AIN'T IT THE TRUTH: HUGHIE AND THE POWER OF FICTION*
In her book Dialogue in American Drama, Ruby Cohn criticizes Eugene O'Neill's skill as a writer of dialogue and a creator of character. Adopting Hofmannsthal's identification of O'Neill's "wet sponge" tendency as her central referent, Cohn presents a persuasive, specific, and complete analysis of O'Neill's weaknesses as a dramatist. She notices a lack of both humaneness and humanity in his characters (25). According to Cohn, this profoundly crippling dramaturgical problem stems from what she sees as O'Neill's propensity for "the discussion rather than the dramatization of emotion" (28). In other words, O'Neill uses dialogue for the verbalization of private thoughts rather than as an enactment of a specific and unique dramatic moment. He uses soliloquies to express the unspoken, releasing with explanation whatever dramatic tension the play's action had established earlier in the drama. Characters' lines become mere vehicles for the exposition of character (29). Silence is drained of meaning; nuance and subtlety give way to laborious speech laden with explicit associations and overt thematic significance. O'Neill's attempt to elevate his characters to mythic stature ironically results in their being stripped entirely of their human dimension. Or, in Eric Bentley's words, "the more he attempts, the less he succeeds" (Cohn 26).
Perhaps with Hughie O'Neill has subverted Bentley's claim, ostensibly attempting less while achieving much more. Cohn acknowledges that Hughie, along with The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night, are "three masterpieces among 46 published plays" (67). Travis Bogard calls Hughie "an epitome of O'Neill's mature theatrical style and statement ... a perfect dramatic poem" (419). In O'Neill, Son and Artist, Louis Sheaffer refers to the play as "a little gem" indicating that O'Neill "had now mastered his art" (521). To Laurin Roland Porter it is "a small gem of a play whose brilliance derives as much from its economy of characterization as from its poetic use of language" (179).
Porter's comments offer us initial access to the reasons for this universally effusive critical response. Hughie consistently avoids the excesses of characterization that plagued O'Neill's earlier works, such as Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra. Rather than weave a complex web of reciprocal and polar relationships among many characters spanning a considerable length of time, Hughie presents an hour in the lives of two people, one of whom rarely speaks. Yet the audience comes to know these characters more thoroughly and poignantly in a single act than those of O'Neill's earlier, more massive and multiplicitous plots. More remarkably, the character from whom the play derives its name never appears on stage. We learn of the conditions of his life, and of the details of its contact with Erie's, only through Erie's slangy remembrances. Yet Hughie's memory endures in us with vibrance and substance, exposing our experience of the lives of earlier O'Neill protagonists as abstract and objectified.
The language O'Neill employs in Hughie indicates that he had overcome what Cohn identifies as his tendency in the early work to mask shallowness and superficiality of diction and character in dialect (23-24). Erie's. speech, though colloquial, is not wrought with a dialect phonetically enforced through a system of contraction, elision, ellipsis, and apostrophe, as is Yank's in The Hairy Ape and Eben's in Desire Under the Elms. Erie's hard-boiled diction creates in the reader's mind its own appropriate accents, emphases, and pronunciations. Similarly, the reader's imagination is no longer circumscribed by the cumbersome stage directions of the earlier plays. Instead of literally telling the reader, as well as the actor, what specific emotion or psychic response Charlie Hughes' face should be registering at a particular moment, O'Neill here renders the actual, living texture of Charlie's sensation and intellection, freeing both reader and actor to envision whatever expression or posture is accurate to the reality of Charlie's current condition. In Hughie, O'Neill's language has become an instrument of imagination rather than exposition.
That Hughie marks the apogee of O'Neill's mastery of his medium is unmistakably evident. Cohn, in further praise of the play, affords it a significant position in the history of the development of modern drama as well. She associates Erie with the heroes of Camus, Sartre, Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet, and holds that "in Hughie O'Neill dramatizes the prototypical Absurdist situation--man's confrontation with mortality" (61). Thus Hughie, composed in 1941-2, is revealed as anticipating the existential concerns of the next generation of playwrights, despite its posthumous publication in 1959, some five years after Waiting for Godot.
In this connection, Cohn identifies the salient feature of the relationship between characters in Absurdist drama: "Only the Other can testify to the reality of the Self, but the identity of that Other is unimportant" (62). Accordingly, then, as characters whose relationship occurs within the parameters of "Absurdist situation," Erie and Hughie, as well as Erie and Charlie, ought to participate in this reciprocal disinterest in the "identity" of the Other suggested by Cohn. Yet, crucially to O'Neill's meaning, they do not.
The new night clerk's identity is of direct and telling importance to Erie. He insists upon learning the reluctant clerk's full name, Charlie Hughes, immediately upon meeting him (O'Neill 10); the fact that Charlie's last name matches that of Erie's recently departed friend initiates a series of similarities between the two clerks that at first provokes comparison and at last demands virtual identification. By the end of the play, Erie has established that Charlie is "forty-three ... Or maybe it is forty-four" (13), is married, has three children, and hails from Saginaw, Michigan. Erie's interest in the details of Charlie's identity is mirrored by his knowledge of those of Hughie: we learn that the former clerk was forty-three years old, married to a woman named Irma, had two children, and came to New York from "a hick burg upstate" (24).
