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Rationalizing the "decentered" white male in Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue.

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. Gilder's point that in "civilized society {...} the men counterbalance female sexual superiority by playing a critical role as provider and achiever" (14) was the accepted belief of "Middle-America," also known as "the silent majority." (1)

Mel's inability to control the temperature in his apartment sets the stage for the deeper problem keeping him up at night: his fear that he could lose his job at the ripe old age of forty seven, an event that would displace him from his prescribed role. When Edna tells him that she is "a human being the same as you. I get hot, I get cold, I smell garbage, I hear noise" (237), she misses the point of his unease. She is in fact suggesting that he should ignore his petty grievances and go on with his life because, like her, most people live with the day to day irritation of life in New York. What she does not realize is that, for Mel, the minor irritations mirror the bigger problem of his place in his country as a man, particularly as a white man. Mel has begun to question how he fits in the bigger picture of America during the tumultuous struggle over civil rights by women and minorities. Edna tells him quite simply that "you either live with it or you get out," a practical suggestion that elicits from Mel the response, "If you are a human being you reserve the right to complain, to protest" (237). What Edna does not know at this point is that Mel is harboring a secret fear that he is becoming obsolete in his own country where someone whom he cannot name has a "social-economical-and-politicalplot-to-undermine-the-working-classes" (267).

While Edna wonders about this "plot," Simon uses skillfully placed news reports to substantiate Mel's fears that his world is changing so radically that it is even becoming violent and chaotic. In the first report at the end of Act I, Scene One, the voice of Roger Keating announces that "New York was hit with its third strike of the week" when "the city employees of thirty-seven New York hospitals walked out at 3 p.m. this afternoon" (243). Striking workers affect the economy, so the report re-enforces what Mel's knowledge that the economic situation in New York is not stable. Later, in the end of Act II, Scene One, Roger Keating announces that the governor of New York was mugged and robbed "on Sixth Avenue and Forty-eight Street." The governor is taken to "Beth Israel Hospital where he is resting," but the newscaster immediately reports that the hospital "is entering its fifty-seventh day of the hospital strike" (273). In Mel's world, even the governor of New York is not safe on the streets. Convalescing in the hospital, the governor must contend with the general discontent of his people as their rage vents itself out on the streets where even "municipal, state and federal judges" scream "'We will not go back to woik'" in defiance of a federal court order attempting to stop the strike. Roger Keating's Six O'Clock Report follows the stories on the governor's mugging and the judges' strike with "a filmed story on how twenty million rats survive under the city" (273), which only serves to add insult to the injuries, real or imagined, suffered by New Yorkers who, like Mel, feel oppressed by the events taking place in their city. The rats thrive while New Yorkers struggle. By the end of Act II, Scene Two, Simon delivers a comic blow when Stan Jennings sits in for Roger Keating "who was beaten and mugged last night outside our studio following the Six O'Clock Report" (289). All around him, life slips into chaos, and Mel is not the only person who is losing control over events in his world.

Simon's use of the Six O'Clock Report brings on stage the reality of the world outside the theater and, thereby, the story in which Mel's life evolves as he attempts to understand what is happening to him. Although the news stories often ring humorous within the context of the play, they state what the audience already knows, that New York is dangerous, and no one is safe, least of all Mel, who is beginning to feel very threatened by the social changes taking place in a world that he once understood. Josephine G. Hendin points out in "Introducing American Literature and Culture in the Postwar Years" that during the Vietnam War years,
 The split between establishment hopes and actual
 experience, underscored by the harsh criticism of the
 war and its conduct by many who had committed
 themselves to a military career and whose patriotism
 and valor could not be faulted, itself demonstrated
 the pressure on once stable traditions. Cynicism over
 the possibility of unqualified belief in anything provoked
 fractures of faith in government that reverberated
 throughout the culture. (6)

Throughout The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Mel suffers from fractures of faith not only in government (as he claims that there is a "social-economical-and-political-plot-to-undermine-theworking-classes") but also in his own ability to protect his family from the chaos around him. More than an intellectual "dark night of the soul," his losses force Mel for the first time to face the social and political changes taking place in America. Because he lives in the "real" world, or as real a world as fiction can create, Mel cannot retreat into the safety of nostalgia, as he attempts to do when he claims that "food used to be so good" but that he has not "eaten food since {he} was thirteen years old" (237). Nor can he don "a wig, some high heels and a pair of hot pants" (265), as Tootsie does in the 1982 movie with Dustin Hoffman, and go claim the job that he thinks should have been his but is now filled by a woman. Mel lives at a time "marked by a crisis in the symbolic (if not social) position of white masculinity" (Robinson 32) caused by the struggle on the streets against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and feminism. The events taking place in his country and, thereby, his life shatter his faith in his absolute position as breadwinner.

