Lost in Yonkers
Lost in Yonkers
Lost in YonkersINTRODUCTION
Marvin Neil Simon, who generally publishes as Neil Simon, first published Lost in Yonkers in the United States in 1991. The play, like many of Simon's plays, draws on his experiences growing up in New York City, although many critics think it is not as autobiographical as his other plays. Lost in Yonkers was a critical and popular success and led to a film adaptation in 1993. Although many of Simon's plays had won major dramatic awards before this, Lost in Yonkers was the first Simon play to win the Pulitzer Prize. Many critics consider the play to be Simon's best work and the pinnacle of his career.
The play was very timely. Although it is set during World War II—a setting that plays an important part in the narrative—Simon published the play as America was entering the Gulf War in the Middle East. As a result, the play's main themes—including survival, the importance of one's family, and acceptance—also seem timely, since these themes inevitably arise during any war or other military conflict, when death and other tragedies are likely. Although the play is technically labeled a comedy, it is in fact a hybrid. Critics note both the deep levels of pain that Simon explores in his characters and the humorous dialogue from certain characters, which ultimately helps the play to strike a balance between tragedy and comedy. Lost in Yonkers is available in a paperback version from Plume, which was published in 1993.
Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in Bronx, New York. Simon attended two universities, New York University (1944–1945) and the University of Denver (1945–1946). While attending the latter, Simon served in the United States Army Air Force Reserve (1945–1946), where he also served as the sports editor for one of the military publications. Simon's professional writing career also expanded in the 1940s when he started writing radio sketches with his brother Danny. The next decade, the writing duo moved to television where they worked with actors such as Jackie Gleason and writers such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Although Danny left writing to begin directing, Simon continued writing to great acclaim. He earned two Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Awards (Emmys), one for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows (1957) and one for The Phil Silver's Show (1959).
Simon's career moved into high gear when he and Danny wrote their first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1961). From this first collaborative effort, Simon moved into writing for the theater full time on his own. Simon became very prolific, eventually churning out one play per year at times. Some of his more notable plays include Barefoot in the Park (1964), The Odd Couple (1966), Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1972); Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984), Biloxi Blues (1986), Broadway Bound (1987), and Lost in Yonkers (1991).
Simon has won countless dramatic awards, including the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best playwright for The Odd Couple (1965), the Tony Award for best drama for Biloxi Blues (1985), and the Tony Award for best play for Lost in Yonkers (1991). He also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Lost in Yonkers (1991). His other works include the play 45 Seconds from Broadway (2001); the screenplay Laughter on the 23rd Floor (2001); and a memoir titled The Play Goes On: A Memoir (1999).
Act 1, Scene 1
Lost in Yonkers begins in the apartment above "Kurnitz's Kandy Store," where Grandma and Bella Kurnitz live. It is a hot day in August, and Jay and Arty Kurnitz sit waiting for their father in one of
the rooms of the apartment. They soon find out that this is no standard visit and that their father, Eddie, is in debt to a loan shark because he borrowed money to help pay for their dead mother's hospital bills. Because of this, Eddie is trying to leave Jay and Arty with their grandma while Eddie travels south to work in metal scrapyards that are servicing the war effort. Grandma Kurnitz refuses to let the boys stay there until Bella, who is mentally impaired, threatens to leave Grandma Kurnitz and go stay at a home for the mentally ill if she does not let the boys stay.
Act 1, Scene 2
Jay reads a letter from Eddie, talking about his work experiences and letting them know that he has developed an irregular heartbeat from all of the traveling. Grandma Kurnitz scolds Bella for going to the movies and takes away the movie magazine that Bella has bought.
Act 1, Scene 3
Weeks later, the boys receive another letter from Eddie that says he had to take a week off and rest from overexertion. Jay notices a black car that has been hanging around the apartment looking for their uncle Louie. Bella comes home, and after prodding from the two boys, tells Jay and Arty that she is going to get married to a learning-impaired movie usher and have lots of children with him. She says that the usher, Johnny, wants to open a restaurant but that he does not have enough money. She also lets the boys know that Grandma Kurnitz has ten or fifteen thousand dollars that she keeps hidden somewhere in the house and that she changes the hiding place every year. Jay explores the possibility of finding the money, borrowing it, and sending it to their father.
Act 1, Scene 4
A week later, the boys receive another letter from Eddie that says he is having a hard time learning the southern dialect. It is late at night and everybody is sleeping. Jay comes up from the store where he has been searching for Grandma Kurnitz's hidden money. The boys' Uncle Louie comes into their bedroom and remarks that he saw Jay looking for the money. Louie is wearing a holstered gun and lies at first, saying it is not his. However, they suspect that he is a henchman for the mob. He pays them five dollars and then says he will give them money each week if they agree to tell the men that are after him that they have not seen him.
Act 2, Scene 1
The boys receive another letter from Eddie that says he was in the hospital, temporarily for exhaustion. Arty is sick, so Grandma Kurnitz has Jay bring him her infamous mustard soup. Jay notes that the men looking for Louie called and left a message with Jay. The boys realize that Louie is double-crossing the mob. Grandma Kurnitz comes into the room, scolding Jay for taking too long to deliver the soup. Arty refuses to drink the horrid soup until Grandma Kurnitz threatens him with force. She leaves, and Louie comes in, fresh from a nap. He says that Arty has moxie for standing up to Grandma Kurnitz. Louie says he is going to leave that night, before the men looking for him come to get him, and then he goes to take a shower. Jay comes up, fuming that Grandma Kurnitz made him pay for three pretzels that she says some kids stole. Jay says he is going to ask Louie to take Jay with him when he goes so that Jay can make money and help out their father.
Bella comes up and says that she is going to announce to the family tonight that she is getting married. She leaves, and Louie comes back into the room. Jay asks Louie if he can go with him when Louie leaves, but Louie refuses and gets mad when Jay says that he does not want to rob anybody, implying that this is what Louie does for a living. When Jay offers to carry Louie's mysterious black bag, Louie is furious, thinking that the boys have been snooping around. He tries to force Arty to open the bag and see what is in there, but Jay saves a terrified Arty by standing up to Louie. Louie is impressed at Jay's moxie but says that there is no work for Jay, since Louie himself is closing up shop and fleeing town. Grandma Kurnitz comes in and tells Louie that he has to stay there for dinner that evening upon Bella's request. Grandma Kurnitz returns some money that Louie left on her dresser, refusing to take it because she does not approve of the way that Louie earned it.
Act 2, Scene 2
Eddie sends a letter to Grandma Kurnitz and money to cover the boys' food and Arty's medicine. After dinner that night, Louie tries to leave, anxious to get out of town, but Bella keeps stalling, trying to find the right moment to spring the news about her intended marriage. Louie gets more anxious and refuses to sit until Grandma Kurnitz yells at him. Bella still does not know how to start, so Jay helps her out by asking her questions. When the line of questions reveals that Bella has been dating the head usher at the movie theater, Louie forgets about leaving and starts to get concerned. Bella finally manages to say that she plans to marry the usher, Johnny, who has a learning impairment, and that they plan on opening a restaurant together. When Louie pesters Bella, she admits that they need five thousand dollars to open their restaurant and that Johnny has lived in a home for the mentally impaired in the past. Everybody is shocked, and Grandma Kurnitz tells Bella to stop talking. However, Bella launches into a speech about how she wants to have her own babies and that they will be happier than the Kurnitz children were because she will not be as rough on them. Grandma Kurnitz gets up and leaves the room.
Act 2, Scene 3
Arty writes a letter to Eddie, letting him know that things have gotten bad around the house. Jay and Arty note that Bella has been gone for two nights. Aunt Gert comes out of Grandma Kurnitz's room and says that Bella has been staying at Gert's house but that Grandma Kurnitz does not know this. Gert leaves, and Grandma Kurnitz comes out of her room, obviously shaken by the week's events. Bella walks in, but Grandma Kurnitz tells her to leave. The boys leave, and Bella confronts her mother, who tries to say that Bella's mental state makes her nothing but a child. However, Bella says she has womanly needs and talks about the sexual affairs she has had with men in an attempt to find the warmth that has been missing from her home life. Bella reveals that Louie gave her the five thousand dollars to open her restaurant, but Bella says she is not going to do that. Bella also mentions Grandma Kurnitz's two children who died, the event that caused her to close herself off emotionally from her other children. Bella goes to put her things away, moving back in for good, and Grandma Kurnitz tries to hide her emotion.
Act 2, Scene 4
Ten months after Eddie left Arty and Jay with his mother, he returns to pick them up. While Eddie is in talking with his mother, the boys learn that Louie is fighting in the war, in Guadalcanal. Bella comes in and gives a football to Jay and a basketball to Arty. Jay and Arty say their awkward good-byes to Grandma Kurnitz and leave. Bella starts preparing dinner for her mother and herself, saying that she has met a new girlfriend and that this girl has a brother whom Bella would like to have over for dinner sometime. Grandma Kurnitz quietly accepts Bella's new assertiveness.
See Arty Kurnitz
Arty Kurnitz, a thirteen-year-old boy, is Eddie's youngest boy. Arty is forced to live with his grandma Kurnitz for ten months while his father works off a debt to a loan shark. Arty prefers to go by "Arty," but his grandma calls him "Arthur," so he reluctantly accepts this name. Arty gets sick during the play and is forced by his grandma to drink her horrid mustard soup. Arty is afraid of his Uncle Louie, a mob henchman, especially when Louie tries to force Arty to open his mysterious satchel. Jay sticks up for Arty in this instance. By the end of the play, however, Arty misses his Uncle Louie, who has enlisted in the military to avoid some other mob henchmen. Bella confides in Arty and Jay about her marriage plans when she cannot find anybody else to talk to.
Aunt Bella Kurnitz
Aunt Bella is Grandma Kurnitz's mentally impaired daughter and the aunt of Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Bella is the most dynamic character in the play. In the beginning, much emphasis is placed on Bella's mental condition. Bella tends to walk around in a daze, which the audience eventually learns is one of the ways she copes with her dysfunctional home life. Bella is a daydreamer and likes to spend her time at the movie theater. Here, Bella meets an illiterate usher that she wants to marry. She also hopes to start a business with him but needs five thousand dollars to do this. Bella is nervous about bringing this topic up with her family, especially her mother. As a result, Bella invites the whole family to a dinner during which she attempts to spring the news on them. However, she is unable to figure out a way to do this and so must rely on Jay to help her reveal her news, by prompting her with questions.
- Lost in Yonkers was adapted as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1993. The film, directed by Martha Coolidge, features Richard Dreyfuss as Uncle Louie, Mercedes Ruehl as Aunt Bella, and Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz. It is available on VHS and DVD from Columbia/Tristar Home Video.
- Lost in Yonkers was also produced as an audio stage recording in 2002 by L.A. Theatre Works. The audio recording is available in both cassette and CD form. Both feature the voices of Dan Castellanetta as Uncle Louie, Gia Carides as Aunt Gert, Roxanne Hart as Aunt Bella, and Barbara Bain as Grandma Kurnitz.
Despite her fear of her mother, Bella stands up to Grandma Kurnitz three times in the play. In the beginning, when Grandma Kurnitz refuses to let Jay and Arty stay with her, Bella threatens to leave her mother if the boys cannot stay. During the dinner, she launches into a speech, asserting her independence and causing her mother to leave the room without saying a word. Finally, at the end of the play, Bella digs up her mother's painful past—when her mother lost two children. Bella says that she is going to raise her children differently, showering them with love instead of withholding it for fear of losing them and having to deal with heartbreak. At the end of the play, Bella is totally transformed. She has a new friend and a potential date. She talks to her mother very boldly and acts strong and independent.
Eddie Kurnitz is the son of Grandma Kurnitz and the father of Jay and Arty Kurnitz. He is forced to leave his boys with his mother so that he can go south, take advantage of the need for workers during the war and ultimately pay off a debt that he owes to a loan shark. Eddie gained this debt when he paid for his deceased wife's hospital bills. Eddie feels that the only way to repay the debt is to work hard, and he works so hard that he makes himself sick. Throughout the play, Eddie sends periodic letters to his boys and his mother, which are read to the audience in voice-over. These letters set the tone for each scene and make Eddie a major character, despite the fact that he is only physically present in the first and last scenes.
Gert is Grandma Kurnitz's daughter and Arty's and Jay's aunt. As the result of her mother's harsh love, Gert has developed a breathing problem that causes her to start each sentence breathing out and to end the sentence sucking in. This problem is more pronounced when she is visiting her mother. When Bella runs away, Gert houses her for a couple of days without telling her mother.
Grandma Kurnitz is the mother of Eddie, Bella, Louie, and Gert, and she is the grandmother of Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Grandma Kurnitz is characterized by her tough attitude, which is underscored by her harsh German accent. All of the characters think that Grandma Kurnitz is too tough on them, but it is revealed at the end of the play that she is tough because she lost two of her children. Ever since that day, she has closed herself off emotionally from her children and others. As a result, she has been very harsh when raising her children, trying above all else to teach them how to survive. In the process, however, each child has developed a defense mechanism to survive, some of which are debilitating, such as Gert's breathing problems.
When Jay and Arty come to live with Grandma Kurnitz, she is hard on them, too. As she has done with her own children, Grandma Kurnitz charges Jay for any items that are missing from her candy store, even when she has taken them herself. Several characters stand up to Grandma Kurnitz, including Arty, but all of them inevitably back down—except for Bella. Grandma Kurnitz tries above all else to protect Bella, who is mentally impaired. She treats Bella like a child and has a hard time accepting the fact that Bella has become a woman and is seeking a mature life with a husband and children. Grandma Kurnitz also has difficulty admitting that she needs others, even though she relies on Bella. By the end of the play, Grandma Kurnitz has reluctantly accepted the fact that Bella is growing up.
Jay Kurnitz, a fifteen-year-old boy, is Eddie's oldest boy. Jay is forced to live with his Grandma Kurnitz for ten months while his father works off a debt to a loan shark. Jay prefers to go by "Jay," but his grandma calls him "Yakob," so he reluctantly accepts this name. Although both Jay and Arty work in their grandma's store, Jay seems to get harassed more by his grandma. When any pretzels or other items are missing from the store—even if Grandma Kurnitz herself took them—Jay is forced to pay for the missing items. It is Jay's idea to look for their grandma's stashed fortune, which Jay hopes to send to their father, Eddie, so that Eddie does not have to work himself into the ground anymore. Jay gets another moneymaking idea, namely going with his uncle Louie into the mob business. However, when he approaches Louie about this idea, Louie is not receptive. In fact, when Louie thinks the boys have been snooping around his mysterious black satchel, he tries to force a frightened Arty to open up the bag, but Jay sticks up for his brother. Bella confides in Jay and Arty about her marriage plans when she cannot find anybody else to talk to. When Aunt Bella gets nervous during the family dinner and cannot figure out how to break the news of her impending marriage, Jay helps her out by prompting her with questions.
Louie Kurnitz is the son of Grandma Kurnitz and the uncle of Jay and Arty Kurnitz. Louie is the toughest of Grandma Kurnitz's children and has adopted a career as a henchman for the mob. His whole character, including his dialogue, style of dress, and actions are defined by this role. Louie operates on emotional extremes. He can be very ferocious, as when he suspects that Jay and Arty have been snooping in his mysterious black bag. On these occasions, he explodes. However, he can also be jovial and fun to be around. Throughout the play, Louie prepares to leave town, since he is wanted by the mob. At the end of the play, the audience finds out that Louie enlisted in the army to escape the mob and is fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Louie has earned a lot of money in his illicit dealings, and he tries to share this money with his mother, but she refuses to take it. Also, although he does not approve of Bella's initial plan to marry an illiterate and open a restaurant, he gives her five thousand dollars to pursue her dream.
See Jay Kurnitz
Everybody in the play is trying hard to survive, each in his or her own way. Grandma Kurnitz is the character in the play that influences all of the other characters and forces them to adopt their survival tactics. When Grandma Kurnitz lost two of her children, she closed off the rest of her family emotionally—her way of coping with the loss and surviving. This emotional restriction, as well as Grandma Kurnitz's harsh ways, is intended to toughen up her children so that they will learn how to survive. Her children have adapted to Grandma Kurnitz's tough guidance in various ways. For Eddie, survival equates to hard, backbreaking work. He has done what he feels is the right thing by going into debt to ease his wife's hospital stay. Now, he feels that the only way to make up this debt is to work as hard as possible, sacrificing his own health, if necessary, to make sure that his boys survive. The boys see how hard their father is pushing himself, through his letters. One letter says, "Dear Boys … Sorry I haven't kept up my letter writing. The truth is, I was in the hospital a few days. Nothing serious. The doctor said it was just exhaustion."
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the various new work opportunities that came about in America as a result of World War II. Discuss the groups that most benefited from these new opportunities.
- Locate Yonkers on a map of New York. Write a short description of what life was like in Yonkers in 1942 and what life is like there today.
- How would you direct the cataclysmic dinner scene in the second act during which Bella makes her announcement?
- In the play, Grandma Kurnitz and Bella run a candy store. Research what candy stores were like in 1942 and create a sample inventory list of the types of foods and drinks that they most likely served. For each item, list the price of the item in both 1942 and 2002 values.
- In the play, Louie's gangster background is touched on but never fully explored. Research the New York gangster world around 1942. Pick a notorious gangster from this era and write a short biography about this person.
For Louie, survival means engaging in lucrative, illegal work that is very dangerous. Louie is constantly on the run because this kind of work has gotten him in trouble with the mob. He is a loner and does not require the approval of others, as Bella and other characters do. Grandma Kurnitz notes Louie's strength at one point but also notes that she does not approve of his methods. "You were always the strongest one. The survivor … Live—at any cost I taught you, yes. But not when someone else has to pay the price." Bella survives by remaining in a daze most of the time. As Jay and Arty note, Bella seems to wander through life, not knowing where she is going. For example, when Bella first arrives at the apartment, she walks right by it, until Jay calls down to her. "I walked right by the house, didn't I? Sometimes I daydream so much, I think I should carry an alarm clock." As the play slowly reveals, Bella's daze is not due entirely to her mental impairment. Living life in a daze helps her to survive living with her mother. However, by the end of the play, she has decided to survive by fighting, instead of by hiding in a daze. She is strong and independent, and the difference shows in her intelligent comments to her mother.
The Importance of Family
Despite the problems caused by the Kurnitz family dysfunctionality, the play still reinforces the idea that everybody needs the love of family to survive. Louie, one of the toughest characters in the play and certainly one of the most independent, still listens to his mother. During the cataclysmic dinner scene when Bella tells them about her boyfriend, Louie refuses to sit because he wants to leave quickly before the mob catches him. He says, "Louie sit! Louie stand! Louie eat! … You don't scare me anymore, Ma. Maybe everyone else here, but not me. You understand?" Despite this independent speech, Louie sits down a few seconds later when his mother asks him to. He still loves his mother, even if the love she gave him was a tough love. Earlier in the play, when Louie first arrives, he remarks on the importance of family to Jay and Arty: "There's nothing like family, boys. The one place in the world you're safe, is with your family…. Right?"
Eddie agrees. When he is forced to leave his boys with Grandma Kurnitz, it is his only choice. However, as he relates in a letter, he is very comfortable with his decision and writes, "Dear Boys…. The one thing that keeps me going is knowing you're with my family. Thank God you're in good hands. Love, Pop." Even the hardest character in the story, Grandma Kurnitz, cannot survive without her family. She acts like she does not need anybody or anything, but Bella knows better. In the beginning, Grandma Kurnitz refuses to let Arty and Jay live with them, but Bella steps in, threatening to leave her mother if she does not let the boys stay. Bella says to her mother, "And if I go, you'll be all alone…. And you're afraid to be alone, Momma…. Nobody else knows that but me."
Despite each character's attempt to survive, each of them also comes to a point in the play where they have to accept something that they do not want to. For Louie, this means accepting the fact that his lifestyle is not healthy and pursuing a normal line of work—in this case, enlisting in the military. Arty and Jay discuss the fate of their uncle when they talk about how Louie finally escaped the two men from the mob: "You think he's safer fighting in the South Pacific?" Jay asks Arty. For Bella, she must accept the fact that the movie usher does not want to get married and have children. Bella says, "He wants to live with his parents because he knows that they love him…. And that's enough for him." How ever, through Bella's journey in discovering this, she has awakened her mature side and realizes that she can never go back to living in a daze. Bella says, "It's too late to go back for me…. Maybe I'm still a child but now there's just enough woman in me to make me miserable." As Bella remarks to her mother, "We have to learn how to deal with that somehow, you and me." This is the hard fact that Grandma Kurnitz has to accept: Bella has grown up and now wants new things. At the end of the play, Bella casually mentions that she would like to invite a new man over for dinner, and the play ends on Grandma Kurnitz's quiet gesture of reluctant acceptance: "GRANDMA watches BELLA, then nods her head as if to say, 'So it's come to this …"').
The play depends heavily upon its World War II setting. The whole premise of the play, that Eddie is able to find work that will get him out of his debt to the loan shark, would not work as well if it were set during peacetime. Eddie says, "I hate this war, and God forgive me for saying this, but it's going to save my life…. There are jobs I can get now that I could never get before." In addition, the war setting provides a believable escape for Uncle Louie at the end of the play when he enlists in the military to escape the mob. As Arty remarks, "You know who I miss? Uncle Louie…. I'm glad those two guys never caught him." Says Jay, "No, but maybe the Japs will." The war also provides a violent backdrop for the volatile emotions that are displayed in the play. In a similar way, the sweltering heat of Yonkers, at least in the beginning of the play, underscores the negative feelings that Jay and Arty associate with their grandma Kurnitz. In fact, when Arty and Jay are talking about their aunt Bella, after going into a lengthy dialogue about why they hate coming to their grandma's house, Arty says that Bella is "Nicer than 'hot house' Grandma."
