The Last Night of Ballyhoo
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
ALFRED UHRY 1996
In his second play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry explores the lives of Jewish southerners, a society that he introduced to the American theater-going public with his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy. The setting and plot of The Last Night of Ballyhoo developed from stories Uhry heard growing up in a southern Jewish family, as well as his own experiences. As he told Don Shewey from American Theatre, “I went to one of the last Ballyhoos there was, when I was 16—it was like a German-Jewish debutante ball.” However, Uhry also had a keen desire to explore Jewish identity, including prejudice inflicted on Jews by other Jews. Uhry combined these two interests to create the privileged world of the Levy / Freitag families. They live in a large home on one of Atlanta’s finest streets. They belong to an elite country club. Their children may attend prestigious private universities. All these trappings and conveniences of wealth, however, cannot change the fact that they are Jews who live in an overwhelmingly Christian society. The prejudice that they experience as a result of their religion does not deter them from embracing mainstream southern society or from replicating this discrimination within their own culture; German-Jews such as the Levys and Freitags look down on “the other kind” of Jews—Eastern European Jews. While The Last Night of Ballyhoo deftly explores this anti-Semitism, Uhry also intersperses his serious message with sparkling banter, comedic non sequiturs, and hilarious characters and characterization. The Last Night of Ballyhoo was first produced at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and went to Broadway the following year; its playscript is available from Theatre Communications Group.
Alfred Uhry was born in 1936 to an upper-middle-class German-Jewish family in Atlanta, Georgia. His father was a furniture designer and artist, and his mother was a social worker. He attended Brown University in Rhode Island, graduating with a degree in English in 1958.
Uhry had worked on varsity shows at Brown with Robert Waldman; Uhry wrote the script and lyrics, and Waldman wrote the music. After college, Uhry moved to New York to begin his career in show business, where he continued to collaborate with Waldman. Their musical, The Robber Bridegroom(1975), was based on a novella by southern writer Eudora Welty. Uhry wrote the script and the song lyrics. The play was a surprise hit off-Broadway and moved to Broadway for the 1976-1977 season. It earned Uhry a Tony Award nomination and a Drama Desk nomination.
Uhry continued to work on other musicals, but these projects were unsuccessful, either closing on opening night, or soon thereafter, or never opening at all. Uhry began to write comedy scripts for television shows and lyrics for commercials and also taught English and drama at a New York high school. In 1984, as Uhry was struggling to get a musical about Al Capone off the ground, the idea came to him to write a play instead.
The characters in Driving Miss Daisy(1987) are based on people that Uhry knew growing up, including his grandmother and her African-American chauffeur. Driving Miss Daisy, Uhry’s first play, was an instant success, running for three years in New York. Uhry won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for it. Uhry also wrote the adaptation for the film version of this work.
After his surprise hit, Uhry was approached by the Olympic Games’ Cultural Olympiad to produce a play for the 1996 Olympic Games that would be held in Atlanta. He revisited Atlanta’s Jewish milieu that he knew so well to create his story about intra-ethnic prejudice. The Last Night of Ballyhoo went on to win Uhry another Tony Award. In 1998, he wrote the book for the musical Parade, which played at Lincoln Center in New York. It also had anti-Semitism as a central focus.
Uhry lives in New York, where he is active in the Dramatists Guild. He also has served as an advisor to the Guild’s Young Playwrights Festival.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo opens in the living room of the Freitag/Levy home, where Lala is decorating a Christmas tree. It is 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia, the afternoon of the premiere of Gone With the Wind. Boo comes into the room and starts talking to Lala about calling Peachy Weil to get a date for Ballyhoo, which is now less than two weeks away. Boo ruins Lala’s good mood, and she goes rushing from the room. Boo is worried because Lala is unmarried and unpopular. Reba confesses that Sunny does not have a date for Ballyhoo either. While the sisters-in-law are talking about their children, Adolph arrives home. He tells the women he has invited Joe Farkas, a new employee, home for supper. When Joe arrives, Boo gets annoyed that she has not been told that he is working for the family company. The women retire to the kitchen, and Lala comes downstairs. She suggests that Joe attend the movie premiere with her that evening.
After dinner, conversation shifts to Joe’s family and whether he will go home for Christmas. Joe explains that his family doesn’t celebrate Christmas but he will be going home for Pesach, or Passover. The Levys don’t celebrate Passover. They went to Passover one year when Lala was in fifth grade, and Lala remembers it as boring. She is more interested in finding out whether Joe will be in town for Ballyhoo. They explain Ballyhoo to Joe: it is a social party that young Jewish people from all over the South attend. Then Lala again suggests that Joe and she go downtown, but Joe says he must go home since he has to catch a train early the next morning. After he leaves and Lala has gone upstairs, Boo turns to her brother and says, “Adolph, that kike you hired had no manners.”
The next scene opens five days later aboard a southern-bound train. Sunny is in a sleeping compartment reading a book when Joe knocks on the door. Adolph had asked him to check in on Sunny to see if she needed anything. Sunny and Joe get into a
conversation that ends in his asking her to go to Ballyhoo with him.
The next scene returns to the Freitag house. It is the morning that Sunny’s train is due to arrive, and Adolph plans on meeting her. While he waits for Reba to get dressed, he comments that he is disturbed about Adolf Hitler’s attack on Poland. Boo thinks he should be concerned with his own family instead, and then she complains that Adolph favors Sunny. Adolph reminds her that Sunny’s father took care of them all after their father died. Boo also complains because she never got to work in the family business even though she got better math grades in school than either of her brothers. After Adolph and Reba have left, the phone rings. It is Peachy Weil calling for Lala. Peachy is coming to Atlanta the day after Christmas, but he does not ask Lala to Ballyhoo. Boo picks up the phone to call Peachy’s aunt and set things straight.
That night, Sunny and Adolph are playing cards, and Reba is sitting nearby, knitting. A conversation develops about a local girl who went crazy after going to teachers’ college. Sunny never heard about this story, and Reba confesses it’s because the girl was “the other kind.” Sunny doesn’t understand what her mother means, and Reba explains that the phrase refers to Jews who are from Eastern Europe instead of Germany, like them. Reba and Adolph claim that “the other kind” can be identified by their appearance.
Boo and Lala return from seeing Gone With the Wind, which Lala thinks is a masterpiece. Then Joe comes to the door, bringing some figures for Adolph. Adolph insists that Joe have some coffee, and Lala goes to the kitchen to make it. Alone with Sunny, Joe asks her if she and her family are really Jewish. Sunny insists that she always just wanted to be like everyone else, but Joe thinks that she is. To show he is wrong, Sunny tells him about the summer when she was going into the seventh grade and she was at the Venetian Club Pool with her friends. A man came by the pool and called out her name and then told her that Jews were not allowed to swim in the club pool. Joe then asks Sunny out for a date and leaves shortly thereafter. When Lala finds out that Joe has asked Sunny to Ballyhoo, she gets angry and calls Joe aggressive. Lala and Sunny argue about who gets more attention in the family, and Lala says that Sunny is a hypocrite because she is going to Ballyhoo even though she claims she doesn’t care about going. Lala points out that she will be going to Ballyhoo with someone who belongs there—“a Louisiana Weil”—whereas Sunny will be going with “a New York Yid.”
