The Comedy of Simon's Play

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Neil Simon had been a successful comedic playwright for close to twenty-five years when his play Biloxi Blues opened on Broadway in 1985. The semi-autobiographical Biloxi Blues, closely modeled on Simon's own experience in the army, was the second in what would become a trilogy of plays that brought the author widespread acclaim, both from critics and audiences. The trilogy centers on Eugene Morris Jerome, an insightful, introspective Jewish boy from New York who grows up to become a writer. Biloxi Blues takes place in 1943, at an army training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Eugene, a new recruit, is sent there along with other young men from the East Coast. There he encounters a sadistic sergeant, an anti-Semitic member of the platoon, and the specter of homosexuality. He also loses his virginity and falls in love for the first time. Through these experiences, and the conflicts they engender, Eugene learns about his own relationship to the human drama that takes place on a daily basis. He also takes important steps to becoming a writer.

First and foremost to Simon's audience, Biloxi Blues is successful because of its comic element. Numerous critics note the positive way the audience responds to Simon's jokes. The dialogue is filled with gags, puns, and one-liners. Anything is subject to Simon's humor: army food ("They oughta drop this stuff [chipped beef] over Germany. The whole country would come out with their hands up."); accusations of homosexuality ("It's like an Agatha Christie story. Murder by Fellatio. Title's no good. Sounds like an Italian ice cream.... How about Murder on the Fellatio Express?"); and first sex ("My first time? ... Are you kidding? That's funny ... Noo ... It's my second time ... The first time they were closed."). The new privates respond to one another with sarcasm, flippancy, and physical humor.

Another main focus of humor is Eugene's journal entries, through which he frames the play. In the opening scene, while everyone around him attempts to sleep, Eugene takes part in the dialogue, at the same time as he is chronicling his thoughts about his new colleagues. This device allows Eugene the opportunity to infuse the play with humor by commenting on the people around him. The play opens with Eugene's description of his fellow recruits, including Wykowski, who has what seems to be a permanent erection; Carney, who thinks he's a singer but really isn't; Selridge, who smells "like a tuna-fish sandwich left out in the rain"; and Arnold Epstein, whose digestion problems lead to his often-noted flatulence. In his journal, Eugene sums up what he sees "If the Germans only knew what was coming over, they would be looking forward to this invasion."

Often in his journal entries, Eugene mixes humor with essential truths. These truths would be mundane, even sentimental, if rendered in straight language. For instance, in writing about Arnold Epstein, whom he calls "the worst soldier in World War Two and that included the deserters," Eugene notes,"His major flaw was that he was incapable of digesting food stronger than hard-boiled eggs... I didn't think he'd last long in the army because during wartime it's very hard to go home for dinner every night." Eugene's observation, while funny, also points out the more serious truth: these boys, none of whom is older than twenty years, are being forced to leave the safety and security of their homes and sent onto the dangerous field of war.

Eugene's narrative also comments on the very nature of the army and its intense discipline. Arnold's rebellion is punished with KP duty, while the other...

(This entire section contains 1635 words.)

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privates endure what Eugene considers to be a worse fate: a fifteen-mile midnight march through the swamps of Mississippi. "But maybe Toomey was right," Eugene later muses. "If nobody obeys orders, I'll bet we wouldn't have more than twelve or thirteen soldiers fighting the war ... We'd have headlines like, 'Corporal Stanley Leiberman invades Sicily.'"

The constant comic element in Biloxi Blues does not mask the play's more serious elements: the potentially violent conflict between Toomey and Arnold; the anti-Semitic degradation that Wykowski inflicts upon Arnold; Eugene's attempts to learn how to become a writer; and the essential life-and-death issue of World War II. Through the conflict between Arnold, Toomey, and Wykowski, Eugene comes to learn about the place he chooses to occupy in the world.

