Critical Context

Bruce Jay Friedman is frequently mentioned as the master of the “funny horror story.” Steambath was less of a financial success than his early play, Scuba Duba: A Tense Comedy (pr. 1967, pb. 1968), but Steambath proved to be a darling of the critics. Critics praised Friedman’s “wild and original” ideas and called him a comic genius.

Friedman’s body of work, which ranges from novels (Stern: A Mother’s Kisses, 1966) to short stories, essays, dramatic works and screenplays (Splash!, 1984), are difficult to distill into one leitmotif. His Black Humor collection is frequently cited as the cornerstone of the American Black Humor movement. His history as an editor of pulp fiction for men’s magazines can be seen in his love for absurdist and shocking endings, which are a staple of the pulp genre. At the same time, the cultural groundings of the Jewish schlemiel story are equally evident in his focus upon the struggles of a young man in an urban setting. These elements of his literary career are clearly evident in Steambath.

Friedman’s style is frequently described as an extension of the world around him or an evocation of his worldview. He is quoted as seeing a “fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a goddamned, almost invisible line.” Friedman uses Steambath as a means of questioning many of the mores of modern society. In 1973, when the play was produced for television by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) only nineteen stations televised it. Brief nudity, blatant depictions of homosexual characters, frank sexual discussions, and heretical religious themes proved to be too controversial for most local PBS affiliates. Despite this censorship, the PBS production of Steambath was nominated for two Emmy Awards in 1974.