His genius lay in the understated observation and quick repartee among his characters...It was almost as if he was the natural successor of Oscar Wilde.
At a conference once, someone mentioned that William Shakespeare has been appropriated as an Indian playwright. His plays are staged in numerous languages, and all over the country. With so many liberties taken, that it's often unrecognisable from the Bard's original text. However his 38 plays have a mythic and epic quality that seemed to blend very well with the Indian psyche, particularly our folk traditions. Part of the reason for this is his huge canon of work. Almost as prolific was American playwright Neil Simon, who passed away this weekend. Neil Simon will probably be remembered as one of the most significant voices of 20th century. His effortless dialogue, quick wit, and human stories made him a favourite of Broadway. Most of his stories revolved around Manhattan. But in the counterpoint to Miller, his plays ended with hope.
But the most stand out feature across all his work was his command over words and ability to capture dialogue that was both real, and yet elevated. His comedies were not a seriesof jokes, or bumbling characters like Woody Allen or outrageous situations like a Ray Cooney farce. His genius lay in the understated observation and quick repartee among his characters. His characters were intelligent and quick-witted. It was almost as if he was the natural successor of Oscar Wilde. His impact can be clearly seen in the modern day sitcom writing of television shows like Arrested Development, Modern Family, Friends, and the like. He directly influenced the dialogue style of playwrights like Donald Marguiles (Dinner with Friends), Christopher Durang (Beyond Therapy), and Aaron Sorkin (Social Network, The West Wing).
His plays, by and large, talked about city life. Most of his plots were set in Manhattan. His characters were usually Jewish or Italian, so the stories placed a huge importance on family and relationships. There was always an element of romance, and the way he wrote about love, was insightful and uplifting at the same time. That's probably why he was so popular in the urban India of the 1980s and 90s. My earliest memory of a Neil Simon play was watching Cyrus Broacha debut in Brighton Beach Memoirs directed by Pearl Padamsee in the mid-eighties. From then on he became very much part of my theatrical life. I watched productions of Biloxi Blues, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Sunshine Boys, The Odd Couple (male and female versions), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (in Hindi and English), Jake’s Women, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Barefoot in the Park, Rumours, and many others.
And all this was only in Bombay. Simultaneously, there were multiple productions of his plays happening in Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta,and Madras (as it was called then).
His relatable characters also make him a favourite among youth groups. In fact one of the first plays I was ever in was a college production of The Gingerbread Lady. In it he tackled alcoholism, homophobia, self-obsession, and anxiety, but without ever getting preachy or didactic. My only other Neil Simon production was years later, when I produced the Kunaal Roy Kapur directed version of Chapter Two, which tackled complicated relationship issues in the most mature and nuanced way I have ever encountered.
Neil Simon probably won't be remembered as fondly in classrooms as Brecht or Becket or Miller or even Osbourne who all spawned enduring literary movements. But his contribution to modern day theatre cannot be underestimated. He was probably the closest thing the twentieth century had to a Shakespeare: a huge canon of work, incredible commercial success of his plays, a mastery of language, and an innate ability to capture the human experience in a simple turn of phrase.
The writer is a Bombay based theatre-holic. He works primarily as a theatre-director for arts management company QTP, who also manage the youth theatre movement Thespo.