Yet the importance of Hughie's identity to Erie, as well as Erie's to Hughie, goes beyond these superficial, biographical data. Their relationship exemplifies and chronicles the elemental human need to establish a living contact with an Other outside of one's Self; not only to "testify to the reality of the Self," but to enact a reciprocity of identity, a sharing of value, condition, and desire that at once affirms both the Self and the Self's meaning to an identity beyond it. Theirs is the story of the importance of feeling that you're somebody, and that you're important to somebody else.
Through Erie's poignant recherche of his friendship with the former night clerk, we learn with high precision and specificity exactly how Hughie maintained and restored Erie's sense of Self. Through his ingenuous, inquisitive interest in Erie's life on "the Big Stem," in the "dames" and the "bangtails" (16) of Erie's Broadway existence, he legitimized Erie's life as one worthy of attention, even as an object of admiration. These elements of risk, danger, and passion were missing from Hughie's life, and Hughie's persistent questioning indicated to Erie that his quotidian, casual contact with even their sleaziest manifestations bespoke a certain insouciant freedom not available to all men.
Hughie placed unconditional trust in Erie: in Erie's words, "that guy would believe anything!" (22). During their mock crap-shooting sessions at the desk, Hughie innocently used Erie's dice, "and he'd never ask to give 'em the once-over" (21). That integrity could exist "on the Big Stem" was made possible by Hughie's assumption of Erie's; the blind, uninformed faith Hughie placed in Erie created the necessity of ethical decision in a life otherwise void of ethical concern. As a consequence, ethical action was given a place in Erie's life, and he was given the opportunity to embrace it. He did: to Charlie he confides that he would never "ring in no phoneys on a pal. I'm no heel" (21).
Hughie's growing interest in gambling put Erie in a position of responsibility, again forcing a choice upon his sensibility which otherwise would never have been challenged in that particular way. When Hughie asked him to place two dollars he had taken from his wife's purse on the horse of Erie's choice, Erie refused and got Hughie to return the money. Erie has seen himself become capable of brotherly authority and protection. This act of benign instruction catalyzed by Hughie's interest represents the only performance of any such act within memory: "Boy Scouts got nothin' on me, pal, when it comes to good deeds. That was one I done. Too bad I can't remember no others" (23). But he can remember one, and the memory informs his sense of Self.
During their friendship, Hughie restored Erie's confidence in himself. After an unsuccessful night at the races or with the women, when Erie would return home to the hotel "without a buck, feeling lower than a snake's belly" (31), the two would shoot their game of mock craps; Erie would amaze Hughie with his prowess: "You sure were born lucky" (21), He would regale the clerk with his inflated tales of the Broadway life. Between the gentleman's gambling, the stories, and Hughie's unequivocal wonder at Erie's role in both, Erie would "get to seein' myself like he seen me" (31). Hughie's unabashed, naive testimony to Erie's luck, skill, and underworld notoriety reinforced Erie's respect for his own flagging capacities. The strength of the Self was confirmed by the encouragement of an Other.
Yet in the contact forged between Hughie and Erie, much more was generated than a confirmation of "the reality of the Self." There was a sharing of identities, an emerging of the individual from within his discrete, solipsistic sphere of value and understanding, and an introduction into the world of the Other, in all of its foreignness, beauty, and incomprehensibility. Moreover, as it is described by Hughie, this engagement of the Self in an identity beyond it is an entirely reciprocal process necessarily involving an Other that is affected as deeply as is the protagonist Self.
Erie successfully removed Hughie from the stifling context of the hotel desk and projected him for a time into the world of the Broadway shark, which up to that point Hughie had been experiencing only vicariously through Erie's tales. Erie "kidnapped him one day and took him down to Belmont" to see the bangtails run (22). Hughie enjoyed "the track, the crowd and the horses" so completely that Erie was "scared he'd pass out with excitement." Yet Hughie's joy was not merely a result of the fact that it was his first glimpse of the frenetic energy of the track. He was able to cut through the distracting ceremony of the races to arrive at a simple, unadorned realization of the aesthetic quality of the horses, to which his friend Erie had devoted such time and from which he had derived such pleasure: "They're the most beautiful things in the world, I think" (22). Hughie's assessment reveals the depth of his appreciation of Erie's world, and, by association, the purity of his understanding of the identity of his friend, who would "rather sleep in the same stall with old Man o' War than make the whole damn Follies" (22).
