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.


  1. Oh my gosh, is Simon shadowed by doubt?
    Then, heaven should send Clarence to intercept Simon's jumping off the Brooklyn bridge. Clarence will then show the what the world would have been like if John Simon hadn't been born. Finally, Simon will see the light and realize it's been a wonderful career.

    And here's to our critic, the biggest man in town.

  2. Worthy footnote to John Simon's magisterial A CRITICAL CREDO:

    Kael? Macdonald? We are dust, but in cyberspace, eternal dust. Link below to John Simon, Pauline Kael, and Dwight Macdonald discussing films such as HUD and 8-1/2 with Roger Rosenblatt from a 1963 recorded encounter:

  3. It is Simon's personal attacks on a performer's looks that are completely unnecessary and rude and crude.

  4. Esquire would have done better with Simon than Kael cuz it's a men's magazine. Otoh, Esquire was never a highbrow mag, so I'm not sure an Ivy Leaguer would have been best. Most movies are meant for the masses, and your average Esquire reader wasn't into Kultur.
    Kael had the greatest enthusiasm for movies as the people's art. Most movies are more like pop songs, broadway musicals, or rock concerts than classical music or avant garde music concerts. Like rock music, it calls for certain kinds of critics.

    Also, erudite doesn't necessarily mean the most sensible or judicious. Many historians know more facts and figures, but they are idiots just the same. If erudition matters so much, any older critic would be superior to any younger critic.

    As regards to Sarris, he didn't cast the first stone. It was Simon who kept needling him to the point where poor Sarris couldn't take it anymore.

    Another thing. Though everyone divides his personal and professional lives, this is easier said than done for people whose professions require a certain amount of personal invective. Simon, for instance, didn't just professionaly criticize Streisand's ugly features and lack of talent but took offense almost personally.

    And what if someone who attacked Simon publicly were to say, "I only meant it professionally when I said I think Simon is a nasty vicious fool, NOT personally. I mean Simon the critic, not Simon the man."
    You see how disingenuous it sounds?

  5. "It is Simon's personal attacks on a performer's looks that are completely unnecessary and rude and crude."

    Sometimes this is true. But Simon is spot on in cases where the character is supposed to be attractive but is played by some ugly actress. It's like having white guy in blackface playing a black man. If a role calls for a pretty woman, use a pretty woman, not an ugly woman in pretty face(which is never convincing).

  6. I think the face is to movies what voice is to music.
    We want people who can sing to sing well. We laugh at people who can't sing on AMERICAN IDOL.

    Now, one may argue that the singing ability is more like acting ability. After all, even an ugly person can sing really well.
    So, why can't we praise an ugly person for acting well in the role of a pretty character? This may be truer on stage, but the dynamic is different for movies with huge looming images.
    While acting ability is crucial in movies--a pretty woman who can't act is as pathetic as an ugly woman pretending to be attractive--, one looks are also very important as to whether a performance works or not. No way could Rosanne Barr do justice to MILDRED PIERCE or GONE WITH THE WIND--except as farce.

    Of course, not all actors need be good-looking. Similarly, not all singing need be pleasant or pretty. It can be funny, weird, threatening, dark, etc. Different songs call for different styles and expressions. But they all have to be right for what they are. It's like Danny Devito is great as comic actor but wouldn't work as 007.

    Similarly, not all movie roles are appealing. Some call for crazy, weird, vile, or oddball characters/looks. So, midgets work just fine in a Fellini movie. But if a midget were to play Rhett Butler in GONE WITH WIND, that wouldn't work too well. Or, if Brook Shields were to play an ugly woman, that wouldn't work either.
    So, to each his own.

  7. Yet Charlize Theron playing an ugly woman works because she is an ACTRESS!! I am not a fan of Liza Minnelli's but his remark about her looks (just one example) were way out of line.
    Plus theatre is a different medium than movies-- what YOU may classify as ugly can give the illusion on stage of beauty--many Broadway STARS are far from pretty but are revered for their talent which gives that illusion of beauty.
    And he, generally, picks on the looks of women!
    Again personal attacks on a physical appearance is unnecessary unless you are looking for attention.

  8. Beautifully expressed, as always. And the accent is, as ever, charming to this American ear.

  9. Great Martin, Simon is more sensitive to women's looks cuz he's a man, something that he never hid. Your non-stop bitching tells me you're probably a fruit.

    Also, looks count more on women than on men. Why do women wear make up and dresses? It's cuz women are more into looking good. To overlook this and pretend both sexes should be judged as if interchangeable is silly.

    As for Theron playing ugly women, isn't she taking roles away from ugly women who need the job? I say let ugly play ugly and let pretty play pretty. It's like we use manure for fertilizing fields and we use butter for creamcake. I wanna keep it that way.

    As for Liza Minnelli, she always looked like a cross between Betty Boop and a goldfish. Never liked her. She wasn't much of a singer either. In fact, had it not been for the fact that her mother was Judy Garland, I don't think she would have much of career.

  10. I'm entertained that Simon, who is, essentially, the janitor sweeping afterwards, appears to regard himself as some sort of keeper of the literary flame. No, he does not "elevate" the art through his pants kicks any more than one gardens by excoriating the unweeded petunias. It's equally absurd arbitrarily to measure the vernacular entertainment of one era by the masterpieces of another.

    For all his grandstanding, I find Simon ignorant where it most matters--understanding how a piece of theatre succeeds or fails. If his evening's entertainment falls short, he spews inarticulately rather than illuminating.

