Simon’s Emphasizes Serious Themes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, the second play of his autobiographical trilogy, established new serious themes in the comedy of America’s most commercially successful playwright.

Summary of Event

Biloxi Blues (pr. 1984) is the second play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical “Eugene Jerome” trilogy, which began in 1982 with Brighton Beach Memoirs Brighton Beach Memoirs (Simon) and concluded in 1986 with Broadway Bound. Broadway Bound (Simon) The earlier play depicts the central character during early adolescence with his family in Brighton Beach, New York; the sequel presents his experience as a military inductee in Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1943, during World War II. Theater;comedy Biloxi Blues (Simon) [kw]Simon’s Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious Themes (Dec. 14, 1984) [kw]Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious Themes, Simon’s (Dec. 14, 1984) [kw]Themes, Simon’s Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious (Dec. 14, 1984) Theater;comedy Biloxi Blues (Simon) [g]North America;Dec. 14, 1984: Simon’s Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious Themes[05620] [g]United States;Dec. 14, 1984: Simon’s Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious Themes[05620] [c]Theater;Dec. 14, 1984: Simon’s Biloxi Blues Emphasizes Serious Themes[05620] Simon, Neil Saks, Gene Broderick, Matthew

Biloxi Blues opens as Eugene Jerome and four other young Army draftees are spending their third night aboard a train heading to basic training. Eugene describes the others to the audience as he reads from his journal, occasionally being interrupted by quarrels, crude humor, and insults as the other conscripts jostle each other while trying to sleep. Although Eugene already hates the Army, he has resolved to accomplish three goals during the war: “Become a writer, not get killed, and lose my virginity.”

First, he must survive basic training in Mississippi’s sweltering heat, under the command of Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey, a gruff, battle-toughened Army man with a steel plate in his head. With a drill sergeant’s typical toughness, he taunts and torments the recruits, arbitrarily imposing discipline by ordering them to perform push-ups for minor or imagined offenses and taking them on a fifteen-mile midnight hike through swamps. Although Toomey arbitrarily exempts Eugene from doing push-ups to make him a target of the others’ resentment, the most frequent object of Toomey’s wrath and derision is Arnold Epstein, a sensitive, nervous, bookish, slightly built recruit who refuses to eat Army food even when ordered to and who is punished with KP and latrine duty for days. Nevertheless, Eugene befriends Epstein as a fellow “outsider,” admiring his convictions and his determination not to be dehumanized. At night, the recruits contemplate the possibility of dying in combat and compare fantasies of how they would spend their final week. Epstein wins by imagining making Toomey do push-ups in front of the platoon; Eugene imagines the perfect girl. Amid recurrent ethnic insults against Epstein, Eugene feels guilty for preferring to remain neutral rather than defend a fellow Jew.

The play’s first act concludes with Toomey’s investigation of the theft of sixty-two dollars from recruit Joseph Wykowski. When Toomey threatens to cancel the entire squad’s two-day leave unless the guilty party comes forward to accept punishment, Epstein replaces the money. When questioned, he explains that he chose to prevent five innocent people from suffering for one guilty one. Toomey then reveals that he took Wykowski’s money, which had been carelessly left in his footlocker, unsecured. Intending to teach the platoon a lesson, he found himself “submarined” when Epstein confessed to a crime he did not commit. The recruit further admits that he saw Toomey take the money but deplores his inventing a crime in order to enforce discipline. Wykowski extends his hand, but Epstein declines a handshake, saying, “Let’s not be hypocritical. I did what I did for me, not for you.” When Eugene privately expresses admiration for Epstein’s principled actions, Epstein chides him for not getting “involved enough,” for always watching others and jotting notes rather than taking sides on issues that he cares about. Another recruit, Don Carney, enters, wanting to ask Eugene’s opinion on an unspecified subject; he then sings “Embraceable You” as Eugene “looks helplessly at the audience.”

The second act opens in a cheap hotel, where Eugene, Carney, and another recruit wait their turns with a prostitute who is currently servicing Wykowski in another room; Eugene is clearly inexperienced, naïve, and nervous about losing his virginity in this way. Carney leaves without taking his turn, not wanting to be unfaithful to his girlfriend, but Eugene goes in and meets Rowena. Giving a false name and family background, he gets in bed with her and quickly, with the lights off, accomplishes his goal.