Act 2 opens the next day. Lala and Boo are arguing because Lala refuses to call Peachy. Lala eventually calls, but Peachy has already left for Atlanta. Boo calls the cook and asks her to check if Peachy’s tuxedo is in his closet. When they find out it is not, Lala and Boo take this as positive proof that Peachy is going to take Lala to Ballyhoo. They go shopping for a new dress. That night, Lala models her new dress, which is an unbecoming hoop skirt. Sunny and Joe come in from their date. He dances with Lala but manages to step on her dress and tear it. Boo and Lala go upstairs to fix the dress. Adolph gives Joe tickets to Ballyhoo; he gets them free because he is a past president of the club, which is restricted to wealthy Jews. Joe leaves, and Sunny and Adolph talk about love.
The next scene takes place on Christmas Day. The presents have been opened. Peachy Weil comes over, and he and Lala exchange impertinent quips, but eventually he officially invites her to Ballyhoo. The next evening finds Peachy and Joe awaiting their dates. The talk turns to war in Europe, but it is clear that Peachy cares little about the events there. The couples depart for Ballyhoo.
At Ballyhoo, while Sunny and Lala are in the ladies’ room, Joe learns from Peachy that the Standard Club, which hosts the dance, is a closed club. “The other kind” of Jews attend the Progressive Club; the Standard Club is only for German Jews. However, Joe shouldn’t be worried about being treated poorly, since Adolph once was a president of the club. Furious, Joe leaves the party, leaving Sunny to wonder what happened. She gets a ride home from a friend. However, Joe comes by the house later. He and Sunny angrily discuss why he left Ballyhoo. He doesn’t think she should have taken him to a club that discriminates against Jews, and Sunny retorts that she didn’t think it would make a difference; according to Sunny, the Standard Club is nothing at all like the Venetian Club. The fight escalates with Joe accusing Sunny of speaking “Jew hater talk.” The two part. Then the doorbell rings. It is Lala. Peachy has proposed, and she and Boo are thrilled.
The final scene takes place one week later on a train approaching Wilmington, Delaware. Sunny is in her sleeping compartment when there is a knock on her door. It is Joe. At first he claims he is on the train because he is in the area for work and, besides, Adolph asked him to check up on her. However, he later admits that he drove all the way to the train just to see her. Sunny says that Joe’s “Jew hater talk” can’t be true because it would be as if she hated herself. She apologizes for taking him to Ballyhoo. Joe and Sunny confess to missing each other and end up kissing and crying. The train is about to depart, so Joe must leave. Sunny is sad, but Joe tells her that they have the whole future ahead of them and to “think of something really good, and we’ll just make it happen.” What Sunny thinks of is dinner at her home in Atlanta, with Adolph, Boo, Reba, Lala, and Peachy already seated. Sunny and Joe join them, and Sunny lights the Sabbath candles and says the blessing.
Joe Farkas is a Brooklyn Jew who has moved to the South to work for Adolph at the bedding company. Joe never went to college, but according to Sunny, he is “very bright.” Proud of his heritage, Joe is surprised to meet a family with no real sense of Jewish identity. Unlike the majority of the characters in the play, Joe manifests concern for the Jews in Europe, not simply because he has relatives there but because he feels a bond with his coreligionists. Joe is extremely sensitive to the prejudice that the Levys hold toward him—and any Eastern European Jews. When he finds out that the Standard Club does not allow his “kind” of Jew to belong, he leaves the dance and Sunny. He also accuses Sunny of “Jew hater talk.” However, he comes to regret his hard words and effects a reconciliation with her.
The bachelor Adolph Freitag, who lives with the two widows, runs the family’s bedding business that was first started by their oldest brother, Sunny’s father, who is now dead. Of the older members of the family, Adolph is the only one who demonstrates any real recognition of the world outside of the Atlanta Jewish community; for instance, he shows concern over the situation in Europe, particularly with regard to the Jewish population. He enjoys a special bond with Sunny, a closeness not replicated with the airheaded Lala, and is pleased at the developing relationship between her and Joe. Despite these positive qualities, Adolph is not immune to the social snobbishness that afflicts his family; for example, he is a past president of the restricted Standard Club.
Reba Freitag, the widow of Boo and Adolph’s brother, shares a house with the two of them. Generally seen knitting, Reba is far more easygoing than her sister-in-law, but she also is a little vague. The play’s character notes describe her as “not quite in synch with everybody else.”
Sunny Freitag is Reba’s twenty-year-old daughter. She is the opposite of her cousin Lala, with her cheerful disposition, blond hair, and intellectual curiosity. Despite her so-called Aryan features, Sunny has been the victim of prejudice: when she was a teenager, she was kicked out of a private swimming pool in front of all her classmates. This experience has made her grow up feeling different from all her friends. She has returned from Wellesley, where she is majoring in sociology, for the Christmas holidays. Sunny is unique in her family. More open-minded, she has never even heard the phrase “the other kind” and cannot fathom what it means. Although she disparages Atlanta’s Jewish social scene, she agrees to attend Ballyhoo with Joe. She grows increasingly fond of him in a short period of time, yet her deception in not telling him that the Standard Club is restricted threatens their burgeoning relationship. In the resulting fight, when she explains to Joe that she regards them as “equals,” Sunny reveals that she has been touched by the social snobbery that is so pervasive among her family. Unlike her family, however, Sunny comes to comprehend the inherent irrationality of disliking Jewish people simply because they come from Eastern Europe or New York or wherever, for she realizes that would be like hating herself. By the end of the play, having reconciled with Joe, she demonstrates a clear and real interest in exploring her religious and cultural background. Thus, Sunny, who previously believed that religion didn’t matter in today’s world, shows that she has undergone a major transformation.
Beulah “Boo” Levy is a widowed southern matron. She and Lala live in the family home with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Worried that the unpopular and socially awkward Lala will never marry, her greatest concern seems to be getting Lala a date for Ballyhoo. She willfully tries to ignore the fact that Lala is unpopular because of personality issues, and she insists that Lala make use of the family’s social standing to win suitors. When Lala resists, Boo resorts to bullying, browbeating, and dominating tactics. Her methods pay off. Boo forces Lala to call Peachy Weil and makes her attend Ballyhoo, but by the end of the play, Peachy has proposed to Lala.
Boo holds social standing above all else. She is ecstatic about Lala’s engagement to Peachy—even though he makes no effort to conceal his offensive, boorish behavior—simply because he is a member of one of the South’s most well-regarded Jewish families. By contrast, she dislikes Joe Farkas because of his family background; she even calls him a “kike.” Like the rest of her family, Boo believes that German Jews, such as themselves, are superior to Eastern European Jews, such as Joe.
Beulah “Lala” Levy is Boo’s socially awkward twentyish-year-old daughter. Having left college before finishing the first semester because she did not get pledged to the good Jewish sorority, Lala lives at home and seems to do very little with herself. She is prone to flights of fantasy. For instance, with the Atlanta movie premiere of Gone With the Wind, Lala declares herself an author. However, like her mother, her foremost desire is to obtain a date for Ballyhoo. When she first meets Joe, she sets her sight on him, but he prefers Sunny. This partiality unleashes Lala’s long-standing jealousy of her prettier, smarter, less stereotypically Jewish cousin. Lala thinks that Sunny has always gotten all the attention in the family. However, once Peachy asks her to attend Ballyhoo with him, she immediately feels superior to Sunny because she has a date with a member of one the South’s best Jewish families, whereas Sunny’s date is a “Yid.” Like her mother, Lala exalts their social position and looks down on people not of their milieu. Thus, Lala is delighted by Peachy’s proposal, despite the utter lack of romance or emotion involved.
See Sylvan Weil
Sylvan “Peachy” Weil hails from a good Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He has come to Atlanta with his family, and Lala and Boo have their eyes set on him as a Ballyhoo date. He is uncouth, socially inappropriate, and either completely unaware or disinterested in the offenses he inflicts on others, particularly Joe. Despite these glaring faults, Lala is delighted with his marriage proposal.
Social standing plays an important role in Boo’s world. Her family numbers among the best Jewish families in Atlanta. Adolph is a past president of the restricted Standard Club, and their family home is the only Jewish household on Habersham Road. Boo wants her daughter to associate only with the right kind of Jews. For instance, she disparages the sorority bid because “Nobody but the other kind belong to A E Phi.” She encourages Lala to try to become popular, insisting, “Your place in society sits there waiting for you, and you do nothing about it.” The importance of social standing eventually allows even the socially awkward Lala to make a good marriage. Peachy Weil, himself uncouth and
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Do you think the final scene of the family’s Sabbath dinner is fantasy or reality? Explain your answer.
- Find out more information about American-Jewish reactions to the persecutions of European Jews. What efforts did American Jews make to help European Jews? What additional efforts do you think they might have made?
- Investigate other forms of racism that took place in the South in 1930s, such as discrimination against African Americans.
- Write a journal entry, as if you were Joe, explaining how you feel about the Levy/Freitag family.
- Find out more about Jewish life in the 1930s. Compare Jewish life in the South to Jewish life in the North. Are the characters in The Last Night of Ballyhoo accurate reflections of their time period?
- Do you think the play is more comedic or more serious? Do you think the use of comedy is an effective tool for putting forth important social issues? Explain your answer.
offensive, proposes to Lala. Because he is from one of the finest Jewish families in the South, Boo is ecstatic. Similarly, Peachy’s father approves of his son’s engagement to Lala because he and his wife know “what they’re getting here, all the way back on both sides.”
Other members of the family are also affected by the concept of social standing. While Lala disparages her mother’s class presumptions, she is not above using their status to impress Joe, making sure that he knows that their address is “about the best” in town. When she gets upset because Joe prefers Sunny to her, she lashes out at Sunny, telling her that Joe is just a “New York Yid,” whereas she will be going to Ballyhoo with someone who belongs there—“a Louisiana Weil.” Sunny’s education also reflects her background—it is not a coincidence that she is majoring in sociology at the elite, private Wellesley College. There she reads books with socialist leanings like Upton Sinclair’s The Profits of Religion, which, according to Joe, glorifies the “unwashed masses and the beauty of the working class.”
The Levys, Freitags, and Weils represent those families who emigrated from Europe generations ago and assimilated to the United States fairly quickly. Assimilation is a common practice for immigrants, and for many cultures, success is indicated by integration into mainstream society. Unlike the newer Jewish immigrants, both the Levy and Weil families claim an extended southern lineage. Peachy’s family has been in Louisiana for one hundred and fifty years, and they have no relatives remaining in Europe. This family history contributes to their status as the “Finest family in the South!” The Levys and Freitags also have an extended southern lineage. Boo takes great pride in the fact that great grandma’s cousin Clemmie was the “first white child born in Atlanta.” The assimilation of the Levy/Freitag family is apparent in Boo’s claims to connections and birthright. However, the assimilation process also poses social and personal problems. Does the family’s birthright give them claim to inferior status in southern society, or does it give them claim to a religious heritage that dates back more than two thousand years?
Though the characters believe that being as much like their Christian southern neighbors as possible represents the pinnacle of success, assimilation does not always bring positive transformations. As Stefan Kanfer points out in the New Leader, one of the undercurrents of the play is “Sunny’s feelings of rootlessness—her antecedents make the coed too foreign for WASP acceptance, yet she knows nothing about the traditions or lore of Judaica.” The assimilation of Jewish families who have been in the United States for a long period of time also leads them to look down on the newer immigrants, who tend to be those from Eastern Europe, contributing to the divisions that exist between these two groups.
War and Anti-Semitism
The war in Europe provides a backdrop to the play. Although European events are only mentioned in passing, they are relevant because World War II has become a symbol of rampant anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler brought his anti-Semitic feelings to the forefront of Germany’s social policy in the 1930s, and with Germany’s conquest of other European countries, Hitler was able to spread his message (often already in existence among other European populations) and murder about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. Among the Levy/Freitag household, however, with the exception of Adolph, no one pays attention to events in Europe. At one point, Adolph verbalizes his concern over Hitler’s attack on Poland, and Boo’s response is that he should be concerned for his family instead. On the night of Ballyhoo, the topic of the war comes up among Peachy, Joe, and Adolph. Peachy’s only response to Joe’s worry about his relatives in Poland and Russia is the flippant, “Let’s hope they can dodge bullets.” In 1939, many Americans were still hoping that the United States could keep out of the European conflict, and Peachy’s feeling about the matter—that it is Europe’s problem and Europeans should figure it out themselves—is reflective of popular opinion at that time. It would seem that the Levys and Freitags would be more sensitive to the persecution of their fellow Jews in Europe, but they have internalized the anti-Semitism of the society that surrounds them to such an extent that they subconsciously inflict it on their fellow brethren in Europe.
The ending of The Last Night of Ballyhoo remains ambiguous. Does the family’s Sabbath dinner represent Sunny’s fantasy of the future, or does it represent a future that has become realized? The scene is so brief that it is impossible to formulate an accurate answer to this question. However, whether the scene is fantasy or reality, it does highlight the direction in which at least one member of the family is headed; for Sunny, the future clearly holds a new interest in Judaism. With Joe’s help, Sunny will try to steer her family to learn more about their religious and cultural heritage.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a comedy. Many of the characters indulge in deadpan banter and one-liners. When Lala emerges dressed in a hoop skirt like Scarlett O’Hara wears in Gone With the Wind, Adolph calls her Scarlett O’Goldberg. To explain why he never married, Adolph tells Sunny that he fell in love with a girl he saw on the streetcar every day. She was the love of his life because “I never saw her for more than twenty minutes at a time, and I had no dealings with her whatsoever.” The characters also evoke humorous images of unfortunate people. Boo foresees Lala’s future if she doesn’t get married soon: she will be keeping house for eighty-five cats and getting arrested for running down the street wrapper. Reba counsels Lala against going on a date with Ferdie Nachman because “his father picked his nose during his own wedding ceremony.” Reba’s statement that higher education can lead to insanity is one of the funniest non sequiturs (a statement that does not follow logically from anything previously said). Reba recalls the story of Viola Feigenbaum, the “least hideous” of seven hideous sisters. Viola, being the smartest, attended teacher training school but then went crazy on the train, taking off all her clothes and running up and down the coach.
The play is set in Atlanta in 1939, a location that is particularly relevant because the South was rife with prejudice. In the 1930s (and for several decades thereafter), white society significantly discriminated against African Americans. They were segregated at schools and restaurants, on buses and in train stations, and into their own communities; African Americans lived a separate life from white southerners. While Jewish southerners are not excluded nearly to that extent, they too are excluded from certain institutions, such as the Venetian Club. By setting the play in the South, Uhry is able to subtly remind the audience of the South’s longstanding history of prejudice. In such an environment, intra-ethnic prejudice is more likely to develop.
