By Scott Ross
Years ago there was a theatre critic called Percy Hammond who was famous for his dyspeptic opinions of the local offerings. When it was announced that he was to be made a war correspondent in the 1914 conflict, one wit asked, “But suppose Hammond doesn’t like the war?” I imagine something like my headline may have occurred to some in the New York theatre when it was reported that John Simon had died at 94… although many, I suspect, will imagine he went directly to Hell, there to sit in heated splendor beside his spiritual brother, Satan.
Inevitably referred to as “acerbic” (which he joked may have had something to do with his having been born a Serb) and as either “acid” or “vitriolic,” as boring a pair of epithets for his writing as “tuneless” and “un-hummable” were for the earlier music of Stephen Sondheim, John Simon (1925 – 2019) was both more cruel about the physiognomy of performers than was strictly necessary (if you’re not playing a romantic lead, who cares whether you’re homely or overweight?) and, as he rightfully accused Kenneth Tynan, much less reliable a film than a theatre critic.
As a writer on theatre, however, Simon was seldom less than erudite, masterly and — this will doubtless enrage some, particularly those with only a cursory knowledge of his output — fair. Simon, as we all do, had his pets (Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Weaver, Philip Bosco and Lanford Wilson spring immediately to mind) but they were, generally, very good pets indeed, and as vicious as he could occasionally be — the periodic attacks on Barbra Streisand and Austin Pendleton were all the evidence some people needed to proclaim him an anti-Semite — Simon’s opinions were usually just.
Usually. I cannot fathom how a man of Simon’s intelligence and erudition could refer to the character played by Kathy Bates in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother as “a fatty,” for example, and his waffling on artists could be as baffling as it was infuriating: The same composer whose work, for Simon, enriched Chinatown in 1974 was, in ’75, due to his emulating Stravinsky for The Omen, “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” (See Michael Feingold’s rather specious obituary of Simon in American Theatre* for a similar anecdote concerning André Ernotte, a man I became quite fond of when he directed me in a production of a short Brecht play in 1985.) Then too there were his, on the one hand, admirable refutations of both Nixonism and Vietnam and, on the other, his writing movie reviews for William F. Buckley’s National Review, as well as his weird resistance to full acceptance of homosexuals — he was capable even as late as the early ’90s of referring to a new play as “faggot nonsense”; of another, in the mid-’80s, he was heard to fume, “Homosexuals in the theatre! I can’t wait ’til AIDS gets all of them!” (He later apologized.) But despite that now infamous incident of Sylvia Miles dumping her salad on his lap — it became, he noted, an increasingly impressive entrée as the years went on — a friend who knew many members of the New York theatre community in the 1970s and ’80s tells me that each of these actors could recite with glee his or her favorite negative review of their work by Simon. And anyway, I would rather the sometimes insufferably inflexible standards of John Simon than the panting avidity of a Ben Brantley, for whom the latest staggering abortion officially sanctioned by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization is, rather than an appalling travesty, “altogether wonderful.”
In the area of movies, Simon and Pauline Kael famously traded blows in print. Her observation that she did not believe a critic should be able to enjoy only “the highest and the best” was by implication rather obviously aimed at his well-known aesthetic. (How many other movie critics of the period could she have been referring to?) He on the other hand considered her taste irredeemably vulgar if not altogether Barbaric; in a review of one of her 1970s collections, Simon was flabbergasted by Kael writing that we were living through “a legendary period for movies.” She was nearly alone in recognizing this contemporaneously and time, of course, has proven her entirely correct. A friend once said he didn’t think Simon really liked movies, or at any rate did not take them as seriously as he did theatre, music, literature and fine art. I demurred; he loved movies as much as Kael. What he didn’t care much for were American movies. This is perhaps understandable; he grew up abroad and appreciation of his adopted nation’s popular culture had not been inculcated in him from birth as it is for us natives. Interestingly, Simon (according, anyway, to Brendan Gill) was so terrified of the tiny Kael that when encountering her in public he became uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
Yet there was, on balance, more in Simon to embrace than to deplore. He was, for instance, unique among theatre critics (or any critics) in being multilingual, and could for example so splendidly judge the efficacy or ill-favor of various Ibsen translations that one wished he had done his own. The best evidence in his favor are two collections from 1975: Singularities: Essays on the Theatre, 1964 – 1974, which includes some of his best essays, and Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theatre, 1963 – 1973. In them you will find a bracing wit and a strong intellect confronting the best and the worst the American theatre had to offer during those essential years. Additionally, and whatever his reputation, Simon was at his best, as are all great critics, airing not his (sometimes hilariously expressed) hatreds, but singing his enthusiasms… and when he loved, no one sang with more elegiac euphoria than John Simon. One example of many was his final word on the Jason Miller play That Championship Season, in which Simon opined that if a play as demonstrably great as this was allowed to fail, “Broadway itself deserves to die.”
Speaking of death, Simon got off what I consider one of the great bons mot when, in his review of (I think) What’s Up, Doc? he observed that if Streisand were to be hit by a Mack truck, “it would be the truck that would die.” The use of the word “die” at the end is the essence of wit rather than mere sarcastic humor; it explodes the statement, conjuring up an uproarious image that perfectly caps the joke. Simon could also, like Falstaff, be not merely witty in himself but the cause that wit is in other men, as in Gore Vidal’s, “What a nightmare it must be, to wake up every morning and know you are John Simon.” Peter Bogdanovich was so incensed by Simon he named the comic villain played by Kenneth Mars in What’s Up, Doc? “Hugh Simon” in negative tribute. It didn’t bother Simon in the least. What might have was Bogdanovich’s assertion, to Dick Cavett, that Simon was “a pseudo-intellectual.” No. Simon was a fully-fledged intellectual, and Bogdanovich ought to have known the difference.
There was perhaps no review more piquant and revealing of a certain sordid Broadway reality than Simon’s critique — verified by the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who was there — of the now legendarily dreadful 1980s comedy Moose Murders, at which the sparse audience was treated to the overwhelming and unavoidable odor of fresh vomit. In Simon’s view, and he wasn’t alone, the show became its own olfactory metaphor.
Like many writers, Kael included, Simon composed his own headlines for his magazine reviews. My all-time favorite of his, in reference to the title of a meretricious C.P. Taylor play he panned therein, ran in New York in the 1980s: “All’s Well That Ends Good.”
I didn’t even need to read the review after that… although I did. I also attempted to read Good and couldn’t get through the first act. I can’t tell you, now, why I found Taylor’s play so dreary; but Simon’s one-line critique has long outlived in my memory the drama that inspired it. What more can we ask of a great critic?
*Feingold finds something odd and tragic about a man in his 90s continuing to attend, and to write reviews of, theatrical productions. When you’re 94, Mr. Feingold, perhaps you’ll tell us with what lofty pursuits you fill your waking hours? Or will you simply give up, and stare at the wallpaper?
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross