Academic journal article American Drama

Rationalizing the "Decentered" White Male in Neil Simon's the Prisoner of Second Avenue

Academic journal article American Drama

Rationalizing the "Decentered" White Male in Neil Simon's the Prisoner of Second Avenue

Article excerpt

First presented at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in November 1971, Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue articulates the rage felt by white men as a result of the liberation movements that took place in the sixties. Through Mel Edison, Simon laments the changes brought about by the women's movement for equality and the inclusion of minorities in the American work force. When Mel loses his job, he loses control over his life and his environment. He becomes a symbol of what Sally Robinson calls the "decentered" white male who, "in the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights movement, and with the rise of women's liberation, gay liberation, and the increasing visibility of ethnic and racial diversity on the American scene" (Marked Men 2), sees his traditional gender-defined role as breadwinner challenged by forces outside his control. After being the sole provider for his family for many years, Mel is suddenly forced to depend on Edna, his wife, to earn enough money to keep the two of them from losing their home, what little they have left. The traditional roles of this middle-class American family become reversed as the male breadwinner stays home to wait for the economy to improve while the traditional housewife steps out of the house into the real world to find a job. Through the loss of his job, Mel Edison loses control of the things that infuse his world with meaning.

One of the most important themes in The Prisoner of Second Avenue is Mel Edison's loss of control over his immediate environment. When the play opens, Mel is sitting "alone on the tiny sofa" (Prisoner 231) in his equally tiny living room. As soon as Edna asks him "What's wrong?" he begins to document the reasons why he is sitting up and "calling God at two-thirty in the morning" (232). Apparently, his most serious problem is that he cannot adjust the temperature in the air conditioner, a fact that speaks to his inability to feel comfortable in his own home, his "castle." He claims that "It's eighty-nine degrees outside" but "twelve degrees inside" (232), and he would prefer to have more control over how he feels in his own home; however, every time Edna suggests a relatively logical, although often comical, solution, Mel rejects it. He cannot accept Edna's help because his problem is considerably more complicated than either one understands. For Mel, losing control over his home environment is simply an extension of everything else happening in his world. He feels, although he cannot yet articulate, "the historical, social, and political decentering of what was once considered the normative in American culture" and would soon give way to a "master narrative of white male decline in post-sixties America" (Robinson 2). At home, up at half past two in the morning, Mel is attempting to stare in the face of his own decline. The audience will soon learn that Mel fears losing his job, a significant marker of his masculinity that he has always taken for granted, and he is not prepared to suffer such a blow to his ego as a man and to his fragile sense of self.

The decline of white males in general and the white middle class in particular generated discussion in the late 1960s and early 1970s when demands made by feminists and other groups scandalized conservative Americans. In Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity, Kenneth Clatterbaugh explains that the prevailing theories on gender roles which most people valued in the early 1970s saw women as bearers of children and men as providers. He cites George F. Gilder's conservative argument in Sexual Suicide that "men, in their civilized role, are believed to be providers for families, protectors of women and children, and fathers to their children" (Clatterbaugh 17). He adds that men "need" what Gilder calls "'masculine affirming' work in order to feel that they are contributing to society" (17). When The Prisoner of Second Avenue opens with evidence of Mel's sudden loss of control over his environment and, thereby, his culturally assigned, gender-prescribed role, a role to which men of his age and class vehemently subscribed, the audience is placed squarely within the bounds of a cultural and political discussion taking place in America at the time. …

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