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. Among his better known plays are Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1972), and Broadway Bound (1986). In Lost in Yonkers (1991), Simon once again develops a situation with strong autobiographical overtones, this time in the story of a pair of brothers, resembling Danny and Neil, who must deal with the consequences and challenges of family disruption.
More about Neil Simon here.
"Yonkers, New York, 1942. . . . an apartment that sits just above 'Kurnitz's Kandy Store.'" There are two important elements in this brief description, a time and a place.
The temporal setting of 1942 locates the action of the play, which spans ten months from August to June, in the middle of World War II, a time of personal disruption for many American families whose members were called to serve in the military. Although Eddie Kurnitz, the father of the boys who are "lost in Yonkers," is too old to be drafted, the war affects him indirectly by providing a business opportunity that would not have existed otherwise. In pursuit of this opportunity, he must leave his sons, Jay and Arty, in the care of their formidable grandmother, thus creating the situation out of which the action of the play develops. Thus the war is the historical catalyst for the personal events of the drama.
The physical location--an apartment above a candy store in Yonkers--implies a specific social and cultural milieu. Yonkers is a city of about 100,000 bordering New York on the north. It lacks both the urban glamour of its next-door neighbor and the suburban cachet of greener towns like Scarsdale and Larchmont. Yonkers is nowhere in particular, a safe, pedestrian, workaday place that nobody dreams of escaping to. To be "lost in Yonkers" is thus to be trapped in a humdrum world, a place without the eye-catching landmarks that would help a traveler find his way.
An apartment above a candy store in Yonkers is banality squared. The "candy store" is a New-York-area institution, a combination of newsstand, tobacco-shop, and ice-cream parlor that also sells a few sweets. Such small neighborhood businesses tended during the period of the play (as they still do) to be associated with specific ethnic immigrant groups: the Irish ran bars, the Italians operated dry-cleaning shops, and the Jews owned candy stores. These small businesses were the next step upward on an economic ladder that might have begun with a job as a ditchdigger or a pushcart operator.
Thus, the people who ran such businesses were no longer poor, but they were likely to have memories of poverty. They would never be rich, but they were often determined that their children would become educated and live more comfortable lives than they had known. Day to day existence for families trying to squeeze a living out of these small enterprises was defined by long hours of hard work and constant penny-pinching, by the habit of self-denial relieved occasionally by small indulgences like a trip to the movies, or a fancy dessert. To live such a constricted life in the depths of utterly prosaic Yonkers is thus to be doubly trapped by the ordinary--and it is with this unpromising milieu that Eddie's young and headstrong sons must learn to come to terms. Thus the setting itself plays an important dramatic role in the play by providing a kind of oppressive force confronting all the characters.
The play is divided into two acts of four scenes each. The first seven of these scenes occupy about a month during the late summer of 1942. The final scene, a resolution and postscript, takes place nine months later.
The action of the play is generated by a crisis in the life of Eddie Kurnitz, the father of Jay and Arty, the two young protagonists whose predicament is described in the title.
Eddie's wife has recently died. During her illness, he incurred enormous medical bills which he paid by borrowing money from a "Shylock," or loan shark, someone who specializes in making loans to desperate people at exorbitant rates of interest. If his clients do not pay, the loan shark inflicts physical violence on them, even killing them should they default on their debts. Penniless, Eddie now faces this prospect. His only hope of paying the Shylock is by taking a high paying, war-related job selling scrap iron. The difficulty with this solution is that the job requires him to travel far from New York, leaving Jay and Arty behind. The only place for them to live in his absence is in the cramped apartment above the family candy store, with Eddie's mother, the formidable Grandma Kurnitz.
Grandma, we learn, is a seventy-year-old German-Jewish immigrant who "carries a cane and walks with a slight dragging of one foot. . . . Authority and discipline seem to be her overriding characteristics and she would command attention in a crowd. She speaks with . . . a clear German accent."
As the play begins Eddie, with Jay and Arty in tow, is visiting his mother to beg her to take the boys into her home. While he pleads with her offstage, Jay and Arty--unaware of their father's mission--express their hatred of the apartment, and their fear and dislike of Grandma, whom they have seldom visited. "All I remember," thirteen-year-old Arty tells his sixteen-year-old brother, "was, I hated kissing her. It felt like putting your lips on a wrinkled ice cube."
