelty. That is the truth that lies at the heart of Simon's play.
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on The Governess, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following interview, Plant asks Simon about revamping an old project, Little Me.
In a rehearsal room at the top end of town, Debra Byrne, Adam Murphy and Mitchell Butel are savoring the wicked words Neil Simon supplied for Little Me, in preparation for next week's opening night at the State Theatre.
Over in California, the 80-year-old author of this slap-happy 1962 musical is crafting another play.
"I will not speak about that," Simon says flatly.
Little Me is a different matter. Simon was in good company when he signed on for this sly comedy about a murderous Southern gal named Belle Poitrine. Cy Coleman penned the score, Bob Fosse did the dance numbers, the great TV comic Sid Caesar got to play all the men in Belle's life, and Simon is happy to reminisce about that glorious conjunction:
Herald Sun: Little Me was only your second Broadway show. What kind of writer were you back then?
Neil Simon: Well, I didn't know anything about writing a musical. I just had to listen to what everyone was telling me.
HS: But you earned a Tony nomination …
Simon: Yeah. I had a good time doing Little Me. I thought it was a fun kind of show.
HS: Casting Sid Caesar was your idea, wasn't it?
Simon: There was only person I knew who could do it and that was Sid. He was still very much stuck to television—looking to see where the camera was—but he was an enormously funny actor. He did pretty well for us, I think.
HS: Strangely, Little Me was never adapted to the big screen. Did that disappoint you?
Simon: No, I expected that. I didn't think it was for film.
HS: When was the last time you had a bellylaugh in the theatre?
Simon: Spamalot was wonderful. Anything (director) Mike Nichols does is brilliant. I go to see musicals for the fun of it and I go to see plays to see what's going on. What people are liking, what they're not liking. When it comes down to it, I write what I like.
HS: Which is?
Simon: Families, relationships, getting on in the world.
HS: Just like Chekhov.
Simon: Oh, thank you for putting me in his company.
HS: Is he a hero of yours?
Simon: Of course. Brilliant. I think what happened a lot of times with his plays was that the critics in Russia weren't sure if they were serious or comedies.
HS: A lot of contemporary plays dispense with storylines. Does that bother you?
Simon: Can't say I have an opinion. They're just writing about today and what they think the world is like. I'm writing a play at the moment and I'm not thinking, ‘What is TODAY?’ I'm thinking about something that will endure.
HS: Like The Odd Couple (1965)?
Simon: That play, I think, works better than most of the things I've written.
HS: Did Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick do The Odd Couple justice in 2005?
Simon: Yeah, they were really wonderful. It was good to see the play again in such good hands.
HS: Ten years ago you were quoted as saying, "I have no reason to write another play except that I'm alive and I like to do it". Still applies?
Simon: Oh yes. I'll keep doing it as long as I think I can. Doesn't mean anybody will put them on, but I hope they will.
HS: Do you follow a daily routine?
Simon: I work five or six days a week. Start pretty early in the morning, break for lunch and go as far as I can in the afternoon. At six or seven o'clock, I'll have a drink.
HS: Do you have to earn that?
Simon: No, no. I deserve it anyway.
HS: At home, are you Oscar Madison or Felix Unger?
Simon: I don't think I'm either one. Maybe I have a little of both in me.
HS: How does it feel when things are going well with a project?
Simon: You get very excited, it feels good, but you never know when it's going to fall apart. When it does, you put it in the drawer and go on to the next one.
HS: Got many scripts in the drawer?
Simon: I don't want to bend over and see. It hurts my back.
Source: Simon Plant, "All Neil at His Feet," in Herald Sun (Australia), August 14, 2007, p. 51.
In the following essay, Walden profiles Simon's works, life, successes, and failures.
Even before World War II, the theatrical and musical scene in the United States was strongly influenced by Jewish talent. Names like Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Henny Youngman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein were among those most respected and admired in the entertainment world. However, it is only in post-World War II America that the American Jew has emerged as a significant literary influence on television and the stage.
