Brighton Beach Memoirs is a comedy about a Jewish working-class family living in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. The first act begins at 6:30 p.m. in September, 1937, the second at 6:30 p.m. a week later. There is a single setting, the home of the Jerome family in Brighton Beach. The action moves from room to room, however, and even just outside the front door.
In the first act, Neil Simon establishes the problems that his characters are facing, as shown not only in dialogue and action but also in Eugene Jerome’s asides. Eugene’s function in the play is twofold. He is the protagonist, a teenager preoccupied with his own problems, and he is also an observer, making notes from which he will eventually write this play. One of the story lines deals with the Jerome family as an entity, about to break apart because of financial pressure and personal differences; the other focuses on Eugene, who sees himself as the family scapegoat but is even more disturbed about the onset of puberty.
The tension in the Jerome household is evident from the moment that the curtain rises. The small home is overcrowded, containing not only Jack and Kate Jerome and their sons, Stanley and Eugene, but also Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche Morton, and her two children, Nora and Laurie. Blanche earns some money through sewing, and Stanley turns over his wages to his parents, but it is Jack who provides most of the support for the family.
Hoping to acquire a husband so that she can move out, Blanche makes a date with a neighbor. Kate is appalled, both because the man drinks and because he is Irish. Nora also has a scheme, but it, too, meets with objections: None of the adults feels that she should quit school in order to try her luck on Broadway. The financial pressures are mounting. Jack has lost his extra job, and Stanley is on the verge of being fired.
When the second act begins, matters have worsened. Jack has had a mild heart attack. Stanley has lost his salary in a poker game. Nora is furious with her mother for blocking her way to stardom. Finally, the Irishman has indeed turned out to be an alcoholic. It is all too much for Kate. She tells Blanche how much she has always resented her and concludes by blaming her sister for Jack’s heart attack. Despite Jack’s intervention in the quarrel, Blanche begins to pack her bags. Meanwhile, Stanley goes off to join the Army.
Late that night, however, the breaches are healed. Nora and Blanche come to a new understanding, as do Blanche and Kate. Stanley returns, bringing money that he has earned at an extra job. He also presents Eugene with his heart’s desire, a picture of a naked woman. When Jack informs Kate that his cousins have escaped from Poland and will soon be in New York, she immediately begins making plans to take them in. The play ends with a triumphant announcement from Eugene: Now that he has seen a woman’s body, his puberty is over.
Brighton Beach Memoirs begins as the lights come up on Eugene Jerome playing outside the family home. A voice like that of a radio sports announcer can be heard as Eugene goes through the motions of a mock baseball game. He is dressed in knickers, a shirt and tie, a faded and torn sweater, Keds sneakers, and a blue baseball cap. The house is a wooden frame building in a lower-middle-class district of Brooklyn, New York. The...
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time is about half past six in the evening. Inside the house, Kate Jerome is setting the table for the supper meal. Kate’s sister, Blanche Morton, is occupied at the sewing machine; Laurie Morton is reading a book on the sofa. The general condition of the interior of the house suggests that this is a family struggling financially.
The audience discovers early in act 1 that the Jeromes are a Jewish family trying to survive during the Depression years of the late 1930’s. Jack Jerome works hard to provide food, clothing, insurance, and a house for the two families. Blanche’s husband, Dave, died at the age of thirty-six, leaving her and her two daughters without any financial stability. The Mortons had to move in with Blanche’s sister’s family in order to survive. Laurie has a heart flutter which requires a doctor’s supervision. Blanche, while young and attractive, has resisted meeting other men since Dave’s death; thus, she and her daughters must depend on the kindness and generosity of others.
Nora Morton returns home from her weekly dance lesson with the news that Mr. Beckman, a Broadway producer, has asked her to audition for a dancing role in the soon-to-be-produced musical Abracadabra. Her desire to be in the musical conflicts with Blanche’s desire that she complete high school. This conflict heightens the stress that exists in the interpersonal relationship between mother and daughter. Further increasing the tension is Stanley Jerome’s revelation that he has been fired from his seventeen-dollar-a-week job unless he writes a letter of apology to his boss, Mr. Stroheim, for sweeping dirt on his shoes. When Jack arrives home from work the audience sees a fatigued and completely exhausted man carrying a heavy load of responsibility on his shoulders. In order to meet the needs of his family he works as a cloth cutter during the day and sells noisemakers at night. Jack’s news about the events surrounding his work day is dismal: The noisemaker business has gone bankrupt.
Around the supper table, family members attempt to pressure one another into revealing their various problems and concerns. No resolution to the issues is reached during the meal. In fact, it appears that everything is all the more confused by a lack of straightforward discussion among the individuals at the table.
After supper, Jack and Nora go for a walk to discuss Nora’s desire to audition for the musical. The tension between Blanche and Nora is strongly intensified when Jack tells Nora that she should stay in school. Nora explodes from a sense of deep frustration: She sees her chances of fame and success slipping away.
Eventually, Stanley confides in his father, telling him about the events at work at Mr. Stroheim’s. Once he is confident that his father respects his having stood up for his principles at work, Stanley resolves to apologize to Mr. Stroheim in order to keep his job. The act ends with Stanley and Eugene in their room. Stanley needs Eugene’s help writing the letter of apology to Mr. Stroheim. Sensing the power of his position, Eugene blackmails his brother into describing what he saw when he walked in on Nora just after she had gotten out of the shower.
Act 2 opens as Kate comes down the stairway after taking Jack his supper. Laurie is on the sofa reading a book, while Eugene sits outside writing in his book of memoirs. The plot in act 2 revolves around the family’s struggle to maintain harmony and stability despite the increased financial stresses that compound the conflicts.
After the loss of the noisemaker business, Jack had taken a job as a taxi cab driver to supplement his income, but the strain was so great that he suffered a mild heart attack. Realizing that the family is in financial difficulty without Jack’s income, Stanley tries to replace the lost money by gambling. He ends up, however, losing his entire week’s wages, thus putting the family in an even more difficult position.
Meanwhile, Blanche is preparing for a date with Frank Murphy, an Irish neighbor, whom Kate despises although she has never even talked with him. Nora’s anger toward her mother is still evident, and she leaves the house on a date without taking the time to wish her mother well on her date with Mr. Murphy. When Blanche learns of Nora’s departure, she is devastated by the lack of caring shown by her daughter.
Kate learns that Stanley has lost his week’s wages playing poker. Her anger and fear are clearly held in check as she attempts to keep her world under control. When Blanche receives a message from Mrs. Murphy, Frank’s mother, that he has been involved in an accident and will not be able to take her out for dinner, she is visibly hurt. Adding to the pain of the moment is Kate’s renewed attacks against others.
At this point in the play, the action explodes; everyone’s world seems to be falling apart. A violent argument occurs between Kate and Blanche. Kate, feeling the burden of having to assume Jack’s leadership responsibilities, lashes out at her sister. In return, Blanche expresses the years of sorrow and grief of having to live without her husband. The fear and the uncertainty of her position, combined with the demands of rearing two daughters, cause Blanche to attack her sister angrily.
Kate is also angry: She considers that during her life she has always had to give to others without receiving anything in return. Harsh accusations and words are exchanged. Years of frustration are poured out as the two sisters angrily attack each other. Blanche decides to move to a house of her own and to find a job so that she can take care of herself and her daughters.
After the passing of this crisis, the audience finds Blanche talking to Nora, who has returned from her date. Mother and daughter talk through their conflict. This is a classic scene wherein each explains her need for love and her sense that no love is forthcoming from the other. These moments between Blanche and Nora provide a tender, loving scene on the stage, as the two women discover just how much they really love each other. Following these moments is another scene of love and caring, this one between Kate and Blanche. The two sisters work out an agreement, that the Jeromes and the Mortons will continue to live together until Blanche has a job and the financial security to move into the Murphys’ house across the street. This way Blanche will be far enough away to shut her own door, but not so far away that Kate would be lonely without her company.
Stanley, filled with shame for having lost his week’s wages, has left to join the army. It does not take long, however, for him to realize how much his family needs him at home at this time. After a day’s absence, Stanley returns home, where he is welcomed like the prodigal son. At this point, all the family members have balanced their relationships with each other. Once again it appears that the world of the Jeromes and the Mortons is filled with love and concern for one another.
The play ends with a foreshadowing of things to come. World War II is about to break out. A letter from London informs the family that Jack’s cousin, Sholem, has escaped from Poland and is coming to the United States. The family’s attention turns to this new crisis. How will they deal with the arrival of several new family members? With stoic confidence, Jack tells the others and the audience, “They got out. That’s all that’s important. They got out.”
Brighton Beach Memoirs uses several dramatic devices to provide theatergoers with a literal and a metaphorical interpretation of the play. Initially, the set description establishes an environment that re-creates a realistic view of family life during a more innocent period of United States history. The exterior of the wood-frame house and the interior furnishings reflect the image of an average American family during the final years of the Great Depression. It is important for the audience to be able to get a feeling for the characters’ environment in order to understand their joys and tribulations. This realistic setting permits a literal understanding of Neil Simon’s play.
On the other hand, the house and characters serve as a metaphoric microcosm of the world at that time. The characters offer a representation of the nations of the world, as they struggle to control and maintain their destinies in an increasingly chaotic universe. The family becomes a microculture representing the macroculture of the world in the late 1930’s. As the family goes through its normal routine, the audience watches the tensions build between its various members. Relationships become strained further with each new difficulty confronting the family. The family upheaval, therefore, becomes a metaphor for the tensions existing between nations just prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. As the family had experienced happier and better days, so had the world before the Depression and Nazi Germany’s expansion into Western Europe.
The characters are also used to create and sustain a metaphor of the Jewish struggle to survive in hostile conditions. Remembering her own mother, Kate says, “She said, ’No matter what the Cossacks did to us, when they broke into our house, they would have respect for the Jews.’ ” This metaphor is also projected through Stanley’s comment about his reaction to Mr. Stroheim’s treatment of the black man Andrew: “I felt the dignity of everyone who worked in that store was in my hands.”
Another important dramatic device used by Simon involves the adaptation of the classic Greek playwrights’ use of a chorus to comment upon and further the action of the play. In Brighton Beach Memoirs the character of Eugene is used to comment on the attitudes, relationships, and actions of the various family members. As the family interacts in each new situation, the audience is able to discover the playwright’s vision through his mouthpiece, Eugene.
The use of the various metaphors and images and of Eugene as a commentator is clear, yet neither of these devices becomes obtrusive. The audience is able to enjoy the comedic elements of the play. In fact, the humor is used effectively by Simon to diffuse the more serious elements of the plot. The interactions between Eugene and Stanley offer the theater participant an opportunity for lighthearted enjoyment of the stage action. It is during their interactions that the vital nature of theater as performance is most evident to the observer. Simon’s humor serves as a release for the tensions created by the potential tragedies facing the family. The tension and humor within the family keep the audience entertained. The dramatic elements presented without the humor would be heavy-handed.
In 1983, the United States was a country that looked to its past for inspiration. Nostalgia was a strong cultural force. Older ideas were reworked and recombined into new philosophies and styles. Little was truly original. This was evident in several ways. For example, 1930s-style Art Deco was influential in fashion. Rap music, a burgeoning music form in the 1980s, was often built on samples (recorded snippets) of other artists' music. Some of the decades most popular films, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, were essentially reworked B-movie serials straight out of the 1930s. Adding to the country's fascination with the entertainment of the past, America's president was a former film star, Ronald Reagan. His populist rhetoric and simplistic, common sense approach to the office hearkened back to the heroic film cowboy attitudes that germinated in the films of the 1930s.
Reagan was also the oldest man ever to be elected president, and by 1983, he was seventy-two-years-old. The American population was ‘‘graying," with the percentage of senior citizens quickly growing; improved health care was extending the average life span. This senior segment of the population joined together to assert its power. The AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) grew significantly in membership and became a powerful lobbying force in Congress. There was talk of a generation gap, as the demands of senior citizens often collided with those of younger generations. This came to a head in the controversy over funding for Social Security.
Reagan was a Republican who operated from a conservative platform. The country as a whole seemed to embrace such right-leaning philosophies as an antidote to the liberal 1970s. Many voted Reagan into office hoping he would solve the country's economic problems, but in 1983, unemployment was still at record levels. Inflation had fallen to 3.2 percent, however. While conservatives touted the family-oriented, traditional life as the "new" ideal, these concepts did not mesh with the reality of rising divorces, single-parent homes, and the threat of the AIDS virus. Such contradictions showed the shallow nature of the time period, where superficial concerns held sway over substantive issues. In reality, the minority rich increased their wealth as the middle class shrunk and more and more people faced economic hardship.
To pump up the economy (and divert attention from their meager domestic policies), Reagan and the Republicans spent a record amount of money on defense, justifying their expenditures with anti-Communist rhetoric (the United States was still in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union). In 1983, an incident occurred which allegedly proved the "evil" intent of the Soviet Union. A Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace and was shot down. Everyone aboard the aircraft was killed.
The Reagan administration seized the incident as proof that the Soviet threat was real, as was the threat of nuclear war. There was a controversy over whether a nuclear war could be won. One of the most highly watched television movies of 1983 was ABC's The Day After, which speculated what might happen in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Despite such precarious events, the United States and the Soviet Union were in negotiation for arms reduction treaties for much of the decade. But the American policy of massive spending on defense significantly increased the federal budget deficit, leading to an uncertain economic future.
SettingBrighton Beach Memoirs is set in Brighton Beach, New York, in September, 1937, near the end of the Great Depression and just before the start of World War II. The Jerome household is located in a lower middle class section of the area near the beach, where most of the inhabitants are Jewish, German, and Irish. All of the action takes place in and around the Jerome house, a frame house with a small porch. Inside the house, the audience can see the dining room and living room on the first floor as well as the steps leading to the second floor. On the second floor the audience can see a hallway and three small bedrooms: Nora and Laurie's; Stanley and Eugene's; and Kate and Jack's. This setting emphasizes the familial themes of the play and the close-knit nature of their relationships.
Narrator Eugene Jerome is the narrator of Brighton Beach Memoirs. He directly addresses the audience, commenting on the action and relaying information. Much of what Eugene says is humorous in nature and acts as a release for the play's dramatic tensions. By talking directly to the audience, Eugene establishes a link between them and the heart of the play. The device also allows the audience to better understand Eugene and his feelings. For example, from these musings the audience knows that he hates his name and how he really feels about his family. Sometimes his actions contradict his words, but his true feelings come through.
In his narration, Eugene also reveals information about his family that the audience might not otherwise receive. One example is the details surrounding Aunt Blanche and why she and her daughters live with the Jeromes.
Metaphor One way to interpret the Jerome and Morton family household is as a metaphor or microcosm of America in the late-1930s. Brighton Beach Memoirs takes place in 1937 during the Depression and the beginning of the Nazi horrors in Europe. Many members of the household remember a better life, before the economic and political turmoil. Nora, for example, remembers life before her father's death. The tensions in the household increase with each new problem, mirroring the increasing tensions in Europe as the Nazi aggressions increase. Because the Jerome and Morton families are Jewish, this metaphor works on another level as well. The family's endeavor to survive and maintain their dignity under extreme circumstances echoes the problems Jewish people faced with the onslaught of the virulently anti-Semitic Nazis.
1937: The United States is in the middle of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate is very high, with approximately one quarter of the workforce unable to find work.
1983: The United States is in a recession and the unemployment rate is at record levels.
Today: The United States' economy is relatively stable. The national unemployment rate is extremely low and the stock market is experiencing record highs. In early-1999, the market hits the 10,000 mark for the first time.
1937: War seems imminent in Europe because of German leader Adolf Hitler's aggressive foreign policy. Within two years, war will engulf all of Europe.
1983: The Cold War, a political standoff between the United States and Russia that has lasted for decades, is near its end. When Mikhail Gorbachev is elected to the Russian presidency a few years later, the Cold War will end.
Today: There are pockets of political instability in the world, especially the Middle East and the Balkan states, but almost all of Europe is stable.
1937: Social Security, a New Deal policy that ensures an income for people of retirement age, was introduced in 1935 and is in full force by 1937.
1983: The graying of America (between twenty-six and thirty million people are sixty-five or older) puts unprecedented demands on the Social Security system. President Reagan signs a bill to ensure funding of Social Security for the next seventy-five years.
Today: There are lingering worries that Social Security will go bankrupt as the Baby Boom generation ages. There is debate over alternative means of supporting social security, including the U.S. government making investments in the stock market.
Brighton Beach Memoirs was adapted as a film in 1986. Simon adapted the script from his own play. Directed by Gene Saks, the movie features Jonathon Silverman as Eugene, Blythe Danner as Kate, Bob Dishy as Jack, and Judith Ivey as Blanche.
SOURCES Gilman, Frank. Review of Brighton Beach Memoirs in the Nation, May 21, 1983, p. 650.
Hughes, Catharine. ‘‘Broadway Blooms’’ in America, June 4, 1983, p. 441.
Kalem, T. E. ‘‘Speak Memory’’ in Time, April 11, 1983, p. 100.
Kerr, Walter. ‘‘Seeing a Comic Mind Emerge’’ in the New York Times, April 3, 1983, pp. H3, H13.
Kroll, Jack. ‘‘Simon Says Laugh’’ in Newsweek, April 11, 1983, pp. 66-67.
Rich, Frank. ‘‘Stage: Neil Simon's 'Brighton Beach’’ in the New York Times,March 28, 1983, p. C9.
Simon, John. Review of Brighton Beach Memoirs in New York, April 11, 1983, p. 55.
Simon, Neil. Brighton Beach Memoirs, Random House, 1984.
Further Reading Bennetts, Leslie. ‘‘Neil Simon Delves into His Past’’ in the New York Times, March 27, 1983, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 6. Bennetts interviews Simon, discussing, among other topics, the inspiration for Brighton Beach Memoirs.
McGovern, Edythe M. Not-So-Simple Neil Simon: A Critical Study, Perivale Press, 1978. McGovern offers criticism and interpretation of each of Simon's plays, from Come Blow Your Horn to Chapter Two.
Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 1997. Simon's autobiography covers both his career and his personal life through 1973.
Sources for Further Study
Gill, Brendan. Review in The New Yorker 59 (April 11, 1983): 109.
Hughes, Catherine. Review in America 148 (June 4, 1983): 441.
Kalem, T. E. Review in Time 121 (April 11, 1983): 100.
Konas, Gary, ed. Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Kroll, Jack. Review in Newsweek 101 (April 11, 1983): 66.
Loney, Glenn. “Neil Simon.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1999.
McGovern, Edythe M. Neil Simon: A Critical Study. New York: Ungar, 1978.
Simon, Neil. The Play Goes On. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Woolf, Michael. “Neil Simon.” In American Drama, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.