The Play

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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 Arnold. Toomey enters and threatens to cancel all leave unless the thief steps forward. Arnold does so and returns the money. Actually, Toomey himself had robbed Wykowski to punish his carelessness, but Arnold saw him and decided to subvert the lesson. Toomey quizzes Arnold about his motives and warns him not to defy military indoctrination. After Toomey leaves, Arnold refuses Wykowski’s gratitude and criticizes Eugene for being an observer and not a fighter.

The second act opens in a hotel room in nearby Gulfport. As Eugene, Selridge, and Carney nervously await their turns with a prostitute, Eugene’s naïveté becomes evident. At last his turn arrives, and the scene shifts to the bedroom, where the prostitute, Rowena, waits for him to undress. Eugene stalls with conversation until he finally feels ready to join her in bed. She turns out the light, and he quickly and vocally loses his virginity.

Later, back at the barracks, the soldiers boast about their weekend exploits. When Eugene cannot find his notebook of memoirs, Wykowski reveals that he has taken it and begun reading passages out loud. Eugene begs that his privacy be...

(This entire section contains 1018 words.)

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respected, but Selridge subdues him and Wykowski proceeds to read what Eugene has written: that Carney seems chronically unreliable, that Wykowski is “pure animal,” and that Arnold, he suspects, is homosexual. Arnold is amazed and crushed. Outside the barracks, Eugene explains his writings to Carney. Later that night, the platoon is awakened by Toomey with an announcement that two soldiers were seen engaged in oral sex in the latrine. One was apprehended; the other escaped and returned to this platoon. Despite Toomey’s threats, no one confesses, and he leaves. The soldiers speculate about the incident; then a telephone rings offstage, and Toomey returns. The other soldier has confessed, and Hennesey is taken away.

In a monologue, Eugene ponders this episode and tells of his disappointing return visit to Rowena and of his ongoing search for the perfect girl. The next scene finds him at a dance where a pretty Roman Catholic schoolgirl, Daisy Hannigan, asks him to be her partner. They dance with awkward innocence and talk about books and writing, and within moments Eugene is in love.

The scene shifts abruptly to Toomey’s room, where Toomey, drunk, pulls a pistol on Arnold and lectures him about discipline. Then he explains that because of a brain injury received in North Africa he is being retired from active duty to a veterans’ hospital in Virginia. Toomey says that he overheard the soldiers’ fantasy contest and that his fantasy is to turn a misfit such as Arnold into a disciplined soldier. He orders Arnold to disarm him. Arnold, baffled, unsuccessfully tries reasoning with him. Finally, provoked, he leaps forward and takes the gun. Toomey orders him to call in the soldiers and then proudly describes to them Arnold’s exemplary courage in handling a drunken superior. Instead of officially reporting Toomey’s misconduct, Arnold exacts a more fitting punishment—two hundred push-ups on the spot.

As the end of training approaches, Eugene has one last visit with Daisy. They meet briefly on a park bench to express their love, and she gives him a blank book for his memoirs. The final scene of the play shows the five soldiers trying to sleep on the train leaving Biloxi. In Eugene’s last monologue, the stories are concluded: Hennesey got a light sentence, Daisy married a doctor, Selridge and Wykowski became respectable soldiers, Carney had a breakdown, Arnold disappeared in action, and Eugene, injured accidentally before seeing battle, became a writer for the army newspaper.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 1941. At the outbreak of the war, however, the United States contributed arms and other supplies to the Allied war effort. In response to the war, the United States also passed the first peacetime draft in U.S. history.

By 1941, the German army had captured most of Europe. Only Britain remained completely free, and Germany had established a bombing campaign intended to force Britain's surrender. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day, the U.S. Congress declared war on the Axis Powers—Germany, Japan, and Italy. The entry of the United States into the war brought much-needed forces and supplies to the British army.

The United States and the War
For the rest of the war, U.S. troops fought along with the Allied troops in North Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. After forcing a surrender in North Africa, Allied troops invaded Sicily, and, later, Italy. By June 1944, the Allies had captured Rome, making it the first Axis capital to fall.

One main campaign of the war was the Allied invasion of German-occupied France. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, the Allies landed 150,000 U.S., British, and Canadian soldiers in Normandy, France. By August of that year, these forces had liberated Paris. As the soldiers continued westward toward Germany, Soviet troops pressed on Germany from the east. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered.

However, the Allied forces had to continue to fight the Japanese. A campaign in the Pacific, intended to lead to the capture of Japan, was hard-fought and bloody. Then, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This devastating attack was followed three days later by another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. World War II was over.

The Homefront
In 1943, when the play takes place, the United States had already been at war for two years. The war effort united the American people. Called upon to serve their country, Americans helped in many ways. Families grew "victory'' gardens to provide themselves with vegetables, so that farm crops could be sent overseas to feed the soldiers. Children collected scrap metal that could be melted down and used in ammunition factories. Women worked in these factories, performing jobs traditionally held by men, who were now serving in the army. People bought Liberty bonds as a way of providing the government with the money needed to carry out the war effort. The American people were called upon to make many sacrifices. For example, meat and gasoline were rationed. Overall, a sense of solidarity developed during the war years as Americans worked together to fight a common enemy.

Social Problems
Despite the relative solidarity the war effort brought to the United States, many Americans were treated unfairly. Japanese Americans suffered greatly. Perceived as a threat to U.S. security, more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed from their West Coast homes and relocated to internment camps. Many remained there until 1945. Hawaii, whose Japanese population was too large to relocate, was placed under martial law.

