NEIL SIMON 1985
Biloxi Blues was the twenty-first play by Neil Simon to reach the Broadway stage in twenty-four years. In the 1980s, the author, already an established comedic playwright, turned to his own life for inspiration and produced a trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays. He first introduced Eugene Morris Jerome, the hero of Biloxi Blues, in the widely acclaimed Brighton Beach Memoirs. That play depicted Eugene’s close-knit Brooklyn Jewish family, as seen through Eugene’s diary entries. In Biloxi Blues Simon follows Eugene as he gets sent to army training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. There, the naive Eugene, who has never before left home, is forced to confront difficult issues and his own reactions to them. These experiences inform his development as a writer.
Biloxi Blues was a Broadway hit. Not only was it honored with a Tony Award for the best play of 1985, but also audiences warmed to the humor that filled each scene, indeed, almost every line. Critics noted that Simon, as he had done so many times previously, was able to draw his audience together with his relatively simple words. Despite the strongly comedic bent, the play also holds a more serious message as Eugene comes to learn about the wide world around him. More importantly, for Eugene’s personal development and his development as a writer, he comes to learn what his place in the world can, and should, be.
Neil Simon (full name Marvin Neil Simon) was born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, New York City. He grew up there and made it the setting for nearly all of his plays. Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in the trilogy that includes Biloxi Blues, is a semi-autobiographical rendering of his childhood.
When he was 16, Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. Shortly thereafter, he entered New York University under the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve Training Program. He eventually attained the rank of corporal. In 1945, he was sent to Colorado on active duty. While there, he attended the University of Denver.
In 1946, the same year that he was discharged from service, Simon went to work for Warner Brothers in New York, where his older brother Danny also worked. He and Danny teamed up to write comedy sketches for the radio star Goodman Ace. In the 1950s, the Simons began to work for television programs. They wrote for famous personalities such as Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Jackie Gleason. Collaboratively, they also wrote sketches for camp shows. Some of these sketches were later adapted as a stage play and contributed material to a stage musical.
In 1956, Danny left the Simon team to work as a television director. Neil continued to write for television for five more years. Eventually, he tired of the medium. In 1961, his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, became a hit, running on Broadway for eighty-four weeks. His second play, Barefoot in the Park, ran for over 1,500 performances on Broadway.
Since these initial successes, Simon has been a mainstay of the theater scene. Most of his plays draw on his New York background and focus on familial relations and domestic concerns. Simon also established his own Neil Simon Theater.
In the early 1980s Brighton Beach Memoirs introduced Simon’s alter ego, Eugene. In 1985, Simon followed up this effort with Biloxi Blues, the second play in the trilogy that culminated in Broadway Bound. Biloxi Blues was Simon’s twenty-first play to appear on Broadway in twenty-four years. It won Simon his first Tony Award for best drama. In the years since, Simon has continued to write plays for Broadway, and he has averaged a new comedy every theatrical season.
Simon has also written many popular films. These include screen adaptations of many of his own popular plays, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and The Sunshine Boys. Original screenplays include Murder by Death and The Goodbye Girl.
Act 1 of Biloxi Blues opens on the coach of an old railroad train. It is 1943, and inside the coach are five soldiers, new recruits from the Northeast, who are being transferred to boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. After basic training, they will be sent to fight in World War II. The soldiers are grumbling, unhappy, and apprehensive about what the future holds.
The new recruits arrive at the camp and enter their barracks. Almost right away, Sergeant Toomey, who is in charge of their company, comes in. He begins harassing the soldiers, who have not received army training and do not act appropriately. The privates immediately begin to learn how Sergeant Toomey’s army works. He punishes randomly and unfairly. He stirs dissent among the privates by making everyone but Eugene do pushups. Early on, Arnold emerges as the rebel. He refuses to eat the food served at the mess hall, although he knows he will be punished.
One evening, Eugene proposes that each soldier share his fantasy of what he would do if he only had a week to live. They each contribute five dollars, and Eugene chooses the winner. Eugene selects Arnold’s fantasy as the best—making Sergeant Toomey do two hundred push-ups in front of the platoon. However, the privates argue about whose fantasy is the best. Wykowski makes derogatory comments about Jews. Arnold refuses to allow Wykowski to talk that way. As the two men are about to fight, Sergeant Toomey comes in and breaks it up. He says he will tolerate no racial slurs. After he is gone, Eugene feels badly because he didn’t stand up for Arnold, a fellow Jew.
In the next scene, the soldiers are about to go on a forty-eight-hour leave. Wykowski realizes that somebody has stolen all his money from his wallet. He declares that Arnold is the thief. Toomey comes into the barracks and demands that the thief step forward, or no one will be allowed off the camp. Arnold takes sixty-two dollars out of his wallet. Toomey asks why Arnold decided to return the money knowing that he could be severely punished. Then Toomey tells the privates that it was he who stole the money, not Arnold. He wanted to teach Wykowski a lesson about not leaving valuables around to tempt his fellow soldiers. Because Arnold confessed to a crime he did not commit, however, he is confined to barracks. The other soldiers don’t understand why Arnold “confessed.” Arnold explains that he would have been punished anyway, because Toomey is trying to break his spirit. Wykowski appreciates that Arnold stuck his neck out for the platoon. Eugene admires Arnold for his principles, but Arnold tells Eugene that he needs to stop being a spectator and get involved in what is going on around him.
On their leave, the other soldiers visit a prostitute, Rowena. Wykowski spends half an hour with her. Selridge is only with her for a minute or so. Carney decides to stay faithful to his girlfriend. A nervous Eugene chats with her and then goes on to lose his virginity to her.
