The Play Goes On: A Memoir

Overview

In his critically acclaimed Rewrites, Neil Simon talked about his beginnings — his early years of working in television, his first real love, his first play, his first brush with failure, and, most moving of all, his first great loss. Simon's same willingness to open his heart to the reader permeates The Play Goes On.
This second act takes the reader from the mid-1970s to the present, a period in which Simon wrote some of his most popular and critically acclaimed plays, ...

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The Play Goes On: A Memoir

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Overview

In his critically acclaimed Rewrites, Neil Simon talked about his beginnings — his early years of working in television, his first real love, his first play, his first brush with failure, and, most moving of all, his first great loss. Simon's same willingness to open his heart to the reader permeates The Play Goes On.
This second act takes the reader from the mid-1970s to the present, a period in which Simon wrote some of his most popular and critically acclaimed plays, including the Brighton Beach trilogy and Lost in Yonkers, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. Simon experienced enormous professional success during this time, but in his personal life he struggled to find that same sense of happiness and satisfaction. After the death of his first wife, he and his two young daughters left New York for Hollywood. There he remarried, and when that foundered he remarried again. Told with his characteristic humor and unflinching sense of irony, The Play Goes On is rich with stories of how Simon's art came to imitate his life.
Simon's forty-plus plays make up a body of work that is a long-running memoir in its own right, yet here, in a deeper and more personal book than his first volume, Simon offers a revealing look at an artist in crisis but still able and willing to laugh at himself.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In The Play Goes On, the follow-up to his earlier memoir, Rewrites, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon serves up warm and witty stories from his life and career, proving that he can indeed write more than just dialogue.
From the Publisher
Curt Schleier Milwaukee Journal Sentinel A brilliant and honest look at what makes Simon tick.

Booklist Warm, open, and highly readable...[Simon] is a born wordsmith, and his rich, rare, wise memoir is as enjoyable as a good novel.

Publishers Weekly Exhilarating...Simon is a superb and introspective raconteur.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Simon begins his hauntingly sad yet often quite funny second memoir (following his 1996 Rewrites) in 1973, on the day after the burial of his first wife, who died of cancer. Things look bad at first, as the massively successful American playwright (he's won the Pulitzer Prize and three Tony awards, and written 40 plays and almost as many original and adapted screenplays) can't even get out of bed. It thus comes as a great relief, if also something of a surprise, when Simon meets and marries actress Marsha Mason three months later. In Mason, Simon finds not only an outstanding interpreter of his words (Goodbye Girl, Only When I Laugh), but also an inspiration (Chapter Two, a play about a widower's second marriage). When his relationship with Mason collapses nine years later, Simon plunges back into a depression that is exacerbated by his first-ever career slump. Eventually, he applies a combination of innovative personal therapies (he spends a lot of time with his dog and shoots a pistol into his swimming pool) and professional luck (he stumbles over a draft of the eventual megahit Brighton Beach Memoirs that he had penned several years before) and claws his way out of his slump. His greatest successes still lay ahead (along with another marriage--and divorce and remarriage) in the form of his BB trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound), featuring his alter ego Eugene Jerome. Simon says that a memoir should serve two functions: "to pass on as much as you're willing to tell" and "to discover a truth about yourself you never had the time or courage to face before." A superb and introspective raconteur, he achieves both goals many times over in this exhilarating book. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"Just as I never plan what play or film I might write next, I don't plan on what I will write next in these memoirs," says Simon. Well, Neil, it certainly shows. Readers plodding through this second self-portrait will find it hard to believe that this is the same person who wrote The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys. While Simon's stage dialog crackles with wit, his first-person narrative voice is as flat as the paper it's written on. This book picks up where his first memoir, Rewrites, concluded; here Simon provides a laundry list of his mid-life achievements, from winning a Pulitzer Prize to marrying and divorcing women in less time than it takes most guys to wear out a pair of sneakers. The book's most interesting moments come when Simon talks about the creative act of writing--which isn't very often. Nonetheless, given Simon's enormous popularity, this book is still an important purchase for all public and large academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/99.]--Michael Rogers, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Charles Wright
The Play Goes On is about how even the most successful life is beleaguered with pain. In a voice that is frank, even-toned, and free of unreasonable self-pity, Simon recalls adjusting to the deaths of his first wife and his son-in-law, enduring three divorces, and grappling with depression. He is unflinching and unapologetic...
Biography
Kirkus Reviews
Our most successful playwright (and "also the most underestimated," Clive Barnes once wrote) brings us up-to-date on his life since the death of his adored wife, Joan. In this authorized autobiography, he starts the day after the close of his earlier memoir (Rewrites, 1996). Simon has written, aside from screenplays, some 30 plays—so far— putting him within hailing distance of Shakespeare in terms of production (and the Bard never wrote sketches for Sid Caesar). In this installment, as before, he tells of his work habits, how the plays came to be, and the events in his life that inspired each one. Readers familiar with works like the "Brighton Beach" trilogy, Chapter Two and Jake's Women will know a lot of Simon's story. You may think of his memoir as a comprehensive and valuable annotation to the onstage history. But, of course, it's more than that. It's an intimate and engaging narrative about his real-life progeny as well as his imagined characters. It's an affectionate and warm view of his marriage to and divorce from actress Marsha Mason. Then there were his two marriages to and two divorces from a comely lady he found behind a counter at Nieman Marcus. He treats his former wives with consideration. (Except for a speech he used in Chapter Two, their views are not recorded). It's a show book, too, with anecdotes about such luminaries as Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Tony Curtis, and there is an especially sharp one-liner from George Burns. Naturally, the author can put a button on a scene and close it with a funny line. But funny only goes so far. The old cliché about the comedian who nurses sadness beneath the motley is true after all. Writing at age 71, Simonoffers a chiaroscuro tale, one of remembered joy, present melancholy, and remarkable professional achievement. Here is a memoir from an instinctively personal playwright, as forthright and also as circumspect as a memoir ought to be. What Simon says is witty and felicitous.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684869803
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/2/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,453,684
  • Product dimensions: 0.76 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