Dialogue plays an important part in any play, since most of the information is communicated to the audience through dialogue. Unlike short stories and novels, which have the ability to let the reader inside the characters' thoughts, most plays must dramatize thoughts and feelings through dialogue and actions. In Lost in Yonkers, the style of dialogue is particularly important. Grandma Kurnitz has the most distinctive dialogue. Her German accent, which makes her seem even tougher, separates her from the rest of the characters. Grandma Kurnitz's accent and stilted speech are apparent from her first lines in the play. When she meets Arty, she asks, "Diss iss the little one?" As she launches into her first long speech, her accent gets even thicker: "So now Grandma vill tell you vy she doesn't tink you should live vit her." The fact that Simon makes Grandma Kurnitz's accent German is significant, given the fact that the Germans were one of America's strongest enemies during the war. This helps to make her seem even more ruthless. Grandma Kurnitz's style of speech is not the only distinctive dialogue in the play. Uncle Louie, the mob henchman, speaks in a tough, fast style that reflects his gangster status and knowledge of street life. When he is discussing Eddie's debt problem with the loan sharks, Louie says, "You think I don't know what's going on? The sharks are puttin' the bite on him, right? He shoulda come to me. There's lotsa ways of borrowin' money. Your pop don't unnerstand that."
With rare exception, each scene after Eddie leaves begins with a letter from Eddie to Arty and Jay or to his mother. These letters help to illuminate Eddie's experiences working down South, but they also underscore the conflicts that are taking place in each scene. For example, in the first scene of the second act, a sick Eddie notes in his letter, which is communicated to the audience in voice-over: "I remember when I was a boy, if I got sick, my mother used to give me the worst tasting German mustard soup. God, how I hated it." This voice-over helps to establish several things: First, Eddie is sick from pushing himself too hard to pay off his debt and survive; second, Eddie had no choice but to drink the mustard soup as a kid, just as Arty has no choice in the scene when Grandma Kurnitz forces him to drink the soup. In fact, this scene is about the ways in which Grandma Kurnitz taught her children to survive a tough world. By having Eddie introduce the soup, which is Grandma Kurnitz's way of beating a sickness quickly, it sets the tone for the rest of the scene. This pattern is repeated throughout the many other letters and corresponding voice-overs.
The United States Enters World War II
During World War I, the United States did not enter the war until the final years, after Germans sank a number of American ships. The same was true for World War II. During the beginning years of the war, the United States remained officially neutral. Although President Roosevelt attempted to keep the United States out of the war as much as possible, he realized that ultimately this might not be possible. Martin Gilbert says in his A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 1933–1951, "Roosevelt intimated that the concept of perpetual neutrality … could not survive the conflicts that were arising across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans." As the war progressed, the United States, still officially neutral, began to provide a greater supply of arms and other aid to its international allies who were actively fighting the war against Germany and the Axis powers. After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. When Adolf Hitler, overconfident that the Japanese would defeat the United States, declared war on America, the United States was drawn inexorably into the war against the two major Axis powers.
At the end of the play, Jay and Arty talk about their uncle Louie, who has enlisted in the military and gone to fight in World War II in an effort to get away from the gangsters who have been chasing him. As Arty notes, "He's probably the richest guy on Guadalcanal." Arty is referring to the Battle of Guadalcanal, which took place from August 1942 to February 1943. The battle featured some of the war's most brutal fighting. It was also one of the most one-sided Allied victories. By the battle's end, casualties included approximately 21,000 Japanese soldiers and approximately 3,000 American and Australian soldiers.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Early 1940s: The United States enters World War II after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
1991: The United States leads the Gulf War against Iraq after Saddam Hussein occupies the neighboring country of Kuwait.
Today: The United States leads a massive international war on terrorism following attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001.
- Early 1940s: United States military forces experience harsh resistance from Axis forces in both European and Pacific arenas. However, with the help of other Allied forces, they begin to turn the tide of the war.
1991: United States military forces, under the command of President George Bush, experience little resistance from Iraqi forces. However, Saddam Hussein launches attacks against neighboring nations such as Israel, incurring the wrath of other nations in the Middle East.
Today: When United States President George W. Bush announces his intentions to attack Iraq, claiming that the country is harboring weapons of mass destruction, Israel is one of Bush's strongest supporters. However, many other nations in the Middle East, as well as several American allies around the world, are reluctant to give full support to Bush's plan.
- Early 1940s: Nazi Germany continues its systematic annihilation of most of the European Jewish population. Those Jews who can escape flee to other countries in Europe and abroad. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government authorizes the internment of more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans in detention camps.
1991: Following the Gulf War, some Iraqis relocate to other countries, including the United States, in an attempt to escape Saddam Hussein's repressive regime.
Today: Following the terrorist attacks in the United States, which are orchestrated by exiled Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, many American citizens of Middle Eastern descent are exposed to racial profiling and aggression.
The Persian Gulf War
However, this one-sided fight paled in comparison to the lopsided fighting in the Persian Gulf War, which is also commonly referred to as the Gulf War. This war began on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein sent his Iraqi forces into Kuwait. The world community suspected that Hussein was trying to acquire Kuwait's vast oil reserves. The United Nations responded with economic sanctions, but Hussein refused to withdraw. On August 6, the United States and its allies, including other Middle Eastern nations, began to occupy nearby Saudi Arabia, to prevent an attack on the Saudi oil supply. This combined military buildup was known as Operation Desert Shield. On November 29, the United Nations Security Council gave Hussein a withdrawal deadline of January 15, 1991. Hussein ignored the deadline, and on January 18, 1991, the United States and its allies began Operation Desert Storm. This operation, a sustained aerial assault on Iraq, neutralized Iraq's military forces, government and military installations, transportation and communication networks, and oil refineries. On February 24, the Allies launched Operation Desert Sabre, a ground assault from Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and southern Iraq that faced relatively little resistance. On February 28, President George Bush called a cease-fire.
The critical reception of Lost in Yonkers has been mixed since it was first published in 1991. Part of this has to do with Simon's status as an extremely popular playwright. When a playwright—or any other writer, for that matter—sells a lot of books or performances, some critics tend to view this as a sign that the writer is not artistic. Indeed, Simon received some scathing initial reviews. In his review of the play for the New Leader, Stefan Kanfer says, "Watching Simon work with this material is like viewing Bob Vila on reruns of This Old House." Kanfer also notes that Simon's goal is "To please ticketholders" and that he does this by creating "a situation tragedy" and covering it "in pastel shades." Kanfer was not alone in the negative comments. In her review of the play for the New Yorker, Mimi Kramer says that some of the characters are "phony" and notes that the play "seems to suffer from a basic confusion about what sorts of things are interesting as truth and what sorts of things are interesting as fiction."
However, Simon also had his champions when the play was initially reviewed. In the New York Times Magazine, David Richards calls Simon "the last Broadway playwright," indicating that all of the other great Broadway playwrights are gone. Richards does note that Simon "insists—a bit disingenuously—that there is nothing autobiographical about Lost in Yonkers," though Richards sees clear autobiographical links. Other positive comments include the review by James S. Torrens in America. Torrens notes that "Lost in Yonkers touches all the chords."
In the decade since the play was first published, Simon's reputation in general, and the reputation of Lost in Yonkers in particular, has received favorable criticism. As J. Ellen Gainor notes in her 1996 entry on Simon for American Writers, when Simon won the Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, "a strategic shift took place in the critical reception of his work. Critics began to take a tone of more uniform praise." Finally, as Susan Koprince notes of Lost in Yonkers in her 2002 entry on Simon for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, ultimately, the play has become "Both a critical and popular success." Koprince also says that the play "represents Simon at the pinnacle of his career."
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Simon's use of humor in his play.
