The Last Night of Ballyhoo

by Alfred Uhry

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Themes

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Social Standing
Social standing plays an important role in Boo’s world. Her family numbers among the best Jewish families in Atlanta. Adolph is a past president of the restricted Standard Club, and their family home is the only Jewish household on Habersham Road. Boo wants her daughter to associate only with the right kind of Jews. For instance, she disparages the sorority bid because ‘‘Nobody but the other kind belong to A E Phi.’’ She encourages Lala to try to become popular, insisting, ‘‘Your place in society sits there waiting for you, and you do nothing about it.’’ The importance of social standing eventually allows even the socially awkward Lala to make a good marriage. Peachy Weil, himself uncouth and offensive, proposes to Lala. Because he is from one of the finest Jewish families in the South, Boo is ecstatic. Similarly, Peachy’s father approves of his son’s engagement to Lala because he and his wife know ‘‘what they’re getting here, all the way back on both sides.’’

Other members of the family are also affected by the concept of social standing. While Lala disparages her mother’s class presumptions, she is not above using their status to impress Joe, making sure that he knows that their address is ‘‘about the best’’ in town. When she gets upset because Joe prefers Sunny to her, she lashes out at Sunny, telling her that Joe is just a ‘‘New York Yid,’’ whereas she will be going to Ballyhoo with someone who belongs there—‘‘a Louisiana Weil.’’ Sunny’s education also reflects her background—it is not a coincidence that she is majoring in sociology at the elite, private Wellesley College. There she reads books with socialist leanings like Upton Sinclair’s The Profits of Religion, which, according to Joe, glorifies the ‘‘unwashed masses and the beauty of the working class.’’

Assimilation
The Levys, Freitags, and Weils represent those families who emigrated from Europe generations ago and assimilated to the United States fairly quickly. Assimilation is a common practice for immigrants, and for many cultures, success is indicated by integration into mainstream society. Unlike the newer Jewish immigrants, both the Levy and Weil families claim an extended southern lineage. Peachy’s family has been in Louisiana for one hundred and fifty years, and they have no relatives remaining in Europe. This family history contributes to their status as the ‘‘Finest family in the South!’’ The Levys and Freitags also have an extended southern lineage. Boo takes great pride in the fact that great grandma’s cousin Clemmie was the ‘‘first white child born in Atlanta.’’ The assimilation of the Levy/Freitag family is apparent in Boo’s claims to connections and birthright. However, the assimilation process also poses social and personal problems. Does the family’s birthright give them claim to inferior status in southern society, or does it give them claim to a religious heritage that dates back more than two thousand years?

Though the characters believe that being as much like their Christian southern neighbors as possible represents the pinnacle of success, assimilation does not always bring positive transformations. As Stefan Kanfer points out in the New Leader, one of the undercurrents of the play is ‘‘Sunny’s feelings of rootlessness—her antecedents make the coed too foreign for WASP acceptance, yet she knows nothing about the traditions or lore of Judaica.’’ The assimilation of Jewish families who have been in the United States for a long period of time also leads them to look down on the newer immigrants, who tend to be those from Eastern Europe, contributing to the divisions that exist between these two groups.

War and Anti-Semitism
The...

(This entire section contains 876 words.)

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war in Europe provides a backdrop to the play. Although European events are only mentioned in passing, they are relevant because World War II has become a symbol of rampant anti-Semitism. Adolf Hitler brought his anti-Semitic feelings to the forefront of Germany’s social policy in the 1930s, and with Germany’s conquest of other European countries, Hitler was able to spread his message (often already in existence among other European populations) and murder about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. Among the Levy/Freitag household, however, with the exception of Adolph, no one pays attention to events in Europe. At one point, Adolph verbalizes his concern over Hitler’s attack on Poland, and Boo’s response is that he should be concerned for his family instead. On the night of Ballyhoo, the topic of the war comes up among Peachy, Joe, and Adolph. Peachy’s only response to Joe’s worry about his relatives in Poland and Russia is the flippant, ‘‘Let’s hope they can dodge bullets.’’ In 1939, many Americans were still hoping that the United States could keep out of the European conflict, and Peachy’s feeling about the matter—that it is Europe’s problem and Europeans should figure it out themselves—is reflective of popular opinion at that time. It would seem that the Levys and Freitags would be more sensitive to the persecution of their fellow Jews in Europe, but they have internalized the anti-Semitism of the society that surrounds them to such an extent that they subconsciously inflict it on their fellow brethren in Europe.

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