    I do congratulate the guy for crafting a career being more-arrogant-than-thou. It's ashamed he chose to spend so much time viewing the work of creators he so disrespects.

  11. to lawofetern
    'a fruit'???????????????????
    OMG!!! LOL
    'whiteface in blackface'
    'I wanna keep it that way.'
    'non-stop bitching'

    Are you suppose to be taken seriously? I think at 90 you might be a little (a lot?) senile--give it up!

  12. Mr. Simon asks the supremely rhetorical question:

    ...should one not tear into such unpardonables as the Sam Waterston “Lear”...?

    I haven't seen Waterston as Lear; I didn't even know about it until just now. Waterston with his hispid tufts deepening his beady eyes and his nodding palsy passing for gravitas only scraped by as Lincoln by fitting to a tee a skraeling caricature of our 16th President. A Waterston Lear: A more useful torture for the inmates at Guantanamo I cannot imagine.

    By contrast, Albert Finney in The Dresser -- merely in playing an actor playing Lear with all of the scenes taking place offstage in his dressing room while his personal demons torture his insecurities in measuring up to the role -- had more true Lear in his little pinky (let alone his terrifying blue eyes) than Waterston could ever hope to embody if he tried for eternity.

  13. "To me, it's proof of the uncultivatedness of society that it boggles at severe criticism."

    Simon said this to Jon Winokur about 25 years ago (I think), & it's as true today as it was then.

    @Susan G., you've very conveniently but very inaccurately reduced Simon's work to unalloyed vitriol, grandstanding, arrogance, & pointlessness. I'm curious: have you read any of his essays in his book "Singularities"? Some of the essays I have in mind--on "Peer Gynt," on "The Wild Duck"--have in my view immeasurable critical & literary value; & these together with other essays of his from elsewhere (for example, his writings on Schnitzler, on Shaw, on Robert Lowell, on Wilde, on Marlowe) have taught me much more about theater & art in general than many a study by other theater critics or scholars. I find Simon's work at its best or even just near-best astute, steeped in cultural knowledge, aesthetically pleasurable to read, & able to maintain these notable characteristics even several decades after its writing.

  14. From my vantage point somewhere considerably below that of Mr. Simon, yet with a gift, perhaps, of an eye for things beyond me -- or at least beyond my grasp -- I see several realms, as it were, in this regard:

    1) the realm of great art

    2) the realm of those who can truly appreciate realm 1, and who are capable of articulating that appreciation with a measure of art themselves

    3) the realm of those who have glimmers of an appreciation for realm 1, but also recognize, not without some pain and shame, their distance from it

    4) the realm of those who cannot appreciate realm 1 and don't care, but would rather be working on a car engine, shooting pool, drinking beers, and picking up chicks

    5) the realm of those who cannot appreciate realm 1 but who DO care -- but instead of properly recognizing their distance with humility, they instead cultivate an envy for realm 1, and a revenge based upon that envy: the creation of a Counter-Realm of Supposedly Great Art: What is Fashionable.

    It's the creation of this Counter-Realm that I find fascinating, as an outsider to the world of great art. Were I less discerning, as I float largely untethered among the spaces between realms 2-5, I might well be duped into thinking that, for example, Woody Allen, David Mamet and Patrick Stewart represent standards of great art. But, thankfully, some particle of saving grace has made me aware of a sense by which to trust the often scathing and abrasive criticism of a John Simon, like a Virgil to a considerably duller Dante, to guide me as best he may given my oafish feet thudding against mushrooms underfoot through this wood of my middle life.

  15. OMG!!! Hesperado you are funny!!! Thanks for the laughs.

  16. As the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth approaches, can't we all just love one another? Do I have a heart? I do! I do! God bless us all, everyone!

  17. I knew I had forgotten something.

    About those realms I mentioned: the last one, the fifth, is not quite the circle of Hell I may have suggested it was. More hopefully Purgatorial, perhaps. It is the particular, peculiar quality of that realm to expand into the first realm that fascinates. While a severely delimited aristocracy of souls are capable of seeing through the fog of that expansion, so to speak, it is not quite so easy for those numerous others of us whom Gutenberg, et al., have spawned over the centuries; and who, much as some of us may try, cannot help but spread the infection of Petrarch's morbus publicus, as our infectious enthusiasm for "high culture" moves us to reach beyond our abilities.

    For more on the morbus publicus, see my essay Morbus publicus -- an essay which may be furthering the disease, or diagnosing it; or, more likely, a little of both.

  18. Clive said it beautifully, and I agree wholeheartedly that Mr. Simon's work has "taught me much more about theater & art in general than many a study by other theater critics or scholars." And I too "find Simon's work at its best or even just near-best astute, steeped in cultural knowledge, aesthetically pleasurable to read, & able to maintain these notable characteristics even several decades after its writing." What other American critic can move so effortlessly from high culture to low, and express heartfelt appreciation for the best of both? "Sui generis" and irreplaceable are the terms that come to mind.

  19. "What other American critic can move so effortlessly from high culture to low..."

    Even so, John Simon maintains a thin blue line, as it were; reflected in part, for example, in his review of The Name of the Rose, wherein he had some usefully provocative misgivings about the rather glibly pop-cultural effusiveness of Umberto Eco (who seemed to pride himself on roving back and forth, up and down, from "high" to "low" culture, and -- supposedly -- back again).