The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Biloxi Blues is a comedy about a young writer’s experiences during ten weeks of army basic training for World War II. The play consists of fourteen related scenes in two acts and numerous narrative monologues that link them.
The curtain opens on a railroad coach in which four soldiers lie sleeping and a fifth, Eugene Morris Jerome, sits writing in his notebook. Throughout the play, Eugene alternately participates in the action and steps out to narrate, explain, or comment on it. During this scene, the soldiers, all aged eighteen to twenty, awake and engage in locker-room banter and horseplay. One by one, Eugene introduces them to the audience: Roy Selridge, who has a trying sense of humor; Joseph Wykowski, who has an enormous sexual drive; Donald Carney, who sings in his sleep; and Arnold Epstein, a sensitive intellectual with a weak stomach. Eugene introduces himself as an aspiring writer determined to “become a writer, not get killed and lose my virginity.”
The next scene shows the boys settling into their barracks. Sergeant Merwyn J. Toomey enters, takes roll, and begins military indoctrination. Ultimately, he foments tension in the platoon by casting Eugene as a sycophant and making the others do a hundred push-ups on his account. The scene shifts to the mess hall, where the soldiers struggle to eat army food and meet another member of their platoon, James Hennesey, a quiet boy who arrived days earlier. Toomey comes to tell...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Neil Simon is generally regarded as a fine dramatic craftsman, and in Biloxi Blues he employs various elements of humor, dramatic structure, and staging to draw in the audience. If the backbone of Biloxi Blues is the characters and the issues they face, the body is pure Simonesque comedy, consisting of quick repartee, clever wordplay, and volleys of sarcasm, all in carefully worked rhythms. The characters, led by Eugene, are all amusing, and Simon puts them into situations—eating army food, patronizing a prostitute—especially suited to bawdy one-liners. That the characters take life with a smile makes them quite likable, and it cushions the dramatic issues—war, death, bigotry, homosexuality, despair—that the play touches on.
Despite its basically episodic nature, the play achieves a smooth flow through the use of several structural devices. The first and last scenes, on trains to and from Biloxi, convey the sense of a journey completed. Eugene’s monologues provide transitions from scene to scene, so that events spanning ten weeks in real time are integrated through a unified perception. Within this framework, Simon achieves emotional variety through tonal contrasts from scene to scene. In act 2, for example, the somber and meditative scene involving Hennesey’s arrest is followed by the sweet sentimentality of Eugene and Daisy at the dance, which is in turn followed by the tension, irony, and dark humor of the confrontation in...
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The Outbreak of World War II
Although World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States did not join the fight until 1941. At the outbreak of the war, however, the United States contributed arms and other supplies to the Allied war effort. In response to the war, the United States also passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history.
By 1941, the German army had captured most of Europe. Only Britain remained completely free, and Germany had established a bombing campaign intended to force Britain's surrender. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day, the U.S. Congress declared war on the Axis Powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy. The entry of the United States into the war brought much-needed forces and supplies to the British army.
The United States and the War
For the rest of the war, U.S. troops fought along with the Allied troops in North Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. After forcing a surrender in North Africa, Allied troops invaded Sicily, and, later, Italy. By June 1944, the Allies had captured Rome, making it the first Axis capital to fall.
One main campaign of the war was the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, the Allies landed 150,000 U.S., British, and Canadian soldiers in Normandy, France. By August of that year, these forces had liberated Paris. As the soldiers continued westward toward...
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Point of View and Narration
Although Biloxi Blues is a play, it is essentially structured around Eugene's point of view—despite the fact that he is not present at some scenes, most notably the culminating one between Toomey and Arnold. Though Simon examines other characters in as much depth, perhaps even greater depth, as he does Eugene, this still remains Eugene's story—the story of a formative experience in Eugene's progress to become a writer (which he does in the final play of the trilogy, Broadway Bound).
The events that are portrayed are filtered through Eugene's point of view, his journal entries, and ultimately his memory. Several narrative devices emphasize this perspective. Throughout the play, Eugene steps away from the action and directly addresses the audience. His brief monologues allow him the opportunity to share what he feels about what is happening in his life. Another emphatic device is his reporting the fate of the play's characters at the end. Eugene knows what has happened to everyone. Recounting several of the characters' fates reminds the reader that the play is really Eugene's remembrance—it does not take place in real time. As such, Eugene's point of view and perception direct the play.
