The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Biloxi Blues is a comedy about a young writer’s experiences during ten weeks of army basic training for World War II. The play consists of fourteen related scenes in two acts and numerous narrative monologues that link them.

The curtain opens on a railroad coach in which four soldiers lie sleeping and a fifth, Eugene Morris Jerome, sits writing in his notebook. Throughout the play, Eugene alternately participates in the action and steps out to narrate, explain, or comment on it. During this scene, the soldiers, all aged eighteen to twenty, awake and engage in locker-room banter and horseplay. One by one, Eugene introduces them to the audience: Roy Selridge, who has a trying sense of humor; Joseph Wykowski, who has an enormous sexual drive; Donald Carney, who sings in his sleep; and Arnold Epstein, a sensitive intellectual with a weak stomach. Eugene introduces himself as an aspiring writer determined to “become a writer, not get killed and lose my virginity.”

The next scene shows the boys settling into their barracks. Sergeant Merwyn J. Toomey enters, takes roll, and begins military indoctrination. Ultimately, he foments tension in the platoon by casting Eugene as a sycophant and making the others do a hundred push-ups on his account. The scene shifts to the mess hall, where the soldiers struggle to eat army food and meet another member of their platoon, James Hennesey, a quiet boy who arrived days earlier. Toomey comes to tell the boys that they will take a fifteen-mile midnight hike through the swamps. When Arnold claims that he needs a good night’s sleep, Toomey excuses him from the hike but orders him to clean the entire latrine instead. In a monologue to the audience, Eugene describes the hike in comic terms but acknowledges the value of army discipline.

Later that night, Arnold tells Eugene that while cleaning the latrine he was degraded by two oversize kitchen workers, who lowered his head into a dirty toilet. The other soldiers return, and a discussion ensues about the likelihood of dying on a European battlefield. Eugene asks what they would each do with their last week alive, and they have an animated contest to determine the best fantasy. The others fantasize about sex and money, but Arnold envisions making Toomey do two hundred push-ups in front of the platoon. He wins unanimously.

In the next scene, as the boys eagerly prepare for a weekend leave, Wykowski discovers that he has been robbed and immediately suspects...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Neil Simon is generally regarded as a fine dramatic craftsman, and in Biloxi Blues he employs various elements of humor, dramatic structure, and staging to draw in the audience. If the backbone of Biloxi Blues is the characters and the issues they face, the body is pure Simonesque comedy, consisting of quick repartee, clever wordplay, and volleys of sarcasm, all in carefully worked rhythms. The characters, led by Eugene, are all amusing, and Simon puts them into situations—eating army food, patronizing a prostitute—especially suited to bawdy one-liners. That the characters take life with a smile makes them quite likable, and it cushions the dramatic issues—war, death, bigotry, homosexuality, despair—that the play touches on.

Despite its basically episodic nature, the play achieves a smooth flow through the use of several structural devices. The first and last scenes, on trains to and from Biloxi, convey the sense of a journey completed. Eugene’s monologues provide transitions from scene to scene, so that events spanning ten weeks in real time are integrated through a unified perception. Within this framework, Simon achieves emotional variety through tonal contrasts from scene to scene. In act 2, for example, the somber and meditative scene involving Hennesey’s arrest is followed by the sweet sentimentality of Eugene and Daisy at the dance, which is in turn followed by the tension, irony, and dark humor of the confrontation in Toomey’s room. In four instances Simon calls for Carney to sing “a popular song of the period,” adding further subtlety of mood. Emotionally, the audience is constantly being led into new terrain.

The decidedly minimalist staging of the play—whereby different locales (railroad coach, barracks, hotel room) are suggested with a neutral space rather than fully realized—helps to smooth the flow of the story and reinforces the “single-perception” quality of the piece. The multiple locales also render more textured and complete the world that the characters inhabit.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Outbreak of World War II
Although World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, the United States did not join the fight until...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Point of View and Narration
Although Biloxi Blues is a play, it is essentially structured around Eugene's point of...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1940s: In the year that World War II breaks out, 1939, there are 334,473 Americans on active military duty in the Army and Navy. These...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Think about an event you think would add to the play's message. Then write an additional scene for the play, imitating Simon's style and...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Biloxi Blues was adapted as a film with the same name by Ray Stark. Neil Simon wrote the screenplay and Mike Nichols directed. The...

(The entire section is 31 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984) first introduces Eugene Morris Jerome. Set in Brooklyn in 1937, it tells of a Jewish family and...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Berman, Paul, Review in The Nation, April 20,1985, p. 474.

Brustein, Robert, Review in The New...

(The entire section is 109 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brustein, Robert. “The Best of Broadway.” The New Republic 192 (May 20, 1985): 26-28.

Henry, William A., III. “Reliving a Poignant Past.” Time 128 (December 15, 1986): 72-78.

Kaufman, David. “Simon Says.” Horizon 28 (June, 1985): 56-60.

Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Simon, John. “How We Won the War.” New York 18 (April 8, 1985): 83-84.

Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Woolf, Michael. “Neil Simon.” In American Drama, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.