American Jewish writers growing up after World War II were comfortable enough within their identity as Americans, who were Jews, to feel free to express themselves, and they found an audience that was ready to listen. To those innumerable Americans who yearned for a safe niche in the midst of an increasingly depersonalized and alienated society, it seemed that Jewishness symbolized the human condition. But to be mature, to understand that condition, was to wrestle with the angel, as Jacob did, as playwright Neil Simon is trying to do.
There is little doubt that Neil Simon is one of the most prolific, productive, and successful playwrights the United States has ever produced. Although his work does not always revolve around specifically Jewish characters or themes, he has not forgotten either his roots or his aspiration to be evaluated as a serious playwright. Always he obeys the drive "to put down on paper the human condition and what it's up against," and he has also followed the need to confront his own past, his burden of guilt, together with his perception of the contradiction between shoddiness of values and the stereotyped image of absolute morality.
In a little over two decades, Simon has had at least twenty shows produced and has turned most of them into successful films. Yet, having pursued success and caught it, he's learned that "up close the American Dream is a vulgarity, that people love you or hate you simply because you've made a lot of money." The conflict between Simon's sensitivity to pain and suffering and his extraordinary talent and success is central to understanding his plays.
In the late 1950s, in Hollywood with a few weeks on his hands, Neil Simon began writing Come Blow Your Horn, a play based on the experiences and feelings he and his brother Danny had in trying to move away from their parental Jewish home. The play took eight weeks to write, three years to rewrite, and had at least eight producers before it appeared on a stage. After a tryout at the Bucks County Playhouse in August, 1960, it opened in New York on February 22, 1961, where it ran for two years but was only semi-successful. "That's when I started Barefoot in the Park, which turned out to be a smash," Simon remembered. Both Barefoot and Come Blow Your Horn, like much of Simon's Page 89 | Top of Article early work, were based on his family and his personal experiences.
Barefoot is a light play, a soufflé, while the meatier Come Blow Your Horn deals more seriously with Jewish family life; rich in humor and small tragedies, it is based in large part on the relationship between Simon's parents. "I grew up in a family that split up dozens of times," he recalled. "My father would leave home, be gone for a few months and then come back, and I felt that our life was like a yo-yo! We'd be spinning along pretty good, and then—zap, the string would break and he was gone." The string broke five times, and, according to Danny Simon, who tried to shield Neil from the brunt of it all, his brother "must have felt pain that he didn't show. He saved it for his writing." Simon's childhood, from which he later pulled so much material, was "funny, but it wasn't funny when we were living through it."
The Odd Couple also came from life, but not from Neil's. Danny Simon says that after his own divorce he wanted to write a play about his experience but after writing fourteen pages he couldn't go on. It was the germ of a work "about two divorced men living together, and the same problems they had with their wives repeat with each other." When Neil took over the idea he wrote a play about two guys he knew; he thought he was writing a black comedy about two men who were basically unhappy. The characters, however, are believable, they are real, for Neil Simon's genius, as Mike Nichols notes, is for "comedy and reality; extremely distorted but recognizable, not zany behavior." The question is whether art was imitating life or vice versa. As Neil Simon has admitted, "I suppose you could practically trace my life through my plays … they always come out of what I'm thinking about and what I am as a person."
Between 1961 and 1970 Neil Simon had a succession of hits. Come Blow Your Horn opened in 1961, Barefoot in the Park in 1963, The Odd Couple in 1965, The Star-Spangled Girl in 1966, Plaza Suite in 1968, and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers in 1969. Simon became the first playwright since Avery Hapgood, in 1920, to have four plays running simultaneously on Broadway; when The Star-Spangled Girl opened, Barefoot, The Odd Couple and Sweet Charity were still in production. Alongside all the kudos, however, ran an undercurrent of criticism proposing that Simon take more chances with his material. Of Plaza Suite, Brendan Gill wrote that he regretted that "the greater Mr. Simon's success in the world, the fewer the chances he seems willing to take with his considerable talent." Of The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Gill said that "Simon's so-called seriousness has a banality of insight not easily to be distinguished from that of soap opera." And the reviewer for Time magazine wrote that "Simon ought to risk more seriousness. The wine of wisdom is in him, and he ought to let it breathe longer between the gags."
