HUGHIE: BY WAY OF OBIT
Hughie, except for the unfinished More Stately Mansions , was the last of O’Neill’s plays to be published and produced. It was written soon after The Iceman and before the completion of Long Day’s Journey. It was planned as one of a group of one-act plays to be entitled By Way of Obit, but was the only one of these to be completed. Apparently unrelated to the sequence of great autobiographical plays of the final period, it seems to exist outside of time.
From the beginning Hughie has been recognized as a perfect creation of a minor genre, and it has steadily grown in stature. Like the early one-act plays of the sea, it was based on the author’s experience. But its brevity (it occupies less than 32 pages, and runs to less than an hour on the stage) and its lack of companion pieces set it apart. Produced in Stockholm in 1968, it was directed in America by José Quintero six years later as a full evening’s entertainment. But O’Neill himself emphasized that “it was designed more to be read than staged.” Only gradually has its full complexity and significance become apparent.
As simple realism, Hughie is acted in the setting of a “flea-bag hotel” off the “Great White Way,” “between 3 and 4 A.M. of a day in the summer of 1928.” The play consists of a long monologue (occasionally a dialogue) delivered by “Erie” Smith, a “small-fry gambler” and man-about-town, to the somnolent hotel clerk, who only occasionally listens, and then manages only perfunctory answers. This long monologue consists mostly of Erie’s memories of Hughie, the earlier hotel clerk who has recently died. (Erie is startled to hear that the new clerk is named Charlie “Hughes.”) Now Erie has come from a drunken celebration of Hughie’s funeral, and is desperately lonely. The plot, such as it is, describes his efforts to capture the new clerk’s attention and to enlist his friendship. But the clerk wishes only to be let alone, to doze and to dream. Only near the end does Erie succeed, by means of recognizing and sharing the new clerk’s dreams. The climax of the play comes with this recognition and shared communication. As the curtain falls, the two are happily rolling dice to pass the time till dawn.
The plot is relatively unimportant and the action minimal. If this were all, Hughie would remain a minor, realistic, one-act play. But beyond the level of “honest realism” the play achieves greatness on the level which O’Neill once described as “super-naturalism”--not the super-naturalism which is above and separated from the natural, but rather existing within the natural world, and illuminating and enhancing it. Egil Törnqvist has described “O’Neill’s Super-naturalistic Technique” as including: the use of poetic stage directions, audible thoughts, extended silences, off-stage sounds, repetitious phrases, metaphoric words and proper names, and symbolism of all kinds. Hughie achieves a triumph of this “super-naturalism.”
Beginning with The Moon of the Caribbees and other one-act plays of the sea, O’Neill had composed stage directions more poetic than practical. On the “S. S. Glencairn,” we may remember: “There is silence, broken only by the haunted, saddened voice ... of that music, like the mood of the moonlight made audible.” In Hughie there are many silences, now punctuating the spoken words; the off-stage music is now replaced by “the clanging bounce of garbage cans in the outer night”; and now the moonlight has given way to the dim light of the inner lobby of the ancient hotel off Broadway.
But the separate elements of this “super-naturalism” are less important than their combination in different and suggestive patterns. In Strange Interlude, for instance, the speaking of normally unspoken thoughts remained a separate technique, strikingly original but sometimes obtrusive. In Hughie the audible thoughts combine with the stage directions and off-stage noises to motivate the action and to enhance its significance. Sometimes these half-conscious thoughts arise from physical facts, sometimes they translate facts into conscious meanings, and sometimes they break through the level of consciousness to motivate later action and to create meaning.
Near the beginning, the clerk’s “feet are beginning to ache”; later “fallen arches”; then he hears “the sound of that surface car ... Flat wheeled and tired. Distant the carbarn and far away the sleep.” Fact has created fantasy, and fantasy has found expression in the pathetic fallacy of that “tired” street car. The incident is minor, but both fact and feeling start echoes to be heard later.
Near the middle, after “the garbage men have gone their predestined way,” ... “the clerk's mind remains in the street to greet the noise of a far-off El train.” But this off-stage noise grows in significance: “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.” The repetition of street noises suggests a philosophy both age-old and modern, in which the outer night creates the night within the mind.
Near the end, “the Clerk’s mind has rushed out to follow the siren wail of a fire engine.... ‘Where’s the fire?... Will it be big enough to burn down the whole damn city?’ ‘Sorry, there’s too much stone and steel, there’d always be something left.’” But later these subconscious thoughts repeat themselves: “Outside the spell of abnormal quiet presses suffocatingly.... The Night Clerk’s mind cowers away from it.... His feet are giving him hell.” And so he takes refuge in his dream. But a chance phrase of Erie’s interrupts: “the whole goddamned racket. I mean life.” And, “kicked out of his dream,” the Clerk blurts out: “Yes, it is a goddamned racket when you stop to think, isn’t it?... But we might as well make the best of it, because--Well, you can’t burn it all down, can you? There’s too much steel and stone.” And this discontinuity, in turn, kicks “Erie” out of his own dream of “Hughie,” so that the two dreamers can finally communicate.
This repeated interweaving of acts and thoughts, street noises and fantasies, spoken words and unspoken, and dreams finally breaking through into actual speech, creates the sensation of an eerie unreality enveloping the real world. But if this sensation is mostly unconscious, O’Neill’s “super-naturalistic technique” is mostly conscious. The Night Clerk “Blurts out with an uncanny, almost lifelike eagerness. ‘I beg your pardon, Mr--Erie--but...’” And curiously, the uncanny “Mr.--Erie” becomes, in the mind’s eye, “Eerie Smith.” Actually, in the Gelbs’ biography of O’Neill, Erie’s name is consistently misspelled “Eerie Smith.” And this, despite the fact that Erie has earlier described himself as born in that “punk burg, Erie, P-a.”
After the play is over, the protean character of “Erie” Smith, “Mr--Erie”, and “Eerie Smith” continues to expand like some genie into universal proportions. We remember that O’Neill had introduced him in his cast of characters as “‘Erie’ Smith, a teller of tales.” Erie had first told the tale of his old friend Hughie, “by way of obit.” And in the telling he had told much of his own life story, but had changed it a little to make his life more livable. Finally, to satisfy the dream of the new clerk, Hughes, he had imagined himself the big-time gambler, lighting a cigar with a “C” note, in the racket of life. By the power of his imagination he had compelled the new Hughie to listen, and to share. And now, by this merging of realism, fantasy and metaphor, Erie Smith has become the master of illusion, sailing the eerie waters of the mind. And Hughie, and/or Charlie Hughes, has become his eternal audience.
As a parable of the creative imagination, Hughie continues to exist outside of time. But as a dramatic fable, Hughie re-enacts the story of his author’s creative life and belongs to the year in which it was written. For almost a decade O’Neill had seemed to lose touch with his audience, groping through a night of frustration for some language to enthrall the audience of a new generation. In The Iceman Cometh he had succeeded. Now Hughie tells this tale, and Erie re-enacts his author’s frustration. And now O’Neill, by identification with “Eerie Smith,” becomes the ancient mariner of the imagination whose “Rime” he had adapted for the theatre almost a generation before. And “Hughie”--are you he?--becomes his newly captured audience. And in this tale of Erie and Hughie, O’Neill has once again been writing his own autobiography, “By Way of Obit.”
--Frederic I. Carpenter
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