Critic John Simon Hangs His Own Shingle on the Web

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06 Dec 2010

A recent ship without a sail, John Simon, the New York City theatre critic known for his lacerating reviews — and his less high-profile raves — has docked at his own newly created website.



Find him at johnsimon-uncensored.com. He is also reportedly writing theatre reviews for Yonkers Tribune and the Westchester Guardian. The octogenarian critic was dropped as theatre critic for Bloomberg News, found at bloomberg.com, in November. His Nov. 19 reviews of plays in the Brits Off-Broadway series marked the end of his run writing for Bloomberg's Muse section. An editorial note at the end of that column read, "This is John Simon's final column for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He has been our tireless New York drama critic since June 2005, covering some 500 plays on and Off-Broadway and outside New York. The opinions expressed have always been inimitably his own, conveyed with eloquence, intelligence and fervor. We wish him well in his retirement."

He was not "remotely ready to retire" was the statement from the Simon camp at the time. When his Bloomberg exit was announced,  Simon was jetting off to the Galapagos Islands, home of the ancient, giant tortoise. He reported the following on his new site:

"Like a giant tortoise from its shell, I am re-emerging on this website. Here I will continue, freer and more independent than ever, to dispense my opinions, critiques and enthusiasms about our arts and culture.

"I hope to be as interdisciplinary as well get-out and separate with might and main what might remain from what must go.

"I am seeking sponsors and advertisers. Please join me for the ride!"

The site offers links to his past work at New York magazine, Bloomberg, The New Criterion and The Weekly Standard.

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Simon told the New York Post that he has not retired; he's looking for work. Jeremy Gerard will be handling the major reviews for Bloomberg, with contributions from executive editor Manuela Hoelterhoff and editor Zinta Lundborg. Gerard's qualified rave of Lincoln Center Theater's A Free Man of Color appeared on Bloomberg.com Nov. 19.

Simon previously served as theatre critic at New York magazine for nearly 40 years. He was dismissed from that position in 2005.

Jeremy McCarter, theatre critic for the New York Sun, was named as Simon's replacement at New York magazine in 2005.

Simon is known equally for his considerable erudition, his longevity as a critic (he is 85) 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.

In 2005, Applause Books published three volumes of Simon's collected works: one on his theatre writing, one on music, one on film.

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 a "benevolent mother who undoubtedly 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 in 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."