Like all of Simon's plays, Biloxi Blues is a comedy. Though it deals with several serious issues (such as homosexuality, anti-Semitism, and sadism), and it essentially centers...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: In the year that World War II breaks out, 1939, there are 334,473 Americans on active military duty in the Army and Navy. These numbers grow dramatically during the war years. By 1943, there are over nine million Americans on active military duty. By the end of the war, in 1945, that number has risen to twelve million.
1990s: In 1999, there are about 1.1 million active duty military personnel serving in the United States and its territories. The great majority of these are based in the continental United States.
1940s: In 1943, the United States is deeply involved in World War II. American soldiers participate in all the major regions of the war.
1990s: In the 1990s, U.S. troops are involved in UN peacekeeping missions throughout the world. In 1991, U.S. soldiers lead a multinational force in the Persian Gulf War to free Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.
1940s: The U.S. Army is segregated. Almost one million African-American soldiers are relegated to their own companies.
1990s: Since 1948, when the order desegregating the army came down from President Harry S Truman, African-Americans have served side by side in the army with white soldiers.
1940s: In 1948, there are about five million Jews living in the United States.
1990s: In 1997, America's six million Jews represent about 2.3 percent of the national population. The...
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Topics for Further Study
Think about an event you think would add to the play's message. Then write an additional scene for the play, imitating Simon's style and humor.
Conduct research to find out about the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. Army during World War II. How does it differ from today's army? Write a few paragraphs comparing and contrasting the two armies.
Wykowski is a blatant bigot. How might Eugene have better responded to him, if he were participating in life instead of merely witnessing it? Write a monologue in which Eugene expresses his true feelings for Wykowski and his bigotry.
Do you agree with Eugene's assessment that he should have stood up for Arnold against Wykowski? Should the other men have stood up for Arnold even though they are not Jewish? Explain your answer.
Homosexuality is one of the important issues raised in the play. In recent years, the question of whether or not gays should serve in the military has created political divisions. Find out about the status of gays in the military today. Write a paragraph explaining the recent policy changes that have taken place about this subject.
One of Simon's defining characteristics is his humor. Imagine that Biloxi Blues was strictly a drama. Rewrite one of the scenes of the play as a drama instead of a comedy.
Read either Brighton Beach Memoirs or Broadway Bound. Compare Eugene's character in either of these plays with...
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What Do I Read Next?
Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984) first introduces Eugene Morris Jerome. Set in Brooklyn in 1937, it tells of a Jewish family and their financial troubles during the Great Depression.
Simon's Broadway Bound (1987) completes his semi-autobiographical trilogy. It centers on Eugene and his older brother as they leave home to become writers for a radio show. Meanwhile, their parents break up, and their family resists their new profession. Eugene comes to realize that life does not contain the happy endings he is able to write into his comedy.
Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II is a compelling biography that provides interesting perspectives and details about the home-front society in the United States during World War II. In particular, it takes the reader further into the events happening inside the Roosevelt White House and the dynamics of the many people living, working, and visiting there during this historic time.
David Guterson's novel Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) describes the internment of Japanese Americans in Washington State during World War II. Set both in the 1940s and 1990s, it explores the devastating and long-term effects of racism.
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (1990) is a collection of related short stories about young recruits serving in the Vietnam War. O'Brien fought in Vietnam,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Berman, Paul, Review in The Nation, April 20,1985, p. 474.
Brustein, Robert, Review in The New Republic, May 20, 1985, p. 26.
Henry, William A., III, Review in Time, April 8,1985, p. 72.
Kissel, Howard, Review in Women's Wear Daily, March 29, 1985, p. 72.
Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon: A Casebook, Twayne, 1983.
This is an in-depth discussion of Simon's earlier career and the plays he wrote up through the early 1980s. Johnson analyzes individual plays as well as traces common themes among them.
Konas, Gary, Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
A discussion of Simon's career.
Simon, Neil, A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Simon recalls his life and the influences that shaped him as a writer.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Brustein, Robert. “The Best of Broadway.” The New Republic 192 (May 20, 1985): 26-28.
Henry, William A., III. “Reliving a Poignant Past.” Time 128 (December 15, 1986): 72-78.
Kaufman, David. “Simon Says.” Horizon 28 (June, 1985): 56-60.
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Simon, John. “How We Won the War.” New York 18 (April 8, 1985): 83-84.
Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Touchstone, 1996.
Woolf, Michael. “Neil Simon.” In American Drama, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
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