Simon started his career writing comedies, first for radio shows, then for television shows, and ultimately for his plays. As David Richards notes in his review of Lost in Yonkers for the New York Times Magazine, during the 1980s, pain "slowly crept into the comic world of Neil Simon." This is definitely the case with Lost in Yonkers, which takes its characters to painful emotional depths. In fact, as Richards notes, Simon was originally afraid that "audiences might not find it funny enough." However, as many critics note, Simon strikes an effective balance between tragedy and humor in Lost in Yonkers. Perhaps this is most apparent in the volatile dinner scene where Bella reveals her intentions to marry and start a business. In her entry on Simon for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Susan Koprince notes, "This scene, which actually begins in a comedic manner, demonstrates Simon's ability to move his audience from laughter to tears—even within the space of a few minutes." Simon relies on humor not only to offset the play's tragic qualities but also to emphasize certain aspects about his characters.
The humor in the play is transmitted mainly through dialogue. In many cases, this humorous dialogue is uttered by one character at the expense of another. This is most true in the case of Grandma Kurnitz, who becomes the butt of many jokes. Simon has a specific purpose in doing this. He is attempting to emphasize Grandma Kurnitz's toughness.
Many of the jokes about her refer to her steel-like attitude and demeanor, which frightens Jay and Arty, in particular. These two boys, in an effort to deal with their nervousness about their grandma, crack jokes about her. When they first arrive at their grandma's apartment in the very beginning of the play, they are obviously not happy about being there. Jay says about their grandma, "When I was five, I drew a picture of her and called it 'Frankenstein's Grandma."' This depiction of Grandma Kurnitz, drawn by Jay when he was a small child, and therefore very honest, is also an accurate depiction of what others think about Grandma Kurnitz in the play. In addition, even before meeting Grandma Kurnitz, the audience has a laugh at her expense and forms a picture of her as a monster. Jay and Arty make several other humorous comments about Grandma Kurnitz's toughness. For example, when they are trying to find ways to make money to help out their father, Arty says, "What if one night we cut off Grandma's braids and sold it to the army for barbed wire?"
This effect increases as others talk about Grandma Kurnitz's scariness. For example, when Bella talks about her mother's effect on one of Gert's old boyfriends, she is not intending to be funny, but it is comedic. Bella says, "My sister, Gert, was once engaged to a man. She brought him over to meet Grandma. The next day he moved to Boston." Once again, comments like this reinforce the idea of Grandma Kurnitz as a horrible monster. Grandma Kurnitz's long sections of dialogue at the end of the first scene, where she refuses to let Jay and Arty stay with her—even though it could mean the death of Eddie—further underscores her negative qualities.
Simon uses humorous dialogue to emphasize the qualities of other characters as well. When the audience first meets Uncle Louie, he arrives on the scene unexpected. The boys, and the audience, are drawn into Louie's fast-talking, street-style dialogue, which often culminates in jokes. For example, when Jay and Arty are having a hard time concentrating on what Louie is saying because they are focusing on his holstered gun, he puts the gun in his waistband. Jay asks him if it is loaded, and Louie says, "Gee, I hope not. If it went off, I'd have to become a ballerina." In another instance, Arty is surprised to find that Louie has slipped a five-dollar bill into Arty's pocket while they were talking. Louie says, "These fingers were touched by genius. I could have been a concert violinist, but the handkerchief kept fallin' off my neck." Louie's humor sometimes takes a turn for the lewd, as when he asks Arty to check his pajama bottoms, presumably for any more five-dollar bills. When Arty says, "There's nothing there," Louie responds, "Well, don't worry. You're young yet," implying that Arty is not yet sexually mature. After a series of rapid-fire jokes like these, Arty says that "He's incredible. It's like having a James Cagney movie in your own house."
Louie's humor can have a dark edge, too, as when he is discussing his potential death. Louie knows he is wanted by the mob, and he has been living his life on the run. As a result, before he goes to sleep in the same room as Jay and Arty, he says, "So unless something unforeseen goes wrong, I'll see you in the morning pals." Although this is not laugh-out-loud funny, it is a sort of dark humor, which further underscores the idea of Louie as a tough gangster type. Louie makes other jokes about grim subjects, such as the war. When he and Arty are discussing the horrid quality of Grandma Kurnitz's mustard soup—which Arty says he could taste even "if I didn't have a tongue"—Louie references the brutality of the war in an offhand manner. Louie says about the German General Rommel, "Right now he's rollin' across Egypt, cuttin' through the whole British army. Tough as they come … But if Momma wanted him to eat the soup, he would eat the soup."
Gert is another character that has jokes made at her expense. She suffers from a breathing condition—which she developed during her painful childhood with her mother—where she says the first part of a sentence breathing out and the second part of the sentence sucking in. In the beginning of the play, Jay describes it as follows: "I once saw her try to blow out a candle and halfway there she sucked it back on." This comment and the other humorous ones like it depict Gert as a weak, sick woman. In fact, in their discussions with their uncle Louie, Jay and Arty find out more about how Gert developed this condition. Louie says, "Gert used to talk in her sleep and Mom heard her one night sayin' things she didn't like. So Gert didn't get supper that week. Until she learned to sleep holdin' her breath."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize–winning, autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), features one day in the life of the dysfunctional Tyrone family. The youngest son, Edmond, suffers from tuberculosis and hates his father; the mother is addicted to drugs; and the older son is an alcoholic.
- Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982) is the first of his so-called autobiographical trilogy, which also includes Biloxi Blues (1984) and Broadway Bound (1986). Brighton Beach Memoirs features a Jewish family, the Jeromes, who face financial crises and relationship issues while living together during the Great Depression.
- Simon's second memoir, The Play Goes On (1999), examines his mature life and career, beginning with the days following the death of his beloved wife, Joan.
- Simon's first memoir, Rewrites: A Memoir (1996), is a critically acclaimed work that examined the beginnings of Simon's life and career, up to and including the death of his wife.
However, when it comes to audience perception, Bella is perhaps the character whose image is most affected by jokes. From the beginning, Jay and Arty tell jokes about their aunt Bella, though not in an intentionally mean way. In fact, some of these jokes are not jokes at all, in the sense that they are true. Many jokes are based in fact but inflated to give them an increased comedic quality. In the case of Bella, however, many of the things that the boys or others say about her are not embellished at all. For example, when Jay and Arty are discussing Bella's education, Arty is surprised to find out that Bella went to high school. As Jay notes, it was only "A little. She missed the first year because she couldn't find it." While this is a humorous comment, it is also true. So is the fact that Grandma Kurnitz used to beat on Bella the most, because Bella was slow to begin with and so got many things wrong. As Jay notes, when Bella got confused and gave a customer more ice cream for the same price, her mother would react violently. Jay says, "And if Grandma saw it, Whacko! Another couple of IQ points gone." Because these humorous comments about Bella are based in facts that the audience can see for themselves, the audience is led to believe that Bella is slow and cannot do much of anything for herself.
Ultimately, Simon's use of humor is an effective way to trap the audience and reverse their expectations. For the entire play, the various jokes about or by the characters help the audience grow accustomed to thinking about each character in a certain way. At the end, however, Simon turns the tables. Grandma Kurnitz, who is depicted as a monster throughout the play, is shown to be a sad woman who has faced her share of tragedies and developed misguided defense mechanisms as a result. Uncle Louie, who is depicted throughout as an irresponsible gangster who makes jokes about death and only watches out for himself, turns out to be a responsible brother. He gives Bella the money she needs to pursue her dream (even though she chooses not to use it). He also joins the army. Although his enlistment is technically a way of escaping the mob, with his loads of money he could have chosen to take many other, safer routes. Instead, he chooses to put his life on the line fighting for his country. Gert is depicted throughout the play as a weak, sick individual. However, as the boys find out at the end of the play, she only has her breathing condition when she is at her mother's house. Other than that, she lives her own life and even risks her mother's wrath by helping out Bella.
