Biloxi Blues Summary

Neil Simon

Biloxi Blues

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Biloxi Blues Summary

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“Biloxi Blues” is a semi-autobiographical play by American playwright Neil Simon, first performed in 1984 in Los Angeles. It focuses on a group of military privates stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, through the perspective of young soldier Eugene Jerome. Jerome, an author avatar for Simon, appeared in three chapters of what is known as the Eugene Trilogy, and “Biloxi Blues” was preceded by “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and followed by “Broadway Bound”. Although Jerome is the point-of-view character, the play largely focuses on two other soldiers, Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey and Private Arnold Epstein, as they go through basic training and Epstein and Toomey get into an escalating battle of wills. Exploring themes of individuality, military discipline, and the mindset of young draftees as they prepare to be deployed to World War II, “Biloxi Blues” was highly praised for its deft mix of comedy with serious issues. It won the Tony Award for Best Play and was nominated for the Drama Desk Award. In 1988, it was adapted into a feature film directed by Mike Nichols and starring Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken, and Corey Parker in the three leading roles.

“Biloxi Blues” is set in 1943, as the US Military draft is in full swing. The play opens on a crowded train as a group of young soldiers from the east coast are being carried to the US Army basic training camp in Biloxi, Mississippi. Eugene Morris Jerome is keeping himself awake by writing in his memoirs, as the other soldiers around him are trying to get some sleep. Jerome observes the young men around him and reads his written commentary about each draftee to the audience. Roy Selridge from Schenectady is a smelly man with a mouth full of bad teeth. Joseph Wykowski from Bridgeport, Connecticut has a huge appetite and a permanent erection, while Donald Carney from Montclair, New Jersey likes to sing loudly despite having a terrible voice. Finally, there’s Arnold Epstein from Queens, New York, who is a smart, well-read man but suffers from digestive problems and seems nervous. Eugene explains to the audience that he’s never left home before, but he’s looking at this as an adventure. He sets three goals for himself – survive, become a writer, and lose his virginity.

After their train arrives in Biloxi, the young men are introduced to basic training by their tough-talking commanding officer, Sergeant Toomey. Toomey has a steel plate in his head from a previous war and runs the camp with an iron fist. He attempts to break the men with unfair and arbitrary rules, and frequently orders harsh punishments for disobedience, including the dreaded latrine duty. Arnold Epstein, who is not the type to answer well to authority, enters an ongoing battle of wills with Toomey that lasts all the way through basic training. Toomey increases his punishments of Epstein to try to break him, but Epstein is capable of taking the punishment he deals out, including doing two hundred pushups in one go. He refuses to compromise his dignity. While the other men mostly try to stay out of Toomey’s way and obey his orders as best as he can, they admire Epstein’s determination. Eventually, even Toomey comes to somewhat respect Epstein’s stubbornness.

Eugene has kept a low profile through basic training, concentrating on his list. He manages to fulfill the first of his three goals when he loses his virginity to a prostitute. He wasn’t expecting to fall in love, though, which happens when he meets Daisy Hannigan, a beautiful and smart Catholic girl who attends a local all-girls school in Gulfport. The two begin writing letters to each other, and Eugene uses any break from boot camp to see her. He confesses his love to her right before he’s deployed, and she says she loves him too. They both know the chances of seeing each other again after he comes back from the war are slim, but he tells the audience that just knowing he has a girl waiting for him back home motivates him further to survive the experience. As the play ends, the young men finish basic training and board a train car taking them away from Biloxi. As his fellow young soldiers try to get some sleep before they’re deployed, Eugene talks to the audience again and fills everyone in on the eventual destiny of the soldiers following the war. He tells them that he survived the war, and did wind up becoming an author, although his eventual destiny was much different from what he had expected.

Neil Simon is an American playwright, screenwriter, and author. Considered one of the greatest American dramatists, he has written more than thirty plays and adapted many of them into motion pictures. He has set the record for the most combined Oscar and Tony nominations, and has won Best Play from the Tony Awards three times. He is perhaps best known for The Odd Couple, his iconic comedy which has been adapted into multiple movies and TV shows following its original Broadway run. He has received three honorary doctorates, and The Neil Simon Festival was established in Cedar City, Utah, to preserve the work of Simon and his contemporaries.