Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Steambath is a play that focuses on the apparent absurdity and randomness of life, death, and love. The play also focuses on the personal narrative that those in the steambath create not only to tell their own story but also to justify their choices, actions, and outcomes. Indeed, in the play, one’s ability to weave a good story is a determining factor in one’s eventual destination upon leaving the steambath.
Much of this work examines the modern urban psyche. The tapestry of each character’s life is woven with threads of hang-ups, desires, and dreams. Friedman unravels this tapestry as each of the characters tell the stories of their lives as a means both of getting acquainted with their fellow travelers and of justifying their lives before the ultimate judgment. Within each of these stories is a series of seemingly contradictory revelations. Tandy, for instance, teaches art appreciation to police officers. Meredith, despite being very sexually active, just had her first orgasm. Friedman leaves the audience with an understanding that it is people’s neuroses and dysfunctions that make them human and therefore they are the very plotline of one’s individual story.
Steambath also examines the apparent randomness of fortune and failure. God is seen looking into a monitor and then ordering seemingly random miracles and punishments. When Tandy challenges him, he claims, “Half the things I do are good, maybe even a little more. . . . Nobody notices them.” Morty’s actions serve to remind the audience that the universe is indifferent to the absurd journey that makes up an individual’s existence.
Setting Purgatory in a steambath is the central allegory of this work. In Judeo-Christian mythology, most postlife destinations are very formal, allegorical versions of life. The steambath, while fitting the description of the mist-filled caverns of some depictions of Limbo, is an informal setting that allows for an informal view of God. At one point God orders a sandwich, threatens to “smite you with my terrible swift sword” if the toast is burned, and claims he is saving his grandeur and majesty for the next group of patrons because they “got some terrific broads.”