Simon was whipsawed between those who wanted him to take a risk, and those who wanted him to continue doing what they thought he had been doing. Known as a surefire gagwriter, as a manufacturer of machine gun humor, he had created a kind of monster. There was always the question whether a serious play of his, unleavened by humor, would be accorded fair treatment. It was just as reasonable to suppose that a departure from his customary product would garner brickbats as it was to suppose that it might draw applause. Yet Simon kept trying for that mix of elements that would both represent him at his best and also lead to commercial success and general approbation.
With The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, he began moving in that direction. In this play his protagonist, Barney Cashman, searching for decency and beauty while trying hard to be "the last of the red hot lovers," begins to despair, but is then convinced that decent and beautiful people do exist. In this play, Simon commented both on the values of our society and on the problems of married couples. But his next play, The Gingerbread Lady, was his first major attempt at a serious work.
The Gingerbread Lady promised to be Simon's first completely serious and successful play. Put into rehearsal in October 1970, it opened its pre-Broadway run in New Haven. The story line concerns Evy Meara, a middle-aged alcoholic, ex-supper club singer, who is involved with Lou Tanner, a macho non-talent; Jimmy Perry, an unsuccessful homosexual actor; Toby Landau, a forty-year-old, fading beauty; and Evy's daughter Polly, a bright seventeen-year-old. Evy is a compulsively filthy talker who finds love almost anywhere she can but is determined to destroy herself. In Toby's words, summing up the characters' interactions, "We all hold each other up because none of us has the strength to do it alone." With no reinforcement Page 90 | Top of Article from outside, they use substitute props: makeup, alcohol, heterosexuality, homosexuality. At the end, goaded by her daughter to try once again to relate to her, Evy sends Polly away; having been beaten up by Lou, she can no longer struggle against the odds. Evy is alone, drinking, as the curtain falls.
Very early in the run, it became apparent to the play company that something was wrong. After the first preview Maureen Stapleton, who played Evy, said: "I thought everybody out front had taken a suicide pact." Neil Simon, the next night, just before the New Haven opening, said: "There's a crisis." He was right. The New Haven Register called it an "uncomfortable play." The West Hartford News wrote that "we don't care much about these people." After the Boston opening, Simon summarized the reviews with the words, "They just felt I didn't write a very good play…. It's simple. When people leave the theatre they are filled with despair—despite the fact that they are filled with truth. They say, ‘I paid $9 and I don't want to be filled with despair.’" That is, "People want to be told to fight on; you can win. I'm telling them if you fight on, there's nothing but crap."
Convinced that so much of the play simply didn't work, Simon decided to close the production after the Boston run. A few days later, however, realizing how much of the play did work, he reversed himself and decided to rewrite, to try to find out how he could lighten the play without compromising his standards. He made Evy a more sympathetic woman, he cut down on the vulgarity, he allowed Toby to see a brighter future before her, and he revised the ending so that the audience would feel that the possibility of strength and improvement for Evy might be ahead. Gradually the changes were incorporated into the play. Ahead was the New York opening.
After the New York opening, Simon carefully weighed the reviews. The New York Post spoke of his "distinction as a playwright." The New York Times dwelt on "the dialogue between a great actress and a playwright who has suddenly discovered the way to express the emptiness beneath the smart remark and the shy compassion that can be smothered by a wisecrack." But The Post also pointed out that the contrast between the sadness and the humor weakened the play, while Walter Kerr of the Sunday Times lamented the weakness of Evy as a character. Even Mel Brooks, with whom Simon had worked years before as a writer, commented that, "Doc [Simon] is going to have a long, hard road. He's got to have his papers stamped. He doesn't have his credentials and he will not be allowed into Serious Land. I think it is very important that he launch this deeper side of his talent. The best thing Doc could do to make that transition would be to dip his pen in the blood of his heart and write for an Off-Broadway 199-seat house a total tragedy. The easiest thing Doc could do is just obliquely to insinuate there's more to life than one laugh after another." To Simon himself, The Gingerbreak Lady was, in many ways, "the most satisfactory play I've ever written."