Mel Edison's dilemma, thus, is cast within a historical framework that was painfully clear to members of the audience in the 1970s. The national polemic on the Vietnam War created not only a "generation gap" between fathers and sons but also a sense that being on the "wrong" side of the argument could bring about the end of life as we knew it. Michael S. Kimmel argues in Manhood in America that in "the 1960s gradual erosion and uneasy footing had become a landslide. All marginalized groups whose suppression had been thought to be necessary for men to build secure identities began to rebel" (174). Men like Mel whose identities, as Susan Faludi points out, were "rooted in a peculiarly modern American perception that to be a man means to be at the controls and at all times to feel yourself in control" (Stiffed 9) suddenly found themselves losing control at home and in the market place. Through Mel, Nell Simon reenacts on stage the emotional upheaval suffered by white males who were suddenly faced with "the erosion of confidence in a masculinity based on martial virtues that attended our involvement in Vietnam" (Manhood 179). As the war raged on and protests against the war intensified on the streets at home, the social movements for liberation "offered scathing critiques of traditional masculinity" by people who "demanded inclusion and equality in the public arena" (Manhood 179). The white male who had once been the "norm," the standard by which all things were measured, suddenly found himself being attacked for his "privilege." As Faludi asks, "If men are the masters of their fate, what do they do about the unspoken sense that they are being mastered, in the marketplace and at home, by forces that seem to be sweeping away the soil beneath their feet?" (Stiffed 13). Neil Simon attempts to answer this question through Mel Edison, an ordinary middle-class American family man caught in the whirlwind of history.

Reading the play without its historical context, C. W. E. Bigsby dismisses The Prisoner of Second Avenue as a play in which people "suddenly lose their jobs" as he also dismisses Simon as a "Woody Allen without the angst" (160) because of "his technique of deflecting pain through humor" (159). Bigsby traces Simon's "technique" to a story the playwright told during an interview about a day when his wife threw "a frozen lamb chop at him, striking a glancing blow." Simon added that "the absurdity of the situation defused the pain," but Bigsby uses this anecdote to argue that "this is the quality of his work which is most compelling." According to Bigsby, Nell Simon "is as accurate as his wife at hurling lamb chops and as adept at recognizing vulnerabilities and absurdities as he had proved on that occasion" (159).

However, Bigsby adds that the fact that he deflects pain through humor "accounts for both his popular appeal and the critical suspicion that he inspires" (159). Bigsby complains that Simon's plays offer "a world full of egotists, defending themselves against other egotists, alert to incursion on their private space and using language to hold others at bay" (160). This world full of egotists who protect themselves from pain fails to create good drama for Bigsby even as he claims that Neil Simon "is the quintessential Broadway writer, highly skillful and creating plays which probe anxieties in such a way as to cauterize the wounds which he momentarily opens" (160).

Bigsby's main objection to Simon's work seems to spring from his awareness that Neil Simon began his career as a Jewish comedian, "a former gag-writer" whose early writing experience taught him "to pepper his plays with effective one-liners." This fact disturbs Bigsby, even as he adds that, in those plays full of one-liners, "the social observation was sharp and the situations simultaneously reassuring and disturbingly familiar" (159). Still, in spite of the sharp social observations, Bigsby finds that, in Simon's plays, "almost invariably the angry blow is deflected, the wounding remark parried, the trauma avoided but the vulnerabilities are identified with such accuracy that from time to time there is the suggestion of another playwright locked inside the Jewish comedian" (159). Whether he objects to the Jewish comedian or the New York playwright without angst, Bigsby's evaluation of Neil Simon's work seems colored by the fact that he is both a popular writer "who {can} virtually guarantee a run on the Great White way" (160) and a writer who began his career creating one-line jokes for stage and television comedians. What Bigsby fails to recognize in Simon's work is that the sharp social observations provide ample commentary on contemporary American popular culture. Not only aware of but sometimes conflicted by this context, Simon skillfully uses it to explore the white protagonist's loss of control in a world that is increasingly alien to him.