Meanwhile, the other privates have returned to the barracks, where they have discovered Eugene’s journal and are reading it aloud. They learn Eugene’s private thoughts about them—that Carney is not to be trusted, that Selridge calls out his mother’s name in his sleep, and that Wykowski is “pure animal but will likely win a Medal of Honor.” When Eugene returns, they do not tell him they have his notebook, but he quickly realizes that it is missing. Wykowski begins reading from the journal. Eventually, the notebook comes to Arnold, whom Eugene begs not to read it. Arnold does, however, and discovers that although Eugene has a high regard for Arnold, he believes he is gay, and that makes him uncomfortable.
In the next scene, Toomey comes into the barracks in the middle of the night and wakes everyone up. He reports that two soldiers were caught in a sexual act in the latrine, but that one escaped through the window. Toomey wants the guilty party to step forward. When no one does, he suspends everyone’s base privileges and weekend leave. The soldiers all believe that the other man was Arnold, and for the first time, Eugene learns the power of the written word. The next morning, however, Toomey announces that he has learned the other man’s name, James Hennesey. The private faces up to five years in army prison.
Soon thereafter, Eugene goes on his quest to find a girl to fall in love with. At a USO dance, he meets Daisy and falls for her. She attends a local Catholic school. Eugene declares his intention of writing her.
Meanwhile, at the camp, Toomey is getting drunk, because he is being sent to the Veterans Hospital the next day. He calls for Arnold and tells him he would like to turn him into a disciplined soldier. To do so, Toomey holds a loaded gun on Arnold and forces Arnold to take it from him. Then Toomey has Arnold call in the platoon to charge Toomey before witnesses with threatening the life of an enlisted man. Toomey seems determined that Arnold will turn him in, but accepts Arnold’s offer of dropping the charges in exchange for Toomey’s completing two hundred push-ups.
The next day, a man whom Eugene refers to as sane, logical, and decent replaces Toomey. Eugene continues corresponding and visiting with Daisy. On their last date, before he ships out overseas, he tells her that he loves her and kisses her for the first time. As the play ends, the soldiers are again aboard a train, and they are talking about Hennesey, who only got three months in jail and then will be dishonorably discharged. At the conclusion of the play, Eugene shares the fates of his bunkmates with the audience: Selridge became a sergeant and trained new recruits at Biloxi; Wykowski lost a leg in battle but was cited for outstanding courage; after six months of enemy attack, Carney was hospitalized for severe depression; Arnold was listed as missing in action; and Daisy married a Jewish doctor. As for Eugene, he hurt his back on his first day in England and served out the war as a reporter for the army publication Stars and Stripes.
Don Carney is a private from New Jersey. He mistakenly thinks of himself as a crooner and irritates his bunkmates with his singing. Eugene, the narrator of the play, believes that Carney’s most noteworthy trait is his indecisiveness. Because of this, Eugene does not entirely trust him.
Arnold Epstein is a Jew from New York. He has a sensitive mind and an equally sensitive stomach. He is well read and intelligent. He feels he does not belong in the army, and he refuses to allow his spirit to be broken by Sergeant Toomey. Instead, Arnold rebels; for example, he refuses to eat food from the mess hall even though it means days of latrine duty. He shows himself to be responsible to a higher moral calling by taking the blame for the theft of Wykowski’s money so that the other soldiers can go on leave. Eugene admires Arnold’s steadfastness and his pursuit of truth and justice. Of all the soldiers, Arnold is able to keep calm, despite the problems presented by camp life and his fellow recruits.
Eugene meets Daisy at a USO dance. She attends a local Catholic school. They only meet again twice, yet they declare their love for one another right before Eugene ships out. They never see each other again, but Eugene learns that Daisy ends up marrying a Jew.
James Hennesey is a private in the platoon. He forces Wykowski to reveal his prejudice by claiming to be part African American. At the end of the play, Hennesey’s participation in a homosexual act is revealed. He is sent to prison for three months, after which he will be given a dishonorable discharge.
Eugene Morris Jerome
Eugene is the narrator of the play. He is from Brooklyn, New York, and his army experience represents his first time away from home. He is Jewish. He has three goals for the war: he wants to become a writer, not get killed, and lose his virginity. All his actions during training are focused on the achievement of these goals. As part of becoming a writer, Eugene keeps a journal in which he records his thoughts. This habit suggests that Eugene is more interested in observing what goes on around him than in participating in it. Eugene recognizes this fact; for example, he chastises himself for not standing up for Arnold when Wykowski harasses him for being Jewish. Eugene’s eventual army assignment—as a journalist for an army publication—also reinforces the way that Eugene interacts with the world—writing about it instead of being someone who makes things happen.
See Joseph Wykowski.
Rowena is the prostitute to whom Eugene loses his virginity. She gives Eugene a “freebie,” and he is greatly disappointed when he returns, and she does not even remember him.
Roy Selridge is a private from New York who demonstrates little unique personality. Instead, he follows Wykowski’s lead.
Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey
Sergeant Toomey is the company’s sadistic leader. He often hands out grueling and unpleasant punishments for mild infractions. He constantly tests the soldiers and tries to teach them hard lessons; in one instance he steals Wykowski’s money. Toomey dislikes Arnold’s questioning the army’s authority and his refusal to follow orders. Toomey’s most important goals are to break Arnold’s spirit and to make a real soldier of him. Toomey is relieved of his duties before the ten-week training is up and sent to a veteran’s hospital.
Joseph Wykowski (also called Kowski) is a private from Connecticut. Wykowski is a belligerent loudmouth who is prone to arguing, fighting, and bragging. Because he is the most aggressive of the privates, he becomes the company’s unofficial spokesperson. However, he does not represent all the men, for he is prejudiced, casting aspersions on Jews—including his bunkmates—as well as African Americans. Wykowski is a bully and a ringleader; for example, he is the man who encourages the reading of Eugene’s diary despite objections from others.