Finally, and most important, Bella is depicted throughout the play as a baffled woman who gets confused easily. By the end of the play, Bella has taken the first steps toward maturity, taken on her mother with intelligent and meaningful speeches, and is attempting to move on with her adult life.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Lost in Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, as an adjunct professor in the university honors program. In this essay, Metzger discusses Simon's blending of comedy and drama in his play and examines its characterizations and plot movements.
It is difficult to discuss Simon's Lost in Yonkers without focusing on Grandma Kurnitz. All action, whether comedy or drama, is focused on this one women, who is both tyrant and protector, manipulator and mini-dictator. She dominates the play, just as she dominates her stage family. Grandma Kurnitz is not likable, and stage comedy is often dependant on the audience's ability to like a character, or at least, to identify in some way with a character's actions or motivations. Simon does not develop Grandma Kurnitz's personality sufficiently, nor does he provide enough depth to her personality to make her actions understandable. As a result, she emerges as a cruel figure, who is not especially likeable. In an effort to work as much comedy as possible into the script, Simon gives the two young grandsons many of the play's comedic one-liners, when what really needs more probing and stage time are the reasons for Grandma Kurnitz's cruelty to her children and grandchildren. When it comes to comedy, American audiences want a happy ending, and so because he has built his reputation on writing comedy, Simon creates an ending for his play that offers some hope for the family's survival. This ending is the one place in the play, where Simon disappoints.
In 1991, Lost in Yonkers won both a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, thereby providing some level of validation for Simon's many years as a playwright. Gary Konas, the editor of Neil Simon: A Casebook, says in his introduction to this collection of essays, that in the past, Simon has enjoyed little respect from theater critics and academics, who think that a serious playwright does not write comedy, nor should a serious playwright enjoy commercial success. Simon, of course, writes comedy very well, and his plays have been hugely popular with American audiences. For many of his works, Simon draws on his background as a Jewish American living in a post-Holocaust world, endeavoring to tell an honest story even though the story is not about his own life. Simon is always aware of his audience's expectations for comedy, and so he concentrates on providing a tidy ending that leaves the audience feeling good about the play and the characters on stage. Simon also rarely makes his characters religiously Jewish; instead, they are culturally Jewish and thus more easily understood by a non-Jewish audience. In this case, Grandma Kurnitz's Jewishness provides some brief clues to her past. She escaped the Holocaust, but Grandma Kurnitz is still a victim of that same tragedy, and her responses to life are meant to be understood as a response to those events.
The audience's first real knowledge of Grandma Kurnitz comes from the oldest grandson, Jay, who says that, "When I was five, I drew a picture of her and called it 'Frankenstein's Grandmother."' In her essay, "Beyond Laughter and Forgetting: Echoes of the Holocaust in Lost in Yonkers," Bette Mandl suggests that the reference to "Frankenstein's Grandma," is appropriate, since the grandmother "does take on monstrous proportions during the course of the play, because she becomes identified with the distant horrors that are at the heart of Lost in Yonkers." Simon's Jewish mothers are usually portrayed on stage as loving and gentle women. Yet, in Lost in Yonkers, the stage directions establish a different sort of Jewish mother, one who is depicted more as a harsh German matron, a stereotype drawn from countless Hollywood films. Simon describes Grandma Kurnitz as a woman for whom, "authority and discipline seem to be her overriding characteristics." She is someone who "would command attention in a crowd" and who speaks "with few but carefully chosen words, with a clear German accent." On stage, the playwright must often depend on stereotypes to define his characters since there is little time to really establish an identity. The audience must know in only a few moments who and what a character is. In casting Grandma Kurnitz in the mold of the cold unapproachable German matron and less as a loving Jewish mother, Simon raises some interesting questions about this woman's life. For instance, did the Nazi's succeed in destroying Grandma Kurnitz's Jewish culture, her love of family and children and prevail in transforming her into their own ideal? Mandl suggests that in Lost in Yonkers, the German Nazi matron and the Jewish mother/grandmother become conflated and that this conflation is representative of the psychological havoc that Grandma Kurnitz imposes on her American family. Her own misery and unhappiness are so much a part of her life that she cannot find any happiness with the family that remains. At some point in the past, Grandma was that loving Jewish mother that Simon's audience expect to see in his plays, but because of the Nazi horror taking place in Germany, she has emerged as both a victim of the Nazi terror and a villain in her own family. Grandma cannot distinguish between her life in Germany, her life in America, and her life in Yonkers, any more than she can find her Jewish self amid the harsh German matron who has emerged to control her life.
In addition to the image of Grandma Kurnitz as a German matron, the depiction of this strong Germanic woman is unsympathetic for other reasons. Simon is writing Lost in Yonkers more than forty years after the Holocaust ended. In the years immediately after World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors were urged to forget what had occurred, to create new lives and not dwell on the past. Perhaps it was guilt at not having done enough to help that motivated this desire for silence, or maybe the horror of seeing pictures of so much death and destruction overwhelmed the public, and they just did not want to be reminded that the victims of this horror were individuals, each with their own story of suffering. It would be many years before the world was prepared to hear these stories, but by the time that Simon is writing Lost in Yonkers, the Holocaust has become more visible. Instead of actually dealing with Grandma Kurnitz's past, Simon provides this explosive character with such throwaway lines as, "I stopped feeling because I couldn't stand losing anymore." Simon's audience is ready to hear about Grandma's past, but all that Simon provides is an occasional, under-developed hint of loss. Additional detail and character development would have made Grandma Kurnitz more sympathetic and infinitely more interesting. Another problem that gets in the way of sympathizing with Grandma Kurnitz is the thick German accent that only reminds listeners of who it was who perpetrated the Holocaust. It seems like a simple point, but many Jews, especially Jews in America can barely tolerate a German accent. Lost in Yonkers is not autobiographical, and Grandma Kurnitz does not have to be German to be a victim of anti-Semitism. Even before the Holocaust, anti-Semitic pogroms devastated families across Europe, and so with only a few changes to the text, she might as easily have been Russian, Czech, Polish, or any one of several other nationalities who fell victim to anti-Semitism. It is easy to assume that Grandma Kurnitz is German because the audience is not supposed to sympathize with her. In essence, Simon does everything he can to make Grandma Kurnitz cruel and unlikable. What is difficult to understand is why.