The Great Depression
The United States spent the 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. This global economic recession was the worst depression in American history. Thousands of banks closed, leaving their customers with lost savings. Unemployment jumped dramatically, from just less than four percent in 1929 when the depression began; it reached its height in 1933, when about twenty-five percent of the U.S. population was out of work. By the late 1930s, many families had begun to feel some economic relief, but the depression did not end until the United States entered World War II in 1941.
Popular Culture in the 1930s
Americans turned to the movies as a way of forgetting their problems during the Great Depression. Gone With the Wind, based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell, became the most popular film of the decade. Comedies and musicals were also popular. However, some filmmakers illustrated social issues. Sullivan’s Travels depicted the hobo life, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town criticized the wealthy.
Literature of the 1930s often reflected a new wave of realism. Books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath portrayed the hard life of migrant farm workers as they traveled to California in search of a better life. Richard Wright’s Native Son reflected a young African-American man’s bitter experiences in a racist world.
Theater of the 1930s saw a shift throughout the course of the decade. At the beginning of the 1930s, many plays dealt with the country’s labor and class struggles, while some plays, like Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, attacked upper-class greed. By the late 1930s, however, the most popular plays celebrated traditional American values, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
World War II
War broke out in Europe in 1939. Adolf Hitler had already annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich, and on the morning of September 1, 1939, Hitler announced the annexation of Danzig, a Polish port city with a large German population. At the same time, Germany began a massive attack on Poland. Nazi troops and tanks entered the country by land, while the air force bombed from above. With this act of aggression, Hitler broke the pact that he had made in 1938 with Great Britain and France, promising to make no more claims on territory in Europe. Within forty-eight hours of the German attack, Britain and France had declared war on Germany. However, they took no military action to turn back the German assault, and Poland was easily subdued, surrendering on September 17.
In western Europe, France and Britain began mobilizing for a war, but little military action took place. Newspapers began to speak of a “phony war” in the region, but this terminology proved invalid on April 9, 1940, with Germany’s invasion of Denmark and Norway. Both countries quickly fell to the German onslaught and remained under
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: Over 100,000 German Jews enter the United States between 1933 and 1939, but many, many more Jews are denied entry because of existing quota laws. Most of these Jews will die in Nazi concentration camps.
Today: Between 1991 and 1998, 54,900 Germans immigrate to the United States. During this same period, another 371,658 immigrants are admitted as permanent residents under existing refugee acts.
- 1930s: In 1939, almost all of Europe is involved in World War II. However, the United States still remains out of the war, although it provides Great Britain with military supplies.
Today: In 2001, in response to a terrorist attack, the United States launches its war on terrorism. In October, the United States begins bombing raids on terrorist training camps and other military targets in Afghanistan, which is believed to shelter the terrorists responsible for the attacks on the United States. The United States has the backing of NATO in this assault.
- 1930s: The most popular film of the decade is 1939’s Gone with the Wind, a technicolor epic. For years, the film is the leader in box office receipts.
Today: Titanic, made in 1997, is one of the most popular films of the 1990s. It grosses more than $600 million, giving it the all-time number one box office ranking.
- 1930s: Americans entertain themselves by going to the movies, listening to radio programs, listening to music, and reading. Clark Gable, who stars in Gone with the Wind, is a leading heartthrob.
Today: In addition to attending movies, watching television, and listening to music, many Americans find entertainment on the World Wide Web. On the Web, people can download music and movies, communicate via email, make purchases, read magazines, and conduct any number of other activities.
German occupation until the end of the war in 1945. Hitler next turned his sights westward, invading the Low Countries in rapid succession. By June 1940, even France had fallen; Britain stood alone to face the Nazi menace.
U.S. Involvement in World War II
Throughout the 1930s, the United States had expressed its determination to remain neutral in future wars. Though some people believed that the Nazis posed a threat to the whole of civilization, most Americans did not think the United States should concern itself with Europe’s war. The United States did revise the Neutrality Act in 1939 to allow American firms to sell munitions to Great Britain. After the fall of France, American sympathy for Britain increased, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, convinced that the United States would be drawn into the war eventually, transferred fifty old American naval destroyers to Britain in 1940. Congress also passed the first national draft law to be adopted by the country during peacetime. By early 1941, the United States was selling war materials to Britain on credit, and by that autumn the U.S. Navy was involved in an undeclared war with German submarines. On December 7, 1941, Japan, which was allied with Germany and Italy, attacked a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States officially joined the war on the side of the Allies.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo was originally commissioned by the Alliance Theatre Company for presentation at Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Arts Festival. It immediately drew an appreciative audience, including Michael Sommers, who introduced the play to the American Theater Critics Association (ACTA) prize-awarding committee. According to Sommers, The Last Night of Ballyhoo was full of “tasty regional talk, seriocomic situations, and well-crafted realistic form.” The Last Night of Ballyhoo went on to win an ACTA citation as an outstanding new play.
In 1997, The Last Night of Ballyhoo opened on Broadway, and the majority of theater critics responded as favorably as earlier audiences had. Greg Evans called it a “winning new play” in Variety and made special note of the “wonderfully crafted script.” Richard Zoglin pointed out in Time, “Uhry juggles a lot of elements with no evident strain, creating a believable family that seems both quirky and emblematic.” Edward J. Mattimoe wrote in America of the drama’s pathos, calling it a “human comedy,” one that ends in both laughter and tears. The Last Night of Ballyhoo won a Tony Award for the best play of the 1997 season.
Uhry had first come to national attention ten years earlier, with his prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy. The Last Night of Ballyhoo bore certain resemblance to the earlier play; it too was set in Atlanta among upper-class Jews. The Last Night of Ballyhoo also reunited crucial members of Driving Miss Daisy—playwright, actor, and director—so it is not surprising that The Last Night of Ballyhoo would be compared to its predecessor. Like the earlier play, wrote Don Shewey in American Theatre, “it operates by stealth, adopting a disarmingly conventional form to tell a story we haven’t quite heard before.” Evans agreed that, with its “abundant humor” and “laugh-provoking dialogue,” The Last Night of Ballyhoo was “a more than worthy successor” to Driving Miss Daisy. To Zoglin, The Last Night of Ballyhoo was actually superior, “richer, more textured than the rather schematic Miss Daisy.”
Critics also responded to what Sommers called “the dark central issue the play so winningly illuminates”: the treacherous place of Jews within a Christian society. According to Zoglin’s analysis, the Levy and Freitag family is forced into a “tricky dance of assimilation and accommodation.” Because of their religious background, the family experiences discrimination, yet they also discriminate against those Jews they deem to be of lower quality. Mattimoe noted, “[T]here are enough unsettling comments about Jewish people—made by Jewish people—to show that any ethnic group, once put
down absorbs some of the negativity themselves.” More than one critic commented on the audience’s shocked response to Boo Levy’s use of the word “kike.” This very real discomfort reflects the unsettling facts of discrimination. Yet, as Shewey wrote, “Part of the triumph of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is that Uhry allows ethical dilemmas and class tensions to arise without turning his characters into stick figures or the drama into a predetermined ’issue’ play.”
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, Korb discusses the anti-Semitism felt by the Jewish family in Uhry’s play.
Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a humorous play that still raises a serious social issue: anti-Semitism inflicted by Jews. Although the Levy/Freitag
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy(1987) is the play that rocketed the author to success. Uhry won the Pulitzer Prize for this play about a southern Jewish matron’s decades-long relationship with her African-American chauffeur.