As they discuss their grandmother and her other children--uncle Louie, and aunts Belle and Gert--it soon becomes clear that the Kurnitz clan is group of bizarrely malfunctioning individuals. Having been raised under the relentlessly demanding regime of Grandma's discipline, each seems to have suffered some lifelong handicap. Aunt Bella's mind, Jay says, is "closed for repairs," probably, he speculates, as a result of repeated whacks on the head from Grandma's cane. Aunt Gert "can't talk right. She says the first half of a sentence breathing out and the second half sucking in." This, too, the boys attribute to the workings of the fearsome cane. And uncle Louie, though physically healthy, seems morally unfit, given his life as a "bagman" for the Yonkers mob.
In view of the damage done to their elders from having lived in this house, Jay and Arty are understandably aghast when their father informs them that they are to become Grandma's guests for an indeterminate period of time while he goes on the road to earn the money that will free him from the threats of the Shylock. However, Grandma is still in the process of making up her mind about Eddie's request. When she finally appears, it is to tell her son and grandchildren that she will not take the boys in, partly because of her long-festering resentment of her son's neglect, and partly because she feels Eddie needs to face his own problems absolutely on his own, as she has done throughout her life:
You don't survive in dis vorld vitout being like steel. Your father vants you to grow up, first let him grow up . . . Ven he learns to be a father, like I learned to be a mother, den he'll be a man. Den he von't need my help.
Thunderstruck by this rejection, Eddie prepares to take the boys away, when Bella, his younger sister, intervenes. Bella, about 35 years old, is single and lives with her mother, seemingly condemned to a life of perpetual dependency because an attack of scarlet fever in her infancy has left her mildly retarded. Starved for affection after a lifetime with Grandma, however, she is determined to have the boys move in because she wants someone in the house who will accept the warmth and care she longs to give.
When Grandma orders Bella to stay out of the matter, Bella wields the only power she has over the old woman, the threat of leaving her to live by herself:
And if I go, you'll be all alone. . . And you're afraid to be alone, Momma . . . Nobody else knows that but me . . . But you don't have to be, Momma. Because we'll all be together now . . . You and me and Jay and Arty . . . Won't that be fun, Momma?
This ultimatum is met by a stunned silence from everyone on stage, and brings the first scene to a close, Grandma evidently having been defeated by her seemingly helpless daughter.
With the opening of the second scene, the play begins to chronicle the bizarre experiences of Jay and Arty in Grandma's house. Their father is now on the road, his presence in the play reduced to a voice which we hear from time to time speaking the letters he sends to his sons from distant places. While he is away earning the money that will make a future possible for him and his children, the boys are back in Yonkers learning some lessons about family life that they will carry into that future for better or worse. The sources of these lessons are crises that arise in the lives of their Aunt Bella and their shady Uncle Louie.
Bella's crisis stems from her falling in love with someone she has met on her frequent trips to the movies: the head usher in the theater, a man named Johnnie. Like Bella, Johnnie, who is 40 years old, still lives with his parents and "has trouble learning things." Bella finds in him a kindred spirit, and they have planned to marry and open a restaurant with him as manager and her as cook. All they need is five thousand dollars to help them get started--an impossible sum for his poor parents, but, as Bella tells her nephews, an amount less than a third of what Grandma keeps hidden somewhere in the store or the apartment. Bella's problem is to convince Grandma to accept her wedding plans, and then to give her the money she needs.
As the boys are pondering these discoveries--their Aunt's secret love-life and their Grandmother's hidden wealth--a new presence enters the scene, their Uncle Louie, who arrives in the middle of the night, like a fugitive in a gangster movie. Which is entirely appropriate, since he is a gangster, and since the boys, like movie thieves, have been searching the candy store by flashlight, looking for Grandma's money, which they intend to steal and send to their needy father, thus bailing themselves out of life in Yonkers.
Louie has come to his mother's house to hide from his criminal confreres who are displeased with him for some unspecified infraction. The act ends as Louie, having explained his need for concealment, hires his nephews to provide cover for him, offering them 5 dollars a week to tell "anyone comes around here looking for me, you don't know nothin', and you ain't seen nothin', you ain't heard nothin'."
The boys are fascinated and appalled by this relative who is "like having a James Cagney movie in your own house." Jay decides that "he's a bagman and he's got a bag and a gun and Pop wouldn't want us to get paid for saying 'Nothing'" to his gangster enemies. As they are all about to turn in for the night, Uncle Louie declares that "it's good to be home. In my own bed." And, as the first act ends, he goes on to evoke scenes of domestic happiness past:
Yeah. Me and Eddie [slept here]. And Gert slept with Bella. And Ma slept with her cane . . . There's nothing like family, boys. The one place in the world you're safe, it with your family . . . Right?
After the emotional shocks of the past several days, it is not surprising that Jay and Arty hesitate to affirm that sentiment.
