Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I just finished a highly important and enjoyable book, two virtues that do not all that often appear in tandem. It is The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Subtitled “A History of Proper English,” it is by far the best history of the English language, excitingly and amusingly told in part though striking quotations and entertaining anecdotes. It is based on extensive research, and references a vast number of impressive sources, proving in equal measure history and usage guidebook, as Publishers Weekly rightly observed. Also a splendid example of how to write informatively and wittily on a subject that should be of interest to everyone involved with the English language—by, for instance, speaking and writing it—and indispensable to anyone professionally engaged with it.

Among the innumerable fascinating data I gleaned from it, I single out here the admirable pages about censorship, which succinctly but thoroughly adduce scary and ludicrous specimens of censorship as well as taboo. (The chapter that comprises them is drolly entitles “Unholy Shit.”) That Hitchings is also a theater critic for the London Evening Standard further endears him to me. It may even induce me to seek out his earlier books.

Hitchings discusses Thomas Bowdler, whose The Family Shakespeare (1818) was a popular edition of Shakespeare’s plays that “omitted any words that ‘cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family’—stripping away anything sexual, yet retaining the violence.” A slight compensation for his extensive impoverishments is Bowdler’s one posthumous contribution to the English language, the verb “bowdlerize.” One review of the work accused Bowdler of having “castrated, cauterized and phlebotomized” Shakespeare, which got me thinking about, among other things, castration.

I perceive it as a cruel and unusual punishment, even when it is mandatorily imposed on pedophiles. These, currently very much in the limelight, what with certain low practices in institutions of higher learning, should sternly be punished. That should involve jail sentences and, afterward, preemptive measures such as electronic and other surveillance, housing restrictions, and so forth. But not castration, however much it may have formerly done for young boys’ singing voice. It is not even surefire protection against misdeeds, as it does not wholly eliminate the libido, and can prevent only penetration, but not molestation.

This brings me to the story of Abelard and Heloise, and the dreadful emasculation of the excellent man by the hired thugs of the vicious Canon Fulbert, who incorrectly believed that his niece, Heloise, had somehow been ruined by Abelard, her loving and beloved teacher (and secret husband), a great and noble philosopher and theologian.

Their story has been treated in various works of literature and theater, one of the latter, Ronald Millar’s “Abelard & Heloise,” performed on Broadway by Keith Michell and Diana Rigg in 1971. I quote from my review, as reprinted in Uneasy Stages.
                                                                                                                                                                  The play is billed as “inspired by” Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard though “inspired” is hardly a word I would use in this context. All I remember of that dryish book by a fine scholar and translator but unwieldy novelist is the character of Gilles de Vannes, modeled on Miss Waddell’s beloved teacher George Saintsbury . . . the only character in the [Millar] play who has any life. Abelard and Heloise have fired the imaginations of such diverse writers as Alexander Pope and George Moore, and there are respectable but uninspired plays on the subject by Roger Vailland and James Forsyth. To these Millar’s work may be appended as the last and least.

For Millar does not convey anything to us: neither life in the Middle Ages nor the conflict of God and Eros during the heyday of the Church; neither Abelard the great dialectician and teacher, nor Abelard the masterly poet. But perhaps one could bypass all these in favor of the tragic love story (and castration is arguably more tragic than death, if only one had the language, the poetry, the fervor. But if you write lines like [here I skip three incriminating samples of dialogue], you are not fit to write a play about these lovers—at best perhaps, about the Windsors or Onassises.

The production contained a most discreet (not to say castrated) nude scene, showing the lovers only on a darkened stage, briefly, and in profile, but sufficient to elicit from me that Ms. Rigg “is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses.” This remark has fueled comments, amused but mostly disapproving, in numerous publications, notably in Ms. Rigg’s delightful book about negative criticism, No Turn Unstoned. In it, the charming and highly literate actress observes, “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn’t read the review.”

I now regret having written this, but at least I incurred a slight punishment. Absolutely everyone who quotes my line has it wrongly “a brick mausoleum,” whether derived from Ms. Rigg or from any of several anthologies of quotations that incorrectly include it. Now “brick mausoleum,” besides denying me the alliteration in B, makes no sense. A basilica is an early form of Christian church built on an ancient Roman model, and much simpler, chaster, narrower than the later cathedrals, and definitely devoid of anything like a flying buttress. A takeoff on the expression “built like a brick shithouse” for a bosomy woman, it has appropriately some relevance to medieval architecture, but none whatever to a mausoleum. Unfortunately, the wits or wiseacres who misquote me know nothing about a basilica, not even the word. Oh well, grander people have been misquoted in the prints: Marie Antoinette never said that thing about eating cake, and Voltaire never said that thing about fighting to the death for someone’s right to disagree with him.

One other play involving castration, a just slightly better one (play, that is, not castration) is Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” The hero, Chance, has seduced the ingĂ©nue, Heavenly, and caused an abortion that left her sterile. He evinces what Kenneth Tynan has called “an obscure awareness” that he must let himself be castrated by the henchmen of Heavenly’s father, a beastly Southern political boss, by way of expiation of his guilt.  Moreover, as Tynan writes, he “begs us, in parting, to understand him, and to recognize ourselves in him.”

“For my part,” Tynan continues, “I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure.” And he goes on to make pertinent, perceptive comments, including wonder about why the action begins on Easter Sunday: “Is castration to be equaled with resurrection?”