Mel's control issues assume a darker meaning when he complains about the sounds that he hears. The noises come from outside his home, his immediate realm, and his complaints are based on the assumption that he can pay to protect himself from the encroachment of other people's sounds into his life. This assumption speaks to the isolation that, according to Faludi, is imposed on white men by "mass culture." She argues that "instead of collectively confronting brutalizing forces, each man is expected to dramatize his own struggle by himself, to confront arbitrarily designated enemies in a staged fight--a fight separated from society the way a boxing ring is roped off from the crowd" (15). When Mel tells Edna that "there's one car driving around in Jackson Heights and we can hear it" (Prisoner 233), he is in fact admitting that the outside world is encroaching on what little peace and quiet his hard-earned money can buy. He lives in "a two-million-dollar building" (235) in an apartment "fourteen stories up" where he "thought it would be quiet," but he can "hear the subway here better than I hear it in the subway" (233-4). Evident through the comic hyperbole is Mel's awareness that the outside world is moving in on him, leaving him in fact with no place where he can be in control, and there is very little that Mel can do about this intrusion. Ironically, the clamor that he raises when he gets upset and talks loudly late at night causes him as much grief as does the intrusive noise of others. Asked by the next door neighbors, the flight attendants, to shut up because they are trying to sleep, he is twice during the play hit with a bucket of water whose sole aim is to point out to him that he should stop complaining and disturbing his neighbors. In New York, Mel is not the only one who feels trapped in the limited space of his apartment. The working women next door need their sleep and demand his silence; the puritanical neighbors upstairs insist that he watch his language.

After complaining about the sounds of the city sifting into his fourteenth floor apartment, Mel suddenly shifts to the sound of music and entertaining that he hears through his wall. He asks an incredulous Edna, "can you believe that's still going on next door?" (234), but Edna simply cannot hear the sounds of "Raindrops Falling on His Head" as clearly as Mel can. For Mel, the music wafting from the apartment next door suggests that something improper is taking place. He says,
 It's those two goddamned German airline hostesses.
 Every night they got someone else in there. Two
 basketball players, two hockey players, whatever
 team is in town, win or lose, they wind up in there
 ... Every goddamned night! ... Somewhere there's a
 747 flying around with people serving themselves
 because those two broads never leave that apartment.

With this statement, Mel exposes more than his noise sensitivity. The airline hostesses are working women who apparently entertain male friends in the privacy of their own home. Simon's choice of music reminds the audience of the sensual scene in which Katherine Ross rides on the handlebars of Paul Newman's bicycle in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the 1969 movie, Katherine Ross plays Robert Redford's girlfriend, so there is something illicit about that ride. The two characters enjoy a few moments together as the character played by Paul Newman maneuvers his precious cargo in the rain. Simon uses the music from the popular film to suggest the impropriety of the airline hostesses who entertain men. Ironically, the music also serves to stress Mel's rude awakening to a changing world when the raindrops to which he refers as "Raindrops Falling on His Head" are replaced by a bucket of water falling on his own head.

Mel's objection to the sound of music emanating from the women's apartment is a sign that he cannot accept female sexual freedom. In the early 1970s, one of the most divisive topics debated across this country was the claim made by "radical" feminists, like Eva Figes in Patriarchal Attitudes (1970) and Anne Koedt in "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," included in Up Against the Wall, Mother ... (1971), among others, that women's liberation could not be achieved without concomitant sexual liberation. The feminist movement, thus, "empowered women to claim autonomy in their own personal lives, especially in interpersonal relationships with men. Women not only had the right to work but the right to sexual agency, a right to desire itself--perhaps, even, a right to orgasm" (Manhood 180). In The Prisoner of Second Avenue, the airline hostesses are liberated enough to work and entertain men in their home to the sound of music, a sound that Mel associates with sexual relations. However, Mel imagines that, because these women can entertain men in their home, they will thereby neglect their "duties" as airline hostesses. In Mel's mind, being sexually independent somehow destroys a woman's ability to perform her job. His claim that "somewhere there's a 747 flying around with people serving themselves because those two broads never leave that apartment" (Prisoner 234) speaks to his frustration with the new liberated women who could not only take on jobs that would otherwise have been given to men but could also simultaneously determine their sex lives.

