From all accounts the base closings proposed last week are hitting the country hard and causing understandable consternation and anger. Lost in this news was a more outrageous shutdown of a long-time defender of the nation’s cultural security.
John Simon was unceremoniously dumped last week as New York magazine’s theater critic, a few days before his 80th birthday. It’s a position he’s filled for 37 years and as such was probably the last readable writer left at the increasingly consumerist weekly. Regardless, given Simon’s exceptional erudition, intelligence, productivity, unbudgeable intellectual honesty and integrity — and wit — it’s a crime what they’ve done to him. A swinish, unforgiveable crime.
Of course I’m taking it personally. I’ve been reading Simon for some four decades, ever since I first came across him in the New Leader, where he was film critic. Later he would review movies for Esquire and then National Review, retiring from the latter several years ago. It’s not surprising that NR has yet to replace him. Simon came of age when “critic” meant something. Readers would rely on him for brilliance, impeccable knowledge, and fine writing. The clarity of his thought was a constant. It’s thus no accident he also wrote about language and defended English against its corrupters. Or that all his writing was done in longhand. (His letters are models, among other things, of the cleanest penmanship.) An entirely modern man, he has ended up a one-man force against the onslaught of ugliness, vulgarity, cant, trendiness, and dirt that has taken over our times.
It was thus fitting that the cheapest reaction to Simon’s demise appeared on Arianna Huffington’s new website from none other than theater bad boy David Mamet. Reacting to the news that Simon had been “fired” from a post “he long disgraced,” Mamet said Simon “has finally done something for the American Theatre.” I suppose Mamet should be congratulated for not resorting to a single four-letter word in his brief commentary. What had Simon ever done to him? Surely not close down one of his productions? Simon never had that kind of power; it wasn’t what interested him. Nor did Simon keep him from becoming a darling of the theater set. One can only conclude Mamet loathed him because Simon saw right through him. Consider the current revival of Mamet’s ever crude Glengarry Glen Ross. From all indications, the reviews have ranged from gushing to fawning to respectful. With one exception. Here’s just one paragraph from Simon’s May 16 review. Who’s the cat and who’s the rat, er, mouse?
Mamet’s own, most idiosyncratic contribution is reveling in obscenity and scatology. Thus one twelve-word speech of Richard Roma’s in Glengarry contains five “fuck”s and one “fucking.” In the printed play, two “fuck”s are italicized, one also capitalized; three, plus the one “fucking,” are in capitals. The 1984 play, you may recall, takes place in a Chicago real-estate office — Mamet worked in one — where a bunch of hardened hucksters hustle worthless Florida land developments with those fancy Scottish monikers. A foulmouthed gang they are, though I doubt that even these guys would talk such mangled and mephitic Mametese. Glengarry‘s two acts last 105 minutes; I reckon that just by cutting the “dirty” words, the whole thing could be turned into a slightly oversize one-acter.
But Simon has also met the enemy, and it isn’t merely the playwright.
The night I attended, just about every “fuck” got at least a laugh somewhere in the house, and a spate of such language never failed to unleash gales of laughter. Any piece of devious one-upmanship pulled by the sleazy characters elicited thunderous approval, even applause. Clearly, this play is something not just to watch but to be wallowed in.
As always, Simon’s last word captures the bigger picture:
Of course, there’ll always be reviewers and audiences who groove on Mamet’s cloacal litanies, cataracts of cacology, and the nastily clever — but not all that clever — verbal power games that all gleefully indulge in. Whoever wants this is welcome to it; mud wrestling also has its dedicated fans. But what are we to make of a theater — of a culture — that considers this stuff high art?
Swine can only respond in one way to pearls like that. They set it in motion last week. This summer Applause Books will publish three volumes of Simon’s criticism. It had better be the cause of major celebration, long overdue tributes — and a very serious apology.