Prejudice and Anti-Semitism
One of the most important themes in the play is prejudice. Many of the characters show prejudice toward other groups of people. Wykowski is the most obvious, openly expressing his derogatory feelings toward Jews and African Americans. His prejudice toward Jews is more obvious as Jewish soldiers are in the company, providing Wykowski with an outlet for his feelings. By contrast, in the early 1940s, white and African-American soldiers were segregated, thus there are no African-American privates to incite racial slurs. A brief dialogue points out the segregation of the U.S. military as well as some of the feelings of the privates about it. When Hennesey claims to be “Half mick, half nigger,” Selridge protests, “You can’t be colored. They wouldn’t let you in with us.” Wykowski, on the other hand, rushes to this opportunity, “. . . I guessed it. It was something I couldn’t put my finger on but I knew something was wrong with you.” Only then does Hennesey reveal that his statement was only a lie to find out Wykowski’s true feelings.
Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, haunts the play. Wykowski subscribes to the stereotypes that surround Jews. When Arnold wins Eugene’s “fantasy” game, and thus the prize money, Wykowski responds, “It never fails. It’s always the Jews who end up with the money.” Wykowski asserts that his name-calling doesn’t matter. As he tells Hennesey, “Where I come from we’re all polacks, dagos, niggers and sheenies. That stuff doesn’t mean crap to me. You’re a mick, what do I care?” Other army personnel also demonstrate prejudice. The soldiers
- Biloxi Blues was adapted as a film with the same name by Ray Stark. Neil Simon wrote the screenplay and Mike Nichols directed. The film is available from MCA Home Video.
who refuse to flush the toilets that Arnold has just scrubbed call him a “New York Jew Kike.”
However, Eugene is also guilty of prejudice. He reveals—though privately—his doubts about Arnold in his notebook. Although Eugene holds Arnold in extremely high regard—calling him “the most complex and fascinating man I’ve ever met”—he also is wary of his fellow soldier because he thinks Arnold is gay.
Ironically, the sadistic Toomey demands that his men not express their prejudice while he himself uses stereotypes. He tells the company, “If I hear any more racial slurs from this platoon, some dumb bastard is going to be shoveling cow s—t. . . . Especially if I hear it from a Polack!”
Simon portrays the otherness of Jews in predominantly Christian-American society. In Arnold Epstein, Simon has created a character who fits a common American stereotype of a Jew. Arnold is an intellectual from New York City. He is physically weak and prone to illness. He bemoans his digestion, his health, and the food that is served. The other members of the company, those who do not show open anti-Semitism, demonstrate their lack of familiarity with Jews. As Selridge points out, “I never met a Jew before the army.” This statement emphasizes the true minority status of the American Jew.
Military life in Biloxi Blues is presented in a largely comedic manner; its difficulties are exaggerated, especially by Sergeant Toomey’s sadistic
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Think about an event you think would add to the play’s message. Then write an additional scene for the play, imitating Simon’s style and humor.
- Conduct research to find out about the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. Army during World War II. How does it differ from today’s army? Write a few paragraphs comparing and contrasting the two armies.
- Wykowski is a blatant bigot. How might Eugene have better responded to him, if he were participating in life instead of merely witnessing it? Write a monologue in which Eugene expresses his true feelings for Wykowski and his bigotry.
- Do you agree with Eugene’s assessment that he should have stood up for Arnold against Wykowski? Should the other men have stood up for Arnold even though they are not Jewish? Explain your answer.
- Homosexuality is one of the important issues raised in the play. In recent years, the question of whether or not gays should serve in the military has created political divisions. Find out about the status of gays in the military today. Write a paragraph explaining the recent policy changes that have taken place about this subject.
- One of Simon’s defining characteristics is his humor. Imagine that Biloxi Blues was strictly a drama. Rewrite one of the scenes of the play as a drama instead of a comedy.
- Read either Brighton Beach Memoirs or Broadway Bound. Compare Eugene’s character in either of these plays with his character in Biloxi Blues. Which Eugene do you like better? Why?
streak. Despite such elements, the play contains real truths about military life and the experience of young soldiers. On a more superficial level, certain details do accurately represent military life, such as the inedible food and the cramped quarters. The privates forge quick bonds that are not necessarily the most lasting. More compelling, however, is the transformation that the privates undergo as they learn about army life. Through their training, Eugene and the others become more mature people.
Rites of Passage
For Eugene, army training is his rite of passage into adulthood. Two of the goals he sets for himself foreshadow his transformation. He wants to become a writer, which implies that true development must take place, and he wants to lose his virginity. In the army, Eugene accomplishes both of these goals. He has sex with the prostitute Rowena, and his role in the army ends up being as a journalist for an army newspaper.
In his personal development, Arnold learns about himself and the kind of man he wants to be. For example, he realizes that he is ashamed of himself for not defending Arnold—a fellow Jew—from Wykowski’s attacks. His analysis of his bunk-mates also indicates a sense of introspection, one that is necessary for a writer, and one that signifies a certain level of growth.
Point of View and Narration
Although Biloxi Blues is a play, it is essentially structured around Eugene’s point of view—despite the fact that he is not present at some scenes, most notably the culminating one between Toomey and Arnold. Though Simon examines other characters in as much depth, perhaps even greater depth, as he does Eugene, this still remains Eugene’s story—the story of a formative experience in Eugene’s progress to become a writer (which he does in the final play of the trilogy, Broadway Bound).
