John Simon on Theater: Criticism 1974-2003
By Bob Gutowski
At a social gathering the other night, I mentioned to an actor friend that I was going to be reviewing John Simon's On Theater: Criticism 1974-2003 (Applause Books; list price $32.95). "Ouch," said my friend, who shall remain nameless. "He really skewered me when I did (one of Shakespeare's histories)!"
Having read this massive collection (at 826 pages a veritable brick of a book, and not subway reading unless you always get a seat), I'd like my friend to know that he's in good company. Actually, that particular review was not chosen for the book, which comprises some of Simon's best work, presented decade by decade, with director (and potential target) Jack O'Brien kicking things off with a witty and appreciative introduction.
Now then, many of us, upon hearing the name "John Simon," may instantly picture that Yugoslavian-born critic dipping his quill in venom to make quick work of yet another undeserving, defenseless artist. However, On Theater is not at all a collection of poison-pen letters; it is, in fact, something of a chronicle of a romance. Am I then advocating that we should all run out and buy Mr. Simon roses, and a large box of candy? Not quite, as legendary accounts (not found in this work, needless to say) of an aggrieved Sylvia Miles dumping a plateful of pasta over Mr. Simon's head lead me to believe that he might flee from anyone approaching him forcefully with foodstuffs.
My point, however, is that to read this momentous and monumental book is to marvel at Mr. Simon's exquisite use of language(s), his phenomenal memory, his vast knowledge of literature, and, above all, his abiding (if all-too-often frustrated) love of the theater. All of these traits are keenly and constantly evident as Mr. Simon, with the sharpest of wit and the most bon of mots, tells us why one production, though seemingly well-cast and mounted, fails, and another purportedly weightless evening of japes might actually be not only the must-see event of the season, but an evening to cherish for a lifetime.
Yes, his infamous diatribe against Liza Minnelli is here (from his review of The Act: " ... it is a face going off in three directions simultaneously ... like any face, one that could be redeemed by genuine talent, but Miss Minnelli has only brashness, pathos, and energy."), as is his very amusing follow-up, an interview with an imaginary "Patagonian press agent" in which he defends and explains (though perhaps not to everyone's satisfaction) the basis for his strong opinions.
To be sure, John Simon will never be mistaken for a shrinking violet. With great enthusiasm and conviction, he'll remind you of what may have made you adore a production you've since decided you now have no use for. This happened to me with the book's very first piece, a review of Hal Prince's environmental reworking of Candide. Characteristically, the same review also demonstrates Simon's well-known, shall we say, sensitivity to the presence of homosexuality in the theater. "Yes," he says, "it can be objected that the men's clothes are shedding all over, while the women's seem glued to the skins, but we must face the fact that few of the not-so-holy brethren who work in musical comedy still prefer the weaker sex." While Simon's need to repeatedly recognize this fact of life may be exasperating, in this case his paraphrasing of an actual line of dialogue from the libretto of the musical itself is, nonetheless, resourceful and clever.
It is also exciting, due to the enormous scope of the book, to have the opportunity to follow the careers of various dramatis personae as they progress, perhaps drawing Mr. Simon's fire on one occasion and his praises on another. Unfortunately, Al Pacino, in two separate productions of Salome (though only one is listed in the index), strikes out twice as Herod according to Mr. Simon, who writes "He'll do anything for a cheap laugh ... relishing sudden leaps from hangdog schlemiel to heaven-storming ranter, from grotesque wiggleworm to fire-breathing basilisk ... did Al never hear Hamlet's admonishment to the actors not to out-Herod Herod ... ?"
I confess, it was after I read this last passage that I came to the realization that I have never really cared for Al Pacino's work. Still, there were many, many times when I vehemently disagreed with Mr. Simon's verdicts, but I believe that to never be challenged is to never learn anything. If nothing else, while reading this volume your vocabulary will get a shaking-up and your dictionary a work-out. In addition, Mr. Simon offers delightful textual analyses, such as this one concerning a certain well-known lyric:
"When a stripper proclaims that, without a gimmick, 'You can sacrifice your sacro / Working in the back row' there is more to this than an ingeniously ambushing rhyme. There is the word play on 'sacrifice' and "sacro,' suggestively coupling the sacred and the profane; the cozily butch irreverence of addressing the sacroiliac by its nickname; and, above all, the ambitiousness, perhaps even exhibitionism, with which a chorine jockeys for the front position."
Elsewhere in the book, Mr. Simon shows his own way with a phrase when he delivers a resounding thumbs-down by simply flipping and skipping "from the sublime to the ridiculous" into the memorable "from the ridiculous to the slime."
It is tempting and would be a pleasure to quote example after example of Simon's glorious prose, but I wouldn't want to ruin your pleasure, for if you are at all interested in the theater in the final third of the last century you must read this book. The question remains: is this John Simon person Jekyll, or Hyde, or both? It really doesn't matter; when the writing is this fine, the author needs no apologist. And, incidentally, I'd like my actor friend to know that, while Mr. Simon may have thought you detestable in that Shakespeare play, he thought you were "delicious" in that comedy by Gozzi!
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