- Lanford Wilson’s play Talley’s Folly(1980) is set in the South in the 1940s. It tells of the courtship of a Protestant woman by her persistent Jewish suitor.
- Many critics have compared The Last Night of Ballyhoo to Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie(1944). One of Williams’s finest dramas, this play revolves around a down-and-out St. Louis family. In hopes of finding a husband for her painfully shy daughter, Amanda encourages her son to bring “gentlemen callers” home to his sister, but her plans backfire.
- Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Sisters Rosenswieg(1992) deals with issues of self-hatred among expatriate Jewish New Yorkers. The sisters are three Brooklyn-born women who gather to celebrate one sister’s birthday and end up confronting their past and future.
- Southern writer Eudora Welty’s novel Delta Wedding(1946) focuses on the relationships between members of a plantation family gathered for a wedding in 1923.
family lives in a society in which Jews are discriminated against on a regular basis and although they personally have experienced prejudicial treatment because of their Jewish faith, they persistently regard “the other kind” of Jews—those who do not descend from German Jewry—as socially inferior. Like their friends, the Nachmans, Strausses, and Lillienthals, they see nothing wrong with their behavior, nor do they ever equate their prejudicial treatment of others with the discrimination that is wrought upon themselves. Indeed, their greatest efforts are seen, not in attempting to thwart discrimination but in imitating their Christian neighbors. Through their negative reaction to their Eastern European brethren as well as their own embrace of Christian traditions over Jewish ones, the family demonstrates marked anti-Semitic characteristics. This issue is compellingly explored against the hardly mentioned but ever-present backdrop of the events leading up to the European Holocaust, thus serving as a chilling reminder of the pervasive and dangerous effects of anti-Semitism, or prejudice in whatever form it chooses to take.
The play opens with a scene that sets the family’s glorification of Christianity over Judaism: Lala is decorating the family Christmas tree. The fact that she is “surrounded by cardboard boxes of ornaments” clearly shows that a Christmas tree is a family tradition in the Levy/Freitag home. Boo, however, is unhappy with Lala’s adorning the tree with a Christmas star. As she chastises her daughter, “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.” A star would be as bad as setting up a manger scene on their lawn; both decorations would make people think “we’re a bunch of Jewish fools pretending we’re Christians.” Irony abounds in this scene. First, although Boo, supported by Reba, insists that Christmas is an American holiday, on par with Valentine’s Day or Halloween, it is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Second, and more notably, Boo and Reba and all of their upper-class Jewish milieu actively and eagerly take on the trappings of their Christian neighbors. They imitate the social activities of the Christians, from forming their own country club to creating a closed membership list at those clubs. As Sunny tells Joe, “Ballyhoo is asinine.... a lot of dressed up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.”
Despite the pretensions that the upper-class Jews make to society, they are bitterly aware of what they lack. Lala succinctly sums up their status in this important first scene. “Guess what, Mama? We’re Jews. We have no place in society,” she says. Boo concedes that maybe the Levys and Freitags are “not right up there at the tip top with the best set of Christians, but we come mighty close.” The fact that the family is the only Jewish household on Habersham Road supports Boo’s assertion, but no one stops to analyze the dysfunction inherent in this situation; not only has the Levy/Freitag family chosen to live amidst people who do not regard them as equal, but the family also can make no claims to actually belonging amidst these people because even they think they are actually inferior.
For the most part, however, the Levy/Freitag family does their best at overlooking their self-perceived inadequacies resulting from their Judaism. December 25 finds them in a living room strewn with the remains of ribbons, wrapping paper, and gift boxes. In stark contrast to this celebration is their ignorance of and disinterest in Passover, an important Jewish holiday. When Joe mentions this holiday, Boo has to remind her daughter of “[T]hat time we went to the Seder supper with one of Daddy’s business acquaintances.... You were in the sixth grade.” Lala’s remembrance of this holy occasion, however, centers on spilling red wine and being terribly bored by “all the ish-kabibble.”
The family feels drawn to Christian traditions despite the fact that they have experienced very real instances of discrimination. For example, the only reason Ballyhoo even takes place is that southern Jews were denied entrance to the private country clubs. More telling and more personal, however, is Sunny’s recollection of being discriminated against the summer she was going into seventh grade. At the Venetian Club Pool with her best friend, Sunny’s name was called out by a man who “said I had to get out of the water.” She tells Joe, “And Vennie Alice asked him why and he said Jews weren’t allowed to swim in the Venetian pool. And all the kids got very quiet and none of them would look at me.” The reaction to this discrimination also provides insight into the relationship between the Jews and their Christian friends. Sunny recalls how Vennie’s mother called up her mother and apologized, and she and Vennie “stayed friends—sort of. Neither of us ever mentioned it again, but it was always there.” Sunny’s recollection shows that while southern society prefers to pretend that such discriminatory treatment does not happen, they are aware of these instances as well as the inherent validity behind them; after all, no one protests such rules or such humiliations. Like the rest of her community, Sunny, who always
“MANY THEATER CRITICS COMMENTED ON THE SURPRISED GASP THAT BOO’S WORDS, WHICH CLOSE THE SECOND SCENE OF ACT I, DREW FROM THE AUDIENCE: ‘ADOLPH, THAT KIKE YOU HIRED HAS NO MANNERS.”’
wanted “to be like everybody else,” accepts that being Jewish and being Christian are distinct from each other. Interestingly, Joe agrees with her but for a very dissimilar reason; where he comes from, in Brooklyn, Jews are proud of being Jews.
More disturbing than the glorification of Christianity, however, is the Jews’ imitation of Christian behavior to such an extent that they, too, have created their own social echelon. In their class system, Jews like themselves—from German background—are at the top, whereas Jews who do not come from a German background, or Jews “east of the Elbe,” the river that separated Germany from Czechoslovakia, are seen as vastly inferior. Joe’s entry into their lives sets off this alarming and perhaps unexpected prejudice. Many theater critics commented on the surprised gasp that Boo’s words, which close the second scene of act I, drew from the audience: “Adolph, that kike you hired has no manners.”
To Boo and her Jewish set, Joe is simply one of “the other kind.” Although Jews of Eastern European ancestry are different from German-descended Jews, no one really specifies in what way. Reba claims that a person can identify them merely by the “way they look,” but despite her foolish words, when Sunny tells her mother of the Ballyhoo date with Joe, Reba refers to him as “that good-looking boy who works for Adolph” and is pleased. Ironically, the whole family recognizes that Lala looks more like “the other kind” than the good kind of Jew; Lala herself regards her physical characteristics in comparison to the blond, Aryan-featured Sunny as proof that God prefers her cousin. “Look at my hair! Look at my skin! Look at my eyes! Listen to my voice!” she exclaims to Sunny. “I try, and I try, and no matter what I do it shows, and there’s just nothing I can do about it.” Physically then, Lala is like Joe: “too Jewish.”