Grandma's family may be safe in America, but in her eyes, they will never be safe from the dangers that all Jews face in an anti-Semitic world. During her meeting with her grandsons as she tells them that she does not want them living with her, Grandma Kurnitz tells the boys, "You don't survive in dis vorld vitout being like steel." Grandma Kurnitz rejects her children and grandchildren so that they will learn survival skills; they must learn to survive in a world that does not want them because they are Jewish. She has survived, but she has survived so damaged that she is unable to provide for her children or grandchildren's emotional needs, nor can she satisfy even their most basic need for love. In Grandma Kurnitz's world, such needs are unimportant in the face of the need just to survive. Even though her whole focus is on removing all signs of weakness in her children, Grandma Kurnitz fails to recognize that her emotionally stunted children are only existing and not really surviving very well. Mandl says that it is Grandma Kurnitz who makes her grandsons less safe in America even as it is Hitler who puts Jewish children at risk in Europe. In fact, Louie is the only child who appears to have survived his childhood and his mother without succumbing to her many efforts to crush all evidence of weakness. Instead, his form of rebellion is to put himself at risk in a life devoted to crime. Louie provides a genuine foil to Grandma. He teaches the boys to resist, to fight back, to develop moxie. According to Mandl, when the two boys learn to survive in their grandmother's house, they are enacting "a fantasy in which they are 'armed' to resist the threat of the war against the Jews that impinges psychologically on life in Yonkers." If they can survive their grandmother's cruelty, they are strong enough to survive anything that they might experience as Jews. Ironically, through the lessons of living with Grandma Kurnitz, the boys are also being taught to resist the German oppressor who has brought her own oppression to America with her. It is not Hitler whom the boys need to fear; it is their grandmother. At the end of the play, Louie leaves to go to war. It is important that he is leaving to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific, not to fight in the war against the Germans. Louie heads for the Pacific because he has been fighting Germany, in the guise of his mother, his whole life. In a different war, he would rather fight the Japanese.
The two boys, Jay and Arty, learn endurance from the months they spend with their grandmother. They do survive her, but children should not have to survive their grandmother. At the end of the play, the boys are leaving to live with their father. Arty is more of a child at thirteen and so he is the one to kiss Grandma Kurnitz goodbye. As the youngest child, he is still hoping to be loved and to share love. He is quicker to forgive and thus, he is the one to kiss her even though she is undeserving of his love or kisses. At 16, Jay sees the time with their grandmother as a test of their ability to endure. Jay says, "we made it, Arty. Ten months here and we're still alive. We got through Grandma and we're alright." Having survived their grandma, they can survive anything. In the final act, the audience also learns that Grandma might have helped Eddie with his money problems, and it would not have been necessary for him to be separated from his sons, just months after his wife's death. Even in her final scene, Eddie's mother is unrelenting as she declares that, "Eddie has to do things for himself." She forced him to survive. It was cruel, but in her eyes it was necessary. In these moments, Simon is creating some honest and fascinating family dynamics, but then he abruptly remembers that he needs a happy ending and suddenly Grandma Kurnitz begins to mellow. She almost jokes with her two grandsons and, in a final moment, abdicates control to her grown daughter Bella, who only months earlier could barely raise the courage to speak to her mother.
Mandl questions whether allowances might be made for Simon's failure to be true to his characters; after all, he is a comic playwright—he is not writing tragedy. But, Simon has created tragic characters in Grandma Kurnitz and her emotionally damaged children, and the audience deserves to see a resolution to their conflicts. Simon appears to lack faith in his own ability as a dramatic playwright, and he cannot resist evoking the comedic elements. William Shakespeare often combined tragedy and comedy, but by the end of Act V, there was never any doubt that a tragic ending would bring resolution to the play. Simon only toys with the audience as he hints at the tragedy of this family. The idea of a destructive mother is not new—consider Euripides' Medea—but a play that ends without resolution or without the gods punishing those who are responsible for such destructive evil, fails to resound with the audience. Simon never provides a tragic hero and fails to punish the representation of evil. It is not clear whether Grandma Kurnitz's children love her—perhaps they all do, although for some, they may fear her as much as love her. It is equally not clear that any of them hate her, and to be hated seems somewhat of a necessity at the end of this play. Grandma Kurnitz deserves to be hated. Grandma Kurnitz is not the tragic hero. In a true tragedy, the boys' father would succumb to his heart ailment, something that Simon teases the audience with throughout the play, and Arty and Jay would be forced to continue their existence with their grandmother. By the final act, the father has returned and the boys are rescued.
Still another part of the ending rings false. Bella's liberation from her destructive mother at play's end is too pat, too hopeful, and too contradictory to the characterization that has thus far been presented. In the first scene of act 2, Bella could not even tell her mother about her plans to marry a local theater usher unless the rest of the family was present to provide emotional and protective support. They were even required to sit in certain predetermined locations before she could begin to speak, and even then, she needed her siblings and her nephews to help her tell the story. Yet, the audience is to believe that in only three days Bella was able to completely reevaluate and transform her personality to one of strength so that nine months later, the roles have been reversed and Bella is in control. In the past, Bella was able to show only minimal strength when she refused to allow her mother to send the two nephews away. All of Bella's encounters with men (she suggests there were many) are carefully hidden from her mother to avoid any confrontation. Bella has no history of strength from which to draw, and so, only in an idealized situation could the ending that Simon constructs have any truth. In an interview with Jackson R. Bryer, Simon relates that seeing A Streetcar Named Desire taught him that "humor could come out of a very different place in a play." The question remains why he thinks there is an obligation to locate humor in his plays. This is especially important because Simon tells Bryer that when he goes to see a play, he would "much rather see a drama than a comedy." Simon sees himself as writing a drama that happens also to be funny. He thinks that real life is like that, a mixture of drama and the ridiculous, and of course, it is. But, if he wants real life, the ending of this play does not work. Simon remains true to his comedic tradition, but Lost in Yonkers is a play that lacks the tragic identity that Simon might have constructed if he had trusted himself more. A Lost in Yonkers that dealt seriously with a Holocaust survivor might have established Simon as a serious dramatic playwright and left the audience hungry for more.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on Lost In Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Kerschen is a freelance writer and a researcher in education. In this essay, Kerschen examines the emotional disabilities of the Kurnitz family, the subject of the play.
As a perfect blend of Neil Simon's signature oneliner comedy and heartfelt emotional drama, Lost in Yonkers explores the dysfunctional lives of the Kurnitz family living through a tumultuous year in 1942. After the death of their mother, Jay and Arty Kurnitz are sent to live with their hardened old grandmother while their father, Eddie, works as a traveling salesman. For the next ten months, they discover the tortured existence that plagues their family–from Aunt Bella's childlike need for love to Uncle Louie's thrill-seeking toughness, to Aunt Gert's choking nervousness. At the center of all this pain is Grandma Kurnitz, a German Jew who has chosen to shut herself off from the world rather than deal with any more emotional trauma.
As J. Kroll says in his Newsweek review "Going Bonkers in Yonkers," "Simon gives us a nuclear family that clearly has some photons missing." The boys' struggle to maintain a normal life in abnormal circumstances, combined with Bella's insistence on achieving the happiness she has always wanted, forces the entire family to face each other, their fears, and their own individual views on what it means to be truly alive. Though the struggle threatens to break them apart, it ultimately brings some ability to cope, if not to heal, and redefines the relationships of the Kurnitz family.
The setting of the play greatly affects and reflects the internal tension of the Kurnitz family. In 1942, as World War II begins to change virtually all aspects of the American scene, life and death are daily issues confronting the entire nation. The pain and shock of Pearl Harbor is still fresh, tens of thousands of young American men are being sent to battle, millions around the world are dying, and being a Jewish German American has taken on a whole new significance. As Eddie says, "[I]f my mother didn't come to this country thirty-five years ago, I could have been fighting for the other side … Except I don't think they are putting guns in the hands of Jews over there." Suddenly, being alive is more than just the natural state of things, it is good fortune, and it is something that could be taken away at any time. This realization may be new to the national consciousness, but it has been the driving fear gripping Grandma Kurnitz for most of her life. For her, the only thing that is really important in life is life itself. She reminds Louie, "Live—at any cost I taught you" and tells Arty, "It's only important that you live."
