THE PLAY GOES ON

A Memoir

By Neil Simon

Simon & Schuster. 348 pp. $27

When readers last encountered Neil Simon -- three years ago, in the closing pages of Rewrites, his first volume of memoirs -- he was at the low point of his life. He had achieved immense success with his Broadway plays and Hollywood scripts, but the death in 1973 of his beloved wife, Joan, at the age of 40 had left him awash in "lethargy and despondency." He suffered from "numbness, inertia and confusion, leading to a frightening inability to make a decision, trivial or otherwise." Overnight he had become the single parent of two daughters, aged 10 and 15, and much though he adored them, he hadn't a clue as to what came next.

But life, like the play, goes on. This second volume is the story of how Simon put his life back together, albeit in a hit-or-miss fashion, and of how he revived his career after a long slump that threatened to leave him "a has-been, and a has-been is nothing more than a newcomer whose promise has eroded." The sharp humor and flashes of genuine wit for which he is deservedly noted are occasionally on display here, but not as often as in Rewrites; by contrast with that chronicle of a young man's rise to renown and something approximating fortune, this time he has a darker story to tell, so not surprisingly his mood is considerably more somber.

Simon is now in his early seventies, and can look back on an incredibly productive career that shows no signs of faltering despite the usual diminution of energy brought about by advancing years. He has written dozens of plays and scripts, many of which -- "Barefoot in the Park," "The Odd Couple," "The Goodbye Girl," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues," "Broadway Bound" -- have worked their way into the heart of 20th-century American culture. He began as a straightforward comic writer (his early training included a stint writing gags for Sid Caesar), but for about a quarter century he has been writing in a genre that he calls "a serious comedy or a funny drama, a sort of hybrid." As he describes it:

"What was odd about my plays was that when they were funny, they were true comedies, and when they were dramatic, they dealt with everyday people faced with serious dilemmas. What was confounding and somewhat annoying to many critics was that I was attempting to do both things in the same play. They felt I was being neither true to the comedy nor true to the drama. Since most audiences seemed to like what I was doing, however, there was the paradox of my having a great many hits that critics did not praise. It's hard to sell tickets to plays that critics frown on, yet the audiences came anyway. Since I was committing the cardinal sin of being popular without their stamp of approval, the critics (not all, but a lot) banished me to the Devil's Island of the Arts by designating me `Not Important'."

This is entirely true, but it's rather puzzling that Simon seems not to understand that he is scarcely the first person to suffer from critical misunderstanding and/or hostility. American literati, among whom many "critics" fancy themselves to be numbered, have always regarded popular success as evidence of artistic inferiority and have punished those who achieve it accordingly. The roll call of artists and writers who have suffered attacks from those less fortunate is long and distinguished, including as it does the likes of George Gershwin, John P. Marquand, Irwin Shaw, Louis Armstrong, Ferde Grofe, Scott Turow and Anne Tyler. Simon should content himself with the great eclat he enjoys and stop worrying about what some newspaper twit writes about him.

But that's probably never going to happen because Simon, as he readily admits, suffers from a hefty dose of insecurities. "I never felt inferior while in the act of writing," he says, so his solution was to write and write and write. He quotes David Mamet -- "Writing is the thing you do so that you don't have to think about the things you'd rather not think of" -- and says: "That was me, or a version of that. If there were things I didn't want to think of, they must have been infinite because the writing never slowed up."

The success of his writing contrasted sharply with the ups and downs of his personal life. His relationship with his daughters seems to have been loving and mutually fulfilling, but his efforts to fill the void left by Joan's death were too often hasty, inept and frustrating. He "faced the prospect of `dating' " with the same apprehensions felt by most other people of a certain age who find themselves back in the market at a point in their lives when they expected to be safely anchored. People respond to those tensions in different ways. Simon's was to leap before he looked, first into marriage with the lovely and gifted actress Marsha Mason (for whom he wrote "The Goodbye Girl") and then into marriage, divorce, remarriage and re-divorce to Diane Lander, an aspiring actress whom he met while she was doing a turn at the cosmetics counter in Neiman Marcus.

All the evidence indicates that there was genuine love in these entanglements, but there was also one huge problem: Simon simply couldn't get Joan out of his mind. Of one painful incident in his second marriage, in which he let memories of Joan get in the way of his duties to Mason, Simon writes: "Joan had popped up once again, getting in the way of our marriage." He kept pictures of Joan on display in the office where he worked in the house he and Mason bought in Los Angeles, about which he can bring himself only to say, "that didn't seem to be a problem with Marsha, mostly because I chose to think it wasn't." Or, as he puts it in what is surely the biggest understatement to be found in this book: "I knew I couldn't have met anyone righter than Joan, and perhaps there was my problem."

There's nothing surprising about this. Simon has made a career out of writing about himself -- all his best plays and films draw, in one way or another, on his experiences and his inner life -- so it stands to reason that he's had trouble, as a husband, looking outside himself. His ability to mock and laugh at himself clears him of charges of narcissism, but he's self-absorbed to the point where, by his own testimony, he has trouble being with another person on mutually acceptable terms rather than those set by him. While it's understandable that he's been haunted by the loss of Joan, it's also regrettable -- for others as much as for himself -- that he has been unable to let her go.

But he is who he is. If insecurity and loss have troubled his private life, they have also been the raw material from which much of his best work has been fashioned. No, he is not Eugene O'Neill or Samuel Beckett or Tennessee Williams, "the greats that I wanted to emulate," but he has written the best-loved American plays of his day, and the best of them are very good indeed. He's earned the right to look back with pride rather than defensiveness, so the unsolicited counsel from this quarter is: Lighten up.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.