Monday, November 2, 2009

The River

I’m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t get how Broadway works or what to make of our culture. [Neil Simon, quoted in the New York Times on November 2, 2009]
This statement, of course, has its specific context. A revival of Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of his most popular plays, opened on Broadway a week ago and abruptly closed again yesterday. Now I don’t happen to be a great fan of Broadway (despite minoring in Drama in college); nor am I much attracted to popular shows like Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach, Biloxi Blues, or Broadway Bound—to cite just those Neil Simon works that start with B. But I was a fan of Sid Caesar’s in the 1950s, and Neil Simon wrote many of the episodes and jokes that I enjoyed; I certainly appreciate Simon’s wit and sense of humor. Simon, who is now 82, left a very big mark on popular entertainment but evidently learned little about culture. Failure is a better teacher; hence he is now at last embarked on the narrow road to wisdom.

Interesting how, in his reaction to the reverberating thud of the last curtain on this revival of Brighton Beach, Simon seems to think that “Broadway” and “culture” are static structures, a kind of rock-solid reality that, once understood, always understood. Not. The play deals with a Depression era family coping with hard times, no doubt the reason why it was revived on Broadway. Its producers evidently thought that it would resonate with the public; but they too were benighted.

The Mississippi as it flows at its origin out of Lake Itasca—where it is a tiny little streamlet and you can jump across it, as I did, grinning from ear-to-ear (“I just jumped over the Mississippi”)—is not the river that empties its masses of mud-laden waters out into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. I saw that too. My first view of American “land” came when, aboard the USS General Muir, we saw the ocean turning yellow hours before we actually saw the scrubby islands that mark the river’s estuary.

Neil Simon evidently managed to remain unaware, as the years rolled on, carrying him toward 82, that he was in motion all the while, and looking down, the bright, shimmering, young stream had become a vast, huge, sluggish, muddy mass on which big, grey ships and barges now carried ignorant, young, brash, but hopeful immigrants upstream to fashion a new world.

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