Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
The second play in Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, Biloxi Blues continues the saga of Eugene Jerome’s coming-of-age as he survives ten weeks of Army basic training in 1943. The play opens in a railroad carriage as five draftees travel south toward the Army base in Biloxi. Eugene introduces each character to the audience by reading from the “memoir” in which he records his thoughts—throughout the play, Eugene comments on the action by speaking directly to the audience.
The scene shifts to a barracks, where a drill sergeant introduces the crew to military discipline by finding arbitrary reasons for ordering them to perform one hundred push-ups and forcing them to down every morsel of unappetizing food. Simon uses humor to make serious points. Admitting the need for strict discipline, he remarks: “If nobody obeys orders, I’ll bet we wouldn’t have more that twelve or thirteen soldiers fighting the war. . . . We’d have headlines like, ’Corporal Stanley Lieberman invades Sicily.’”
More than in previous plays, Simon explores significant themes. Eugene and his fellow Jew, Arnold Epstein, encounter prejudice and endure anti-Semitic remarks. When a fellow soldier is arrested for engaging in homosexual activity, the rest of the squad expresses compassion over his probable prison sentence (perhaps unrealistically, considering the prevalent homophobia of the 1940’s). The soldiers at first believe that Epstein is the guilty homosexual, having read Eugene’s memoir in which he speculated about Epstein’s sexuality. Eugene is left feeling guilty for writing down his suspicions. He learns the difference between sex and love during a weekend leave at the close of his training. In one scene, he clumsily engages in sex for the first time with a prostitute. In another, he meets a beautiful, literate, and witty southern belle at a dance, falls in love, and decides that loveless sex is flavorless.
The central theme of the three autobiographical plays is Eugene’s maturation into a successful writer. At the start of Biloxi Blues, he blithely records his observations and thoughts in his memoir, oblivious of the possible consequences of the act. The dismay of his barracks mates when they discover his notebook demonstrates that words have the power to hurt. The reaction of the squad to his suspicions about Epstein brings recognition that anything written down magically acquires an aura of reality. Epstein’s rebuke, when Eugene tears up the offending page, that compromising one’s beliefs is the road to mediocrity, reinforces the message—a responsible writer thinks and gets it right the first time.
In the closing scene of the play, the squad is once again in a railroad car, leaving Biloxi for war service. Eugene’s final remarks to the audience describe the later experience of the characters. He never saw battle. Injured in an accident in England, Eugene was assigned to the Stars and Stripes soldiers’ newspaper. At war’s end, he is well on his way to becoming a professional writer, aware of his career’s ethical responsibilities.
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