Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Last of the Red Hot Lovers, ostensibly a comedy, deals with mid-life crisis, brought on by the recognition of one’s mortality, the generation gap, and drastic changes in accepted standards of morality; finally, there is an affirmation that through it all there is hope for decency.

Barney Cashman, the...

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Last of the Red Hot Lovers, ostensibly a comedy, deals with mid-life crisis, brought on by the recognition of one’s mortality, the generation gap, and drastic changes in accepted standards of morality; finally, there is an affirmation that through it all there is hope for decency.

Barney Cashman, the protagonist, finds himself at the close of the 1960’s trying to behave as a member of the “now generation,” but because he brings with him the mores of a former time, he fails. As Elaine Navazio points out, he is an incurable romantic, dreaming of a liaison based on genuine communication, perhaps even affection, with sex only as a sublime culmination. The notion of casual, recreational sex has never occurred to Barney, although he has unrealistically allotted only a few short hours in which to realize his fantasy.

With Bobbi Michele, the playwright stresses the generation gap in earnest. Twenty years his junior, Bobbi exhibits all the freewheeling attitudes of the period regarding language, sex, and the use of narcotics. Furthermore, she is completely self-absorbed and irresponsible. Attempting to deny his age, Barney listens to her, but Bobbi does not reciprocate. It is only after they both get “high” that they manage a duet of “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

In the third segment of the play, Neil Simon, while maintaining the comic tone, comes to grips with the question of whether radically changed social behavior patterns have affected basic human decency. By having the third object of Barney’s attempted affair a woman of his own generation and social group, the playwright is able to make clear that there have been some negative effects.

Jeanette resents her husband’s infidelity more because of his insistence on confession than because he has been unfaithful. She relies on a psychiatrist who has her measure her “happiness factor,” promising that when it is low enough she will be able to commit suicide. Furthermore, Jeanette takes pills to alleviate her depression, telling Barney that she is only one of an estimated sixty million Americans who now rely on drugs to cope with their emotional problems. Although all of her conversation is amusing—the scene is played with emphasis on Barney’s failure to attain his objective—there is more than a little truth in her assertions about the results of the “new morality.”

Nevertheless, Simon concludes with the idea that human beings, despite their inept, foolish behavior, are capable of being gentle, loving, and decent. Barney’s call to his wife, however, subverts expectations for a saccharine ending. Once again, his attempt to have an “adventure,” to break the monotony of his “nice” life, fails.

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Characters