Kimmel argues that men like Mel for whom work was a defining part of their personalities were "left feeling isolated and alone" (Manhood 176) when they had to face the upheaval taking place in America. Many retreated into the certainty of their own beliefs and allowed nothing and no one to change their views. Thus, when the airline hostesses call Mel on the phone at three o'clock in the morning and ask him to be quiet because they need their sleep, Mel does not even hear what the women are actually saying. Apparently, the airline hostesses are sleeping because they have "a plane leaving for Stuttgart in the morning" (Prisoner 242), which means that they were not entertaining men as Mel had suspected. Reality, however, does not change Mel's opinion of the liberated working women who live next door to him. What he hears from the woman's words adds another insult to his fragile sense of control over his own environment. His response to her request for a little peace and quiet, reminiscent of his earlier request, is "this isn't a sublet apartment, I'm a regular American tenant" (242). Although not a logical response to the woman's request, Mel's words make sense when one understands his claim that being a "regular American" entitles him to some privileges. In Mel's mind, regular Americans, white men like him, are losing ground to liberated women who, in this case, also happen to be foreigners.

Eventually, Mel admits that he has a problem, but the admission does not come easily. After rejecting every suggestion made by Edna when he complains about the noise, the out-of-control air conditioner, the sounds of the city, and many other annoyances, Mel finally pleads with his wife, "talk to me for a few minutes, because I think I'm going out of my mind." He tells her that he is "unraveling" and "losing touch." According to Mel, "something is happening to me.... I'm losing control. I can't handle things anymore" (238). He adds, "Edna, I'm slipping, and I'm scared" (239). When the ever-practical Edna suggests that he go to therapy, Mel jokes that he had already paid "twenty-three thousand dollars" to one analysts who died of a heart attack and left him; he is not willing to spend another twenty-three thousand dollars to "fill this {new} doctor in with information I already gave the dead one" (239). Reluctantly, he adds, "I don't know where or who I am any more. I'm disappearing, Edna. I don't need analysts, I need Lost and Found" (239).

Mel's admission that he is lost alters the way in which he perceives himself as a white man in America. Once a man who held a job, Mel provided the economic support for two children who are now grown and away in college, and he also bought an apartment in a high-rise building. In short, through the course of his life, Mel did everything that was expected of him as a white, middle-class, American male. Now, however, his role as a provider is at risk; the rules have changed and other people, non-white and non-male, have become more important than he is.

Through Mel's anxious moments in Act I, Scene One, Edna performs her role as a dutiful housewife and caretaker. She tries to calm him down by telling him that they "don't need much" money to live on, but he argues that "You need a place to live, you need clothing, you need food. A can of polluted tuna fish is still eighty-five cents" (241). In spite of Edna's reassurances that they will survive whatever life throws their way, Mel insists on feeling sorry for himself and acting like the "egotist" described by Bigsby. As a "decentered" white male, Mel feels that his position in America is being usurped by minority groups and "uppity" women who want what he has spent a lifetime accumulating. As Robinson points out, in the 1970s, "articulations of white men as victimizers slide almost imperceptibly into constructions of white men as victims" (5). When Mel fears the loss of his job, he portrays himself as a victim of societal changes and an economic system that no longer privileges him. He argues that his problem lies in the fact that he is forty-seven years old, but other white men like him also suffer his fate. In Act I, Scene Two, he admits, "I'm telling you. They fired me! ... Me, Hal Chesterman, Mike Ambrozi, Dave Polichek, Arnold Strauss ... Two others, I can't remember their names ... Seven of us, in one fell swoop. Fired!" (253). Although Mel claims that he cannot remember all the names, he mentions Chesterman, Ambrozi, Polichek, and Strauss, four names that represent "middle America."

Mel's loss of control emanates from his fears that, as a white man, his privilege is slowly eroding. When he tells Edna that he is "disappearing" (239), he has already conferred, "I don't know where I am half the time. I walk down Madison Avenue, I think I'm in a foreign country" (238). His fear that he is disappearing is closely related to his awareness that other people, people who do not look like him, are becoming visible. Writing about the "Middle American" of the post-sixties, Richard Lemon finds that this group is made up of many people, all of whom are "unyoung, unpoor, unblack." He adds that "the one thread that ties all its groups together is resentment" against the many liberation movements attempting to gain civil rights and recognition (Lemon 26). Robinson further explains in Marked Men that
 From the late sixties to the present, dominant masculinity
 appears to have suffered one crisis after
 another, from the urgent complaints of the 'silent
 majority' following the 1968 presidential election,
 to the men's liberationists call for rethinking masculinity
 in the wake of the women's movement in
 the 1970s, to the battles over the cultural authority
 of 'dead white males' in academia, to the rise of a
 new men's movement in the late 1990s. (5)