Well, come to think of it, I can recall another play of sorts, where it is equaled with redemption, two kinds of it no less. In Yugoslavia in my high-school days, religious instruction was compulsory. One day when the instructor was late, I improvised a  little miracle play, based on a picture from one of my father’s books with the caption “Saint Origen castrating himself for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom.” (Note: not Tennessee Williams’s Heavenly,)

So, for my playlet, I picked the prettiest girl in the class and had her kneel before me as I brandished a ruler representing a cutlass, and, turning my rapt gaze at the ceiling, loudly proclaimed, “I castrate myself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” The pretty blonde was supposed to supplicate me not to do it.  Just then the instructor arrived, and, though I am not quite sure about Origen (it seems the Catholic church has revoked his sainthood), I was barred from further religious instruction, which I hailed as a most welcome redemption.

That may have been the only time in dramatic and religious history when castration, even if only mimed, has proved beneficial.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


There is a great deal about critics that Americans do not understand. First of all, the difference between what a critic writes for public consumption and what he is in private life. The two are hardly identical.

This comment is provoked by letters to or about me, by talk in the chat rooms, and by occasional references to me and my work in the prints. What it boils down to usually is that I am a good or witty writer, but that my criticism is too cruel or mean, and that I must be a very bitter and unhappy man indeed.

That stuff is based on two, as I see it, misconceptions. First, that criticism must never be that ferocious (I would prefer stern, strict or severe); and second, that such a critic must be a frustrated and embittered human being. Let me try to correct these egregious errors.

Why should a critic in private life be what he is on the page? Does a surgeon go to a party with a scalpel at the ready to cut up his fellow invitees? Does a gardener arrive hoe in hand and start belaboring the hostess’s Persian rugs? Is a cook wielding his spoons not only in the kitchen but also all over the house? Would a ballerina wear her tutu at the supermarket? The tools of one’s trade are not glued to one’s hands or hips.

So, too, with a critic. He (or she) experiences a play exactly the way any civilized audience member does, although he (or she) does not hoot his approval or disapproval loudly at he end, does not talk or fidget in his seat during performance, and does not leap to his feet for standing ovations—although he might if an event truly called for a standing ovation. All this as a normal human being, not as so much of today’s audiences as lunatics laughing loudly at the feeblest jokes (or even none), and beleaguering the stage door as a crowd of maniacs wielding devices for autographing or photographing.

No, the critic is just another human being, whose job it is to write a review rather than a play, short story, or political column. And one who doesn’t allow a stomach ache or spat with his spouse to color his judgment and take it out on the piece under review. If necessary, he’ll count to a hundred before starting to write. Only, please, don’t take that hundred literally; it might also be a night’s sleep.

What may set him off, though, is that he will have certain standards, certain expectations that set him off from the average theatergoer who, worse luck, may also be a reviewer.(Kindly don’t ask me to go again, for the nth time, into the difference between a mere journalistic scribe, the reviewer, and someone to whom dramatic criticism is a branch of literary criticism—who writes for a literate readership and perhaps even, he hopes, for the future.

Well, here goes anyway. The critic may make some allowances, but he cannot forget that there once was a Moliere, a Chekhov, a Wilde, a Tennessee Williams or, in criticism, a Shaw, a Beerbohm, an Eric Bentley, a Kenneth Tynan.. Clearly, I am thinking here of theater criticism; but a similar distinction obtains for criticism of all the arts. In other words, why shouldn’t a current contender be held up for measuring, mutatis mutandis, against past champions? Is there any reason why Rodgers and Hart shouldn’t be able to stand up to Gilbert and Sullivan?

Yes, yes, you say, but must a mere shortcoming be savaged?  It may be all right for Edward Albee not to be up to Strindberg, for Arthur Miller not to equal Ibsen, for David Mamet not to be another O’Neill. Granted. But what if “Urinetown” cannot even compete with “Our Town”? What if “The Book of Mormon” cannot even hold its own against “Cabaret”?

And why shouldn’t the critic become outraged when drivel like “Passing Strange” or “Once” is hailed as if it were the like of “Pal Joey” or “Lady in he Dark”? But even if our reviewers did not go ape over garbage, as they all too often do, should one not tear into such unpardonables as the Sam Waterston “Lear” or a Frank Wildhorn musical? What, for heaven’s sake, was the kick in the butt invented for?

Consider, if you will, what Jacques Barzun wrote as a blurb for one of my books—it could have been for any of several others: “Not because he is violent in expression but because he feels strongly and thinks clearly about drama, about art and about conduct, I think John Simon’s criticism extremely important and a pleasure to read. And by the way, who has decreed that violence in a playwright is splendid and violence in a critic unforgivable?”

Or here is what Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1966 to the editor of Esquire about why he should hire me rather than Pauline Kael as film critic: “Simon has a much wider and deeper cultural background . . . I mean he knows and has thought more about other ‘fields’–-ugh—like books, theater, and art—and also because his work seems to me to show an interest in what I think is the point: whether the film is any good aesthetically . . . a much richer and more daring kind of criticism than Pauline’s.”

And here is Wilfrid Sheed in response to Andrew Sarris’s attack: “Sarris’s case against Simon is not so easy to make out, since Andy tends to scream and pull hair when he fights: but it seems, like most Simonology, to take off from Simon’s Transylvanian accent, and the remoteness from American reality which that implies. Simon is, to be sure, not your typical American boy. He staggers under a formidable load of cultural baggage, gathered at a time and place (middle-century Central Europe) when and where it did seem possible to grasp all that Art was doing; to make, as Mr. Simon can, a good fist at criticizing music, painting, sculpture, theater, the works.”

I rest my case, except about that jocular “Transylvanian accent,” which Sheed, incidentally, did not subscribe to but merely used as a comic summary of Sarris’s argument.. My accent is admittedly slightly foreign, but not, as Andrew would imply, Draculan or Lugosian. I would say it is more like that of an American or British actor trying to sound Continental European, and, I am happy to report, has proved rather pleasing to some charming American women who have lent an ear--and more--to it.