Eugene first questions his own actions when Wykowski launches an anti-Semitic attack on Arnold. Angry that Eugene has selected Arnold's fantasy— making Toomey perform two hundred push-ups— for the prize money, Wykowski retaliates with a series of derogatory remarks that center on stereotypes held about Jews: Jews always "end up with the money," and they have distinguishable "Jew" noses. He then proceeds to point out the Jews— Arnold and Eugene—whom he declares are "easy to spot." After Toomey prevents the potential fight between Arnold and Wykowski, Eugene faces the audience, sharing his journal entry.

... I never liked Wykowski much and I didn't like him any better after tonight.... But the one I hated most was myself because I didn't stand up for Epstein, a fellow Jew. Maybe I was afraid of Wykowski, or maybe it was because Epstein sort of sometimes asked for it, but since the guys didn't pick on me that much, I figured I'd just stay sort of neutral... like Switzerland.

Although Eugene recognizes the negative aspect of his passivity, he does nothing to change it. After Arnold is involved in yet another conflict— this time with Toomey—Eugene is again forced to acknowledge his essential nature. He says to Arnold, who has just taken the blame for a crime he did not commit in order to ensure that the rest of the men will be allowed to go on their leave,"I admire what you did back there, Arnold. You remind me of my brother, sometimes. He was always standing up for his principles too."

EPSTEIN: Principles are okay. But sometimes they get in the way of reason.

EUGENE: Then how do you know which one is the right one?

EPSTEIN: You have to get involved. You don't get involved enough, Eugene.

EUGENE: What do you mean?

EPSTEIN: You're a witness. You're always standing around watching what's happening. Scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight.

EUGENE: What fight?

EPSTEIN: Any fight. The one you believe in.

EUGENE: Yeah. I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I'm invisible. Like The Shadow. I can see everyone else, but they can't see me. That's what I think writers are. Sort of invisible.

EPSTEIN: Not Tolstoy. Not Dostoyevsky. Not Herman Melville.

EUGENE: Yeah. I have to read those guys.

Simon ends this serious exchange with a dollop of humor. When Toomey calls from offstage that he doesn't hear Arnold getting to his assigned punishment of cleaning the latrines, Arnold says, "I'd better go. I have to get involved with toilet bowls."

Eugene, however, continues to choose not to get involved. For example, instead of telling his bunkmates his thoughts, he writes them down in his journal. Eugene wrote about his bunkmate Carney that he found him to be untrustworthy. Carney admits that his girlfriend also told him that "she didn't think I was someone she could count on.’’ Carney's self-revelation to Eugene confirms the keenness of Eugene's perceptions.

Significantly, Eugene is not present at the most dramatic, harrowing scene of the play—the final confrontation between Toomey and Arnold. This scene is the only one in which the threat of real violence is present. Toomey is "piss drunk'' with a ‘‘loaded .45 pointed at the head of dung that the piss-drunk sergeant hates and despises." In Arnold's words, the situation is "Delicate ... extremely delicate.'' Only after Arnold has successfully wrestled the gun away from Toomey are the other recruits allowed to join the scene,"in various states of undress." Their lack of clothing indicates their relative innocence as compared to Arnold, who has just faced down the man who has made their collective lives miserable.

Eugene sums up the essential incompatibility between him and Arnold in his address to the audience immediately following this scene. "Epstein won the fantasy game fair and square because his really came true." Arnold makes the fantasy game his actual life. This is the difference between observing life and living life.

Eugene's difficulties with living life manifest in his parting scene with Daisy. He admits that he is "having a lot of trouble with words," to which Daisy replies, "That doesn't sound like Eugene the Writer to me." But Eugene is "not writing now." He is instead "Eugene the Talker," the Eugene who must take part in an important life event—a first love—rather than analyze it. He finds the courage to tell Daisy his feelings, and thus he creates his most important connection in the play to another person. For a writer, however, the accomplishment of successfully observing and recording life is no small matter. By the end of the play, Eugene realizes that although he is an apt and careful observer, he is still unable to take his experiences and successfully translate them into words. After his final goodbye to Daisy, he "knew at that moment I was a long way from becoming a writer because there were no words I could find to describe the happiness I felt in those ten minutes with Daisy Hannigan." The fact that Eugene has gone on to produce this play is testament to his eventual ability to express himself in the exact words he chooses.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Stanley Kaufmann on Films: Variously Clever

