The Play Goes on

A Memoir

By Neil Simon
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780684846910, 352pp.)

Publication Date: October 4, 1999

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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Just as Neil Simon's plays do not fit easily into the space of one act, his memoirs too demand a continuation, a second act, which this book provides. In his critically acclaimed "Rewrites," Simon wrote about his beginnings -- growing up with longing, the early years of working in television, his first real love, his first play, his first success, his first brush with failure, and, most moving of all, his first great loss.

The same willingness to open his heart to the reader is here in "The Play Goes On" as he continues the story, beginning where the earlier book left off, with the days immediately following the death of his beloved wife, Joan.

From that moment of almost unbearable sadness, Simon moved quickly to work on another play, clearly an effort to keep himself busy and his mind off his loss. The work was therapeutic indeed, although perhaps more significant was the young actress who had a role in his play. Her name was Marsha Mason, and almost immediately a bond developed between her and Simon. That bond became a relationship and the relationship became a marriage. In Neil Simon's life, this was clearly the beginning of Act Two.

There was a change of scenery shortly after this new start. When Mason's career required that she be in Hollywood, Simon and his two daughters from his first marriage moved there as well, and although there are few playwrights more closely identified with New York City than Neil Simon, he soon found himself at home in California -- or at least as much as he would ever be in a place with neither winters nor subways. Over the next several years, there were the perhaps inevitable shifts of life -- the marriage to Marsha Mason foundered,followed by a period of questioning, followed by a chance department store encounter with a young actress who eventually became the next Mrs. Neil Simon.

But that was real life, and while reality has a way of showing up just when one least wants to deal with it, Simon managed to keep it at bay for a great part of the time, immersing himself almost completely in his work -- the creation of his plays and films. As it is with most artists, of course, the escape from reality is mostly imaginary, for Simon's personal life has always been the source of much of his best work, and the period covered in "The Play Goes On" is rich with examples of art imitating life. In fact, Simon's most acclaimed plays -- one of which won him not only Broadway's Tony Award but the Pulitzer Prize as well -- were written during this time and were a look backward at his younger life. Just as he created the play "Chapter Two" out of his earlier experience of loss and remarriage, so out of his childhood and his years in the army and his early days as a writer he created the wonderful "Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound," and "Lost in Yonkers" -- an extraordinary body of work.

In the creative process, life and art become inseparable, the artist struggling to live a "real life," yet constantly holding up a mirror for all the world to see. In "The Play Goes On," in many ways a deeper and more personal book than his earlier memoir, Neil Simon has polished that mirror and deepened the reflection. The result is a stunningly revealing look at an artist in crisis but still able and willing to laugh at every misstep he takes, at once autobiography and -- what else? -- brilliant drama.

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