America's most prolific and beloved playwright, Neil Simon is the author of more than two dozen plays and screenplays. In 1990, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He is also the winner of three Tony Awards. Simon splits his time between New York and Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Life Revisited

Everything stopped. The sun came up, the clocks ticked on but nothing moved. I was always a morning person: the first one up in the house, the first one dressed, the first one down in the kitchen, the first one at breakfast.

But now I was still in bed, without a clue as to what time it was. I could hear the hum of the air conditioner, feel a chill in the room and yet my pajama tops were drenched through with perspiration. Were the girls upstairs in their rooms, silently waiting for me to come up to tell them what we would do with this, the first day of our lives on our own? I was fighting the act of awakening. I kept my eyes closed in hopes that sleep would overtake me once more, buying me more time before I would have to take a deep breath and then release it, acknowledging that I was alive. The future was a totally unpleasant prospect and I wasn't quite ready to deal with it. We had buried my wife, Joan, the day before at the Pound Ridge Cemetery in New York. She had just turned forty and had died of cancer, the most surprising thing she had done in a life filled with surprises.

I clung tenaciously to the darkness behind my closed lids, trying to keep the daylight at bay, much as I had as a boy when it was time to leave the local movie house, knowing that I left Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn still battling villains on the screen, while outside I squinted at the glaring harshness of the four o'clock sun and faced the heat of another endless summer's day.

Nancy was ten and Ellen was fifteen. It was July 12, 1973. Eight days before, on the Fourth of July, I had turned forty-six. It might as well have been sixty-six for all the lethargy and despondency I felt in my aching mind and body on that dreary morning. I pushed myself out of bed and crossed to the closet, looking for a robe that I almost never wore. Robes always made me feel either sick or old or both. Mine was a gift from Joan's mother, and I had feigned delight and pleasure when I opened it in front of her at an earlier birthday, knowing that I would never wear it, that it would only take up valuable space in my small closet. How ironic that I would be putting it on today, the day after her daughter died. But I needed a robe that morning because I did not want to face the girls in sweaty pajamas, although I had neither the strength nor inclination to get out of those pajamas, nor could I imagine myself doing so in the foreseeable future. What for? There was nothing outside that small town house on East 62nd Street that I wanted or needed to see. Nor anyone besides my daughters. I neither asked for nor invited friends or family to pay us a condolence call. At least not on that first day. The few really close friends I had would call later that morning, but they understood when I said, "Not yet. Give me today alone with the girls." Despite the fact that I had been aware for the past year and a half that Joan was going to die, I was unprepared for what I experienced on that first morning. It was not exactly grief, because, in a sense, I had been grieving those last few months of her life. This was a feeling of numbness, inertia and confusion, leading to a frightening inability to make a decision, trivial or otherwise. I have no memory of when I first saw the girls that morning, but Nancy told me recently that for some inexplicable reason, what she pictures in her mind today was the three of us in semidarkness, sitting on the steps leading from the kitchen down to the basement. An implausible place to meet, and yet, for that morning, as plausible as any.