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One of America's premier comic talents is on glittering display in Biloxi Blues, a craftsman whose skill approaches the level of serious work as long as he sticks to lightweight work. I mean, of course, Mike Nichols. I first saw his directing in the Broadway production of Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1963), a soufflé in the hands of a new, masterly pastry chef. Since then, in more Simon pieces and in other plays—excepting a misguided venture into Chekhov—Nichols has invariably evoked the best in his actors and has been subtly ingenious with rhythm, timing, movement. Since then, Nichols has also made films—ten, I believe— and, to his theater gifts, has added cinematic dexterity.

He shows it again in Biloxi Blues, from the opening shot. That shot isn't novel (one very much like it was in Brando's film Morituri), but Nichols uses it well to set mood and motion. We see the hero, Matthew Broderick, through the window of a moving train. He is in World War II Army uniform, in a car crowded with soldiers. The camera then pulls back and up to show us the whole train, steaming across a railroad bridge. From Broderick's face up to the panorama, the camera's movement incises a feeling of wistful adventure, of progress into the unwished-for.

Later, Nichols refreshes a moment that was old when it happened to Andy Hardy—the stripling falling in love for the first time. Broderick, on his first leave from the boot camp training that occupies most of the film, goes to a dance in nearby Biloxi and meets a girl his own age, the delightful Penelope Ann Miller. As they dance, the camera gently circles them in the sparkling ballroom light, as if the film itself were sharing the youngsters' wonder.

In Broderick and Miller and Matt Mulhern, who plays a tough trainee, Nichols started with an advantage: these three had been in the Broadway production of the original play, which was well directed by Gene Saks. For that advantage, I assume that Nichols was grateful. But for the drill sergeant, Nichols made a surprising choice of his own: Christopher Walken, not everyone's idea of a hard-as-nails drill sergeant. Walken, whose speech sometimes sounds a bit coarse in genteel roles, here sounds a bit too silken; but once we understand that we're not going to get the sergeant stereotype, he creates his own brand of strict professionalism, of loneliness, of hate.

The script is pure Neil Simon, which is to say impure. Gags, very funny, frequently replace credible dialogue. Sharp observation is tinged with sentimentality. Structure consists of invention— there isn't much structure, really, just a series of scenes, some of which are linked. This last factor is common in Simon's plays and screenplays and is somewhat more tolerable in Biloxi Blues because here he is turning the pages of an album (his own Army experience) rather than trying to develop a cogent comedy. Simon's colorings of nostalgia, for a time that was clearly discomfiting, apparently rise because these experiences were part of his youth.

It's hard to imagine a viewer being bored or unamused by Biloxi Blues. It's easier to imagine a viewer finally dissatisfied with it.

Source: Stanley Kaufmann, "Stanley Kaufmann on Films: Variously Clever," in New Republic, Vol. 3823, No. 198, April 25, 1988 p. 26.

On Stage: Life Along the Mississippi

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Almost all of the flags on the Great White Way have gone up to salute Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues as the first "comedy hit" of the current season. The latest installment of the famous playwright's so-called autobiographical series is precisely that—largely, alas, because the current season has been extremely poor.

The play, a droll recounting of Simon's basic training at an Army camp in Mississippi, is certainly well-made. It has funny lines and situations—some genuinely witty, some designed to win automatic laughter of a rather low sort—and a story whose unequal episodes are fashioned into a whole without excessively visible stitches. The problem is that only rarely does the work achieve dramatic originality. Even so, Biloxi Blues is quite likely to survive at least as long as its predecessor, Brighton Beach Memoirs—recently moved from the Neil Simon Theater to make room for the new production, yet in its third year still entrenched on Broadway at the 46th Street Theater.

