Brighton Beach Memoirs

by Neil Simon

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How does Brighton Beach Memoirs relate to history?

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Brighton Beach Memoirs relates to an important time in history, as it is situated in 1937, between the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II. The Jerome family's jobs and income are impacted, which carries more weight and historical significance coming out of the Depression. The Jewish family also begins to read about Hitler in the papers and must prepare for extended family who are fleeing Europe to come and live with them.

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Brighton Beach Memoirs is part of a trilogy by Neil Simon, many of whose works are well regarded for their ability to present a "snapshot" of what life was like for regular people during some very powerful chapters of American history. The year in which this play opens is 1937, which is before the war, but right in the middle of the Great Depression. It is vital to note that these years of the early twentieth century are regarded as a time in which America grew from a sleepy, post-colonial, and isolated country into a powerful global presence, with a new place in international relations. It was the time in which the whole world went through what might be called the "birthing pains" of truly entering the modern era. Historically, it is difficult to underestimate the importance of this time.

Most of Simon's scripts take place in New York City, which was at that time, much as it is now, considered a place of action and progress and something of a "melting pot" for diverse groups of people, making it a fascinating place through which to observe the effects of global affairs. In a sense, Simon puts a human face on what are otherwise just historical "facts." While his plays are somewhat autobiographical, his use of setting, including historical time placement, offers insight into the events that defined America's "coming of age," as seen through the real lives of the simple people who lived it.

Simon starts his play right in the middle of this greater chapter. Through the characters we see the reality of living in a time in which money was scarce for many people and employment was not about finding "career satisfaction" but rather doing whatever you could do to keep yourself and your family safe, fed, and housed. This is where Simon once again puts the human face on what was happening at that time.

The story of America being told here, of moving from a somewhat naive and inward-looking nation, to one that has been harshly brought into an awareness of the toughness of the world is paralleled by the character of Eugene. Eugene is a young man, experiencing the changes that are often called "coming of age," meaning to cast off the naiveté of childhood for the open-eyed experience of being a man. Eugene is worried about whether he will be a professional baseball player or a writer. He thinks about girls, and learns about swear words. At the same time, he cannot help but be part of what is happening around him when the war comes, as his Jewish family becomes increasingly aware of what Hitler is doing to other Jews in Europe. This is an eye-opening experience for a young man, who must join his family in preparing to welcome distant relatives (also Jewish) who have escaped from Europe and must seek their help, despite the financial challenges they as a family experience already.

What we see in Eugene is how the harshness of the world breaks through his "bubble" of naiveté as a young person, and forces him into a new maturity. This is in many ways what happened to America during the same historical time period, all of which is woven into one story by the author, making the history and the humanity of it into one experience for the viewer.

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Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs is set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in 1937. That year sets the drama between two important times in American history: the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.

The impact of the Depression is most clearly seen in the character of Jack Jerome, Eugene's father. In order to support his family during this troubled time (including his widowed sister-in-law and her two daughters who have moved into his house), Jack is working two jobs: one as a clothing cutter and one selling party favors. But, indicative of the hard times still facing the country, the party favors business has closed. To support his family, Jack will later take another job that contributes to his having a heart attack. Meanwhile, Eugene's older brother Stanley is also working a job while living at home, providing another important income. When he gets fired, it's a problem not just because the income is lost, but because during this time period it's not easy to find another job.

It's also important to remember that this is a time-period when women did not really work, particularly middle-aged mothers. As we see Kate and Blanche do in the play, their role was to keep house, cook, and watch after the children.

The darker aspects of World War II, and particularly the Holocaust, are evident, as well. Jack is upset about what he reads in the papers about Hitler and the Nazis. While in 1937 Hitler has yet to begin making a huge power grab in Europe, as a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood, the Jeromes are already receiving snippets of information about the troubles faced by European Jewry. Kate mentions their neighbor, Ida Kazinsky, and the stories she hears of her family's troubles in Poland. And the play ends with word that some extended family has fled Hitler's anti-Semitism and is coming to live in the already crowded Jerome house. Once again, the coming crisis in Europe also affects Stanley. His father has talked about the probability that America will be drawn into a conflict, and that gives Stanley the idea to run off and join the army in Act II.

History is present in other, smaller ways as well. For example, Eugene's favorite baseball players are from his era; and references are made to then-President Roosevelt.

Ultimately, Brighton Beach Memoirs is a portrait of a particular kind of family living during a particular time in American history. Though it is ultimately a family drama, no family is immune to the time and place in which they live. Part of Neil Simon's skill with this play -- and one of the reasons it has endured for so long (consistently produced for 33 years and counting) -- is how he makes the specifics become universal, so that the play's themes still speak to audiences today.

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