Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Playbill's recap of the career of John Simon, on the occasion of his dumpage from New York magazine (and his replacement by a writer 52 years younger) is pretty funny. I feel a certain sympathy for Simon on the basis that there must be some good in any critic who stands accused of being insufficiently encouraging to theatre people. Critics who try to be encouraging to theatre people usually wind up giving good reviews to promising but bad plays on the basis of wanting to see the good in them, or be "constructive." I think the first duty of a reviewer should be to the reader who wants to know whether this play is worth the investment of money and time, and that means that if a play is overall a failure, he should say so.

That said, Edward Albee's evaluation of him, that "There is no excuse for John Simon, except his own need to create a John Simon," seems about right. Simon's theatre reviews have dated badly because they're all about him; unlike, say, Walter Kerr, who had an idea of what he wanted theatre to be (a controversially show-bizzy, commercial idea, but an idea), Simon didn't seem to have any particular ideas about theatre other than that he likes good plays better than bad ones. He was still more entertaining than most critics -- as a theatre critic, anyway.

He was about the worst movie critic of his era, though, a walking self-parody of the type of movie "fan" that sprung up in the late '50s and early '60s, the type who didn't actually like movies but liked the possibility of what movies could become if they could be turned into Art. Or, as Pauline Kael summed it up in 1963: "In the last few years there has appeared a new kind of filmgoer: he isn’t interested in movies but in cinema." Simon, who worshipped all the late-'50s arthouse gods (his idol was Ingmar Bergman and he compared all other filmmakers unfavorably to Ingmar), proclaimed that America had produced "much cinematic entertainment but very little cinematic art," didn't care for Renoir even though he grudgingly acknowledged that The Rules of the Game was good, and seemed upset to hear Bergman speak with respect of Alfred Hitchcock, was like the real-life equivalent of those two guest characters in that Dick Van Dyke Show episode who start a conversation about moviegoing with the question "Don't you just love foreign movies?"

And, as I usually do in posts about criticism, I'll quote these lines from Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl:

GEORGINA: I don't call that an opinion. Just a nasty, insulting --

CLARK: I see! You only wanted a favorable opinion.

GEORGINA: Nobody wants criticism that's just destructive. I say if a critic can't be constructive --

CLARK: You mean you want the critic to do the creative job that you failed to do? If that's his function, we might as well dispense with the writer in the first place.

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