The family is forced to deal with their anti-Semitism on the night of Ballyhoo. The insensitive Peachy lets Joe know that the Standard Club is restricted. By rights, people like Joe, “where you people went.... The Other Kind.... Russian. Orthodox,” go to the Progressive Club. The Standard Club is historically limited to German Jews, although they have started to let in a few non-German Jews, “but they try to only take ones that are toilet trained.” The argument that Joe and Sunny have as a result of this revelation is the most pointed discussion of Jewish anti-Semitism in the play. Despite her experience of being discriminated against because of her Judaism, it never occurred to Sunny that Joe would not want to be at a place that would discriminate against him because of his particular Jewish background. When Sunny tells him that the discrimination practiced by the Standard is not the same as the discrimination that was perpetrated against her by the Venetian Club, that in fact she regards herself and Joe as “equals,” Joe becomes extremely offended. Then Sunny tells him how embarrassed she felt at his impolite behavior of leaving her alone at the dance. She says, “How could you know any better?” which Joe interprets as Sunny saying that he could not possibly know any better because “the other kind” of Jew lacks the manners that the genteel German Jews possess. “Jew hater talk,...” he lashes out. “I been hearing that garbage all my life, but damned if I thought I’d ever hear it coming out of a Jewish girl.”
As Edward J. Mattimoe wrote in America, this anti-Semitism inflicted by Jews “show[s] that any ethnic group, once put down, absorbs some of the negativity into themselves.” The Jewish self-hatred plays out against the muted backdrop of the events in Europe. By December 1939, German Jews, living under the Third Reich, had already been deprived of their citizenship and segregated from Aryan society, and they had experienced numerous physical assaults in attacks on their person and in the destruction of their businesses and synagogues. As Don Shewey writes in American Theatre, “It’s a mark of Uhry’s skilful understatement that, without a word being spoken, the audience is agonizingly aware that on the other side of the Atlantic, Hitler’s ’final solution’ is making a mockery of distinctions between German Jews and ’the other kind.’” The historical knowledge of the losses the Holocaust inflicted upon the Jewish population renders Sunny’s belief that Hitler is an “aberration” painfully and terrifyingly naive.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo ends with the challenge it presents to the family to reject this ethnic negativity and stop turning on each other and, instead, to recognize the fallacy of Jewish anti-Semitism. They must embrace themselves as they are, with Jewish warts and all, and come to the recognition that being Jewish does not make them inferior, no matter what their Christian counterparts might think. The final image the play presents shows a future in which Sunny, at the very least, has come to learn about and value her Jewish heritage.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Catherine Dybiec Holm
Dybiec Holm is a published writer and editor with a master’s degree in natural resources. In this essay, Dybiec Holm discusses multiple sources of tension in Uhry’s story that make it so effective.
In all storytelling, including drama, tension is a necessary element that makes the story interesting. Tension can be created by conflicts that characters need to overcome or by obstacles that their environment presents to these characters. In Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, tensions abound, creating layers of nuances and dilemmas. These make for an interesting play and quickly let one know that this story goes far beyond the surface.
The primary source of tension in this play is the characters’ shame and denial of their own Jewish religion. But Uhry takes an already interesting premise and adds additional twists. The characters live in the South and are a minority in Atlanta, a predominantly Christian community. It is 1939, and Hitler is in power across the ocean. Jews in this community label each other in a racist fashion; German-American Jews feel that they are superior to Eastern European-American Jews.
Uhry’s loosely knit, extended family of characters knows little about their Jewish heritage and chooses not to pursue it. So desperate are these people to fit in with the rest of Atlanta’s non-Jewish population that the Freitag/Levy family puts up a Christmas tree every year, though no evidence of menorah candles (to celebrate Hanukkah) is found in the house. Boo, a character completely concerned with presenting the right appearance to society, justifies the presence of their Christmas tree without a star by making it clear to her daughter Lala that “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.” Boo walks a fine tightrope between realizing she is not a Christian and not wanting to seems too Jewish:
Boo: If you have a star on the tree, you might as well go... buy a manger scene and stick it in the front year.
Lala: I’d like that.
Boo: Fine. Then everybody that drives down Habersham Road will think we’re a bunch of Jewish fools pretending we’re Christian.
Both Boo and Lala emphasize that their presence on Habersham Road is significant, since it’s the most upscale street in town and they are the only Jews on it (the other Jewish family lives “at the tacky end of the street where it doesn’t count”).
Boo is so concerned with appearances that she expends great energy to make sure that Lala doesn’t foul up and make the rest of the family look bad. She berates Lala for getting rejected by a college sorority, but Uhry never loses sight of the opportunity to show the audience the strange tightrope that these Southern Jews walk:
Boo: You keep making the same mistakes over and over! Your place in society sits there waiting for you and you do nothing about it.
Lala: Guess what, Mama? We’re Jews. We have no place in society.
Boo: We most certainly do! Maybe not right up there at the tip-top with the best set of Christians, but we come mighty close. After all, your great-grandma’s Cousin Clemmie was—
Boo and Lala: The first white child born in Atlanta!
Even the superficial and immature Lala has a sense for what their community really thinks about Jews. Much later, Lala again shows evidence of shame and self-hate when she compares her looks with Sunny’s:
Lala: Oh come on, Sunny. You’ve always gotten the attention. Even from God!
Lala: He didn’t give you one Jewish feature and look at me!
Sunny: That’s absurd.
Lala: Look at my hair! Look at my skin! Look at my eyes! Listen to my voice! I try and try and no matter what I do it shows and there’s just nothing I can do about it.
For Lala, her looks are the ultimate stamp of disgrace, something that cannot be disguised or hidden, something she is stuck with.
In scenes like these, Uhry plays with tension. The obsession that Lala and Boo have with appearances and societal mores is paired (and sometimes overshadowed) by the larger tension that these Jews are never completely accepted by society around
“AMAZINGLY, UHRY ACCOMPLISHES THE BALANCE OF COMEDY AND SERIOUSNESS, OF SUBTLETY AND DIRECTNESS, ALL WITHIN THE LAYERS OF TENSION THAT THIS STORY ENCOMPASSES.”
them. For example, both Lala and Boo are determined to find Lala a date for Ballyhoo, a prestigious holiday dance for Atlanta’s well-off, young Jews. But even the prestige of Ballyhoo is dampened with the knowledge that the local Christian population has their own holiday party, and Jews are not invited. Adolph and Joe discuss the Standard Club, the country club where Ballyhoo will be held:
Joe: Sounds pretty spiffy.
Adolph: I wouldn’t say that.
Joe: Jews only?
Adolph: You bet.
Joe: No Christians allowed?
Adolph: Technically, but the truth is none of ’em would wanna come anyway. They’ve got clubs of their own, which they won’t let us near.
Then, in the next line of dialog, Joe gets his first hint of discrimination between Jews, though he does not learn the details until later:
Joe: So this is where all the Jews go.
Adolph: Oh no. We’re restricted too.
Joe: What do you mean?
With some discomfort, Adolph explains that only wealthy Jews get into this club. It is much later that Joe learns the real reason: the club is open to German-American Jews and closed to American Jews of Eastern European descent. It is yet another layer of tension that Uhry weaves into this play.
With the introduction of Joe Farkas, the Jew from New York, Uhry places further illumination on the Freitag/Levy family’s shame and denial of their own heritage. Joe, a practicing Jew from a community where people are proud of their heritage, is a perfect foil for the denial and ignorance of people like Boo and Lala. Even the well-educated Sunny (who is a foil herself for the less-sophisticated Lala) knows very little about her Jewish traditions. But she knows enough to see that she does not fit in. And Sunny reveals, inadvertently, that she has some discomfort with the dysfunctional tightrope her family walks regarding their religious beliefs.
Joe: Are you people really Jewish?