Yet anything beyond simply existing has become too difficult for Grandmas Kurnitz to bear. The hardships that she has suffered throughout her life have caused her to steel herself against any kind of emotional attachment or sentimentality. In particular, the deaths of two of her children created such pain and guilt that, as she says, "I stopped feeling because I couldn't stand losing anymore." Gerald Weales states in his Commonweal article "Downstairs, Upstairs" that "the death of a beloved child taught her to wall herself off from all affection that might make her vulnerable to new pain." Grandma Kurnitz's stony attitude towards life is manifested in the way she raised and continues to treat her children and grandchildren. Her insistence that they be strong has instead emotionally crippled her children to the point that they cannot function as normal adults. Grandma Kurnitz's perspective on life has sucked the life right out of every one she is supposed to love.
Louie Kurnitz seems to be the one who has most taken his mother's teachings to heart. He, too, has made himself hard against the world, and he engages in a profession that provides him with the only emotions he can still feel—excitement and danger. His involvement with organized crime suggests that he doesn't really value his life and that "it's only fun when there's a chance a gettin' caught. Nothin' sweeter than danger." Louie prides himself on being even tougher than his mother is, but to the extent that the appearance of being tough is more important than life itself. It is worth risking his life to prove that he can take anything that anyone hands him. Even Grandma Kurnitz recognizes that Louie's twisted hardness is beyond anything that she tried to teach him, and she refuses to accept his "filthy money." Louie's view on life has been distorted by his need to be the toughest person he knows, besides his mother.
It is the most unlikely member of the Kurnitz family who challenges her mother's status quo. Bella is described by Jay and Arty as "closed for repairs" because she has the mental capacity of a child. Yet it is her childlike sensibilities that allow her to see through her mother's emotional iron curtain to a world where life and love are joyful experiences, not painful ones and she desperately craves a life where she can receive as much love as she is willing to give. Bella needs for life to be more than simply existing. She wants to feel all the emotional ups and downs that her mother has been avoiding and from which she has tried to protect Bella.
Grandma Kurnitz worries about Bella being around other people and getting "too excited," but emotional stimulation and expression are exactly what Bella wants. She goes so far as to see the same movie over and over again just so she can be with an usher who says he wants to marry her. She even resorts to emotional blackmail to get what she wants by threatening to move to the Home and leave her mother all alone. The climax of the play occurs when Bella finally confronts her mother with her desire to find love and exposes the reasons behind her mother's decision to push away all emotion. As David Richards states in The New York Times Magazine article "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," Bella gives a "wrenching plea for the right to love someone who will love you back in a world where steelier emotions normally prevail." Bella's pursuit of the emotional richness that is necessary for happiness changes the family dynamics. Her unwavering resolve to reach beyond her limitations and gain what she needs eventually forces her mother into accepting a broadened life for Bella.
Caught in the middle of all this turmoil are Arty and Jay. Having previously been sheltered from their grandmother by their recently deceased mother, the boys are the outside force that sweeps into the Kurnitz home. They notice that "there's something wrong with everyone on Pop's side of the family," and they bring with them a normalcy that their aunts and uncle have never known. Arty and Jay defiantly refuse to be sucked into the emotional void that their grandmother has created and despite the realization that they have to get along for their father's sake, they fight against their grandmother's definition of what it means to be strong. Following their own sense of strength, their efforts at self-preservation actually exercise more strength than any other family member has, especially their own father. Eddie is an emotionally and physically weak man, beaten down by years of neglect from his mother. As Eddie says, "I am the weak one. I am the crybaby … Always was."
Despite his years of living with a loving wife and trying to forget his past, Eddie still collapses under the weight of his mother's harshness and is unable to stand up for himself or what he needs in front of her. His sister Gertrude is the same way. She becomes so nervous in her mother's presence that she actually has trouble breathing. The very air she needs to live is sucked away from her in her mother's self-imposed void. Yet outside the home she is much better. As Gert says, "I don't have it that much. It's mostly when I come here." Arty and Jay have seen what their grandmother's lack of love has done to their father, aunts, and uncle, but their understanding of what is really important in life brings them through. "Ten months here and we're still alive. We got through Grandma and we're alright" means more than just not physically perishing, it means that their emotional lives are intact as well. Jay and Arty have passed through the gauntlet, learning some important lessons and bringing some hope into the lives of their elders along the way.
In his aptly titled article "Laughter on the Brink of Tears" for Time, William A. Henry III describes Lost in Yonkers as a play about "a mother who was physically and psychologically abusive and four middle-aged children who still suffer the weaknesses she inflicted in teaching them to be strong." On the surface, this description is true. Yet the play is much more; it is also a testimony to the value of life and love, the value of family, and the value of never giving up. Every member of the Kurnitz family has suffered some sort of great loss or tragic death, but it is only through the acceptance of this loss and the continued search for joy and love that any real life can be achieved. Those, like Grandma Kurnitz, who shut themselves off from any emotion become merely glorified ghosts, while those, like Bella, who embrace life's possibilities are truly living. The true meaning of life is about what is allowed in, not what is kept out.
Source: Lois Kerschen, Critical Essay on Lost in Yonkers, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2003.
Bryer, Jackson R., "An Interview with Neil Simon (1994)," in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 217–32.
Gainor, J. Ellen, "Neil Simon," in American Writers, Supplement IV, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996, pp. 573–94.
Gilbert, Martin, A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 2, 1933–1951, Post Road Press, 1998, p. 242.
Henry, William A., III, "Laughter on the Brink of Tears," in Time, Vol. 137, Issue 9, March 4, 1991, p. 70.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Looking Backward," in the New Leader, Vol. 74, No. 3, February 11–25, 1991, pp. 22–23.
Konas, Gary, "Introduction," in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 1–9.
Koprince, Susan, "Neil Simon," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 266, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Fourth Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, Gale, 2002, pp. 269–87.
Kramer, Mimi, "Ill-Apportioned Parts," in the New Yorker, Vol. 67, No. 3, March 11, 1991, pp. 75–77.
Kroll, J., "Going Bonkers in Yonkers," in Newsweek, Vol. 117, Issue 9, March 4, 1991, p. 60.
Mandl, Bette, "Beyond Laughter and Forgetting: Echoes of the Holocaust in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers," in Neil Simon: A Casebook, edited by Gary Konas, Garland, 1997, pp. 69–77.
Richards, David, "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," in the New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991, pp. 30–32, 36, 57, 64.
Simon, Neil, Lost in Yonkers, Random House, 1991.
Torrens, James S., "Absent and Lost, Seasonal High Points," in America, Vol. 164, No. 17, May 4, 1991, pp. 496–97.
Weales, Gerald, "Downstairs, Upstairs," in Commonweal, Vol. 118, Issue 9, May 3, 1991, p. 293.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Neil Simon, Bloom's Major Dramatists series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
This book contains criticism from many scholars, as well as a critical biography, a chronology of Simon's life, and an introductory essay by Bloom. The book examines many of Simon's works, including Lost in Yonkers.
Frank, Richard B., Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, Penguin USA, 1992.
Guadalcanal is the only major World War II battle mentioned in Lost in Yonkers. However, it was a very important battle, as this book shows. The book draws on both American and Japanese declassified documents to give a complete history of the battle.
Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon, Twayne Publishers, 1983.
This critical biography of Simon gives a good overview of the beginning of Simon's life and career. Although it was written before the publication of Lost in Yonkers, it contains helpful information about many of Simon's most popular plays.
Konas, Gary, ed., Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
This collection of critical essays and interviews explores the recurring themes in Simon's work, the autobiographical qualities of many of his plays, and Simon's status as a contemporary playwright.