Back in the barracks, Wykowski reads aloud from Eugene’s “secret and private” journal, taken from his unsecured locker. The recruits voice their offense at Eugene’s frank and unflattering remarks about them; Eugene feels he should have been able to trust them to respect his privacy and property. Wykowski reads a passage describing his prodigious masturbatory capabilities but then finds a passage praising his earnestness and dependability in combat. Epstein reads the description of himself, including Eugene’s “instinctive feeling” that Epstein “is homosexual, and it bothers me that it bothers me.” He tosses the book on Eugene’s bunk.

Neil Simon.

(Library of Congress)

Sitting alone outside the barracks, near despair, Eugene is joined by Carney, who concedes that Eugene’s characterization of him as not dependable or decisive was accurate. He then discusses his doubts about marrying his unfaithful girlfriend. Back inside, Toomey rouses the men from bed and announces that two soldiers were seen engaging in oral intercourse in a darkened latrine. One, who escaped through a window, was seen running into their barracks. After Toomey leaves, Wykowski implicates Epstein, referring again to Eugene’s written remark. Eugene apologizes to Epstein and tears up the journal page; he has, he tells the audience, learned a lesson about responsibility. Another soldier, James Hennessey, is arrested shortly thereafter.

At a dance, Eugene falls in love with a Catholic student, Daisy Hannigan. In the barracks, Toomey has a drunken discussion with Epstein and points a loaded pistol at him, ordering him to drink and announcing plans to blow Epstein’s brains out. Toomey also says that the next morning he will enter a veterans’ hospital, his army career having been terminated. Intending to make a disciplined soldier out of Epstein, Toomey orders Epstein to take the gun away from him forcibly and, after a struggle, allows him to do so. He then orders Epstein to arrest him and summon the platoon. Epstein offers to drop charges in exchange for two hundred push-ups, fulfilling his fantasy. Toomey is transferred out the next morning.

Basic training ends, as does Eugene’s never-consummated infatuation with Daisy. On parting, she gives him a book to use to start another journal. The play ends as it began, on a troop train. In a final speech to the audience, Eugene summarizes what happened to the other characters and himself during the war: Wykowski lost a leg in combat and was cited for bravery; Epstein went missing in action and was never found; Carney was hospitalized for neurological disorders and severe depression. Eugene injured his back in a jeep accident on his first day in England and saw no combat. Sent back stateside, he became a writer for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.

Significance

Theatergoers who had grown familiar with the comic style Simon had developed throughout his twenty-one previous Broadway comedies the New York setting, the middle-class characters, the inoffensive language, the absence of challenging or controversial subject matter were in for a surprise from Biloxi Blues. Unlike Simon’s earlier plays, Biloxi Blues occurs in multiple locations in Mississippi (including a train, the barracks, the mess hall, a hotel room, a church basement) and is made up of fourteen scenes in two acts, requiring a more flexible use of theatrical space than the standard single-set format of the playwright’s other works.

Although Eugene remains the same genial, thoughtful, wisecracking character that he was in the previous play, the other recruits are decidedly rowdier and lower-class than characters Simon had created before. The play’s dialogue shows Simon’s usual craftsmanship and polished wit, but his recruits speak in convincingly gritty language. From literally the first line and continually throughout the play, the dialogue is realistically laden with profanity. Each of the first six lines spoken contains an oath or insult; when Eugene begins his first direct address to the audience, his tone and style set him clearly and immediately apart from his companions.

Much of the humor is also decidedly earthier than in Simon’s previous plays; jokes about flatulence, foot odor, permanent erections, penis size, masturbation, sexual positions, and intimate fantasies abound, as do ethnic and sexual epithets. The centrality of sexual issues, frankly discussed, is also unprecedented in Simon’s work, not only in the onstage depiction of Eugene’s loss of his virginity (even if in the dark) but also in the play’s portrayal of homosexuality within the military and the explicit naming of the specific practice in which the apprehended soldiers were clandestinely engaged. Although Biloxi Blues is mild in comparison with such other contemporary plays as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (pr. 1978-1979) and David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (pr. 1971), its frankness is a significant innovation in Simon’s style.

Like Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues tells a number of characters’ stories simultaneously and creates more complex, well-rounded characters than appear in Simon’s earlier plays, which tended to rely on deftly comic complications arising from single-premise situations, as in The Odd Couple (pr. 1965) and Barefoot in the Park (pr. 1963). Such serious moral issues as ethnic persecution and Eugene’s tacit complicity in not defending Epstein as a fellow Jew have obvious political ramifications. Such concerns consistently underlie the entertaining surface of the play, as does the question of the degree of commitment or disengagement required of the writer a favorite theme of existentialist writers of a generation earlier as well.