Sunny: ’Fraid so. A hundred percent back—on both sides.
Joe: ’Fraid so?
Sunny: Oh, you know what I mean.
Joe: Yeah. You mean you’re afraid you’re Jewish.
Sunny: No. Of course not. That’s just an expression.
Joe: Ok. What do you mean?
Sunny: I don’t think I mean anything. It was just something to say. Can we please talk about something else?
Joe’s initial comment is also telling; these Jews are so unlike the Jews whom he lives among that he questions whether they are really Jewish.
Uhry also uses Joe to vocalize things Jewish, such as common Yiddish words like klutz or the Yiddish word for William (Velvel). It’s even more telling that the Freitag/Levy family usually does not know what the Yiddish words mean. Joe is also able to elaborate on traditions of which the family is either ignorant or disdainful, including Passover:
Lala: You have to sit through one of those boring things every single year? One night of all that ish-kabibble was enough to last me the rest of my life.
Boo: Now, Lala. Be tolerant.
Joe: I sit through two every year. First night at Aunt Sadie’s. Second night at home.
Lala: Poor baby!
Joe: Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss either of ’em for anything in the world.
Not lost in the exchange is the irony of Boo telling Lala, a Jew, to be tolerant of Jewish customs. These Jews truly want to separate themselves from anything Jewish.
Shamed by their own Jewishness, the Freitag/Levy family holds onto the hope that as German-American Jews, they are at least superior to other Eastern-European American Jews. When Joe reveals his lineage (“Russia, Poland, Hungary. My family came from everywhere”), Boo takes an immediate dislike to him. In one of the most explosive and loaded moments in the play, Joe dodges taking Lala to a movie. After he leaves, Boo says, “Adolph, that kike you hired has no manners.”
Because Sunny is more aware and educated than the self-centered Lala, it makes sense that Sunny will, in the course of this play, honestly confront her own discomfort and puzzlement with the family shame. Sunny even has a hurtful story of discrimination from her own past that she shares with Joe. But Lala’s ignorance provides the perfect opportunity for Uhry to introduce another character to demonstrate the tension of self-hatred and denial that is so present in this play. Peachy Weil provides an excellent foil: he’s the opposite of Joe; he’s ashamed of his Jewishness (but vehemently proud to be a German-American Jew rather than an Eastern European one); he’s rich, of old southern money, and extremely concerned with appearances. Uhry makes Peachy’s obnoxious and ignorant persona obvious from the start. Here, Peachy not so subtly alludes to his alleged superiority as a German-American Jew, while making some pretty heartless statements:
Joe: Howza’ war news, Mr. A?
Adolph: Not so good.
Joe: Yeah, I got relatives over there.
Joe: Uuh-hunh. And Russia.
Adolph: Well. Let’s hope for the best.
Peachy: Let’s hope they can dodge bullets.
Joe: Excuse me?
Peachy: Hey! Easy there, bud! None of this mess is my fault. It ain’t even my problem.
Joe: That right?
Peachy: You bet. It’s Europe’s problem and they gotta solve it on their own. Right, Adolph?
Adolph: I’d say that depends on where your family is.
Peachy: Well, mine’s been in Louisiana for a hundred and fifty years.
At times, Uhry’s characters touch upon subjects that could be considered feminist or gender role issues. These create interesting minor tensions of their own, though not as important to the story as some of the other contrasts that have been presented. Still, these moments serve to further compare the difference between Joe’s background and the Freitag/Levy family. Boo, for example, seems surprised and none too pleased when Joe informs her that he can cook and do dishes. However, when Sunny later mentions that she makes coffee in her dorm room all the time, Lala snipes, “I can imagine what that must taste like!” It is as if Lala is determined to hang on to something that she might be able to do better than Sunny, even if it is traditional “women’s work.” It is a credit to Uhry’s talent as a writer that he manages to keep the tone of the play both light and serious at the same time, amidst the sniping that takes place in this family.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a complex play with many opportunities for tension and for the exploration of troubling subjects. Despite this, the story manages to maintain a simultaneous mood of comedy. Don Shewey of American Theatre describes the play as edging “toward a sitcom formula without falling into it.” Amazingly, Uhry accomplishes the balance of comedy and seriousness, of subtlety and directness, all within the layers of tension that this story encompasses.
Source: Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Covintree is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, with a degree in English. In this essay, Covintree discusses the impact of southern culture on Jewish identity for the characters in Uhry’s play.
To be southern or to be Jewish in 1939 is to be part of a specific community with principles, ceremonies, language, attitude, and actions that represent and reinforce the culture. To be southern and Jewish is to be a part of a unique community that Alfred Uhry focuses on in his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Though the play primarily takes place in the house of Adolph Freitag, it coincides with two major events—the opening of the movie Gone With the Wind and Hitler’s rise to power—that stand like bookends at either side of the story and its characters. These events and the characters’ reaction to them reflect the struggle for allegiance this family must find. Are they true to their southern upbringing or their Jewish religion? This family is both southern and Jewish, and they stand in the midst of both cultures. As Tony Horwitz states in his book Confederates in the Attic,”[i]t was the honor-bound code of the Old South. One’s people before one’s principles.” For Jews in the South, the statement is compounded: who are the people, Jews or southerners, and which are the principles, orthodoxy or upbringing? The answer to this question for a southern Jew could completely alter his or her life. In The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Uhry argues that the Freitag family has misunderstood their priorities and improperly answered this question. These southern Jews have currently chosen the South before their Jewishness, but when introduced to Joe Farkas, the Freitags are forced to examine their southernness and their Jewishness.
For years, the Freitags and Levys have lived together as southerners. Since the deaths of Adolph and Boo’s brother and then Boo’s husband, Adolph has shared his home with his sister, Beulah, his sister-in-law, Reba, and their daughters, Lala and
“EVEN ONE OF THE MOST SACRED OF JEWISH HOLIDAYS AND THE BASIC LANGUAGE THAT SURROUNDS IT ARE FOREIGN TO THE FREITAGS.”
Sunny, respectively. Like others of southern high society, Beulah Levy goes by her nickname, Boo, Adolph is a past president of the club, and they can trace their bloodline to “the first white child born in Atlanta.”
Lala Levy is a typical southern girl. She and her mother, Boo, are constantly worrying about keeping up appearances in the city of Atlanta. From the very first pages of the play, Lala’s two main concerns appear to be seeing the new movie Gone With the Wind and finding an appropriate escort to the social event of the season, Ballyhoo. Boo is constantly pressuring her to make acceptable choices and to rise to her place in society. She is embarrassed at her daughter’s choice to leave college after the disgrace of not getting into the right sorority. She vigorously works to ensure a date to Ballyhoo for Lala and to marry her off to someone acceptable and appropriate.
As German Jews, Boo and Lala clearly see themselves as superior to “the other kind” of Jews, the Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe. But Lala, as with the rest of her family, is keenly aware of how being Jewish means that there are those in society superior to her. Nothing will ever make her completely acceptable in southern Christian society. The family struggles with being a part of the Jewish upper class, knowing they will never be a part of the Christian upper class. Adolph is past president of the Standard Club, a Jewish club, just as restrictive but started because Jews were not allowed in the other clubs. Lala has been raised with southern culture at the forefront, but she cannot reconcile the fact that her looks will always proclaim her as Jewish:
Look at my hair! Look at my skin! Look at my eyes! Listen to my voice! I try and I try and no matter what I do it shows and there’s just nothing I can do about it.
