JOHN SIMON ON THEATER
By John Simon. Applause. 837 pp. $32.95
JOHN SIMON ON MUSIC
By John Simon. Applause. 504 pp. $27.95
JOHN SIMON ON FILM
By John Simon. Applause. 662 pp. $29.95
As difficult as it may be to believe today, there was a time when New York magazine was required reading, and not just in Manhattan. One of the principal attractions was the forceful, fiercely articulate and, on occasion, unnervingly brutal theater criticism of John Simon. At his best, he tossed and gored bad plays, players and playwrights with an unrivaled elegance; at his worst, he embarrassed his admirers by descending into a sort of glandular fury, as when he compared Liza Minnelli's face to that of a beagle. Still, whether one agreed with or even approved of him, for several decades, beginning in the 1960s, what Simon said mattered. Such was his combination of lofty erudition and feverish urgency that a reader might question the critic's humanity now and then, but never his brilliance.
Now Applause, a publisher of books on theater and film, has brought out a massive, three-volume collection of Simon's writings -- more than 2,000 pages of theater, film and music criticism from the past three decades. The books are edited sparsely and strangely, with minimal indexing, no indication as to the original publication dates of the reprinted articles, nor even the names of the magazines in which they first appeared.
Never mind. Simon's criticism can -- and does -- stand by itself. Of the three books, only the one devoted to music criticism is less than persuasive, made up as it is mostly of historical essays, knowledgeable and generally polite, about composers Simon admires -- Leos Janacek, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten and Bohuslav Martinu, for example, as well as the lesser-known Alberic Magnard, Alexandre Tansman and Rebecca Clarke. Simon's opinions here seem plausible but restrained, as though he was holding to an imaginary 50-yard line, and he rarely commands the natural music critic's gift for making notes sound from the page.
It is in the volumes of theater and film criticism that we find the essence of John Simon. Indeed, he knows the theatrical repertoire well enough to include several different reviews of some of its greatest plays -- "King Lear," "The Misanthrope," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" -- and each disparate review deepens our understanding of the subject at hand. "What a critic can and should do is make you think as you read him, develop your own ideas and taste in agreement or disagreement, or a mixture of the two," he once wrote, and this Simon does magnificently.
Indeed, Simon is a courageous enough critic to disagree with himself: He follows no orthodoxy, and he is more than willing to judge anew. "I shamefacedly admit that, like some colleagues, I did not in 1971 recognize the greatness of [Stephen Sondheim's] 'Follies,' " he writes. Decades of sustained attack on the work of Edward Albee leave the reader startled to read Simon's confession that "if someone had told me how good [Albee's] 'Three Tall Women' (1991) is, I wouldn't have believed him; I hardly believed my own eyes and ears." Setting aside the "Two Thumbs Up!" inanities that pass for criticism on television, saying that one "liked" something or didn't is the least of the job; more important by far are the reasons for that judgment, which Simon is happy to provide: "What Albee has wrestled down here is his self-contradictory tendency toward attitudinizing hauteur and lowdown nastiness to the extent that rudiments of both are still there, they have been polished and domesticated: there is no longer the freakish feel of a keyboard being played only at its two extremities." Has there ever been a truer and more comprehensive sentence written about Albee?
Simon's film criticism is equally independent and unpredictable. He is the author of a book on Ingmar Bergman and can generally be counted among the Swedish director's most rhapsodic admirers, but he disliked "Cries and Whispers," and he was all but unique in his negative reaction to "Fanny and Alexander." Similarly, while the rest of the world was busy swooning, Simon recognized and deplored the festering narcissism of Woody Allen's "Manhattan." And yet he was one of the few critics to recognize immediately that "Crimes and Misdemeanors" was a work of art -- that the "serious" Woody had finally lived up to his pretensions -- and Simon hailed the film's "courage in confronting grave and painful questions of the kind the American cinema has been doing its damnedest to avoid."
Simon does not much care for the avant-garde in any field, whether the music of Philip Glass, the fanciful operatic "updatings" from director Peter Sellars or the ambitious and unsettling ensemble work of filmmaker P.T. Anderson. (He dismisses "Magnolia" in half a sentence, calling it "certifiably insane" -- which may indeed be true but will never keep some of us from finding it deeply fascinating.) I'm sorry that he seems to have missed some of the best small films of the last few years -- "Crumb," "Last Night" and "Election" come to mind -- for it would be interesting to have his take on their quirky excellences.
I will confess that I looked forward eagerly to the evisceration of some of my own pet hates -- "A Chorus Line," "Forrest Gump" and "Titanic" among them -- only to discover, to my ignoble regret, that Simon likes (or at least doesn't despise) them. I suspect that he has become rather gentler as he has matured, with greater forgiveness for his fellow mortals. Eventually, many, perhaps most, of our better critics cast out the very spirit -- call it the "inner Robespierre" -- that impelled them to take up reviewing in the first place. *
Tim Page is the classical music critic for The Washington Post.