Apart from the character of Eugene, who functions as a commentator on and participant in the action, as a sardonic narrator, and as a naïvely inexperienced conscript, several other roles require from their actors complex characterization and emotional range surpassing that in most of Simon’s earlier plays. Thus, for example, Sergeant Toomey’s harshness and quasi-sadistic control must convincingly deteriorate into a drunken and nearly murderous abusiveness, although his insistence on the lifesaving value of discipline prevents him from being a mere caricature. Epstein embodies the countertraits of logic, dignity, and compassion, but he is also the butt of jokes and scorn; he is markedly intellectual but occasionally priggish, as when he refuses Wykowski’s proffered handshake. The female characters are less effectively developed and are in fact little more than stereotypes literally a madonna (the chaste Catholic, Daisy) and a whore (Rowena).

Biloxi Blues is one of the few sets of interrelated plays that have been created in American drama; comparable sets include Lanford Wilson’s “Talley” plays Fifth of July (pr., pb. 1978), Talley’s Folly (pr., pb. 1979), and A Tale Told (pr. 1981; pb. as Talley and Son, 1986) and Eugene O’Neill’s plays about the Tyrone family, Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (pr. 1947). In addition, few playwrights have dealt as seriously or as humorously with the experience of becoming a writer as Simon does in Biloxi Blues. This theme is resumed in Broadway Bound, as Eugene returns home to his family, teams up with his brother, and begins his career as a comedy writer. The role of Eugene’s mother is developed with particular poignancy in this final play of the trilogy.

Biloxi Blues won the Tony Award Tony Awards as best play of 1985, the first of Simon’s plays to be thus recognized. Simon also wrote the screenplay for the 1988 film version, which was directed by Mike Nichols. Nichols, Mike Matthew Broderick reprised his role as Eugene in the film, and Sergeant Toomey was played, somewhat soft-spokenly, by Christopher Walken. Walken, Christopher Although the film version is, on the whole, a close and faithful adaptation of the play, it shows Toomey’s final drunken confrontation taking place with Eugene rather than with Epstein. None of the recruits sees action in the film version, and the postwar lives detailed in Eugene’s final speech are more benign. Theater;comedy Biloxi Blues (Simon)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirschhorn, Clive. “Make ’Em Laugh: Neil Simon in Interview with Clive Hirschhorn.” Plays and Players 24 (September, 1977): 12-15. Simon discusses his admiration for the plays of George Kaufman and Moss Hart and early silent-film comedies. He also discusses his lesser-known but experimental works, including God’s Favorite (pr. 1974) and The Good Doctor (pr. 1973), and contrasts the New York and London versions of his works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Robert K. Neil Simon. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Provides an informative survey of Simon’s work through his screenplay for Only When I Laugh (1981), including musicals and original screenplays. Emphasizes recurrent serious themes in Simon’s comedy and his varied stylistic formats. Includes annotated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaufman, David. “Simon Says: A Conversation with Neil Simon.” Horizon 28 (June, 1985): 55-60. In this interview, published shortly after Biloxi Blues opened, Simon notes the presence of serious themes in his previous plays but contends that Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues are his first “full-bodied” plays “dealing with a group of people as individuals and telling all their stories.” Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koprince, Susan. Understanding Neil Simon. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. Presents an overview of Simon’s career and analyzes many of his major plays in depth. Chapter 9 is devoted to discussion of the Brighton Beach trilogy. Includes selected bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linderman, Lawrence. “Playboy Interview: Neil Simon.” Playboy, February, 1979, 58-78. Extensive interview touches on Simon’s career as a playwright, his two marriages, and the casting of several of the films made from his plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McGovern, Edythe M. Neil Simon: A Critical Study. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. Presents a play-by-play assessment of Simon’s first twelve plays, including cast lists, production data, many photographs, and drawings. Features a preface contributed by Simon.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, David. “The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights.” The New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991; 30-32, 36, 57, 64. Biographical profile describes Simon as the last “Broadway” playwright, a commercially successful but critically disdained hit maker. Cites the trilogy that includes Biloxi Blues as Simon’s turning point, as pain and sadness are increasingly present in his comic world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Simon’s own reflections on his life and career provide insights into his approach to his craft. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Neil, and David Rabe. “The Craft of the Playwright: A Conversation Between Neil Simon and David Rabe.” The New York Times Magazine, May 26, 1985, 36-38, 52, 56-63. Published during the Broadway run of Biloxi Blues, this conversation includes one of Simon’s most theoretical discussions of his art. Topics include writing for the theater, the distinction between comedy and drama, the role of the unconscious, misogyny and the writing of parts for women, and the future of theatrical writing.

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