The thought uppermost in my mind was to distract the girls from dealing with the past, and to get them busy with getting on with life, making some small attempt at normalcy. I am always amazed at the resiliency of the young. They looked at me, waiting to hear what my plans were, ready and eager to comply. Neither girl had intended to be home that summer, both having made plans, not fully realizing the graveness of Joan's condition. Nancy was summoned back from camp when Joan passed away sooner than I ever imagined, and Ellen had canceled a student trip to Europe to be with her mother for her last few months. I suggested getting away from New York, as far away as possible, distancing ourselves from loss and sorrow. The summer house in Pound Ridge, New York, that I had bought expressly as a gift to Joan, where I hoped she would recover from her illness, was just a marginal choice to revisit. I offered to take them both to Europe, reasoning that traveling and being together would be, if not a fun-filled vacation, at least a chance to heal ourselves in new surroundings, in a place with fewer memories. Nancy surprised me when she opted to return to camp. It also gave me a sense of relief to know that this ten-year-old knew what was best for her. Ellen and I left together for Europe a week later.

I made the mistake of returning to all the same hotels that Joan and I had stayed in, something that proved harder for me to deal with than for Ellen. But slowly, day by day, I began to see a change in Ellen, a maturing, perhaps growing up faster than she normally would have if Joan were still alive. She started to point out things in shops in London and in Paris that might go nicely in our house. As it had been with Joan, who always brought home pretty and useful items from our trips, it was now with Ellen, who kept her eye open for unusual pieces I never thought remotely interested her before. In a sense, she was emulating Joan, perhaps not consciously, but in the normal way that a child takes on some of the traits of the parent of the same gender. By the time we returned home in late August, Ellen walked into our kitchen, opened the cabinets and said, "You know what, Dad? We need new dishes." Nancy came home a few days later, taller, tanner and a good deal happier than when she left. We were all so glad to see each other, and our conversation that night was about what we had done that summer and not about the tragedy we left behind. But it was certainly not gone from their minds; I noticed that clearly as Nancy climbed the steps that night and glanced quickly in my bedroom to see the made-up bed which Joan had occupied for so many months during her illness.

Later I heard laughter from their rooms and then the sound of tapes playing the Broadway musicals they loved so much, and their singing the lyrics to their favorite songs, loudly and slightly off-key. Eventually they switched to television and called down to me, "Dad, come on up and watch with us." I knew once I got in their room, they would bar me from leaving, forcing me to watch every fashion show, sitcom, summer rerun and old black-and-white movie. As I ascended the stairs, smelling the fresh popcorn they had just made, while scorching the bottom of the pot, I said to myself, "Thank you God for making daughters."

Copyright © 1999 by Neil Simon

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Life Revisited

Everything stopped. The sun came up, the clocks ticked on but nothing moved. I was always a morning person: the first one up in the house, the first one dressed, the first one down in the kitchen, the first one at breakfast.

But now I was still in bed, without a clue as to what time it was. I could hear the hum of the air conditioner, feel a chill in the room and yet my pajama tops were drenched through with perspiration. Were the girls upstairs in their rooms, silently waiting for me to come up to tell them what we would do with this, the first day of our lives on our own? I was fighting the act of awakening. I kept my eyes closed in hopes that sleep would overtake me once more, buying me more time before I would have to take a deep breath and then release it, acknowledging that I was alive. The future was a totally unpleasant prospect and I wasn't quite ready to deal with it. We had buried my wife, Joan, the day before at the Pound Ridge Cemetery in New York. She had just turned forty and had died of cancer, the most surprising thing she had done in a life filled with surprises.

I clung tenaciously to the darkness behind my closed lids, trying to keep the daylight at bay, much as I had as a boy when it was time to leave the local movie house, knowing that I left Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn still battling villains on the screen, while outside I squinted at the glaring harshness of the four o'clock sun and faced the heat of another endless summer's day.