Within the historical context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mel Edison emerges as a wounded white male. His fears are not irrational; they are justified. At no time is this more evident than at the beginning of Act I, Scene Two, when he comes home to find that he has been robbed of all his possessions, including the Valiums that would have made his grief more bearable (248). As a middle-class working man, Mel had been the "backbone" of the American economy until forces outside his control begin to push him aside and challenge his place in the world that he had constructed for himself and others like him. In "Tragedy and the Common Man," Arthur Miller calls this challenge "the revolutionary questioning of the stable environment" (5), and he uses this questioning of a man's place in his world to develop his theory of an American tragedy that focuses on the fate of working class Americans like Willy Loman and, by extension, his rightful heir, Mel Edison. Robinson, however, sees the challenge to Mel's values, his way of life, his reason for being, as a challenge to his masculinity, and she argues that "concern over the place of white men in post-sixties American culture produces images of physically wounded and emotionally traumatized white masculinity" (6).

Mel Edison, Nell Simon's version of the traumatized white male, evokes laughter as he documents his plight for his wife and, thereby, the audience. When he admits to being lost, Edna tells him to go see his analyst again, but Doctor Pike, Mel's analyst, has died and apparently taken with him "six years of my life, twenty-three thousand dollars. He got my money, what does he care if he gets a heart attack?" The absurdity of his argument creates laughter, for these are some of the lines that Bigsby claims help Simon to deflect pain through humor. For Mel, even finding a new doctor is a traumatic, almost paralyzing experience. He cannot accept Edna's solutions to what he sees as traumatic problems because he lives in fear. When Edna suggests that he ask for two weeks off to recover from being lost, Mel tells her that "what worries me is that they'll ask me to take the other fifty weeks off as well." Mel's original fear that he has become expendable connects with his dear of aging when he tells Edna that he will turn "forty-seven years old in January. Forty-seven!" His employers "could get two twenty-three-and-a-half-year-old kids for half my money" (240). Although the lines elicit laughter, Simon's most serious point follows when Edna asks Mel to leave New York.

EDNA: (Angrily) What is it they have here that's so damned hard to give up? What is it you'll miss so badly, for God's sake?

MEL: I'm not through with my life yet ... I still have value, I still have worth. (241)

Although Mel feels victimized by forces beyond his control, he is still not willing to give up his life in exchange for the safer alternatives mentioned by Edna. Through most of the play, Mel suffers the indignities of his new fate as he clumsily articulates his understanding of whatever it is that is happening to him. However, he will not rise to the challenge created by his changing world until Edna's failure to perform as a "liberated" female forces him to reclaim his traditional gender-prescribed role as provider and protector of women.

When Mel tells Edna that he is "not through with {his} life," he echoes Linda's words about Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Linda Loman tells her sons that Willy Loman's "name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog" (40). She wants to make her sons realize that they must help their father before he kills himself. Willy Loman believes that he is more valuable to his family dead than alive because, like Mel, he has lost the ability to make a living and provide for his family. Although these are very different plays, both Willy and Mel are faced with the restructuring of American society in their respective times, the end of the world as they knew it. Willy cannot sell his wares if nobody knows him. The people who once bought his products are "all dead, retired" (41), and the young businessmen who replaced them are all business, "all cut and dried" so that "there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear--or personality" (61) into the business transaction. Willy's world changed and left him feeling useless, out of place, unable to keep up with the changes. Mel, likewise, fears that his world is changing and that he will be left behind at the age of forty-seven when he knows that his life is not yet finished.

Having created the comparison between Willy Loman and Mel Edison, Nell Simon must slowly strip Mel of his self-respect. Because one of the sub themes in The Prisoner of Second Avenue focuses on the threatening issue of women's liberation, Simon examines Mel's place in the world through his connection to Edna, his wife. As the traditional husband, Mel is responsible for supporting Edna. Edna's role as a wife is to care for and support Mel now that she has fulfilled her primary role as mother. The traditional gender-prescribed roles of husband and wife, provider and nurturer, become problematic in Act I, Scene Two when Edna frantically reports that their apartment has been robbed; at this point Edna joins her husband in decrying a world where "only sick people" live. "Only that's who live in the world today. Sick, sick, sick people" (Prisoner 249). Mel comforts her until he learns that she had left the front door open because she could not find her key. When Mel screams, "In a city with the highest crime rate in the history of the world, you left the door open?" (250), Mel points out that Edna cannot be trusted to do what she must in order to survive in the increasingly dangerous world in which they live. What she considers an innocent mistake causes them to lose everything, and he already knows that they cannot afford to replace what they have lost because he has lost his job. Through Edna's careless act, Simon makes it clear that Edna, the housewife, has not cared for the house and, by extension, the husband as well as she should have. When she leaves the door open, she is in fact acting as if she had never heard the news reports that are such an integral part of the play, the same news reports that repeatedly stress that New York is a dangerous city, almost a city under siege.