Like much of Simon's work, this play seems to have been drawn in large part from the grief and guilt he feels over his past, his childhood. By the playwright's own admission, he dealt with some of the really ugly, painful things in his youth by blocking them out and later relating to them through humor. To Simon, the ideal play is one where the audience laughs all night but in the last few minutes is touched by a sense of tragedy.
The success of The Odd Couple, produced in 1965, had convinced Simon that he could make people laugh. Having learned that he had that capability, he no longer felt compelled to produce non-stop amusement, but worked to protect the serious moments within his plays. The Sunshine Boys, for instance, produced in 1973, is a very serious production that deals with old age and its problems. It is also a very funny play; through the attention-grab of its laughs, the playwright was able to get his message across. For Simon, who sees humor in every situation, can't write a play totally devoid of it. For example, in The Visitor From London, the third of the four one-act plays in California Suite, we meet a woman who is married to a man who turns out to be a practising homosexual. That they love each other and love will somehow continue is apparent. To Simon, it's a serious piece, but the laughs throw the audience off. Yet they are necessary; as Simon says, "It's like a political speech—when you hear one filled with bromides that you've heard over and over again, you turn off. But if there's a bit of humor injected into it, you might listen, and you still get the point."
Today Neil Simon, seemingly at the height of his fame and success, is passing through a difficult period. Transferred from New York to Page 91 | Top of Article California, he is trying to find a middle ground, to explore his new terrain through a play like California Suite, to reexamine his past in New York through a play like the earlier Chapter Two. In Chapter Two, he entrusted his past and his present to George Schneider, the play's protagonist. Married to his first wife, Barbara, for twelve years, George is crushed by her death. When he first hears of Jennie Malone, a recently divorced woman, he is not particularly interested; like any good New Yorker, he has his friends, the Knicks, the Giants, the Mets, his jogging, and his watercolors. But, pushed by his brother Leo, as Jennie is pushed by her friend Faye, they talk, look each other over, and like what they hear and see. Within two weeks they decide to marry. Leo, who loves his brother and has his interests in mind, tries to get George and Jennie to delay the marriage for a few weeks; however, after a long talk with Jennie, during which he explains to her how George went to pieces after Barbara's death, he reverses himself, saying he doesn't know why George waited so long. "I was born to be a Jewish mother," Leo moans.
There is an undercurrent of Jewishness that runs through the play. George and Leo are obviously Jewish. (Jennie and Faye are just as obviously not.) George's mother, a stereotypically Jewish mother, calls him from Florida, the haven for many retired, well-off Jews, wanting to know who Jennie is, what does her father do, and so on. Similarly, when George cuts himself shaving on the morning of the cermony, he asks Leo, "Was there any royalty in our family?" and, predictably, hears Leo answer: "Yeah. King Irving from White Plains."
What was an undercurrent surfaces to become a main force late in the second act when George and Jennie return from their honeymoon. It had been a beautiful five days and a terrible last two days. George has not been able to forget Barbara; he hasn't been ready for a full commitment. In fact, in a truth-telling outburst, he tells Jennie that he resents her for everything, mostly because he couldn't tell her that he missed Barbara so much. Jennie, trying desperately to understand, is at first confused. But after George packs his bags and announces that he's off to Los Angeles, presumably for business, she finally gets angry. In a moment of justifiable rage she tells him of her love and devotion, and she criticizes him for his guilt complex. "I don't know what you expect to find out there," she says, "except a larger audience for your two shows a day of suffering." If Jennie knows anything, it is that she knows how to feel. She also is able to tell George directly that what ails him is George, and his inability to break with certain aspects of his tradition, no longer compatible or appropriate to the American present.
Jennie's outburt, her insightful remarks, are the medicine George needs. He has been wearing his heart on his sleeve, indulging in suffering, in the way many Russian Jews did in the shtetlach. Breaking through, he can now concede that Jennie is one of the healthiest people he knows. At last, he understands that he's been holding on to self-pity; he sees that he was afraid of being happy. Though he's committed to going to Los Angeles, he almost immediately decides to return. He finishes his book, whose title, Falling Into Place, describes what has happened with the pieces of their lives. George, of course, is still Jewish, but he has traded the archaic reliance on suffering that marred his health for the refreshing outlook of a metropolitan-oriented Jennie Malone, a woman who is Jewish, in the sense that Lennie Bruce defined Jewishness, even if she's goyish.