Nancy was ten and Ellen was fifteen. It was July 12, 1973. Eight days before, on the Fourth of July, I had turned forty-six. It might as well have been sixty-six for all the lethargy and despondency I felt in my aching mind and body on that dreary morning. I pushed myself out of bed and crossed to the closet, looking for a robe that I almost never wore. Robes always made me feel either sick or old or both. Mine was a gift from Joan's mother, and I had feigned delight and pleasure when I opened it in front of her at an earlier birthday, knowing that I would never wear it, that it would only take up valuable space in my small closet. How ironic that I would be putting it on today, the day after her daughter died. But I needed a robe that morning because I did not want to face the girls in sweaty pajamas, although I had neither the strength nor inclination to get out of those pajamas, nor could I imagine myself doing so in the foreseeable future. What for? There was nothing outside that small town house on East 62nd Street that I wanted or needed to see. Nor anyone besides my daughters. I neither asked for nor invited friends or family to pay us a condolence call. At least not on that first day. The few really close friends I had would call later that morning, but they understood when I said, "Not yet. Give me today alone with the girls." Despite the fact that I had been aware for the past year and a half that Joan was going to die, I was unprepared for what I experienced on that first morning. It was not exactly grief, because, in a sense, I had been grieving those last few months of her life. This was a feeling of numbness, inertia and confusion, leading to a frightening inability to make a decision, trivial or otherwise. I have no memory of when I first saw the girls that morning, but Nancy told me recently that for some inexplicable reason, what she pictures in her mind today was the three of us in semidarkness, sitting on the steps leading from the kitchen down to the basement. An implausible place to meet, and yet, for that morning, as plausible as any.

The thought uppermost in my mind was to distract the girls from dealing with the past, and to get them busy with getting on with life, making some small attempt at normalcy. I am always amazed at the resiliency of the young. They looked at me, waiting to hear what my plans were, ready and eager to comply. Neither girl had intended to be home that summer, both having made plans, not fully realizing the graveness of Joan's condition. Nancy was summoned back from camp when Joan passed away sooner than I ever imagined, and Ellen had canceled a student trip to Europe to be with her mother for her last few months. I suggested getting away from New York, as far away as possible, distancing ourselves from loss and sorrow. The summer house in Pound Ridge, New York, that I had bought expressly as a gift to Joan, where I hoped she would recover from her illness, was just a marginal choice to revisit. I offered to take them both to Europe, reasoning that traveling and being together would be, if not a fun-filled vacation, at least a chance to heal ourselves in new surroundings, in a place with fewer memories. Nancy surprised me when she opted to return to camp. It also gave me a sense of relief to know that this ten-year-old knew what was best for her. Ellen and I left together for Europe a week later.

I made the mistake of returning to all the same hotels that Joan and I had stayed in, something that proved harder for me to deal with than for Ellen. But slowly, day by day, I began to see a change in Ellen, a maturing, perhaps growing up faster than she normally would have if Joan were still alive. She started to point out things in shops in London and in Paris that might go nicely in our house. As it had been with Joan, who always brought home pretty and useful items from our trips, it was now with Ellen, who kept her eye open for unusual pieces I never thought remotely interested her before. In a sense, she was emulating Joan, perhaps not consciously, but in the normal way that a child takes on some of the traits of the parent of the same gender. By the time we returned home in late August, Ellen walked into our kitchen, opened the cabinets and said, "You know what, Dad? We need new dishes." Nancy came home a few days later, taller, tanner and a good deal happier than when she left. We were all so glad to see each other, and our conversation that night was about what we had done that summer and not about the tragedy we left behind. But it was certainly not gone from their minds; I noticed that clearly as Nancy climbed the steps that night and glanced quickly in my bedroom to see the made-up bed which Joan had occupied for so many months during her illness.

Later I heard laughter from their rooms and then the sound of tapes playing the Broadway musicals they loved so much, and their singing the lyrics to their favorite songs, loudly and slightly off-key. Eventually they switched to television and called down to me, "Dad, come on up and watch with us." I knew once I got in their room, they would bar me from leaving, forcing me to watch every fashion show, sitcom, summer rerun and old black-and-white movie. As I ascended the stairs, smelling the fresh popcorn they had just made, while scorching the bottom of the pot, I said to myself, "Thank you God for making daughters."

Copyright © 1999 by Neil Simon

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Introduction

Neil Simon is the most successful American playwright of all time. The scribe of more than 30 plays and 25 screenplays, including such masterpieces as The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Lost in Yonkers (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991), no other contemporary dramatist's work has been performed before more audiences. The intensely private Simon first opened his heart and soul to readers in his critically acclaimed 1996 memoir, Rewrites. He now continues the sometimes painful, often joyful, always engaging narrative of his life in The Play Goes On: A Memoir.
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