Books » Book Features

Simon Says

Critic John Simon: a matter of opinion.



Time was, you could go to New York and look to its theater critic, John Simon. No more. On May 10th, Simon was dismissed from that magazine after serving there for 37 years.

Time was, you could turn to New Leader and look to its film critic, John Simon. You can still turn to Simon when it comes to film, but to do it you have to go to National Review. (You, or anybody you know, read National Review?)

And time was, Simon mattered because his opinion mattered, because the art of criticism mattered, and maybe it still does, but where in the popular press and according to what widespread audience? Those benchmarks of the middlebrow, Time or Newsweek? You're either joking or reaching for rock-bottom. The New Yorker? To an extent, since that magazine still accords its writers the space to think. But since when did The New Yorker create a critical stir, the kind of stir Simon once could cause whether it was in print or on talk television?

Since the days of New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, you say, but those days are gone, as is Kael (but not her followers). As is Dwight Macdonald writing on film for Esquire, for those ancient enough to remember him. As is Charles Thomas Samuels writing on film for American Scholar, for the handful who still miss him. Dead and gone, and maybe thankful. You try, week in and week out, sitting through, responding to, and writing smart about the stuff thrown up on screen. "If they weren't cretins when they started out," Simon once wrote of movie reviewers, "surely they must be feeble-minded by now," which makes them Roger Ebert.

But is the current scene on stage any better? To judge from Simon's review of Edward Albee's 2002 Tony Award-winner for best play, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, no. And if you didn't see Simon's piece in New York, see it in John Simon on Theater: Criticism 1974-2003. It's a play (you have to ask?) Simon despised.

As Simon is despised by those who profess a love of movies and theater. But who's the one in love? Those who take exception to Simon's demanding eye and ear? Or Simon, ever sensitive to that higher aim, which is art?

No, Simon doesn't mince words. Yes, he can blisteringly comment on a performer's God-given appearance. But, man, can he write, and, boy, is he bright, whether he's adding fresh insight to a masterpiece such as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night or, in John Simon on Film: Criticism 1982-2001, disposing of something called The Rapture ("a piece of apocalyptic trash megalomaniacal to the point of near imbecility").

Thanks to Applause Books, which has also just published John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005, decades of Simon are now in hardback. New York's loss is its own business. Simon still matters to me.

Add a comment