Neil Simon is America's best-known living playwright, and possibly the most financially successful dramatist of all time. Beginning with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961, Simon has written a long succession of Broadway hit comedies which have earned him huge audiences and numerous prizes, including four Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1966, Simon had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway, the only author in modern times to accomplish such a feat. See here for more about Neil Simon.
According to the playwright's stage directions, "All set pieces are representational, stylized and free-flowing. We have a lot of territory to cover here . . ." By this Simon means that the play will be following the lives of its characters through a long stretch of time and in many different locations. The set is also shaped by the fact that Biloxi Blues is what is called a "memory play," a drama that represents the recollections of one of its own characters, in this case Eugene Morris Jerome. The setting is "stylized and free-flowing," and covers a "lot of territory" because that's the way memories are.
The setting is temporal as well as physical, the embodiment of the look and sound of another time—its clothing, its material objects, its popular music. That time in Biloxi Blues stretches for several months from 1943, when the six young soldiers of the play are first inducted into the Army, to 1944 as they set out on their journey to Europe and combat.
Plays and movies about American combat units in World War II almost inevitably show us a group whose members reflect the ethnic diversity of the United States in the 1940s. Even as unconventional a film as Saving Private Ryan adopts this convention, with its Jewish, Italian, Southern, Irish, Slavic, and WASP cast of characters. Biloxi Blues also offers the "melting pot" platoon, with some contemporary twists.
1. Eugene. As he tells us near the beginning of the play, Eugene has three major goals: to stay alive, to lose his virginity, and to become a writer. These objectives define his character. They also help to define the plot, which in large measure is composed of scenes in which Eugene realizes one or another of his intentions.
As a writer, he is curious about his fellow soldiers, but somewhat withdrawn from the hurlyburly of human interaction, an observer not a participant, watching and taking notes rather than joining the fray. But his position of detachment is destroyed when his fellow soldiers actually read his notebook and take offense at it, showing how even the most aloof artist cannot totally avoid the social consequences of his work. Moreover, he feels a certain guilt about his posture of non-involvement, which he expresses after Wykowski taunts Epstein with anti-Semitic insults: "I never liked Wykowski much and I didn't like him any better after tonight . . . But the one I hated most was myself because I didn't stand up for Epstein, a fellow Jew."
His initiation into the mysteries of sex is comically inept. Inexperienced and paralyzed by anxiety and embarrassment, he spends much of his time with the prostitute Rowena engaged in nervous talk rather than manly action. As in his development as a writer, he must learn how to overcome his reticence about human engagement.
More successful than his pursuit of carnal experience is his first encounter with love. Here he manages to overcome a variety of obstacles standing between him and Daisy Hannigan, including their divergent religious backgrounds. But thanks to his ardent persistence, he does manage to exchange declarations of love and a first, innocent kiss with the "girl of his dreams." Of course, the fact that she subsequently marries someone else only makes their youthful romantic encounter all the more poignant.
And, needless to say, he stays alive, paradoxically enough by being injured in a jeep accident that renders him unfit for combat. So ultimately, we see in Eugene's character the dialectic of engagement and disengagement: he writes about wartime without actually engaging in battle, observing from the sidelines, and preserving the memories of young men who were swallowed up by their experience of combat.
2. Arnold Epstein. The unit's other Jew, Arnold presents a sharp contrast with Eugene, rebuking the latter's "neutrality," and adopting a campaign of open resistance to the army's system of discipline and to his fellow soldiers' anti-Semitism. Epstein brings nothing but trouble on himself because of his principles; nonetheless he sticks to them at the cost of cleaning numberless latrines as a punishment for his stubbornness. In the end, Arnold goes to war and disappears: missing in action. For Eugene this is the ultimate expression of Epstein's baffling personality.
3. Sergeant Toomey. The obligatory southerner of the group, Toomey is the army traditionalist who is entirely dedicated to transforming his young charges into effective soldiers. As he says, "my strong point is Discipline. I was weaned on Discipline. I sucked Discipline from my mother's breast and I received it on my bare butt at the age of five from the buckle of my father's . . . army belt. . . And I loved that bastard for it." This passion for discipline drives him to often-bizarre devices for dealing with his men, who are convinced he is mad. And yet, when Toomey is transferred to another assignment, the soldiers lament his absence. As Eugene says, "Our new sergeant was sane, logical and a decent man, and after four weeks with him, we realized how much we missed Sergeant Toomey."
4. The other members of the platoon.
Wykowski is ignorant and bigoted, the dumb Polack, a stereotypical product of some big-city working-class neighborhood where Jews, Blacks, and outsiders of all kinds are looked at askance. Eugene describes him as a kind of animal, a quality that emerges in his grotesque sexual appetites and indulgences. And yet, speculates Eugene, he will most likely become a hero in battle and win a Medal of Honor. Wykowski doesn't achieve quite this distinction, but he does behave heroically.