The robbery causes a problem serious enough to push Mel and Edna out of their traditional gender roles into very divergent ones. At first, when Edna points out that "it's just things, Mel. Just some old suits and coats. We can replace them. We'll buy new ones" (252), she is not only trying to calm Mel but she is also doing what comes naturally to her, playing the role of the caretaker. Mel, however, knows that they cannot afford to replace the things that have been taken from them. At this point, he admits for the first time that he no longer has a job. His worst fears come true when his employers "said they had no choice. They had to make cuts right down the line ... Seven executives, twelve salesmen, twenty-four in office help--forty-three people in one afternoon" (253). For four days, Mel keeps this bit of information to himself because he "didn't know how to tell" his wife that he had lost his job. Admitting it would have demonstrated his failure as a provider and as a man. He tells her now, "I thought maybe another job would turn up, a miracle would happen," but he comes to the conclusion that "miracles don't happen when you're forty-seven ... When Moses saw the burning bush, he must have been twenty-three, twenty-four, the most. Never forty-seven" (253). Joking about Moses's age when he sees the burning bush elicits laughter from the audience, but, as in all comedy, laughter is used to drive home what is not funny.

At the lowest point in his life, Mel is not only robbed of all his earthly possessions, but he is also made painfully aware that he cannot protect his wife or himself from the chaos taking place in New York. When he complains about having pain in his chest, he states that the reason is "BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE A JOB. BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE A SUIT TO WEAR! BECAUSE I'M HAVING A GODDAMNED BREAKDOWN AND THEY DIDN'T EVEN LEAVE ME WITH A PILL TO TAKE!" (257). A white man under siege, who has been stripped of everything that once provided his world with meaning, Mel lashes out at the forces that have systematically assailed him when he steps out into the terrace and yells, "BASTARDS! YOU DIRTY BASTARDS!" As soon as the words come out of his mouth, though, the upstairs neighbor screams back, "Shut up," and Mel is soon "hit with a torrent of water, obviously from a large bucket. He is drenched, soaked through--completely, devastatingly and humiliatingly" (257). The dehumanizing of the white male is well under way when Mel breaks down like a child as he "quietly sits there and sobs" while Edna comforts him by telling him that "It's going to be all right, Mel, I promise. You'll get another job, you'll see" (258). Although Mel has just told her that he cannot expect a miracle at the age of forty-seven, Edna insists that they will be "all right," because he will be able to find another job and recreate the past, restoring their previous lives. Edna does not yet understand what Mel has been saying concerning the increasing difficulty that he has been facing in the work place. She does not share the perception that men like Mel are being pushed aside to make room for women and minorities.

As Act II opens, the gender prescribed roles have been switched in the Edison household. Mel stays home to walk "the living room aimlessly" while Edna goes out to work. After six weeks of unemployment, "he has no place to go and no desire to go there. {...} He walks in all the available spaces in the living room and dining room, like a prisoner taking his daily exercise" (259). Edna comes home from work to make his lunch, a remnant of her previous job as a wife and caretaker, but Mel complains that "everyone in the building knows you come home to make me lunches. The only ones here who get lunches cooked for them every day are me and the six-year-old girl on the fourth floor" (263). Ironically, Mel is complaining because Edna willingly performs her job as caretaker even though she has also taken on the job of provider. She comes home to feed him and coax a little conversation out of him. He tells her that she has "been very nice" to him because "You pay the rent, buy the food, bought me a nice new sport jacket" (264), a statement revealing the new problem in the Edison household. Edna has taken advantage of the movement of women into the work force to take on a job and become the provider for her family, but Mel resents her for it. His comment that she has "been very nice" to him suggests that, when Edna buys him things with her hard-earned money, she is not playing the same role as provider that he once played. He had an obligation to support his family and buy things for them, but Edna is simply being "very nice." Mel cannot accept Edna's new role as a working woman nor the privilege that her hard-earned money buys her.

