The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Steambath is set in a nondescript steambath that serves as a metaphor for Sheol, Purgatory, or Limbo. Characters are clothed in towels and sit on benches. The curtain opens on Tandy and the Oldtimer discussing how the hot benches cause one to develop tough bottoms. Tandy, who taught art appreciation in a prison and works for a charity for brain-damaged welders, meets a series of characters, who help him to realize that he has died. Among these characters is Meredith, a beautiful young blonde woman, who appears to be a prostitute or, at the very least, a woman of “low” morals. Tandy is attracted to Meredith, calling her the first yellow-haired girl to whom he can speak. Meredith, however, does not want to be involved because she feels she just does not have the strength for another affair. Tandy and Meredith begin comparing their last memories and come to the conclusion that they must, indeed, be dead.

Tandy decides to explore the steambath, at which time the Oldtimer tells Tandy that there is a Puerto Rican attendant, named Morty, who appears to be in charge. Morty appears watching a console and a large screen from which he doles out punishments and miracles. At first Tandy is not convinced that Morty is God, despite Morty’s enacting a card trick, a spectacular drinking trick, and a Houdini-style trunk escape. Act 1 ends when Morty reverts to thundering organ music and Old Testament poetry, which brings the entire cast to their knees.

Act 2 begins with small talk among the characters. Tandy continues to look for a way out and flirts with Meredith. Suddenly, Morty appears and gathers the...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Steambath is a prime example of black humor, a fact not surprising since Friedman is credited with coining the term in his 1965 anthology Black Humor. The work is dark and disturbing, focusing on the scatological, grotesque, and morbid aspects of humanity. Friedman uses humor to explore those subjects that are generally taboo and that most Americans find uncomfortable to address in public. His use of humor lessens the impact of the discussion, yet he forces the audience to confront many of the taboo issues from which people build their own hang-ups. Friedman’s world is markedly cynical. It is populated with characters who, except for Tandy, have given up any hope and are resigned to their fate. These characters enable Friedman to display clearly his disillusionment with traditional values and mores.

Steambath’s tone is pessimistic, at best. The viewer is shown a worldview in which many of the dead are still concerned with sex and their bodily functions rather than what lies beyond the pale. This type of gallows humor does not use fiction to escape reality, but rather it uses fiction to examine reality with a harsh, piercing light.

Although this is a play with little action, the device that keeps the plot moving is Friedman’s use of confession. Each character tells his or her story before going into “the great beyond.” It is these vignettes, which are loaded with the despair and dysfunction of urban...

(The entire section is 505 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Friedman, Bruce Jay. Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos: Best Nonfiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Friedman, Bruce Jay, ed. Black Humor. New York: Bantam, 1965.

Schulz, Max F. Bruce Jay Friedman. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Seed, David. “Bruce Jay Friedman’s Fiction: Black Humor and After.” Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor 10, no. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1988): 14-22.