Carney wants to be a singer, and in fact breaking into song is his signature bit of behavior. Success as a singer is what he fantasizes about when Eugene proposes his game of "what if you had only a week to live." On the other hand, Carney is almost paralyzingly incapable of making up his mind about important personal issues, and as Eugene says of him in his notebook, he seems undependable. Finally we learn that Carney "after six months of constant attack by enemy fire, was hospitalized for severe depression. . . He never sings any more."
Selridge has the most conventional fantasy--to have sex with the seven richest women in the world--and perhaps the most conventional future: after serving in "every campaign in France" he becomes a Sergeant in Biloxi, where he trains new recruits, having his men doing "three hundred push-ups a day."
Hennesey represents a melting-pot type generally overlooked in earlier war scenarios: the homosexual. It is Hennesey who opposes the reading of Eugene's notebook, believing that such a violation of a man's privacy is impermissible. Clearly this concern arises out of his own desire to keep his desires and actions secret.
Rowena and Daisy. Rowena is a boy's memory of a good-natured prostitute. She is guileless, helpful, banal. As Eugene says, "I really don't care if this is a wonderful experience or not. I just want to get it over with." Benevolently insignificant, Rowena represents the meaninglessness of loveless sex.
Daisy is everything Eugene dreams of: "pretty but not too beautiful . . . And she'll be athletic. Someone I could hit fly balls to . . . She'll love to go to the movies and read books and see plays and we'd never run out of conversation." Daisy's perfection is unsullied because she remains for Eugene an eternally unrealized possibility, the girl whose love was never tested by the strains of everyday life.
Biloxi Blues is episodic in structure; it presents a sequence of scenes typical of the process of basic training, and typical also of the experience of "growing up" under the harsh demands of military discipline and wartime dislocation. Eugene Morris Jerome, narrator and participant in the play's action, narrates and participates in the archetypal incidents: we meet the group of young soldiers riding with him on a train on their way to basic training; we see them encountering the ferocious drill sergeant for the first time; we watch as they have their first repellent experience of camp food; and so forth through the play's two acts.
Eugene announces to the audience his objectives as he moves through the steps of training and combat: "There were three things I was determined to do in this war. Become a writer, not get killed and lose my virginity . . . But first I had to get through basic training in the murky swamps of Mississippi." This is a clear announcement of the shape of the plot: the young soldiers' aspirations repeatedly run head-on into the tough obstacles of reality.
The embodiment of those obstacles is Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, the Army disciplinarian determined to turn his half-dozen wayward young civilians into fighting men. Having been injured in the North Africa campaign, he is now training raw recruits to become hard-boiled soldiers, like him . As he says of his injury,
[it] has caused me to become a smart, compassionate, understanding and sympathetic teacher of raw young men---or the cruelest, craziest, most sadistic God damn son of a bitch you ever saw . . . and that's something you won't know until ten weeks from now . . .
Many of the scenes in Biloxi Blues depict the conflicts between the sergeant and his inexperienced young charges. In their first encounter, the sergeant indulges in apparently arbitrary punishments, sentencing individuals to do 100 pushups for no evident reason. He then asks Eugene whether "I [am] being unfair to the young man who is breaking his ass on the floor?" Eugene's answer only causes more trouble,
EUGENE. In my opinion? . . . Yes, sergeant.
When Selridge complains that he did nothing to merit this penalty, Toomey explains that in battle "we are sometimes called upon to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others." Thus, Eugene is put at odds with Selridge by Toomey in a tactic he repeats moments later. With Selridge gasping his way through 100 push-ups, Toomey again asks Eugene if he thinks the punishment unfair. Determined not to be flummoxed again, Eugene reverses himself this time, answering, "No, Sergeant." The implacable Toomey then announces to the group that Eugene approves of his methods, and then imposes another hundred push-ups on an innocent soldier, Wykowski. Only Eugene is left standing while his bunkmates sweat through their exercises on the floor, resenting him for his arbitrary exclusion. The moral of this Kafka-like exercise, says Toomey, is that Eugene, like all of them, must "deal with this cold wall of anger and hostility . . . [b]y learning to endure it alone. That, gentlemen, is the supreme lesson in discipline."
As a result of his confusing and threatening tactics, the trainees develop a profound hostility toward Toomey. One recruit in particular, Arnold Epstein, decides to oppose the sergeant, arguing that "it's [not] necessary to dehumanize a man to get him to perform. You can get better results raising our spirits than lowering our dignity." This conflict between the Army traditionalist and the young rationalist forms one of the ongoing lines of action in the play.
Another important theme emerges in the aftermath of Epstein's confrontation with Toomey. Eugene expresses his admiration of Epstein's principled resistance to the sergeant's tactics:
EUGENE. I admire what you did back there, Arnold. You remind me of my brother, sometimes. He was always standing up for his principles too.
Epstein here is referring to Eugene's habit of constantly remaining detached from the group, making entries in his notebook—an expression of Eugene's core desire to become a writer. That desire, Epstein suggests, conflicts with the human need to be engaged with the world as a moral partisan. In one of the play's most important scenes, we see Eugene struggling with this conflict between engagement and detachment.