The second act brings the problems introduced by Bella and Louie to a climax. As the act begins, Arty is bedridden with a bad cold and a fever, while Jay is tending the soda fountain down in the store. Grandma cannot bear the thought of Arty lying idly in bed when there is work to be done, so she forces him to drink her vile-tasting remedy for all ailments, German mustard soup. Meanwhile, during Jay's absence from the soda fountain while bringing the soup to his brother, three pretzels are stolen. Grandma charges Jay for the missing items, on the theory that he is responsible for all merchandise in the store during his hours on duty. The forced soup drinking and the fine for the missing pretzels bring to a head the boys' aversion to their Grandmother, and drive Jay to the desperate decision to run away from Yonkers with his outlaw Uncle Louie.
Jay's request to become Louie's confederate meets with sarcasm, intimidation, and rejection. Enraged by his uncle's sneering attitude, Jay declares,
You're a bully. You pick on a couple of kids. Your own nephews. You make fun of my father. . . . What are you doing? Hiding in your mother's apartment and scarijg little kids and acting like Humphrey Bogart. Well, you're no Humphrey Bogart . . .
Hard on the heels of this denunciation from his nephew, Louie is further chastised by his mother, who rejects his offer of money saying,
I don't take from you!!! . . . Not what you haff to give. . . . . Live--at any cost I taught you, yes. But not when someone else has to pay the price . . . Keep your filthy money, Louie.
Louie, however deeply stung by his mother's condemnation, maintains a facade of self-control, and responds with his own fierce judgment:
You can't get me down, Ma. I'm too tough. You taught me good. And whatever I've accomplished in this life, just remember--you're my partner.
Thus the sense of the family as a realm of shelter and belonging expressed at the end of the first act is reprised here, but with a bitter twist. We see that the generations are indeed connected, but mostly through their power to harm and deform one another, to pass on legacies of fear and moral misdirection.
In the next scene, Bella brings the family together for dinner to announce her wedding plans with Johnny. Whatever bitterness there may be between her and her brother and sister, she feels she needs their moral support in confronting Grandma with her decision. If the family presents obstacles to her happiness, it also provides allies who, she is certain, will help her to realize her goals.
Unfortunately, she miscalculates the support she will receive from Louie, who is immediately skeptical about Johnnie's intentions and abilities.
What is this guy after, Bella? Has he touched you? . . . Has he fooled around with you? . . . He's forty years old, he takes you to the park at night. He wants to open up a restaurant with you and he can't read or write . . . How are you going to open up a restaurant? Who's going to put up the money?
Devastated by this attack, Bella can only respond by declaring her passionate desire to marry Johnnie and have children with him, a prospect that sends her mother into shock and silence. No one in the family seems able to accept the vision of Bella living a normal life on her own. It seems that the power of this family, and its emotionally eviscerating matriarch, will condemn both Louie and Bella to lives of sterility and alienation.
In the wake of this confrontation, Bella leaves home, returning after two worrisome days to tell her mother that Johnnie is not interested in marriage after all, but declaring nonetheless that she will go on longing for marriage and babies in spite of all her mother's discouragement.
After the emotional showdowns among Louie, Bella, and Grandma the action moves forward nine months to the play’s final scene, where Eddie returns from the road, and Jay and Arty prepare for their long-desired departure from Grandma's house. We learn that Uncle Louie has joined the military, and is now fighting in the Pacific.
The boys leave with a final word of wisdom from the matriarch: "You want to hear what my truth is? . . . Everything hurts. Whatever it is you get good in life, you also lose something." Meanwhile, Bella announces that she has a new girlfriend who has a brother she finds very interesting, and that she is planning to invite both to dinner very soon. The play thus ends with the various members of this damaged family having found, in spite of the obstacles of life in their corner of Yonkers, encouraging new directions in life.
There are seven characters in the play, all of whom have moments of vivid self-revelation on stage. The most important are Eddie, Grandma, Bella, and Louie because they drive the plot forward through their choices.
JAY and ARTY, who are present in virtually every scene, are essentially catalysts for the actions of others. Grandma, Bella, and Louie each change in some way in response to the presence of these two youngsters. As children, however, Jay and Arty have less power than the older characters to make the kinds of significant decisions that determine the direction of the plot. They function more as observers than as initiators of events, absorbing information about life by watching what the adults do while themselves doing relatively little. Jay and Arty are the students in the classroom of the Kurnitz family; the grown-ups are the teachers.