The events that are portrayed are filtered through Eugene’s point of view, his journal entries, and ultimately his memory. Several narrative devices emphasize this perspective. Throughout the play, Eugene steps away from the action and directly addresses the audience. His brief monologues allow him the opportunity to share what he feels about what is happening in his life. Another emphatic device is his reporting the fate of the play’s characters at the end. Eugene knows what has happened to everyone. Recounting several of the characters’ fates reminds the reader that the play is really Eugene’s remembrance—it does not take place in real time. As such, Eugene’s point of view and perception direct the play.
Like all of Simon’s plays, Biloxi Blues is a comedy. Though it deals with several serious issues (such as homosexuality, anti-Semitism, and sadism), and it essentially centers on the life-and-death events of World War II, Simon treats his narrative humorously. The dialogue is filled with jokes, puns, gags, and one-liners. Almost anything can become the subject of Simon’s comedy: chipped beef, a deck of dirty cards, even the invasion of Italy. However, the humor that abounds does not obscure the greater meaning underneath—that of Eugene trying to understand his place in the world as well as what it means to be a writer. Eugene goes on to become a comedic playwright himself (in Broadway Bound), thus his use of numerous comedic turns in the relating of his army experience is entirely appropriate.
Biloxi Blues has many characters, but most of them are not complexly developed. The majority represent certain types of people. For example, of the privates, Wykowski is a loud-mouthed bully, and Arnold is a stereotypical New York Jew. Toomey is the sadistically typical army drill sergeant who takes personally his role of shaping scared and immature boys into men and soldiers. The play’s two women represent polar opposites. Rowena is the good-natured prostitute who does not feel demeaned by her profession. Daisy, on the other hand, is the virgin schoolgirl whom Eugene idealizes. While some critics have objected to such oversimplification of the characters, for Eugene, they actually do represent the way that certain types of people contributed to his greater understanding and his development as a writer. Eugene’s time among these people—only ten weeks—is so brief that in his recollection of the period, they all come to stand for some facet of his development rather than existing as real, living people. The oversimplification is in keeping with the way that Eugene perceives these people and his experiences with them.
Biloxi Blues takes place over the period of the ten weeks when Eugene is in training camp. While the action is chronological, only the important events that occur are highlighted—those that show the development of individual characters as well as the conflicts they meet. These individual scenes flow smoothly, with a sense of continuity. Issues that are brought up in earlier scenes are resolved in later ones. By the end of the play, Eugene has demonstrated that he has achieved all of the goals he set for himself on the train ride to Mississippi. This is only one example of the sense of completion the play imparts.
The Outbreak of World War II
Although World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States did not join the fight until 1941. At the outbreak of the war, however, the United States contributed arms and other supplies to the Allied war effort. In response to the war, the United States also passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history.
By 1941, the German army had captured most of Europe. Only Britain remained completely free, and Germany had established a bombing campaign intended to force Britain’s surrender. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day, the U.S. Congress declared war on the Axis Powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy. The entry of the United States into the war brought much-needed forces and supplies to the British army.
The United States and the War
For the rest of the war, U.S. troops fought along with the Allied troops in North Africa, Europe, the
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: In the year that World War II breaks out, 1939, there are 334,473 Americans on active military duty in the Army and Navy. These numbers grow dramatically during the war years. By 1943, there are over nine million Americans on active military duty. By the end of the war, in 1945, that number has risen to twelve million.
1990s: In 1999, there are about 1.1 million active duty military personnel serving in the United States and its territories. The great majority of these are based in the continental United States.
- 1940s: In 1943, the United States is deeply involved in World War II. American soldiers participate in all the major regions of the war.
1990s: In the 1990s, U.S. troops are involved in UN peacekeeping missions throughout the world. In 1991, U.S. soldiers lead a multinational force in the Persian Gulf War to free Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.
- 1940s: The U.S. Army is segregated. Almost one million African-American soldiers are relegated to their own companies.
1990s: Since 1948, when the order desegregating the army came down from President Harry S Truman, African Americans have served side by side in the army with white soldiers.
- 1940s: In 1948, there are about five million Jews living in the United States.
1990s: In 1997, America’s six million Jews represent about 2.3 percent of the national population. The highest percentage of Jews live in New York State.
Mediterranean, and the Pacific. After forcing a surrender in North Africa, Allied troops invaded Sicily, and, later, Italy. By June 1944, the Allies had captured Rome, making it the first Axis capital to fall.
One main campaign of the war was the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. On June 6,
1944, known as D-Day, the Allies landed 150,000 U.S., British, and Canadian soldiers in Normandy, France. By August of that year, these forces had liberated Paris. As the soldiers continued westward toward Germany, Soviet troops pressed on Germany from the east. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered.
However, the Allied forces had to continue to fight the Japanese. A campaign in the Pacific, intended to lead to the capture of Japan, was hard-fought and bloody. Then, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This devastating attack was followed three days later by another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. World War II was over.
In 1943, when the play takes place, the United States had already been at war for two years. The war effort united the American people. Called upon to serve their country, Americans helped in many ways. Families grew “victory” gardens to provide themselves with vegetables, so that farm crops could be sent overseas to feed the soldiers. Children collected scrap metal that could be melted down and used in ammunition factories. Women worked in these factories, performing jobs traditionally held by men, who were now serving in the army. People bought Liberty bonds as a way of providing the government with the money needed to carry out the war effort. The American people were called upon to make many sacrifices. For example, meat and gasoline were rationed. Overall, a sense of solidarity developed during the war years as Americans worked together to fight a common enemy.
Despite the relative solidarity the war effort brought to the United States, many Americans were treated unfairly. Japanese Americans suffered greatly. Perceived as a threat to U.S. security, more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes and relocated to internment camps. Many remained there until 1945. Hawaii, whose Japanese population was too large to relocate, was placed under martial law.
