The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The play takes place in the sparsely furnished living and dining rooms of Grandma Kurnitz’s apartment above Kurnitz’s Kandy Store in Yonkers, New York. A small kitchen is off to one side. Doors lead to two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a staircase going directly down to the store. Jay and Arty are waiting in the living room while their father talks to Grandma Kurnitz in her bedroom. The boys heartily dislike and fear their authoritarian grandmother. Jay remarks that there is something peculiar about each of Grandma’s children. Their father, Eddie, trembles in fear of Grandma. Bella, their mentally ill aunt, is “a little . . . closed for repairs” upstairs. When Aunt Gert visits Grandma, she cannot finish a sentence without gasping for breath. Uncle Louie has become a bagman for gangsters.
Bella arrives in a state of confusion. She went to the movies but, unable to find the theater she was looking for, went to another one and wants the boys to go with her next week, if “I can find the wrong theater again.” Eddie comes out of the bedroom and explains to his sons that he went in debt to a loan shark to pay hospital and doctor bills for their mother when she was dying of cancer. He owes the loan shark nine thousand dollars. Until the outbreak of World War II opened up new jobs, Eddie had no hope of repaying him. Now he can earn that much money in a year, traveling through the South and West and selling scrap iron, but only if Grandma takes care of...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Simon wrote a well-made Broadway play nearly every year. In this play he uses a straightforward chronological narrative structure. Each scene flows from the preceding one and directly advances the action. At the start of the play, the exchanges between Jay and Arty introduce all the characters and establish their roles. When Bella and her mother appear onstage, they live up to the audience’s expectations. Bella grows in emotional depth as the play develops, but Grandma does not deviate from the horrific figure the boys depicted. The personalities of Louie and Gert are similarly prefigured in the boys’ conversation that opens the play.
Scene changes are well managed. The stage darkens and Eddie’s voice is heard reading letters to his children. References to the cities he has visited help establish the passage of time as he travels across the South earning money. Hints of possible heart problems build suspense concerning his children’s eventual fate. At the end of the first act, Eddie’s voice-over provides an ironic contrast with the reality the audience has just observed.
Simon portrays Grandma’s character more through what she fails to do than by her direct actions. Never does she supply parental warmth or provide emotional support for her children. In the play’s most powerful scene she wastes not a syllable or breath refusing Bella’s cry for help. She ignores her daughter completely. Rising slowly, she turns and silently limps...
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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.
Battle of Guadalcanal
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...
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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...
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Compare and 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...
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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....
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Kramer, Mimi. “Ill Apportioned Parts.” The New Yorker 67 (March 11, 1991): 75-77.
Lipton, James. “Neil Simon.” In Playwrights at Work: Paris Review, edited by George Plimpton. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
Richards, David. “The Last of the Red Hot Playwrights.” New York Times Magazine, February 17, 1991, 30-36, 57, 64.
Simon, Neil. The Play Goes On: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
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