GRANDMA. From the outset of the play, Grandma is portrayed as a someone to fear. What Jay says about Gert's feelings towards her mother are generally true of the other Kurnitz children as well: "she talks that way because she was so afraid of Grandma. She never allowed her kids to cry." Nor did she ever allow herself to cry. As she says about her son, Eddie, when he comes begging for help,
He cried in my bedroom. Not like a man, like a child he cried. . . . I buried a husband and two children und I didn't cry. . . Bella was born vit scarlet fever . . . und I didn't cry . . . Gertrude can't talk vitout choking und I didn't cry . . . und maybe one day, they'll find Louie dead in da street und I von't cry. . . dot's how I vas raised. To be strong. Ven dey beat us vit sticks in Germany ven ve vere children, I didn't cry. . . You don't survive in dis vorld vitout being like steel.
As she, and later Louie, make clear, this emotional restraint grows out of her childhood experiences in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Germany where pain and loss were constant threats, and where self-disciplined action, not tears, were her only sure defense. In Louie's words,
When she was twelve years old, her old man takes her to a political rally in Berlin. the cops broke it up. With sticks, on horseback. Someone throws a rock . . . a horse goes down and crushes Ma's foot. Nobody ever fixed it. It hurts every day of her life but I never once seen her take even an aspirin.
This toughness has its benefits for her family, since Grandma saved the money she might have spent on curing her injured foot and spent it on taking her husband and six children to America. But it also has its terrible costs. As she says to Arty, "It's not so important dat you hate me . . . It's only important dat you live." For Grandma the price of survival has been emotional hostility between herself and her family, isolation from everyone who should be closest to her. The play explores whether Grandma herself or her desperately needy children can ever break through this emotional fortress.
BELLA. In many ways, Bella is the opposite of her mother. Where Grandma is cold and withdrawn, Bella longs for emotional and physical connection with others. She insists on taking in her nephews in the teeth of Grandma's opposition, and she longs to marry and have children of her own on whom to lavish the love that her mother cannot accept. As she says in her scene of confrontation with Louie and Grandma,
My babies will be happier than we were because I'll teach them to be happy . . . Not to grow up and run away or never visit when they're older . . . Let me have my babies, Momma. Because I have to love somebody. I have to love someone who'll love me back before I die.
It is this need that propels all of Bella's actions, from her first moments on stage when she greets her nephews with confused delight ("Oh, God, I'm so happy to see you. . . My two favorite cousins"), to her last speech, when she ends the play announcing her intention of inviting her new girlfriend and her attractive brother to dinner. Her intentions are all directed toward establishing the kinds of emotional ties that her mother has spent her life cutting.
GERT. Though not as fully developed as her sister, Gert springs to intense, if limited, life through a single fearful image provided by her brother, Louie:
Gert use to talk in her sleep and Mom heard her one night sayin' things she didn't like. So Gert didn't get supper that week. Until she learned to sleep holdin' her breath.
Now poor Gert talks like a broken calliope, unable to coordinate her breathing with her speaking, exhaling all her wind during the first half of every sentence, and desperately sucking air into her lungs during the second half. Her dysfunction--a disjunction between mind and voice, between desire and action--bears an underlying similarity to the problems of her sister and brothers. Like them, there is something damaged in her spirit--a word derived from the Latin, "spirare," which means "to breathe."
EDDIE. Spurned by his mother for being too soft, and for allowing his dead wife to turn him against her, Eddie defends himself by defending his wife:
She never turned me against you. She turned me towards her . . . To loving, to caring, to holding someone when they needed holding . . . I'm sorry about not bringing the boys out here more. Maybe the reason I didn't was because I was afraid they'd learn something here that I tried to forget.
As we discover, Eddie has always been the more vulnerable of the brothers, incapable of standing up to his mother's harshness, always the first to cry when confronted by her demands and punishments. It is this tenderness that led him to spend money he didn't have on his dying wife, an act of kindness that now puts him at the mercy of his ungiving mother. He now must ask for help--a violation of Grandma's cardinal rule of human relations.
LOUIE. Unlike Eddie and Belle, Louie is a match for his mother. As he says, recounting Grandma's techniques for wringing guilty confessions from her sons,
She'd just stare at you . . . right into your eyeballs . . . . Her eyes looked like two district attorneys . . . I'd stare her right back until her eyelids started to weigh ten pounds . . . And she'd turn away from me . . . And you know what? She loved it . . . because I knew how to take care of myself.
He has become his mother's most apt pupil, surviving as a gangster by the exercise of caution, ruthlessness, and detachment. And, as we saw above, when she criticizes him for his life of crime, he responds with a bitter, left-handed compliment: "You taught me good. And whatever I've accomplished in this life, just remember--you're my partner. (He blows her a ferocious kiss.)"