Neil Simon has freely admitted that Chapter Two is autobiographical, that it is about the trauma he experienced at the death of his first wife and the rage he felt over that loss. In my judgment, Chapter Two is mature Simon, an almost excellent play. The romantic sequences are beautifully, warmly written. The anger is especially well portrayed in Act II, and Jenny's long speech in that act, full of shifts and shadings, is an interesting breakthrough. The characterization is magnificent, although Brendan Gill in the New Yorker calls Simon-like characters "automata" and the hero in Chapter Two a "zombie." The obvious strengths of Chapter Two were pointed out by the New York Times, Newsweek and Time, all of which gave it strong reviews. But, again, Brendan Gill accused Simon of "having mistaken earnestness for seriousness," Time revealed another flaw, one common to much of Simon's work. As T. E. Kalem put it: "The play ends happily—a pact Simon always keeps with his audience. When will he choose to keep the compact he seems to want to make with himself—to plunge in deep-bold instead of toe-deep-scared into the consciousness stream of the real Neil Simon?" In short, this is an almost Page 92 | Top of Article excellent play—but the promise of perfection is still unfulfilled.
Of all the media for which Simon produces—the stage, the screen, television, and the musical theatre—the stage remains the forum that affords him the most satisfaction. Yet he goes into new territories to keep interested in the work. The desire for new challenges drew him to write the book of his first original musical, They're Playing Our Song, for which the music and words were produced by Marvin Hamlisch and Carol Bayer Sager. Previously, Simon had adapted several other works from musicals and he's constantly being asked to do more. According to Walter Kerr, the music for They're Playing Our Song is "irrepressible," but it's as though someone went to Simon with a non-existent plot, two agreeably efficient principals, and some baggage cars full of beautiful scenery and "asked him to give the principals something, anything, to say. Which is what he has done …" But, Kerr added, Simon was never a mere manufacturer of one or two line gags. "He's always needed a situation to suggest what the laugh's going to be about, needed a character idiosyncrasy to prod him into phrasing responses that will explode." In short, "middle-of-the-road tepid it is, with Mr. Simon uncharacteristically boxed in. Next time let's hope they'll play his song." The reviewer for the Village Voice agreed in most respects, adding that Simon appeared to think that Hamlisch's music was as good as that of Mozart and Beethoven, saying he was "as important to our time as they were to theirs." He asked: "Wouldn't the show be better off if the author didn't compare himself with Aristophanes, Moliere or Chekhov? Why mix genres and ambitions quite so vengefully? It is one thing to tell jokes all the way to the bank, quite another to believe that the bank confers distinction or immortality."
After almost two decades of criticism, it appears that the critics only partly understand Neil Simon. Walter Kerr is surely right in noting that Simon creates character and is not just a gagman. And the Village Voice's Gordon Rogoff is surely right in pointing out that telling jokes does not confer distinction or immortality. But it might be stressed that what fascinated Simon, what made up the challenge for his first musical, was the relationship between Vernon and Sonia. What cried out for analysis, dissection, explanation, enlargement, humor, was the way in which a male composer and a female lyricist related to each other. Whether the result was successful or not is a separate question. It is possible that Marvin Hamlisch's music, along with that of Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Steven Sondheim, et al, may be as important in our time as Mozart's and Beethoven's were in theirs. History's verdict has yet to be heard. But where, in what play, in what interview, has Simon pretended to equality with Aristophanes, Moliere and Chekhov? True, he was happy when someone once referred to him as a "distinguished" playwright, and another called him a playwright of distinction. But he has never forgotten that it is history that confers distinction and immortality. Embedded in an ages-long tradition, he has never given up thinking of himself as a kid who grew up in the Bronx, as a Jewish kid whose childhood was traumatic, as one of those buffeted by external forces for so long.