This occurs in the second act, when Wykowski acquires Eugene's notebook, and reads portions of it aloud to the other soldiers—passages in which Eugene evaluates the personalities and characters of his bunkmates. Carney he describes as undependable; Wykowski as a "pure animal," and Epstein, whom he describes as his "most esteemed and dearest friend," he calls a "fairy." These sensational revelations knock Eugene off his perch as disinterested observer and plunge him into the sort of "involvement" that Epstein earlier demanded.
Epstein in fact becomes a kind of hero as the play progresses. His determination to resist Toomey is rooted in his sense of his own dignity, while his cool persistence in the face of Toomey's intimidating tactics shows real courage. What is most arresting about Epstein is his intelligence, his mental resourcefulness under pressure. We see this in his final confrontation with Toomey, which has been prepared for earlier in the play.
In Act One, the young soldiers, prodded by Eugene, play a game in which each spins a fantasy scenario for what he would do with his final week of life, knowing he would not survive combat. Carney imagines triumph as a pop singer; Selridge dreams of sex with the seven richest women in the world; Wykowski, to much derision, envisions making love to the Queen of England. Epstein's fantasy, however, is notably non-erotic: the last thing he would do on earth would be "to make Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey do two hundred push-ups in front of this platoon."
This fantasy is revived near the end of the play in the final scene between Toomey and Epstein. Having been ordered to a veterans' hospital for treatment, and thus facing the end of his career, Toomey is in an especially foul mood. "Piss drunk" as he puts it, and holding a pistol, he confronts Epstein, confessing that he had originally planned on "blowing a tunnel clear through your head." But then he reveals that he overheard the fantasy game weeks before, and played along silently, telling himself that his last wish would be,
. . . to take one army rookie, the greatest misfit dumb-ass malcontent sub-human useless son of a bitch I ever came across and turn him into an obedient, disciplined soldier that this army could be proud of. . . . You are that sub-human misfit, Epstein. . .
With this declaration, Toomey demands that Epstein disarm and arrest him because his drunken, threatening behavior has been in gross violation of army regulations. The stunned Epstein complies, at which point Toomey demands that the entire platoon be brought in to witness his dereliction, because "it's regulations. And as long as you obey regulations . . . I win." Thus Toomey fulfills his most cherished fantasy by turning Epstein into an agent of army discipline. But when Epstein is faced with the choice of filing official charges against Toomey, or instead imposing "company punishment," Toomey agrees to submit to neither. With all eyes on him, Epstein enjoys his moment of fantasy fulfillment as well: "Sergeant Toomey . . . I'll drop all charges and complaints, if you give me two hundred push-ups." The ever-resourceful Epstein manages both to punish Toomey, and to exhibit the kind of compassion he has advocated all along.
The major events off-base involve Eugene's love life. In the first of these, he visits a brothel and loses his virginity, thus fulfilling one of the three goals he set himself at the outset of the play.
More important is Eugene's encounter with Daisy Hannigan, the Catholic girl he meets at a U.S.O. dance and eventually falls in love with. As they kiss for the first time on Good Friday (an inauspicious date), Eugene declares, "Daisy! This is the most important moment of our lives. It's the first time we're in love. That only happens once." And so the aspiring young writer takes another step toward maturity.
(We might note that Rowena-the-hooker and Daisy-the-virgin represent the two poles of female identity encountered in this play, and embody the sexual archetypes familiar to young men and women in the 1940s.)
As the play ends, with the young men on their way to combat, Eugene, the memoirist, steps out of the action to inform the audience of the combat fortunes of his bunkmates, and the outcome of his and Daisy's romance. All of which, he says, he is glad not to have known "the night our train left Biloxi for places and events unknown!" However, he has written the play incorporating these memories, and so we realize that he has fulfilled all of his cherished objectives: love, survival, and authorship.
Most of the important themes of the play have been touched on previously. Above all, it is a study of the process of growing-up in the challenging environment of basic training. Eugene meets people such as he had never before encountered: the loutish anti-Semite, Wykowski; the uncompromising intellectual, Epstein; the larger-than-life Toomey; the perfect first love, Daisy. These people stretch his understanding of human nature, challenge his ideas about himself, and provide the material for his development as a human being and a writer.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why is Eugene fascinated by Epstein?
2. Why does Toomey assign push-ups without regard to misbehavior?
3. Why do the trainees miss Toomey when he is replaced by a much more reasonable man?
4. Would Eugene and Daisy have been happy together?
5. Do you agree with Eugene that Epstein might have survived and gone on to live a secret life elsewhere?
6. Why does Hennessey defend Eugene's right to privacy?
7. What does Epstein mean by "Talmudic reasoning?"
8. Do you approve of Toomey's methods of training his troops? If so, why? If not, why not?
9. Do you have private opinions of your friends that you would be embarrassed to have revealed? Do you think this is common?
10. Do you agree with Epstein that a writer needs to be involved in life? Why? Why not?