Thoughts & Musings

Physician, Heal Thyself:
Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor (2001)

© 2011 by Eileen Warburton

A lifetime ago, when I first started teaching, I was regularly assigned to teach Introduction to Literature: The Short Story to college freshmen. Not just any freshmen, mind. These were the ones attracted to the word “short,” never dreaming that it would be more work to study twenty-plus tightly crafted, individual short stories than perhaps eight novels. Invariably, we dabbled in a little Poe, than jumped into Chekov’s stories and, invariably, the students hated them, were baffled by them. This is when I learned that the appreciation of irony, poignant humor, and unresolved narrative grew with age and maturity. This is also when I learned to love Chekhov for myself.

I’m not alone. If there is a godfather to modern literature, it is this shy, dapper, work-driven good doctor. His godchildren are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway (who was very surly about his debt), Franz Kafka, Katherine Ann Porter, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson, and a great host of other writers around the world-including the playwright Neil Simon. While Chekov was acclaimed and very popular in late 19th century Czarist Russia, he was distinctly in the shade of those giants of moralizing, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky. Chekhov’s spare objectivity and ability to portray the real psychology of his characters while refusing to pass judgment was much at odds with the current literary standards of principles and preaching. (“A writer should be as objective as a chemist,” he wrote.) It was, posthumously, after World War I, when his work was translated into English, that the master was discovered by a new generation seeking an appropriate voice for their ironic, less idealistic vision of the world.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) was born in the Ukraine and raised by a tyrannical father who was both religiously fanatical and physically abusive. The mother of the six children, however, was an imaginative, cultured, well-read woman with a gift for story-telling. In 1875 the father’s grocery business failed and he moved to Moscow. In his absence, the mother lost her house to a conniving family “friend,” the kind of upwardly mobile, serf-turned-bourgeoisie that Chekhov would make the villain of The Cherry Orchard. Mother and younger children followed the father to Moscow, while Anton remained behind to finish medical school. He began writing sketches for newspapers to pay his tuition and to support his family. His output was prodigious and he applied the same skills to his sketches and stories that he used to become a caring physician-keen observation of small details, an ability to listen carefully, and the unsentimental pragmatism to see the situation as it actually was. Part of Dr. Chekhov’s medical practice was to treat the poor without charge, with peasants lining up at his door before dawn. He was also well acquainted with the airs and ambitions of the petty bourgeoisie and the obsequiousness and petty tyrannies of government officials. As a result Chekhov’s early comic stories are gentle, ironic satires populated with wholly convincing characters who often work at cross-purposes. Responding to the limits of the newspapers that first published him, he developed a spare, economical style and became the master of the compressed psychological moment, a revelation that actually comes to substitute for traditional plot and resolution.

Chekhov suffered from chronic tuberculosis, struggled to keep his family solvent, married late, and lived in increasingly turbulent times. As he matured as a writer, his work darkened and he produced longer stories that examined emotional hypocrisy and or featured characters stifled by despair. He also, by the late 1880s, was writing for the theatre where the discontinuities, broken conversations, and understated subtext of his four great plays (The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1898), Three Sisters (1900), The Cherry Orchard (1904)) helped to revolutionize Western theatre.

The Good Doctor, however, showcases those light, tongue-in-cheek, sunny sketches written early in Chekhov’s career. While slight, they all feature the wry surprise as d√©nouement, the slightly skewed perspective on a character-like the sly characterization of the consummate seducer who finds that the lady in question is two steps ahead of him, or the portrait of the man who bargains over the price of a theatrical drowning, or the complicated intertwining of an unexpected faux pas of a sneeze with a rising bureaucrat’s ambitions. These appealed to author Neil Simon at a critical moment of his writing life.

Neil Simon (1927 – ?), the most produced, successful (and richest) playwright in America, surely was drawn to Chekhov for so many reasons. He pays obeisance to Chekhov as a godfather of modern theatre, a consummate dramatic craftsman, the inventor of subtle psychological realism in characters. All of these must have registered with Simon, himself a highly skilled theatrical maker whose everyday, plebian characters ring emotionally true. Chekhov is also a deft comedian and Simon, a wizard of comic timing, cut his teeth writing for the likes of Goodman Ace, Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar and continues to be America’s great serious comedic playwright.

But one has to feel that there is a kind of biographic affinity as well. Both writers grew up in struggling families during hard times, Neil Simon as a child of the Great Depression. Both were the sons of unloving, absent fathers and turned to writing, with remarkable productivity, both as a source of family support and as a place of solace, to make sense of their own lives. Both are observers of the failures and foibles of their characters, even as they treat them with a kindly objectivity. Both took as wives actresses rehearsing in their plays: Chekhov marrying Olga Knipper, while Simon’s second wife was actress Marsha Mason. Anton Chekhov, like an understanding elder uncle or the father he wished he had had, must have felt like family to Neil Simon. And so in the worst moment of his life, he turned to Chekhov’s early comic sketches to create The Good Doctor.

In 1973, Simon had been married to his first wife, dancer Joan Baim, for twenty years. In this extraordinarily successful early period, he had produced Come Blow Your Horn, Little Me, Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite, Promises, Promises, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Out-of-Towners, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and The Sunshine Boys. He had nabbed a bushel of awards, including an Emmy and a Tony. In 1973, his wife died and the experience shredded him.

Writers find their strength and inspiration in other writers. One must feel that in turning to Chekhov, Neil Simon was seeking the comfort of that writing soul-mate from Czarist Russia, that “good doctor” who would understand and help him heal. And, simply put, it worked. After The Good Doctor, Simon was able to return to writing, especially writing out of his own experience and biography, mining his own youth and upbringing in plays like Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Lost in Yonkers, which won him the Pulitzer. So, for author, as well as for audience, there is in these deft little sketches as in the portrait of the artist as the constant observer driven to write, the restorative medicine of humor and reassurance.

For further reading:
Donald Rayfield. Anton Chekhov. A Life (NY: Henry Holt, 1998).

Neil Simon’s memoirs are out, both published by Simon & Schuster:
Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999).

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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