Eugene Morris Jerome (Matthew Broderick), the hero and "author'' of Brighton Beach Memoirs, is now six years older, or of conscription age. The time is 1943, we are told. To any normal human being that means World War II. In Biloxi Blues, though, the war appears to be a very minor item of conversation and concern among the soldiers drafted to fight it. Granted, they are far from the bombed-out cities, the countries being invaded by Hitler's panzer divisions, the refugees and murdered millions of Europe. Nevertheless, the United States had been engaged in the conflict for over a year; thousands of Americans had already been killed, wounded or captured. The bad news surely must have reached Biloxi, not to mention Brooklynite Eugene Jerome and his knowledgeable buddy Arnold Epstein (Barry Miller).

The sole suggestion of what these young men will soon confront, however, comes in a sort of postscript: On a train bringing Eugene and his comrades to the embarkation port, he tells us their respective fates. Otherwise the play is not about war; it is about how different types of individuals react when put into a military uniform and forced to accept someone else's absolute authority for no better reason than the stripes on his sleeves. In fact, whatever the author may have intended, Biloxi Blues becomes first of all an attack on militarism. Simon may well have been conscious of this, for he apparently tried to blunt the thrust by making Sergeant Toomey (Bill Sadler) exceptional—a man clearly in need of psychiatric treatment, not your typical noncom in charge of teaching blind obedience to civilians he professionally despises.

Simon's second focus is Eugene's unfolding love life: the nice Jewish boy's initial sexual experience with a prostitute (Randall Edwards), and his subsequent affection for Daisy Hannigan (Penelope Ann Miller), a church-going virgin. I do not object in principle to the playwright's recourse to old-fashioned devices, but it strains credulity that at age 19 Eugene should be so embarrassed at the prospect of making love to a hooker. His nervous behavior is particularly surprising if we remember that as a young teenager in Brighton Beach Memoirs he was eager to get to the bottom of these matters. The very attractive Randall Edwards, incidentally, is much too elegant, and too patient, to be convincing as a woman turning tricks on weekends for waiting soldiers. If the author can be believed, in 1943 Biloxi had both the nastiest sergeant and the sexiest whore in the country.

Upon losing his virginity Eugene falls for the innocent Daisy, who hesitates to allow a first kiss not only because of her mother's warnings but also because it is Good Friday. Although Penelope Ann Miller nicely prevents her character from drowning in absurdity, such scruples were outdated before the end of World War I. Since the girl is Catholic and the boy Jewish, one is not surprised to learn in the last scene that she is married to someone else. Indeed, one wonders why it was thought necessary to mention the expected. Then Simon comes up with the punch line that gets the biggest laugh of the evening: The pious young Catholic is now a Mrs. Goldstein, or some equally obvious Jewish name. Clever, albeit not terribly far above the level of an average standup comic's gambit, and perhaps a little too pat in its pandering to the desires of a Broadway audience. The scenes involving the troops, happily, display a deeper humor.

Biloxi Blues has been directed well by Gene Saks and performed well by an ensemble of excellent actors, several of whom play outstanding characters outstandingly. Interestingly, neither Matthew Broderick nor his Eugene Morris Jerome head either category. Broderick is very good when he is feeling his way around in the barracks, but in his two big conventional scenes tailor-made to amuse the audience he gets carried away and resorts to even easier gimmicks. The true central figure of Biloxi Blues is Arnold Epstein, a Jewish intellectual, masterfully delineated by Barry Miller. Epstein is the sort of rational philosopher who seems utterly unfit, if not for fighting a war, certainly for life in a training camp under military—that is, stupid—discipline. Still, he develops an attitude toward authority that in effect amounts to a new model of passive resistance, based not on instinct or peasant shrewdness (like the Good Soldier Schweik's) but on sophisticated thinking which builds up to a strategy. His scenes with the sadistic Sergeant Toomey—a role Bill Sadler expertly pushes precisely to the limit of tolerance—culminate in a final confrontation where mad brutishness is rendered helpless and intellectual preparedness triumphs. This duel between two kinds of power is a powerful moment of theater.

Source: Leo Sauvage, ‘‘On Stage: Life Along the Mississippi,’’ in The New Leader, Vol. 68, No. 5, April 8, 1985, pp. 20-21.


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