Yet, as O’Neill had
shown the fostering of illusion bred a certain comfort that was a
protection from despair. As a kind of epilogue to The
Iceman Cometh, the following year, he attempted to make what was
positive there more explicit, to write with a charity that was beyond pity
and more like love of those whose souls stir in shadows. The play was Hughie,
the first of six contemplated one-act plays to be given the group
title, By Way of Obit. Of the
six only one other was written more fully than an outline. This play,
possibly concerning an old Irish chambermaid, was destroyed,* together
with the outlines and scenarios when the O’Neills left Tao House. But Hughie was left to reiterate with a difference the themes of The
The fifty-minute play is an epitome of O’Neill’s mature theatrical style and statement. A circle of light in a surrounding outer darkness that serves as a refuge in a hostile world whose presence is indicated by a consistent pattern of sounds; the passage of time so meaningless as to suggest an action outside of time; dialogue that is in essence two parallel almost uninterrupted monologues; characters who wear masks to conceal the agony of their inner lives; the image of life on the bottom of a sordid world where men’s dreams provide the only warmth: what began so abortively in A Wife for a Life is here wrought into a perfect dramatic poem. The lyric mode of the play is abetted by the absence of any significant narrative plotting. The play depends on a purely emotional action evolved from the relationship established between Erie and Hughes, the Night Clerk. The dialogue, expressed in the rhythms and slang of Broadway argot of 1928, is used with the same awareness of its beauty and emotional power that Synge found in the dialect of the peasants of the Aran Islands. Like The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten the action hinges on a tale to be told. Yet when it is set out, Erie’s tale is no more than the vague account of lost affection, another expression of need, a lyric within a lyric.
The emotional center
of the play perhaps evolves less from its words than from its silence.
Such sounds as are heard in the hotel lobby—garbage cans, an El train,
a fire engine and the like—accentuate the macabre stillness of a city
in the early morning hours. The silence is a threatening force, an
abnormal “spell” that “presses
suffocatingly upon the street, enters the deserted, dirty lobby.”
(31) To the Clerk, the night seems like death, (30) and his mind
“cowers” from it. Such hope as there is exists in the sounds that
are the night’s “obsequies”: “Only
so many El trains pass in one night, and each one passing leaves one
less to pass, so the night recedes, too, until at last it must die and
join all the other long nights in Nirvana, the Big Night of Nights. And
that’s life.” (19) In the acted play, the Clerk’s silence is to Erie like the
silence of the city. The actor who plays Hughes must play but not speak
the interior monologue. Only a few words rise to the surface; to Erie,
he must seem another manifestation of death, like the threat outside,
like Room 492 to which he cannot bear to return. Yet Hughes’s silence
is turning with a little life, born of vague hostilities, of physical
pain in his feet, of boredom with overfriendly, anonymous hotel guests.
Draped over the desk, he resembles a wax-works figure, but his mind
pursues the sounds he hears in destructive fantasies of waking “the
whole damned city” (17)
with the garbage cans or of burning it down. It is only when an
abnormally long pause of silence falls that he is forced out from the
fantasies to hear the night sound nearest him, the voice of Erie Smith: “His
mind has been trying to fasten itself to some noise in the night, but a
rare and threatening pause of silence has fallen on the city, and here
he is, chained behind a hotel desk forever, awake when everyone else in
the world is asleep, except Room 492, and he won’t go to bed, he’s
still talking, and there is no escape.”
Erie pours words into the silence, words that spatter and drain away unheard. They are a bragging, wise-cracking lament that centers on his loss of his dead friend, the former Night Clerk, Hughie. In the streets there lies a physical threat—of a beating from the men from whom he borrowed money to buy flowers for Hughie’s funeral, and whom he cannot pay back. But the real threat is not physical: “I wouldn’t never worry about owing guys, like I owe them guys. I’d always know I’d make a win that’d fix it. But now I got a lousy hunch when I lost Hughie I lost my luck—I mean, I’ve lost the old confidence. He used to give me confidence.” (35)
Yet his words have made contact, and in the play’s final moments, the Night Clerk accepts the rules of Erie’s game as Hughie had done. To Erie, the moment of realization that in the night he has touched another life is a “saving revelation”; (35) to Hughes it is even more: “Beatific vision swoons on the empty pools of the Night Clerk’s eyes. He resembles a holy saint, recently elected to Paradise.” (32) The vision of beatitude, a saint’s vision, is no more than a pipe-dream, but it is enough. What is perhaps unclear in The Iceman Cometh is explicit here, that man’s only sense of life comes through sharing a vision with another human being. The vision has no truth; it contains no hope. Yet it offers movement, and it is the focus of existence. It is a far remove from the dreams of Robert Mayo or of Juan Ponce de Leon, who saw, or sought to see, God in their visions. No such matter animates Erie and the Night Clerk or those living in Harry Hope’s back room. The pipe-dream is only the way to sustain life; yet to dream is to endure.
The complex social imagery and the full psychological elaboration of the cycle held O’Neill’s interest through the beginning of 1939. In that year, all solitudes were invaded, all walls broken. By June, the cycle was unofficially shelved, and O’Neill had turned to writing about the lives of the down-and-outs in The Iceman Cometh and Hughie, as if, by retreating into the debris of humanity, he might find shelter from names like Munich, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The dreams that in the cycle led a man toward action, out and into open warfare with his world, now changed, lost their power and became a form of memory as man turned weakly toward past illusions and huddled from the world. In bomb shelters, men do not behave very differently, perhaps, from the way they behave in The Iceman Cometh.
* Cf. Langner, 403. “He had another one-act play which, together with (Hughie) might make a full evening in the theatre, but he did not give me this other play as it needed further revision.” Gelb, 843, mentions the Irish chambermaid as subject.
** The use of the key is important stage business. It is the only non-verbal sound from within the lobby until the dice roll along the Counter at the end of the play. O’Neill marks the turning point in the play, the moment when Erie hits the farthest ebb of his loneliness, with the stage direction “For a while he is too defeated even to twirl his room key.” (30) The moment was underscored memorably in the Stockholm production when the actor, Bengt Ekiund, dropped the key. In so bare a scene, the action, the loss of the fetish, assumed climactic proportions.
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