An appreciation of the late John Simon
Andrew Cusack remembers the apotheosis of criticism
John Simon would be the first to deride as cliché any description of his death as the end of an era. It is tempting to think of him as not just a critic, but the ur-critic, the apotheosis of criticism in theatre, music, cinema, and language which he undertook for decades. Just weeks before his death, aged 94, The Wall Street Journal profiled him under the headline “The Last Man of Letters”.
If one was to reduce John’s criticism to a single principle it would be the defence of standards — not a popular one in the more than half-century in which he deployed his pen towards that task. Despite the fact that he was a Hungarian Serb raised in Yugoslavia with German as his first language, the defence of the English language was a cause he took up heartily.
Somehow there was something very New York about him, and appropriately his longest post was as theatre critic at New York magazine from 1968 until toppled by the forces of modernity in 2005. His other writings appeared in the Hudson Review, the New Criterion, the New Leader, Commonweal, National Review, the Weekly Standard, Opera News, and the New York Times.
Of a play entitled ‘It Just Catches’, John began his review “It just doesn’t.”
Because John was defending standards during an age in which their degradation and dissipation was de rigeur in most of the artistic and cultural demimondes, the thrust of his criticism was overwhelmingly negative. He did disdain well, and his words were only given more power when you could either hear or imagine the scratch of his voice, still heavily accented despite emigrating to the United States from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941. The enjoyment of reading John Simon was not mere schadenfreude, but picking up on things that would hone the reader’s critical eye and help train — and elevate — the senses. His back catalogue of criticism, sometimes of the least remarkable works or performances, remains a joy to read today, decades after much of it was written.
He could be pithy, too. Of a play entitled ‘It Just Catches’, John began his review “It just doesn’t.” Reviewing a play at the Public Theatre he described one performance (of a thespian later bound for ‘Star Trek’) as “like a good high school actor in a bad college production.” He lamented the American reluctance to boo, shared, alas, throughout the English-speaking world.
Simon’s reviews may have been largely negative but their observations ranged from the insightful to the witty, and from time to time he even managed praise — as for John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play ‘Doubt’.
There were other ways in which he maintained standards: John was almost never seen without a tie. (Somehow, inevitably, the New York Times managed to drag up a photo of him with a naked neck to accompany their obituary.)
His death has also been the occasion for an out-letting of bien-pensant scorn and virtue-signalling disapproval. Mark Harris of Vanity Fair issued his condemnation early, claiming Simon’s reviews were characterised by “misogyny, racism, and homophobia”, while Christopher Orr of The Atlantic described him as “one of the worst human beings I have ever met”.
The late Andrew Sarris of the now defunct Village Voice had described John Simon as “the Count Dracula of critics” while William F. Buckley Jr noted he reviewed movies “in the same sense that pigeons review statues”.
Such was his renown that the New York Drama Critics’ Circle voted to ban him from their guild (though they relented a year later), while a 1980 advertisement in Variety protesting Simon’s criticism included 300 signatures. (I suspect John was rather proud of that.)
But Jada Yuan, now a features writer at the Washington Post, remembers being a lowly editorial assistant at New York magazine where she “spent hours trying to teach him how to email instead of faxing in reviews from his typewriter.” “He was nice to me,” Ms Yuan added.
Jeet Heer, the Twitter-ubiquitous Canadian, castigated Simon as “mean-spirited, snooty, and emotionally constipated” but qualified this with praise for his willingness to appear on a New York community television station on a panel with three young girls to discuss the Disney movie ‘Frozen’.
Despite the image of the incorrigible curmudgeon, that was somehow typical of John. He happened to derive great enjoyment from the vitriolic response to his criticism, sometimes even reading his hate mail aloud in dramatic fashion.
I had the pleasure — the honour! — of editing John’s prose when I was working at the New Criterion in New York, where his occasional impromptu visits to the office were a delight. After an extended conversation about Hungarian literature and our favourite Magyar writers, John took to ringing me up at my desk. I’d pick up the phone and hear the wonderful rasp of his voice say “Hello… is that Miklos Banffy? This is John Simon.” Comparing the lowly subeditor at a monthly review to the Tolstoy of Transylvania showed John could flatter as well as scoff.
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