In interview after interview over the years, Neil Simon has reminded himself and his readers that he and his brother Danny came from the Bronx, and that his childhood experiences were very important. As a result, he said: "The humor itself is often self-deprecating and usually sees life from the grimmest point of view. Much of that, I think, comes from my childhood." What was left unsaid, however, was that this style of humor comes right out of the Eastern European experience, is consistent with the humor in the stories of Mendele, Sholom Aleichem, and Peretz, and is part of a tradition that includes Abraham Cahan, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. For Simon, writing plays rather than short stories is the best form of self-expression for himself. It is the healthiest outlet he can find for his neuroses and frustrations. It is the best way he knows to share his joys.
In the only book on Neil Simon, Edythe McGovern argues that among Neil Simon's strengths are his great compassion for his fellow human beings which precludes his soliciting laughter in direct proportion to the hurt suffered by his "people"; a basic regard and respect for the family; an awareness of human limitation; his sensitivity to language; and his theory of plots, in that he never relies on subplots but stays with the story line as the characters live out their scenes naturally. In addition Simon, respecting conventional moral behavior, allows his characters great latitude in moral fallibility. Above all, "his plays, which may appear simple to those who never look beyond the fact that they are amusing are, in fact, frequently more perceptive and revealing of the human condition than many plays labeled Page 93 | Top of Article complex dramas." Perhaps Simon's perspective can be pinpointed in what Barney Cashman said in Last of the Red Hot Lovers: "We're not indecent, we're not unloving, we're human. That's what we are, human."
In his human concerns, through his ability to smile through the tears, Simon deals with people he knows. His characters are often but not always Jewish. Yet, coming from a Jewish and metropolitan background, he understands Lenny Bruce's words: "If you live in New York, or any other big city, you are Jewish"; and he realizes that Leopold Bloom, James Joyce's hero in Ulysses, the Jew with his hang-up, his self-doubt, his self-hate and his awkward alienated stance, is a twentieth-century symbol for Everyman.
These very concrete terms embody what Neil Simon and Woody Allen and many others have put more artistically. The style and content of Jewish humor strike a deep responsive chord in post-World War II America. Alienation, acculturation and assimilation, allegedly Jewish diseases, belong to all, just as the humor that emanates from the tensions is universal. For the Jew, the conflict is real. For the others, the conflict is more diffused but powerful nonetheless; for most Americans are caught between the nostalgic yearning for a safe, comfortable, well-defined past and the difficult challenge of adapting to an increasingly and frighteningly depersonalized society. It is this tension, this conflict, these concerns which form the heart of Neil Simon's plays. Simon has given us warm and believable characters; he has given us people for whom there is hope, strugglers like George Schneider of Chapter Two, like the woman married to the homosexual in California Suite. Being Jewish, being very human, through his plays Simon also transmits the sense of Horace Walpole's admonition: "Life is a comedy to a man who thinks, a tragedy to a man who feels." Or, as Edythe McGovern said, "To Neil Simon, who thinks and feels, the comic form provides a means to present serious subjects so that audiences may laugh to avoid weeping."
Source: Daniel Walden, "Neil Simon: Toward Act III?," in MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1980, pp. 77-86.
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Bryer, Jackson R., The Playwright's Art: Conversation with Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
This book contains interviews with many playwrights, including Simon.
Critchley, Simon, On Humour, Routledge, 2002.
This book is a philosophical study of what makes people laugh. The author discusses humor as it reflects on the human condition, including why people laugh at inappropriate moments and why racist and sexist jokes are sometimes considered funny.
Engel, Barbara Alpern, Women in Russia, 1700-2000, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
This book is a comprehensive history of the lives of Russian women. The author provides very readable histories of individual women, as well as a more generalized history of women's lives.
Frank, Stephen P., Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914, University of California Press, 1999.
In this book, the author examines the conflict between the peasant class and local governments. Frank uses primary documents as his sources, which reveal that social class issues were an important facet of the justice system in tsarist Russia.
Hischak, Thomas S., American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969-2000, Oxford University Press, 2001.
This book contains information about every play produced on the New York stage between 1969 and 2000. More than 2,000 plays are included. The author groups the plays according to topical issues.
Koprince, Susan, Understanding Neil Simon, University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
This book provides an overview of Simon's career and an analysis of sixteen of his major plays.