Not all American leaders agreed with this policy. One member of the Supreme Court referred to it as legalized racism, but this scathing indictment had no effect on the events of internment. Many Japanese-American families ended up losing their homes and belongings. Despite this prejudicial treatment, about 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military.
Social discrimination also took place against African Americans. Although many African Americans were able to move into better-paying jobs because of the demand for workers, other war plants would not hire them or would employ them only as janitors. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to make sure that all applicants, regardless of race, were considered for job openings.
Within the U.S. Army, as well, social discrimination existed. African-American soldiers were segregated from white soldiers, and most were kept out of combat. Black soldiers were often assigned to low-level work. The Tuskegee Airmen was one of the few all-black units that actually fought in the war. These fighter pilots launched their first combat mission against Italy in 1943. Over the next two years, they played a key role in the successful Allied air campaign.
Biloxi Blues is one of Simon’s most successful plays. Simon won his first Tony Award for best play in 1985, and Matthew Broderick, playing the role of Eugene, won the Tony for leading actor. Following on the heels of Brighton Beach Memoirs, which opened Simon’s autobiographical trilogy of plays, Biloxi Blues represented a turning point in the critical reception of Simon’s work.
First and foremost, many reviewers commented on Simon’s new and readily apparent interest in examining his own past, including his emergence as a writer. Indeed, Simon’s representation of Eugene’s army career is almost identical to Simon’s own, as is the family background presented in Brighton Beach Memoirs. As William A. Henry III writes in his review in Time, “Neil Simon has seemed in recent writing to seek a greater resonance between his plays and his most personal recollections, and to yearn for the respect that accrues to a creator who examines himself.”
Simon’s capability as a comic writer is aptly demonstrated. As with Simon’s previous works, audience and critics hold differing opinions about his use of comedy. Theater-goers, on the whole, appreciate Simon’s comedic strains more than critics, responding to them on a personal level rather than analyzing them on an intellectual level. Paul Berman of The Nation notes Simon’s “formidable” skill at humor. “You see it even when he plucks an old string like the funny quality of Jewish names.” However, Berman also asserts that while you do a lot of laughing,“the author would have done better to recognize [that] as the purpose of this play,” rather than the development of a young writer.
For Robert Brustein of The New Republic, although the play “carries some authentic moments of tension and electricity,” Simon makes a mistake in choosing to package them in “a conventional service comedy.” Brustein further criticizes “the very jokes that unite the audience” as serving to “disunite the play.” Again, this commentary illustrates the basic disparity between the way a critic views a piece of art and the way the average viewer does.
Critics also discuss the play’s characters and plot. Henry writes, “Inevitably, the sequel lacks some of the roundedness and universality of Brighton Beach: a military stopover cannot encompass the complex, cumulative relationships of a family.” Berman writes that Eugene’s progress toward becoming a writer is never seen in great enough depth and believes for this reason that Arnold is the more compelling character.
Overall, however, many critics agree with the audience’s positive assessment. Reviewers comment on the realism of the army setting. Howard Kissel writes in Women’s Wear Daily that it “is certainly Simon’s best play, to my mind the first in which he has had the courage to suggest there are things that matter more to him than the reassuring sound of the audience’s laughter. My admiration for the play is deep and unqualified.” Kissel, thus, refutes other critics’ opinions of Simon’s use of humor in the play. Henry finds it to be among “the most telling statements of the World War II generation, or any generation that loses many of its young in battle, about how much of life is luck.” He concludes that it “ranks as among the best new American plays of the Broadway season.” Many critics also admiringly remark on the quality of the play’s first staging. Brustein notes that the audience at the play showed remarkable “spirit” and was “more lively, more engaged, more at home than any Broadway crowd in years”—surely an enormously important indicator of a play’s ultimate success.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the comedy of Simon ‘splay and its underlying dramatic aspects.
Neil Simon had been a successful comedic playwright for close to twenty-five years when his play Biloxi Blues opened on Broadway in 1985. The semi-autobiographical Biloxi Blues, closely modeled on Simon’s own experience in the army, was the second in what would become a trilogy of plays that brought the author widespread acclaim, both from critics and audiences. The trilogy centers on Eugene Morris Jerome, an insightful, introspective Jewish boy from New York who grows up to become a writer. Biloxi Blues takes place in 1943, at an army training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Eugene, a new recruit, is sent there along with other young men from the East Coast. There he encounters a sadistic sergeant, an anti-Semitic member of the platoon, and the specter of homosexuality. He also loses his virginity and falls in love for the first time. Through these experiences, and the conflicts they engender, Eugene learns about his own relationship to the human drama that takes place on a daily basis. He also takes important steps to becoming a writer.
First and foremost to Simon’s audience, Biloxi Blues is successful because of its comic element. Numerous critics note the positive way the audience responds to Simon’s jokes. The dialogue is filled with gags, puns, and one-liners. Anything is subject to Simon’s humor: army food (“They oughta drop this stuff [chipped beef] over Germany. The whole country would come out with their hands up.”); accusations of homosexuality (“It’s like an Agatha Christie story. Murder by Fellatio. Title’s no good. Sounds like an Italian ice cream. . . . How about Murder on the Fellatio Express?’); and first sex (“My first time?. . . Are you kidding? That’s funny. . . Noo. . . It’s my second time. . . The first time they were closed.”). The new privates respond to one another with sarcasm, flippancy, and physical humor.
