HUGHIE: SOME LIGHT ON O'NEILL'S MOON
Eugene O'Neill's one-act play Hughie (1941), the only finished work of his planned cycle, "By Way of Obit," is frequently linked to The Iceman Cometh (1939) because the two plays share the motif of the pipe-dream or the saving life-lie. Hughie connects just as importantly, however, with O'Neill's last complete play, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1942). Critically regarded as a disappointment, Moon has won ridicule from Eric Bentley, Mary McCarthy, and Ruby Cohn, who dismiss virtually all but its mythic qualities.1 But Hughie points to a thematic and structural continuum in the late works that helps to illuminate the final play.
Two related patterns develop through Iceman, Long Day's Journey Into Night (1940), Hughie and Moon. After O'Neill's career-long emphasis on how the closeness of love and hate dooms marriage and the family, the late plays provide a progression toward some consolation for that failure. The second pattern is structural. It inheres in the changing role of a character who listens to an exhortation at the dramatic center of the play, a "pitch" that in Hughie comprises almost all the dialogue. Although the new night clerk Hughes and Josie Hogan are technically the stage listeners in their respective plays, each becomes the agent of a consoling resolution.
These linked developments rest within O'Neill's use of the Jamie O'Neill character, a glib and charming Irish-American, dispossessed, anti-poetic, cynical about women, disintegrating in heavy drinking. Various renderings of the playwright's older brother appear as the salesman-reformer Hickey in Iceman, as the down-and-out gambler and teller of tales Erie Smith in Hughie, and, in more openly biographical avatars, as Jamie Tyrone in Journey and Moon. Change in the use of the Jamie figure occurs in two ways. First, while he remains utterly alienated in Iceman and Journey, the two later plays offer him a degree of solace and provide audiences with the satisfaction of two desolate persons finally making contact. Secondly, in the last play O'Neill displaces his focus onto a more energetic and spiritually wholesome character, Josie, who represents an alternative to unremitting bleakness on the one hand and saving life-lies on the other in a godless universe. Her closing benediction is not for Jamie alone.
Characteristically for O'Neill, in these four late plays it is marriage, not just the wife, that is the destructive force. (The husband in Ile is as culpable as the wife in Before Breakfast.) Iceman's Hickey has just killed his wife Evelyn, whose pity had made his life unendurable. The ghosts of their wives torment Hickey and Harry Hope, and marriage between Cora and Joe is clearly an absurd dream. In Journey, the failure of the Tyrone men to rescue Mary Tyrone from drug addiction does not draw them closer, and the family fails in every respect. In Hughie, Erie maligns the late night clerk's wife as an inadequate companion and mourner; he mocks the notion of marriage for himself; and the new clerk, who is married, is wretched. In Moon, marriage is impossible between Jamie and the formidable farm woman he admires; Josie's demands are more than he can bear, not because of anything she asks for but because of her wholesomeness. Rather than revive him, her love heightens his self-loathing in general and in particular his guilt for dallying with a prostitute on the train that carried his mother's coffin.
Since marriage and family fail, camaraderie is the substitute that O'Neill explores in these works. Fraternity in Iceman is only a fragile bulwark against desolation, but it serves. Even the "tarts" are sexless chums to the group we meet in the back room of Hope's saloon. In Journey, of course, the concept of fraternity is grimly ironic, given Jamie's complicated motives toward his sick younger brother. But in Hughie, "fraternity" between the gambler and both Hughies sustains where family fails or does not exist. Unlike Iceman, in which the action circles from a stupor at the "bottom of the sea" to the possibility of change, and then back to the bottom, Hughie advances. The emergence of a second Hughes is a positive development in contrast to Iceman's bleak awakening of Larry and Parritt and the group's repudiation of Hickey.
In Iceman and Journey, characters' self-revelations are generally thwarted, deflected, unmet by like responses. One of these moments occurs when the young poet Edmund Tyrone tells his father of an experience at sea: "For a second you see--and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!" (Act IV). This "vision of beatitude" contributes nothing to the relationship of father and son; it has occurred in the past and in solitude, and James Tyrone, unlike the audience, is little affected by his son's monologue. On the other hand, Erie Smith meets with some success in his effort to recreate a situation with the "meaning" that the first Hughie had brought him. Human connection occurs as well in the dramatic present in Moon. At the end of Act Two, Jamie Tyrone yields to spiritual intimacy when he sobs "rackingly" on Josie's breast. As a result he feels his soul at peace, as if his "sins had been forgiven." Both Hughie and Moon, then, while less complex and resonant works than Iceman and Journey, contain lyrical moments of release from hopelessness.
All four plays are about efforts at salvage from despair. In Iceman and Journey those efforts end in calamity. In the name of friendship Hickey proselytizes the denizens of Hope's bar in order to embrace them in his guilt. As a result he adds to Evelyn's murder Parritt's suicide, Larry's spiritual death, and his own probable execution, inasmuch as two policemen hear his confession. In Journey the Tyrone men cannot save Mary from drugs or one another from desolation; if Edmund survives in spite of Jamie and their father, he will always be "a little in love with death." Erie, however, rescues both himself and Hughes. At the play's conclusion Erie's commitment has shifted from the dead Hughes to the living one. "His soul is purged of grief, his confidence restored," the stage directions indicate, and his new partner embarks on the dice-game "manfully," a word which, whatever else it may mean, denotes vital responsiveness. The talisman-name Arnold Rothstein has ensured that the gratifying association will be repeated; the two characters wink at each other.
In Moon Jamie Tyrone, like the second Hughes, is presented as the living "dead," but Josie's efforts to warm him to interaction have limited success before he goes away. Jamie's knowledge of his rottenness is too complete to permit compromise with lies that Erie and Hughie can relish. But this final work does not conclude with a return to the "bottom of the sea" or the smothering fog. Josie's failure to win Jamie over from aloneness and death manifests a rearrangement of the pattern in Moon.
While the Jamie figure makes overtures in all four plays, during the action of Moon it becomes clear that he is also at the receiving end of exhortation. Josie is the more dynamic striver, and Jamie is only one of two characters with whom she struggles. Her father, a benign antagonist, will make her life endurable at the play's end. The shift from stupefying pain of family in Journey and Iceman to non-familial camaraderie in Hughie evolves to comfort within a literal family in Moon. Though Tyrone leaves forever, he recedes into "an exceptionally beautiful sunrise" which is the "token" of his and Josie's fleeting emotional nakedness and their long night's journey into communication. Though solace cannot revive the deteriorated Tyrone, it is dramatically present in the Hogans' affection and resilience and in the play's final lines, Josie's benediction, which articulates her own arrival at peace.
Corresponding to this increased consolation for the failure of married love is a progression in the role of the stage listener who is subjected to virtuoso persuasiveness. The persuader argues in order to transform that stage audience, and transformation through rhetoric follows a developing line through the four plays. When Hickey intends to convert his listeners to his mode of facing up to pipe-dreams, his confession produces either death or retreat to psychological safety. The best that results is the group's final assessment that their friend has been demented. The Journey Jamie's major speech is his fourth-act confession to Edmund that he has made the younger brother his "Frankenstein." Though he cherishes Edmund's writing talent, his envy has driven him to make his brother his partner in dissoluteness. Even as he confesses, he warns the "kid" of his continuing danger. The mixed effects of the older brother's influence--worldliness and a love for language on the one hand, health-destroying dissipation on the other--have been accomplished before the time of the play; they are not present action, and Jamie's lengthy speech, like Edmund's to their father, leaves no substantial new mark. Edmund is merely disgusted at Jamie's "shooting off his mouth" and more generally miserable.
In the last two plays O'Neill makes a lasting transformation become the immediate action. In this respect Hughie most resembles Moon. As Erie and Jamie dwell on their ghosts--the former night clerk and Jamie's mother, respectively--each is at the same time shaping his stage listener into a comforting reincarnation of the dead person. Erie's recreation of the night clerk is fruitful: with the aid of the city's oppressiveness, his monologue transforms Hughie's namesake. Similarly desperate, Jamie in Moon takes advantage of Josie's devotion by conjuring, in Act Three, a surrogate mother who can forgive him. Despite their bluster and misunderstandings fostered by Hogan, Jamie and Josie do communicate. She convinces him to remember his need for her without shame. Though he is mortified at recalling their intimacy and tries to undermine it with cynicism, with great struggle he corrects that subversion and leaves without the defenses he arrived with. Death-bound though he is, refashioning Josie as his mother has eased him. After the calamities wrought in Iceman and Journey by verbal manipulation, the next two plays delineate some creative metamorphosis.
But Jamie's small solace is not the play's resolution, and Erie's victory alone is not that play's resolution. The most curious way in which Hughie points toward Moon is in what O'Neill does with the role of protagonist. The stage directions in the one-act depict the inner life of Charles Hughes, for the most part independent of Erie's expostulations. This extensively detailed silent dramatization, which has consistently defied theatrical presentation, makes Hughie II more than the minor character his mere lines suggest. In their ballet-like ritual, these two wretched men are in tandem the protagonist(s)--on the page if not yet in performance. This broadening of focus prepares for Moon.
Critics like Doris Falk who call Moon's Jamie the playwright's most undramatic protagonist are paying more attention to biography than to structure.2 Mythic figure though Josie may be, she is not the archetypal nurturer that Cybel is in The Great God Brown but a forceful protagonist. From the play's outset she impels the action, conspiring first against her father and then with him. Her needs advance the action: what is at stake is her home and her only chance at love. The audience honors what she wants rather than the living hell that Jamie clings to. Alongside a Jamie figure so lost to hope, O'Neill places a protagonist with the emotional strength to handle profound loss without self-pity or self-deception. Her capacity for generosity and fun is not incidental or sentimental but an alternative response to catastrophe. A reader without biographical bias would see Jamie as the major event in Josie's story. The opening scene with her fleeing brother, for example, makes little dramatic sense unless the play is hers.
The issue is not one of gender. In dramatic function Josie resembles Erie more than Jamie does. Frightened as never before, she too confronts someone who appears emotionally dead; her task too is to define her position with the replica of a man she had once trusted. On parallel courses, Josie and Erie woo their quasi-dead with prodigious wit and energy. The urgent persuasiveness, then, of the Jamie figure in Iceman, Journey, and Hughie recurs in Moon more in Josie than in the passive, enfeebled Jamie Tyrone. While, unlike Erie, she faces truth boldly, she and Erie both are able to convert their pain into a life-creating force.
In this considerable way Hughie is closer to Moon than to the other plays, and the pattern discloses that O'Neill's final expression was not simply a fantasied release of his brother's tortured spirit but a broader vision of human resourcefulness.
1 Eric Bentley, The Dramatic Event (New York: Horizon Press, 1954), p. 33; Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles: 1937-1962 (New York: Noonday Press, 1963), p.88; Ruby Cohn, Dialogue in American Drama (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), pp. 63-66.
2 Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1958), p. 175.
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