When Mel walks around his living room with nothing to do, he bitterly accuses Edna of participating in the same "hidden" business world that he once inhabited. His anger "derives from the underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world. Among us today this fear is as strong, and perhaps stronger, than it ever was. In fact, it is the common man who knows this fear best" (Miller, "Tragedy and the Common Man" 5). Mel, as a common man who once knew how to play the game in the business world, now accuses his wife of playing the same types of games that he used to play by going out drinking with her boss and maybe even offering sexual favors.

EDNA: (Puts some food onto a plate) Please eat your lunch. It's the last time. I promise I won't make it any more.

MEL: Why should you? When you can be in some nice Japanese restaurant eating sukiyaki with Mr. Cooperman sitting around with your shoes off.

EDNA: I have never had sukiyaki with Mr. Cooperman.

MEL: How about Fettucini with Mr. Feidelson? Look, I know what goes on in offices. I used to be one of the boys.

EDNA: Well, I'm not "one of the girls."

MEL: How come you get home at seven o'clock when everyone knows nobody works past five o'clock any more.

EDNA: I work past five o'clock.

MEL: Where? At Charley O's? Listen, I understand. A little drink to unwind before you go home to face the little man. (265)

Facing the "little man" is Mel's equivalent of facing the "little woman" who traditionally "sat" home and waited for her husband to come home from work. The accusation inherent in Mel's statement, however, is that Edna is using her sexuality to curry favors. Still stuck in his sexual fantasies, Mel associates working women with sex, as he does early in the play when he accuses the airline hostesses of entertaining men when they were actually trying to sleep so that they could get up early in the morning to go to work.

The point made through Mel's discomfort with Edna's ability to earn money is that women should not work outside the home. Mel's opinions reflect the popular belief at the time that women were taking jobs away from men, and George F. Gilder argues that "the sexual power of women, if combined with economic power, leaves many males with no civilized way to achieve sexual identity. If they cannot be providers, they have to resort to muscle and phallus" (97). In Mel's case, if he cannot be a provider, he jokes that perhaps he should resort to being a woman. Although he offers no evidence to support his point, Mel believes that he cannot find a job because women have taken his job. He also instinctively feels that these women have taken his job not because they should have the right to work or even the need to work, but because they can offer sex in exchange for the meager salaries that they receive. As Faludi points out,
 men are troubled {...} because women have gone
 far beyond their demands for equal treatment and
 now are trying to take power and control away from
 men. Feminists are 'feminazis,' in their view,
 because they want to command every sphere once
 directed by men, from deportment in the boardroom
 to behavior in the bedroom. The underlying message:
 men cannot be men, only eunuchs, if they are
 not in control. (Stiffed 9)

When Mel accuses Edna of "eating sukiyaki with Mr. Cooperman" and "Fettucini with Mr. Feidelson," he slips deeper into his breakdown. Through the loss of his job, he has lost both economic and, in his mind, sexual control over Edna. By the end of the scene, Edna is calling Dr. Frankel to take care of Mel. The world has changed too much and too quickly for Mel to bear it.

Following the breakdown in Act II, Scene One, Mel seems calmer, but this is only because Dr. Frankel sedates him. Edna, however, is now the one who bangs on people's walls and complains about problems with the apartment. Apparently, the water has been shut off in the building because of repairs, so Edna is on the phone trying desperately to get the super to do something about getting the water back on. She too has lost control over her own environment, something that seems important to her now that she has spent time working outside the home to make ends meet. Her biggest problem, however, is that her company "went out of business" (291). Like Mel before her, Edna has now lost her job, an experience that teaches her to appreciate Mel's dejection earlier. When she also breaks down and cries about her loss, Mel steps in to say "It's all right, Edna, it's all right" (291). Although he still does not have a job, Mel appears to regain his self-assurance in order to reclaim his traditional role as the provider in this family. When Edna sobs and says, "I thought we were such a strong country, Mel. If you can't depend on America, who can you depend on?" Mel comforts her by reminding her that they can always depend on "ourselves, Edna. We have to depend on each other" (291).

At this point in the play, the roles have once again been reversed. Mel appears calm while Edna seems agitated and out of control. Edna tells Mel that on her way home that day "I had only one thing on my mind ... A bath. A nice, hot bath," but this appears to be impossible because, as she points out, "the water went out of business." Mel assures her that the water will be restored and that "everything is going to come back on." This dream of restoration signals the Mel is once again stepping into his original role as provider and protector of women, and Edna demands his protection by yelling, "I want my bath! I want my water! Tell them I want my bath, Mel!" She even insists that he "bang on the pipes" because "if I don't sit in some water, Mel, I'm going to go crazy. Bang on the pipes." When Mel asks her to "be reasonable," she screams at him, "I banged for you, why won't you bang for me?" (292). Like Mel before her, Edna loses control over her world. She tells him,

EDNA: I don't know what I'm saying any more. It's too much for me, Mel. I have no strength left, Mel. Nothing. I couldn't open my pocketbook on the bus; a little boy had to help me.

MEL: Of course you have strength.

EDNA: I have anger, no strength ... If something happens to me, Mel, who's going to take care of us?

MEL: I am. I always took care of you, didn't I?

EDNA: But who's going to take care of us now, Mel?

MEL: Me, Edna. Me! (292-93)

With Edna's breakdown, Mel steps up to protect his wife. His claim that he will care for his wife suggests that he once again finds "compensatory affirmations of masculinity" (Gilder 104) in reclaiming his role as provider. The play seems to share his dream of restoration as Neil Simon restores the status quo, however, one must wonder whether Edna and Mel have learned anything from the experience of the last few weeks when they were forced to switch gender roles to survive.

Both characters experience frustration and acquire a rage that they can barely control as a result of working for a living, but for Edna the whole experience is, as she states, "too much for me." Edna, at this point, is not very tolerant of the neighbor who screams at Mel to be quiet. She steps out on the terrace to defend Mel's right to scream, which is something that she would not have done at the beginning of the play when she tried to reason with the upstairs neighbor. When she steps out to scream at the neighbor, however, Mel follows her in order to bring her in and calm her down. When he once again gets hit with a bucket of water, in spite of the fact that there is no running water in the building, he does not cry as he did before. Instead, he gets angry, which seems to indicate that his "masculinity" has been restored because his anger leads to action, something lacking in Mel since he lost his job and started pacing his living room. When snow begins to fall, Mel "opens the closet and gets his shovel. He looks at the snow once more, looks at his watch, then goes back and sits in his chair, one hand holding his shovel, the other around Edna's shoulder, a contemporary American Gothic" (298). The point, of course, is that, as he threatened earlier, Mel will wait for the water-throwing neighbor so that he can bury him in the snow. Mel's anger, his culturally recognizable New Yorker's edge, returns as he regains his gender-prescribed masculine role as protector of women.

In The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Nell Simon creates a man who struggles to maintain his self-respect even as he loses control over his world and feels "decentered," displaced from his traditional gender-prescribed role when he loses everything that provides his life with meaning. Simon not only makes Mel lose his job, but he also forces him to deal with the very serious issue of women's liberation as Edna, his wife, ventures forth into the workplace. Mel's discomfort with Edna's role as a working woman and Edna's conflict with her experience on the job indicate that Neil Simon may have been conflicted about the liberation of women and the changes taking place in his world. At the end of the play, Simon attempts to restore the status quo as Mel comforts his wife and promises that he will take care of her, but Simon makes it painfully clear that the times have changed. The world outside the Edison apartment is dangerous and not entirely hospitable to a forty-seven year old white male who wants to be a provider so that he can live his life according to traditionally prescribed gender roles. The world may have changed too much for Mel's and even Simon's comfort, and even a forced curtain that restores the status quo cannot stifle that discomfort.


Bigsby, C. W. E. Modern American Drama, 1945-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Clatterbaugh, Kenneth. Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity: Men, Women, and Politics in Modern Society. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990.

Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1999.

Gilder, George E Sexual Suicide. New York: Quadrangle / The New York Times Book Company, 1973.

Hendin, Josephine G. "Introducing American Literature and Culture in the Postwar Years." A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture. Ed. Josephine G Hendin. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 1-19.

Kimmel, Michael S. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Lemon, Richard. The Troubled American. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Miller, Arthur. "Tragedy and the Common Man." 1949. The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller. Ed. Robert A. Martin and Steven R. Centolla. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. 3-7.

Robinson, Sally. Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Simon, Neil. The Prisoner of Second Avenue. The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Vol. II. New York: Plume, 1986. 229-299.


(1.) The "sexual superiority" of females referred to the woman's ability to bear children, an ability that she used to induce a man "to submit his volatile masculine sexuality to female futurity" because "monogamous sex and marriage are the ways that women catch their men and induce them to join and support families" (Gilder, Sexual Suicide 107).
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Author:Gomez-Vega, Ibis
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Date:Jun 22, 2007
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