Not all American leaders agreed with this policy. One member of the Supreme Court referred to it as legalized racism, but this scathing indictment had no effect on the events of internment. Many Japanese-American families ended up losing their homes and belongings. Despite this prejudicial treatment, about 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military.

Social discrimination also took place against African-Americans. Although many African-Americans were able to move into better-paying jobs because of the demand for workers, other war plants would not hire them or would employ them only as janitors. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Committee to make sure that all applicants, regardless of race, were considered for job openings.

Within the U.S. Army, as well, social discrimination existed. African-American soldiers were segregated from white soldiers, and most were kept out of combat. Black soldiers were often assigned to low-level work. The Tuskegee Airmen was one of the few all-black units that actually fought in the war. These fighter pilots launched their first combat mission against Italy in 1943. Over the next two years, they played a key role in the successful Allied air campaign.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narration
Although Biloxi Blues is a play, it is essentially structured around Eugene's point of view—despite the fact that he is not present at some scenes, most notably the culminating one between Toomey and Arnold. Though Simon examines other characters in as much depth, perhaps even greater depth, as he does Eugene, this still remains Eugene's story—the story of a formative experience in Eugene's progress to become a writer (which he does in the final play of the trilogy, Broadway Bound).

The events that are portrayed are filtered through Eugene's point of view, his journal entries, and ultimately his memory. Several narrative devices emphasize this perspective. Throughout the play, Eugene steps away from the action and directly addresses the audience. His brief monologues allow him the opportunity to share what he feels about what is happening in his life. Another emphatic device is his reporting the fate of the play's characters at the end. Eugene knows what has happened to everyone. Recounting several of the characters' fates reminds the reader that the play is really Eugene's remembrance—it does not take place in real time. As such, Eugene's point of view and perception direct the play.

Like all of Simon's plays, Biloxi Blues is a comedy. Though it deals with several serious issues (such as homosexuality, anti-Semitism, and sadism), and it essentially centers on the life-and-death events of World War II, Simon treats his narrative humorously. The dialogue is filled with jokes, puns, gags, and one-liners. Almost anything can become the subject of Simon's comedy: chipped beef, a deck of dirty cards, even the invasion of Italy. However, the humor that abounds does not obscure the greater meaning underneath—that of Eugene trying to understand his place in the world as well as what it means to be a writer. Eugene goes on to become a comedic playwright himself (in Broadway Bound), thus his use of numerous comedic turns in the relating of his army experience is entirely appropriate.

CharacterizationBiloxi Blues has many characters, but most of them are not complexly developed. The majority represent certain types of people. For example, of the privates, Wykowski is a loud-mouthed bully, and Arnold is a stereotypical New York Jew. Toomey is the sadistically typical army drill sergeant who takes personally his role of shaping scared and immature boys into men and soldiers. The play's two women represent polar opposites. Rowena is the good-natured prostitute who does not feel demeaned by her profession. Daisy, on the other hand, is the virgin schoolgirl whom Eugene idealizes. While some critics have objected to such oversimplification of the characters, for Eugene, they actually do represent the way that certain types of people contributed to his greater understanding and his development as a writer. Eugene's time among these people—only ten weeks—is so brief that in his recollection of the period, they all come to stand for some facet of his development rather than existing as real, living people. The oversimplification is in keeping with the way that Eugene perceives these people and his experiences with them.

StructureBiloxi Blues takes place over the period of the ten weeks when Eugene is in training camp. While the action is chronological, only the important events that occur are highlighted—those that show the development of individual characters as well as the conflicts they meet. These individual scenes flow smoothly, with a sense of continuity. Issues that are brought up in earlier scenes are resolved in later ones. By the end of the play, Eugene has demonstrated that he has achieved all of the goals he set for himself on the train ride to Mississippi. This is only one example of the sense of completion the play imparts.

Compare and Contrast

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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 numbers grow dramatically during the war years. By 1943, there are over nine million Americans on active military duty. By the end of the war, in 1945, that number has risen to twelve million.

1990s: In 1999, there are about 1.1 million active duty military personnel serving in the United States and its territories. The great majority of these are based in the continental United States.

1940s: In 1943, the United States is deeply involved in World War II. American soldiers participate in all the major regions of the war.

1990s: In the 1990s, U.S. troops are involved in UN peacekeeping missions throughout the world. In 1991, U.S. soldiers lead a multinational force in the Persian Gulf War to free Kuwait from an Iraqi invasion.

1940s: The U.S. Army is segregated. Almost one million African-American soldiers are relegated to their own companies.

1990s: Since 1948, when the order desegregating the army came down from President Harry S Truman, African-Americans have served side by side in the army with white soldiers.

1940s: In 1948, there are about five million Jews living in the United States.

1990s: In 1997, America's six million Jews represent about 2.3 percent of the national population. The highest percentage of Jews live in New York State.

Media Adaptations

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Brustein, Robert, Review in The New Republic, May 20, 1985, p. 26.

Henry, William A., III, Review in Time, April 8,1985, p. 72.

Kissel, Howard, Review in Women's Wear Daily, March 29, 1985, p. 72.

Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon: A Casebook, Twayne, 1983.
This is an in-depth discussion of Simon's earlier career and the plays he wrote up through the early 1980s. Johnson analyzes individual plays as well as traces common themes among them.

Konas, Gary, Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland, 1997.
A discussion of Simon's career.

Simon, Neil, A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Simon recalls his life and the influences that shaped him as a writer.


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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.




Critical Essays