Lala blames her Jewish features for her inability to get a date to Ballyhoo and perhaps for her social failures at college.
As Sunny tells Joe, she and her family are a part of a class of “dressed up Jews... wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.” Perhaps this is why there is a Christmas tree in the Freitag home, a lifetime tradition for Sunny, a tradition that Boo justifies by comparing it to a Halloween decoration and banning the star. Perhaps, like other southern Jews of the time, their meals are not completely kosher, their weenie-roasters not strict about using all-beef hot dogs. Tony Horwitz gives an example in his book Confederates in the Attic of one such restaurant that fuses Jewish and southern culture: “Gershon Weinberg’s Real Pork Barbeque.”
This desire to be something else also explains Lala’s obsession with Gone With the Wind, a Hollywood movie that focuses on the survival of plantation owners following Emancipation near the end of the Civil War. In his book Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz argues that the movie “had done more to keep the Civil War alive, and to mold its memory, than any history book or event since Appomattox.” Though Jews went back as far as the Civil War, the movie clearly omits this. When Lala talks of writing a related story, she wants to name the plantation “something elegant and pure and real Protestant.” She chooses the name of her own street, not because her own Jewish family lives there but because it is a street that primarily belongs to “half the membership of the Junior League!”
It could be assumed that the Freitags and Levys are a family of Reform Jews, but they are so far reformed that they seem removed from the real Jewish center of this culture. As Uhry himself confesses to Alex Witchel in the New York Times article “Remembering Prejudice, of a Different Sort,” this family is “ashamed of being Jewish,” and there is “an ignorance, a hole where the Judaism should be.” It is not enough that there is a Christmas tree in their house, but none of the family members even knows what time of year Passover occurs. The Freitags do not know the Hebrew name for it, Pesach. They respond to the mere mention of the holiday as if it has nothing to do with their heritage, calling the seder meal “interesting” (Boo) and “boring” (Lala) and referring to the Hebrew prayers as “all of that ish-kabibble.” Even one of the most sacred of Jewish holidays and the basic language that surrounds it are foreign to the Freitags.
When Joe Farkas enters the home of this family, he is entering a Jewish home that is southern first and Jewish much further down the line. Ofcourse, Joe is a part of “the other kind,” an Orthodox Jew raised in New York on food from the “Old Country,” who “think[s] being Jewish means being Jewish.” He finds this type of southern Jewish home completely unbelievable and questions its very validity. Boo feels no conflict of loyalty in treating him poorly, even calling him a “kike,” as she believes that Eastern European Jews are also lower-class Jews. Of course, Joe’s desire to pay for Ballyhoo and Adolph’s response to the exchange briefly suggest that Boo’s assumption of class is inaccurate. Still, Boo, Lala, and Peachy see no conflict in mistreating Joe because he is more Jewish than they are.
Within this family, Joe withstands hurts like the ones Sunny admits to, hurts of which she herself is afraid. Though Adolph, Reba, and Sunny treat him with general kindness, it is still clear they are unfamiliar with his type of Jewishness and are not always able to prepare him for hurtful situations. Sunny has had her own experience with being the victim of unreasonable prejudice, when she was pulled out of a country club pool as a child for being Jewish. Even though Sunny tells Joe this story, she does not forewarn him about the possible attitudes and assumptions held by those at the Standard Club for Ballyhoo. When he comes to pick her up, he is not wearing a tuxedo and does not have a corsage. He is also unaware of the restrictive attitude of the club, and so Sunny unintentionally puts Joe in a situation that is just as insulting and humiliating as her own childhood experience with prejudice was.
In addition to this personal insult, Joe is appalled that these socialite Jews barely seem aware of the rising situation with Hitler in Europe. Peachy sees no connection between himself and the Jews in Europe. With the audience’s knowledge of the Holocaust, it almost becomes unreal that these Jewish characters think nothing of insulting other Jews nor of remaining ignorant to the injustices caused by the Hitler regime. In a time when southern society is so careful to separate types of Jewish people, there is a German government putting all Jews into one community, one that cannot tolerate any type of Jew.
Adolph and Sunny are perhaps the only people in their family even slightly aware of what it might really mean to be Jewish and its universal connection. Sunny is a stellar student, reading forward thinkers like Upton Sinclair, yet she remains removed from these ideas, never claiming any of them personally. She is guided by her southern culture and upbringing and has many prejudices to overcome and much to learn about what it really means to be Jewish. Her romantic relationship with Joe forces her to a private off-stage epiphany during which she must reassess the questions of who are her people, what are her principles, and how do these two things share company?
Sunny’s answers to these questions comprise the final scene of the play. Though the scene could be argued either as fantasy or reality, it clearly answers the question of southern/Jewish loyalty for her, for Joe, for the rest of the cast, and for the audience. Sunny’s ideal wish, her “something good,” is her answer—a shared Sabbath with her family, a moment when community is formed through the deep bond of the Jewish religion. Through Sunny, Uhry has also answered this question, scripting every character to speak in Hebrew. Uhry ends the play with simple stage directions, “the candles shine,” closing the play with this vision of hope and religious devotion and making his point and his position clear.
Source: Kate Covintree, Critical Essay on The Last Night of Ballyhoo, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Evans, Greg, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” in Variety, Vol. 366, No. 5, March 3, 1997, p. 77.
Horwitz, Tony, “Georgia: Gone with the Window,” in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Pantheon Books, 1998.
_______, “Mississippi: The MiniéBall Pregnancy,” in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Pantheon Books, 1998.
_______, “Tennessee: At the Foote of the Master,” in Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, Pantheon Books, 1998.
Kanfer, Stefan, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” in New Leader, Vol. 80, No. 4, March 10, 1997, p. 22.
Mattimoe, Edward J., “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” in America, Vol. 176, No. 10, March 29, 1997, p. 24.
Richards, Gary, “Scripting Scarlett O’Goldberg: Margaret Mitchell, Tennessee Williams, and the Production of Southern Jewishness in The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer 2001, pp. 5-16.
Shewey, Don, “Ballyhoo and Daisy, Too: Between the Lines with Alfred Uhry and Dana Ivey,” in American Theatre, Vol. 14, No. 4, April 1997, p. 24.
Uhry, Alfred, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Theater Communications Group, 1997.
Zoglin, Richard, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” in Time, Vol. 149, No. 11, March 17, 1997, p. 68.
Arad, Gulie Ne’eman, America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, Indiana University Press, 2000.
Israeli historian Arad discusses American Jewry and their lack of significant reaction to the Nazi crisis in Europe.
Freedman, Samuel, Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, Touchstone, 2000.
Freedman explores how relationships among American Jews have changed in the latter half of the twentieth century and offers suggestions on how American Jews can unite.
Hayward, Dave, “Ballyhoo and Brotherly Love: Alfred Uhry’s Olympic Premiere,” in Back State, Vol. 37, No. 34, August 23, 1996, p. 39.
Hayward and Uhry discuss the genesis of The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
Sterritt, David, “A Voice for Themes Other Entertainers Have Left Behind,” in Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 1996.
Uhry talks about the family in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, their prejudices, and his own interest in exploring his religion in his writing.
Witchel, Alex, “Remembering Prejudice, of a Different Sort,” in New York Times, February 23, 1997, sec. 2, p. H5.
Witchel explores class divisions among Jews as depicted in The Last Night of Ballyhoo.