Another main focus of humor is Eugene’s journal entries, through which he frames the play. In the opening scene, while everyone around him attempts to sleep, Eugene takes part in the dialogue, at the same time as he is chronicling his thoughts about his new colleagues. This device allows Eugene the opportunity to infuse the play with humor by commenting on the people around him. The play opens with Eugene’s description of his fellow recruits, including Wykowski, who has what seems to be a permanent erection; Carney, who thinks he’s a singer but really isn’t; Selridge, who smells “like a tuna-fish sandwich left out in the rain”; and Arnold Epstein, whose digestion problems lead to his often-noted flatulence. In his journal, Eugene sums up what he sees “If the Germans only knew what was coming over, they would be looking forward to this invasion.”
Often in his journal entries, Eugene mixes humor with essential truths. These truths would be mundane, even sentimental, if rendered in straight language. For instance, in writing about Arnold Epstein, whom he calls “the worst soldier in World War Two and that included the deserters,” Eugene notes,“His major flaw was that he was incapable of digesting food stronger than hard-boiled eggs. . . I didn’t think he’d last long in the army because during wartime it’s very hard to go home for dinner every night.” Eugene’s observation, while funny, also points out the more serious truth: these boys, none of whom is older than twenty years, are being forced to leave the safety and security of their homes and sent onto the dangerous field of war.
Eugene’s narrative also comments on the very nature of the army and its intense discipline. Arnold’s rebellion is punished with KP duty, while the other privates endure what Eugene considers to be a worse fate: a fifteen-mile midnight march through the swamps of Mississippi. “But maybe Toomey was right,” Eugene later muses. “If nobody obeys
orders, I’ll bet we wouldn’t have more than twelve or thirteen soldiers fighting the war . . . We’d have headlines like, ‘Corporal Stanley Leiberman invades Sicily.’”
The constant comic element in Biloxi Blues does not mask the play’s more serious elements: the potentially violent conflict between Toomey and Arnold; the anti-Semitic degradation that Wykowski inflicts upon Arnold; Eugene’s attempts to learn how to become a writer; and the essential life-and-death issue of World War II. Through the conflict between Arnold, Toomey, and Wykowski, Eugene comes to learn about the place he chooses to occupy in the world.
Eugene first questions his own actions when Wykowski launches an anti-Semitic attack on Arnold. Angry that Eugene has selected Arnold’s fantasy—making Toomey perform two hundred push-ups—for the prize money, Wykowski retaliates with a series of derogatory remarks that center on stereotypes held about Jews: Jews always “end up with the money,” and they have distinguishable “Jew” noses. He then proceeds to point out the Jews—Arnold and Eugene—whom he declares are “easy
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984) first introduces Eugene Morris Jerome. Set in Brooklyn in 1937, it tells of a Jewish family and their financial troubles during the Great Depression.
- Simon’s Broadway Bound (1987) completes his semi-autobiographical trilogy. It centers on Eugene and his older brother as they leave home to become writers for a radio show. Meanwhile, their parents break up, and their family resists their new profession. Eugene comes to realize that life does not contain the happy endings he is able to write into his comedy.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II is a compelling biography that provides interesting perspectives and details about the home-front society in the United States during World War II. In particular, it takes the reader further into the events happening inside the Roosevelt White House and the dynamics of the many people living, working, and visiting there during this historic time.
- David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) describes the internment of Japanese Americans in Washington State during World War II. Set both in the 1940s and 1990s, it explores the devastating and long-term effects of racism.
- Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) is a collection of related short stories about young recruits serving in the Vietnam War. O’Brien fought in Vietnam, and his work evocatively and movingly presents this difficult period in American history, particularly for the young men who were sacrificed to the war.
to spot.” After Toomey prevents the potential fight between Arnold and Wykowski, Eugene faces the audience, sharing his journal entry.
. . . I never liked Wykowski much and I didn’t like him any better after tonight. . . . But the one I hated most was myself because I didn’t stand up for Epstein, a fellow Jew. Maybe I was afraid of Wykowski, or maybe it was because Epstein sort of sometimes asked for it, but since the guys didn’t pick on me that much, I figured I’d just stay sort of neutral. . . like Switzerland.
Although Eugene recognizes the negative aspect of his passivity, he does nothing to change it. After Arnold is involved in yet another conflict—this time with Toomey—Eugene is again forced to acknowledge his essential nature. He says to Arnold, who has just taken the blame for a crime he did not commit in order to ensure that the rest of the men will be allowed to go on their leave, ’ I admire what you did back there, Arnold. You remind me of my brother, sometimes. He was always standing up for his principles too.”
EPSTEIN: Principles are okay. But sometimes they get in the way of reason.
EUGENE: Then how do you know which one is the right one?
EPSTEIN: You have to get involved. You don’t get involved enough, Eugene.
EUGENE: What do you mean?
EPSTEIN: You’re a witness. You’re always standing around watching what’s happening. Scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.
EUGENE: What fight?
EPSTEIN: Any fight. The one you believe in.
EUGENE: Yeah. I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I’m invisible. Like The Shadow. I can see everyone else, but they can’t see me. That’s what I think writers are. Sort of invisible.
EPSTEIN: Not Tolstoy. Not Dostoyevsky. Not Herman Melville.
EUGENE: Yeah. I have to read those guys.
Simon ends this serious exchange with a dollop of humor. When Toomey calls from offstage that he doesn’t hear Arnold getting to his assigned punishment of cleaning the latrines, Arnold says, “I’d better go. I have to get involved with toilet bowls.”
Eugene, however, continues to choose not to get involved. For example, instead of telling his bunkmates his thoughts, he writes them down in his journal. Eugene wrote about his bunkmate Carney that he found him to be untrustworthy. Carney admits that his girlfriend also told him that “she didn’t think I was someone she could count on.” Carney’s self-revelation to Eugene confirms the keenness of Eugene’s perceptions.
Significantly, Eugene is not present at the most dramatic, harrowing scene of the play—the final confrontation between Toomey and Arnold. This scene is the only one in which the threat of real violence is present. Toomey is “piss drunk” with a “loaded .45 pointed at the head of dung that the piss-drunk sergeant hates and despises.” In Arnold’s words, the situation is “Delicate . . . extremely delicate.” Only after Arnold has successfully wrestled the gun away from Toomey are the other recruits allowed to join the scene, “in various states of undress.” Their lack of clothing indicates their relative innocence as compared to Arnold, who has just faced down the man who has made their collective lives miserable.
Eugene sums up the essential incompatibility between him and Arnold in his address to the audience immediately following this scene. “Epstein won the fantasy game fair and square because his really came true.” Arnold makes the fantasy game his actual life. This is the difference between observing life and living life.
Eugene’s difficulties with living life manifest in his parting scene with Daisy. He admits that he is “having a lot of trouble with words,” to which Daisy replies, “That doesn’t sound like Eugene the Writer to me.” But Eugene is “not writing now.” He is instead “Eugene the Talker,” the Eugene who must take part in an important life event—a first love—rather than analyze it. He finds the courage to tell Daisy his feelings, and thus he creates his most important connection in the play to another person. For a writer, however, the accomplishment of successfully observing and recording life is no small matter. By the end of the play, Eugene realizes that although he is an apt and careful observer, he is still unable to take his experiences and successfully translate them into words. After his final goodbye to Daisy, he “knew at that moment I was a long way from becoming a writer because there were no words I could find to describe the happiness I felt in
“OFTEN IN HIS JOURNAL ENTRIES, EUGENE MIXES HUMOR WITH ESSENTIAL TRUTHS. THESE TRUTHS WOULD BE MUNDANE, EVEN SENTIMENTAL, IF RENDERED IN STRAIGHT LANGUAGE. FOR INSTANCE, IN WRITING ABOUT ARNOLD EPSTEIN, WHOM HE CALLS ‘THE WORST SOLDIER IN WORLD WAR TWO AND THAT INCLUDED THE DESERTERS,’ EUGENE NOTES, ‘HIS MAJOR FLAW WAS THAT HE WAS INCAPABLE OF DIGESTING FOOD STRONGER THAN HARD-BOILED EGGS. . .”’
those ten minutes with Daisy Hannigan.” The fact that Eugene has gone on to produce this play is testament to his eventual ability to express himself in the exact words he chooses.
Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.
Stanley Kaufmann discusses the film version of Neil Simon’s play Biloxi Blues, praising its director, Mike Nichols, for his refreshing take on familiar scenes and its principal actors for the ‘delight’ they bring to their roles.
One of America’s premier comic talents is on glittering display in Biloxi Blues, a craftsman whose skill approaches the level of serious work as long as he sticks to lightweight work. I mean, of course, Mike Nichols. I first saw his directing in the Broadway production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1963), a souffle in the hands of a new, masterly pastry chef. Since then, in more Simon pieces and in other plays—excepting a misguided venture into Chekhov—Nichols has invariably evoked the best in his actors and has been subtly
ingenious with rhythm, timing, movement. Since then, Nichols has also made films—ten, I believe—and, to his theater gifts, has added cinematic dexterity.
He shows it again in Biloxi Blues, from the opening shot. That shot isn’t novel (one very much like it was in Brando’s film Morituri), but Nichols uses it well to set mood and motion. We see the hero, Matthew Broderick, through the window of a moving train. He is in World War II Army uniform, in a car crowded with soldiers. The camera then pulls back and up to show us the whole train, steaming across a railroad bridge. From Broderick’s face up to the panorama, the camera’s movement incises a feeling of wistful adventure, of progress into the unwished-for.
Later, Nichols refreshes a moment that was old when it happened to Andy Hardy—the stripling falling in love for the first time. Broderick, on his first leave from the boot camp training that occupies most of the film, goes to a dance in nearby Biloxi and meets a girl his own age, the delightful Penelope Ann Miller. As they dance, the camera gently circles them in the sparkling ballroom light, as if the film itself were sharing the youngsters’ wonder.
In Broderick and Miller and Matt Mulhern, who plays a tough trainee, Nichols started with an advantage: these three had been in the Broadway production of the original play, which was well directed by Gene Saks. For that advantage, I assume that Nichols was grateful. But for the drill sergeant, Nichols made a surprising choice of his own: Christopher Walken, not everyone’s idea of a hard-as-nails drill sergeant. Walken, whose speech sometimes sounds a bit coarse in genteel roles, here sounds a bit too silken; but once we understand that we’re not going to get the sergeant stereotype, he creates his own brand of strict professionalism, of loneliness, of hate.
The script is pure Neil Simon, which is to say impure. Gags, very funny, frequently replace credible dialogue. Sharp observation is tinged with sentimentality. Structure consists of invention—there isn’t much structure, really, just a series of scenes, some of which are linked. This last factor is common in Simon’s plays and screenplays and is somewhat more tolerable in Biloxi Blues because here he is turning the pages of an album (his own Army experience) rather than trying to develop a cogent comedy. Simon’s colorings of nostalgia, for a time that was clearly discomfiting, apparently rise because these experiences were part of his youth.
It’s hard to imagine a viewer being bored or unamused by Biloxi Blues. It’s easier to imagine a viewer finally dissatisfied with it.
Source: Stanley Kaufmann, “Stanley Kaufmann on Films: Variously Clever,” in New Republic, Vol. 3823, No. 198, April 25, 1988 p. 26.
This review by Leo Sauvage describes Simon’s Biloxi Blues as a ‘well-made’ piece full of laughter, if not originality, while exploring the institutions of love and the military.
Almost all of the flags on the Great White Way have gone up to salute Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues as the first “comedy hit” of the current season. The latest installment of the famous playwright’s so-called autobiographical series is precisely that—largely, alas, because the current season has been extremely poor.
The play, a droll recounting of Simon’s basic training at an Army camp in Mississippi, is certainly well-made. It has funny lines and situations—some genuinely witty, some designed to win automatic laughter of a rather low sort—and a story whose unequal episodes are fashioned into a whole without excessively visible stitches. The problem is that only rarely does the work achieve dramatic originality. Even so, Biloxi Blues is quite likely to survive at least as long as its predecessor, Brighton Beach Memoirs—recently moved from the Neil Simon Theater to make room for the new production, yet in its third year still entrenched on Broadway at the 46th Street Theater.
Eugene Morris Jerome (Matthew Broderick), the hero and “author” of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is now six years older, or of conscription age. The time is 1943, we are told. To any normal human being that means World War II. In Biloxi Blues, though, the war appears to be a very minor item of conversation and concern among the soldiers drafted to fight it. Granted, they are far from the bombed-out cities, the countries being invaded by Hitler’s panzer divisions, the refugees and murdered millions of Europe. Nevertheless, the United States had been engaged in the conflict for over a year; thousands of Americans had already been killed, wounded or captured. The bad news surely must have reached Biloxi, not to mention Brooklynite Eugene Jerome and his knowledgeable buddy Arnold Epstein (Barry Miller).
The sole suggestion of what these young men will soon confront, however, comes in a sort of postscript: On a train bringing Eugene and his comrades to the embarkation port, he tells us their respective fates. Otherwise the play is not about war; it is about how different types of individuals react when put into a military uniform and forced to accept someone else’s absolute authority for no better reason than the stripes on his sleeves. In fact, whatever the author may have intended, Biloxi Blues becomes first of all an attack on militarism. Simon may well have been conscious of this, for he apparently tried to blunt the thrust by making Sergeant Toomey (Bill Sadler) exceptional—a man clearly in need of psychiatric treatment, not your typical noncom in charge of teaching blind obedience to civilians he professionally despises.
Simon’s second focus is Eugene’s unfolding love life: the nice Jewish boy’s initial sexual experience with a prostitute (Randall Edwards), and his subsequent affection for Daisy Hannigan (Penelope Ann Miller), a church-going virgin. I do not object in principle to the playwright’s recourse to old-fashioned devices, but it strains credulity that at age 19 Eugene should be so embarrassed at the prospect of making love to a hooker. His nervous behavior is
“. . . NICHOLS HAS INVARIABLY EVOKED THE BEST IN HIS ACTORS AND HAS BEEN SUBTLY INGENIOUS WITH RHYTHM, TIMING, MOVEMENT.”
particularly surprising if we remember that as a young teenager in Brighton Beach Memoirs he was eager to get to the bottom of these matters. The very attractive Randall Edwards, incidentally, is much too elegant, and too patient, to be convincing as a woman turning tricks on weekends for waiting soldiers. If the author can be believed, in 1943 Biloxi had both the nastiest sergeant and the sexiest whore in the country.
Upon losing his virginity Eugene falls for the innocent Daisy, who hesitates to allow a first kiss not only because of her mother’s warnings but also because it is Good Friday. Although Penelope Ann Miller nicely prevents her character from drowning in absurdity, such scruples were outdated before the end of World War I. Since the girl is Catholic and the boy Jewish, one is not surprised to learn in the last scene that she is married to someone else. Indeed, one wonders why it was thought necessary to mention the expected. Then Simon comes up with the punch line that gets the biggest laugh of the evening: The pious young Catholic is now a Mrs. Goldstein, or some equally obvious Jewish name. Clever, albeit not terribly far above the level of an average standup comic’s gambit, and perhaps a little too pat in its pandering to the desires of a Broadway audience. The scenes involving the troops, happily, display a deeper humor.
Biloxi Blues has been directed well by Gene Saks and performed well by an ensemble of excellent actors, several of whom play outstanding characters outstandingly. Interestingly, neither Matthew Broderick nor his Eugene Morris Jerome head either category. Broderick is very good when he is feeling his way around in the barracks, but in his two big conventional scenes tailor-made to amuse the audience he gets carried away and resorts to even easier gimmicks. The true central figure of Biloxi Blues is Arnold Epstein, a Jewish intellectual, masterfully delineated by Barry Miller. Epstein is the sort of rational philosopher who seems utterly unfit, if not for fighting a war, certainly for life in a training camp under military—that is, stupid—discipline. Still, he develops an attitude toward authority that in effect amounts to a new model of passive resistance, based not on instinct or peasant shrewdness (like the Good Soldier Schweik’s) but on sophisticated thinking which builds up to a strategy. His scenes with the sadistic Sergeant Toomey—a role Bill Sadler expertly pushes precisely to the limit of tolerance—culminate in a final confrontation where mad brutishness is rendered helpless and intellectual preparedness triumphs. This duel between two kinds of power is a powerful moment of theater.
Source: Leo Sauvage, “On Stage: Life Along the Mississippi,” in The New Leader, Vol. 68, No. 5, April 8, 1985, pp. 20-21.
Berman, Paul, Review in The Nation, April 20, 1985, p. 474.
Brustein, Robert, Review in The New Republic, May 20, 1985, p. 26.
Henry, William A., Ill, Review in Time, April 8, 1985, p. 72.
Kissel, Howard, Review in Women’s Wear Daily, March 29, 1985, p. 72.
Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon: A Casebook, Twayne, 1983.
This is an in-depth discussion of Simon’s earlier career and the plays he wrote up through the early 1980s. Johnson analyzes individual plays as well as traces common themes among them.
Konas, Gary, Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
A discussion of Simon’s career.
Simon, Neil, A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Simon recalls his life and the influences that shaped him as a writer.