By Robert Simonson
10 May 2005
Jeremy McCarter, theatre critic for the New York Sun, was named as Simon's replacement. McCarter's first review for New York will appear June 1.
Simon is known equally for his considerable erudition, his longevity as a critic (he is 79) and his vituperative style. His stinging reviews—particularly his sometimes vicious appraisals of performers' physical appearances—have periodically raised calls in the theatre community for his removal.
The timing of the firing is somewhat ironic. This fall, Applause Books will publish three volumes of Simon's collected works: one on his theatre writing, one on music, one on film.
Simon also said he's not ready to lay down the pen. "I still feel quite chipper. I don't feel my writing has somehow faded. If I felt tired, I'd stop, but I don't feel that way."
Simon, who was born in 1925 in the former Yugoslavia, and never lost his Eastern European accent, was educated at Harvard. When Simon was a student, playwright Lillian Hellman hired him to do a translation of Anouilh's The Lark. Reportedly, she later refused to pay him because he had typed it in the wrong format.
He began by writing critiques for Commonweal and the Hudson Review. He also reviewed for New York's Channel 13, but was forced out in 1967 because the station considered his notices misanthropic.
Simon's reputation as an aggressive drama critic, with a tendency for acerbity, was forged early on. Joseph Papp wrote New York a letter in 1972 saying Simon suffered from the effects of "benevolent mother who undoubtably fussed all over her precocious offspring." Papp would in 1989 demand Simon's dismissal. Edward Albee—a frequent sparring partner—wrote in the New York Times in the mid-60s, "Mr. Simon's disapproval of my plays has been a source of comfort to me over the years and his dislike of A Delicate Balance gives me courage to go on, as they say." And Harvey Sabinson, of the League of New York Theatres and Producers (as the trade organization was then called) once likened him to "a sadistic guard in a Nazi camp."
In the most famous incident of retaliation against Simon's harsh words, actress Sylvia Miles, upon encountering the critic in a restaurant on Oct. 7, 1973, dumped a plate of food over his head.
Sometimes, even his fellow critics thought he went too far. In 1969, the New York Drama Critics Circle voted 10 to 7 to refuse him membership. The following fall, the body relented and allowed him in. In 1980, in another slap at the critic, an ad appeared in Variety, signed by 300 people, protesting his reviews as vicious and racist.
Simon took all of the above in seeming stride, often joking about the outsized reaction he provoked in the theatre community. And he was not without supporters. His fans applauded the obvious intelligence of his writing; the deep knowledge of the classics and of languages that informed his reviews (he was known to correct playwrights' grammar and word usage); and his bravery is expressing his opinions in no uncertain terms. The divided nature of his writings—part intellectual, part character assassin—was summed up in an essay by Robert Brustein, in which he referred to the "good John Simon" and the "bad John Simon."
His works has been collected in several volumes, including "Uneasy Stages."