In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I take note of the death of John Simon. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who had various kinds of critic trouble throughout much of his career, hit the bull’s-eye when he observed that “a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic.” It’s true, though, that two Broadway theaters, the Brooks Atkinson and the Walter Kerr, are named after drama critics, both of whom were widely admired by the men and women about whom they wrote. On the other hand, the best-known drama critic of the 20th century, Addison DeWitt of “All About Eve,” was a fictional character, a writer with a famously sharp tongue who believed himself to be “essential to the theater” but was in fact despised by most of his fictional victims. I can’t imagine that any of the characters in “All About Eve” would have wanted to see a Broadway theater named after him—any more than I can imagine that one will ever be named after John Simon.
Mr. Simon, who died last week at the age of 94, is the only American drama critic in my lifetime to have been widely known by name outside the profession, enough so that he actually made a cameo appearance on a 1974 episode of “The Odd Couple.” He played himself, of course, a dispenser of critical venom notorious for panning most of the shows he reviewed. That was the source of his power, together with his willingness to write about actors in a way widely felt to be cruel. He was well aware that this cruelty was the main reason why he was read week after week—and so were his editors, who printed his reviews precisely because not a few of them were so cruel that you couldn’t help but talk about them, and remember them….
Fortunately, there were and are better reasons to read what he wrote, not merely about film and theater but also opera and the novel. He was immensely, comprehensively knowledgeable, and whenever he liked something, you could be sure that it was worthy of close attention. Moreover, the ruckus that his pans raised has caused people to forget that he didn’t hate everything. In fact, Mr. Simon was every bit as good at expressing enthusiasm as he was contempt…
* * *Read the whole thing here.
John Simon is interviewed on Signature, a CBS Cable series, in 1981: