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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. X, No. 1
Spring, 1986



Although Eugene O'Neill completed his one-act play Hughie in 1941, it was not published until a year after Edward Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958. Without evidence that Albee had read O'Neill's manuscript, one finds salient correspondences between these one-acts in technique and idea.

The action in both plays is a rhetorical seduction. A desperate man prevails on a stranger who is conventional, laconic, and resistant. The garrulous protagonist in both works, while not a monologist as in O'Neill's Before Breakfast, so dominates that performances are tours de force for the lead actor. Despite this one-sidedness, the tension in each play derives from the disparate private worlds of the two conversants. The dominant character, O'Neill's gambler Erie Smith and Albee's Jerry, uses forceful and immediate language in his plea for emotional contact, while the passive character is anchored to his territory and to being unresponsive. The event within each play is the passive character's reversal from distance to involvement, in reply finally not to the other's urgency but his own.

With fewer characters and less complicated plots than their authors' longer works, the one-acts repeat the longer dramas' focus on desolation and failed communication. Both settings are lonely islands within a throbbing New York City, in which the protagonist dreads his squalid off-stage room. Death is a real presence for Erie, in the loss of the first nightclerk named Hughes and hints of his own murder, and for Jerry, who is choreographing being killed.

The two stage listeners in business suits are the second Hughes and Peter, lodged at their territorial symbols, the hotel desk and the park bench. Married and employed, they exude a conformity that contrasts with the talkative characters' transience and eccentricity. Erie and Jerry, inept at any type of partnership, express contempt for women and are friendless. What draws each of them to the conformist stranger is not individual qualities but clues, like a name or a pipe, that make him representative. These two stolid types, for their part, guard a fragile grasp of themselves.

The anecdotes that Erie and Jerry tell define their future relationships with their stage companions. Erie's recalled power to enchant the first Hughes becomes a blueprint for the connection that is born before the audience with the present Hughes. Jerry's dog story not only reveals his intense measures to break through alienation from other creatures; it also becomes part of the larger Zoo story, which will be completed and ready for the press only when his rhetoric transforms his spectator into his killer.

What small success the protagonists are able to achieve is dreary; the gambler Erie, his life threatened by creditors, gains a "pal" to survive the night; Jerry wins human engagement at the cost of his life. But it is success, and it lies in trapping their listeners through story-telling.

In Hughie and The Zoo Story the function of persuasion to transform a listener into a participant creates a metaphor for their genre. The affirmative response of Hughes and Peter shows what drama is about--the efficacy of an intense vocal outpouring to move an intransigent heart.

--Marcelline Krafchick



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