Monday, November 25, 2019

JOHN SIMON, 1925-2019.

True, he was a misogynist and a racist. He famously insisted on cataloguing what he saw as actresses' physical shortcomings (he wrote with evident distaste, for example, that Vanessa Redgrave had "no breasts to speak of") on the grounds that female beauty as judged by John Simon was an important attribute of their performances, however little it mattered in those of male actors. And he criticized the vocal and physical training of African-American actors on stage, which was both racist and canny of him, as only people who had actually attended the plays could dispute his judgment. I had that experience with a 1979 Public Theater production of Coriolanus starring Morgan Freeman, in which the cast moved gracefully and spoke beautifully. Simon:
To have a group of black and Hispanic actors, almost totally untrained in Shakespearean acting, do Julius Caesar (at the Public Theater) was rashness and folly; to have them do Coriolanus ranks as advanced dementia... the consummate, uncompromising patrician is a figure far removed from the ken of most white Americans; to black and Hispanic Americans, actors or otherwise, he is through historical and economic circumstances even more remote and inconceivable, Morgan Freeman, who plays Coriolanus, cannot even approximate the part in sound, look, or demeanor; but, for one reason or another, no one in the company begins to approach what is required of them.
I saw the show and Simon was full of shit.

It may seem absurd to even say "on the other hand" after that, but when Simon was engaged by the material and unencumbered by his prejudices, he could be a highly perceptive critic with a lively, illuminating style. Here he is, excerpted, on the Mike Nichols 1988 production of Waiting for Godot with Robin Williams and Steve Martin:
Beckett's Waiting for Godot is the tragedy of man comically told. Mike Nichols's Godot at Lincoln Center is the tragedy of an American theater turned  into shtick. With this fractured Godot, Nichols proves yet again (as if it were necessary) that he is one of the greatest directors of mediocre material. Not content with finding mediocrity where it so plentifully exists, he must create it where it isn't: in the heart of a masterpiece.

The reason Beckett is execrated in Communist countries and trivialized in capitalist ones is that neither ideology can accept his stance: a heroic negation  of any kind of salvation, so monumental  as to dwarf the myths of redemption according to Marx, Mammon, or the Judeo-Christian God. The only way man can endure his mortality and assorted miseries is with an epic vaudeville act: You only laugh when it hurts — and it hurts all the time. The sole surcease is death, the classic case of a cure worse than the malady. This is a laugh, all right, but not one that leaves the throat unlacerated...

Anyone who can have the barren tree, which in Act II sprouts "four or five leaves" and  prompts Vladimir's "It's covered with leaves," display only one leaf — thus changing a pathetically hopeful remark into an imbecile one — has no feeling or understanding for the play.
Now, I did not see this production and can't tell if its creators were slandered, but Simon's description of the play is not only sound but eloquent, and his criticisms of the production, while full of that lofty contempt that was really what made him famous ("if theatergoers are really so benighted that only this kind of Godot can reach them, they are not worth reaching. Beckett's God, or Godot, is absent; Nichols's Godot is dead"), at least provide negative examples that illuminate his description of the play's qualities. Click through the link to see his criticisms of the actors, which have nothing to do with their technique and everything to do with how Simon saw the characters and the play. All these years later we may have forgotten or never seen the production, but we do have, though limned for better or worse with Simon's acid, a good little essay on Beckett's drama in the form of a review. That's why his criticism is still worth reading.

I will add that Simon's Movies Into Film was a very helpful book when I was a teenage film freak, and that his film reviews in National Review during those years were, his faults once taken into account, well-balanced and had nothing to do with the loathsome politics among which they were set.

Excellent obituary by Robert D. McFadden at the New York Times here.

UPDATE. Kenneth Mars' performance in What's Up, Doc is clearly a John Simon rip, and very funny.

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