And yet under this Bogart-like, tough-guy exterior, Louie maintains something like the proverbial heart of gold. He is genuinely interested in his nephews' welfare, refusing on principle to allow Jay to join him in a life of dishonesty and crime. Moreover, despite his harsh assessment of Bella's romantic dreams, it is Louie who provides the five thousand dollars she needs for her longed-for restaurant. And finally, Louie abandons the life of a gangster to join in the nobler violence of World War II.
SUFFERING AND SURVIVAL. According to the nineteenth-century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, "Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger." Which is to say that suffering destroys the weak but invigorates those spirited enough to profit from its rigors. Hardship is life's ultimate tool for separating the winners from the losers. In many ways, this play is an exploration of the validity of that idea.
Having come through the fires of anti-Semitic Germany, and having endured the loss of her husband and two of her children, Grandma regards herself as a survivor of life's trials, a woman of steel hardened by the sufferings that she has survived. She has tried to teach her children that life is a battleground on which the weak fall and the strong survive with their powers of endurance increased. When her children fail in this combat, she blames them for their weakness rather than herself for her lack of motherly tenderness.
Unfortunately, this Nietzschean philosophy seems not to have succeeded in transforming her offspring into little supermen and women. Although they have not been killed by Grandma's harshness, each has been radically wounded or deformed by the sufferings attendant on their upbringing. As we have seen, Gert, Bella, Eddie, and Louie--tested in the fires of Grandma's emotional furnace--have all survived, but only as spiritually handicapped individuals.
And yet--to give the Nietzschean idea its due--they have survived. And Grandma's harshness has been the foundation of their continued existence. Building on that foundation, each shows a determination to go on with life in spite of the obstacles thrown in their ways. Grandma has only half destroyed her children. She has also provided each of them with the ground for further development, simply by rescuing them from the nightmare of certain death in Germany. The price for their continued existence is Grandma's ruthless discipline, imposed first on herself and then on them. The fact that they continue to live allows them to hope for a happier future. The terrible harshness that has marred their lives is also the force that has made life for them possible at all.
THE FAMILY, FOR BETTER OR WORSE. The ambiguity of Grandma's legacy to her children also appears in the play's divided feelings about the value of family connections. According to the title of the work, Jay and Arty are "lost" in Yonkers. But how can this be, since they are surrounded by family members, enclosed within the walls of their father's childhood home? And as the play develops, we see that all the members of the Kurnitz family seem to be just as lost as the young boys, even though Yonkers is their home too.
This dual sense of the family as a place of simultaneous alienation and belonging is made comically explicit at the end of the first act. By then Jay and Arty have encountered Grandma's coldness, their father's disaffection from his own mother, Bella's desperate desire for love, and Louie's gangland paranoia. In the midst of this gallery of derangements, Louie declares as he wraps himself in his bedcovers, "There's nothing like family, boys. The one place in the world you're safe, is with your family." And directly following this benediction, we hear Eddie's voice pronouncing, in a letter to his sons, "The one thing that keeps me going is knowing you're with my family. Thank God you're in good hands."
At one level, this contrast of sentimental cliche with the grotesque reality of the Kurnitz clan is a cynical joke about the emptiness, even the absurdity, of family piety. But from another perspective, we can see that Louie and Eddie are both entirely correct: without this family, whatever its failings, Jay and Arty--and the rest--would be alone in the world, exposed to predators like the criminal government in Germany, or like the Shylock who has Eddie in his power.
Thus the family is both a burden and a refuge, a confusing world where one is always simultaneously lost and found. All the characters are repelled by the experience of "home," but all are finally bound to it and to each other, for better or worse.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why is the play called "Lost in Yonkers." Why "lost?"
2. Why does Grandma reject Eddie when he asks her to take in Jay and Arty? Is there any justification for her decision?
3. What power does Bella have over Grandma?
4. Is Louie right in opposing Bella's relationship with Johnnie?
5. What do you think is in Louie's bag? Why does he insist that Arty open it?
6. Why does Louie have such respect for Grandma?
7. Why does Gert have problems breathing?
8. Has Grandma done more harm than good to her children? Why?
9. Do you think Eddie will keep the promise he makes at the end of the play to visit Grandma more frequently? If so, what accounts for the change in his attitude toward her?
10. Do you think Bella will eventually marry and have babies? Why? Has she learned anything positive from Grandma?
11. Why do Jay and Arty seem so affectionate toward Grandma at the end of the play? What have they learned during their months in Yonkers?