Erie discloses that he entered Hughie's world for a brief time as well. Erie, although he says that he "would rather be shot" (26) than be subjected to the "family racket," took up Hughie's invitation to dine one evening with his wife Irma and his two children. He noticed that the couple seemed "resigned ... as if each was givin' the other a break by thinking, 'Well, what more could I expect?'" (25). Yet, just as Hughie came to have a sense of the beauty of the bangtails of Erie's world, so did Erie come to an appreciation of the children of Hughie's, in his own laconic, frank way: "They was quiet like Hughie. I kinda liked 'em" (27). Erie expresses wounded disappointment, couched, characteristically, in the cynical expressions of the Broadway sport, at Irma's disapproval of his influence: "I coulda liked her--a little--if she'd give me a chance.... Well, to hell with it. She had me tagged for a bum, and seein' me made her sure she was right" (27). The tone of Erie's words betrays his hurt feelings at having been deemed undesirable, as well as his resentment that Hughie's world proved to be less accessible to him than was his to Hughie. Yet he was there, and he witnessed the resignation that made him and his life so vitally meaningful to Hughie.
In hearing Erie's rendering of his friendship with Hughie, we understand the mutual humanization they effected for each other through this sharing of identities. However, as Erie expounds upon the details of their dependence upon each other and of his sincere grief at Hughie's death, Charlie, the current night clerk, presents us with a living embodiment of the desperate meaninglessness and absurdity in which Hughie's life must have been mired before he and Erie came to know each other. Charlie has "forgotten how it feels to be bored" (8): boredom would imply that at least a memory of human engagement persists. It does not. Charlie "long ago ... gave up caring whether questions were personal or not" (12). He is unable even to feel despair (18); the "memory of hope" exists only in the rumbling of the passing El trains, locked in their repetitive, remote patterns of approach and recession, never arriving (19).
O'Neill foregrounds the resemblance of the two clerks throughout the play. There are the biographical similarities: last name, age, marital status, job, and small-town origin. Erie is struck by something in Charlie's demeanor that evokes the memory of his deceased friend: "I notice, you don't look like Hughie, but you remind me of him somehow" (10-11), and later, "Say, you do remind me of Hughie somehow, pal. You got the same look on your map" (20). Erie remarks that "you're like Hughie" after commenting that, like Hughie, Charlie looks to be ten years older than he actually is (13). Furthermore, the association between the psychic conditions of the two clerks is made explicit as Erie expresses frustration at the lack of attention granted him by Charlie during his attempts at communication: "Hughie was as big a dope as you until I give him some interest in life" (26).
This "interest in life" is given its animating spark in both Hughie and Charlie by the stories of the life of a Broadway sport that Erie tells them. Those critics who have written on Hughie seem entirely to agree upon the thematic significance of these tales. Bogard sees Hughie as a reiteration of the theme of The Iceman Cometh, in which "O'Neill had shown the fostering of illusion bred a certain comfort that was a protection from despair" (418). Carol Bilman writes that Erie creates "the illusions necessary to sustain life in the midst of the enshrouding darkness of modern civilization" (Item 25). Robert Butler concurs: "Erie creates warmth and meaning by giving people illusions which have a positive, life-giving function" (6). The critical consensus is clear: Erie provides the illusions that the Self and the Others need to continue living in the face of meaninglessness.
This view of Erie as illusionist diminishes Hughie's potency and O'Neill's meaning. Erie readily admits that his tales are not fact: "I was wise I was kiddin' myself. I ain't a sap" (O'Neill 31). By calling attention to this fact during an attempted conversation with one of the two auditors of his stories, he necessarily destroys any possibility of illusion in his audience. A magician never explains his tricks before their performance: to do so would be to deny their illusory reality. Given this willing admission, O'Neill, through Erie, is careful to establish that Erie's tales, though not fact, are grounded in truth, are true at their core: "What I fed Hughie wasn't all lies. The tales about gambling wasn't. They was stories of big games and killings that really happened since I've been hangin' around" (31).
Erie, whom O'Neill identifies prominently in Hughie's list of characters as "a teller of tales," is an author of fictions. Although the terms "illusion" and "fiction" are at times used interchangeably in the criticism (Butler 5), their distinction in emphasis is crucial to Hughie's import. Illusion is severed from possibility; it will not abide what is real. Fiction was born in the real, is rooted there fundamentally. Fiction loves possibility. Erie's fictions do not merely enable him and Hughie to continue acting in the face of meaninglessness, but afford them the possibility of conquering meaninglessness by achieving meaning in each other's identities and each other's lives. Cohn proposes that in Hughie, Erie and Hughie "learn to kill the time of their lives by gambling together" (63). In reality, they have learned to fill the time of their lives with sure things. Erie's "big horseshoe of red roses" is not a testament to the illusion of friendship, but to friendship itself; nor is it a testament to the illusion of meaning, but to meaning itself; nor is it a testament to illusion at all, but to what is true.
--James C. McKelly
Bilman, Carol. "Language as Theme in Eugene O'Neill's Hughie." Notes on Modern American Literature, (1979), Item 25.
Bogard, Travis. Contour In Time. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Butler, Robert. "Artifice and Art: Words in The Iceman Cometh and Hughie." The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, 8 (Spring 1981), 3-6.
Cohn, Ruby. Dialogue in American Drama. Bloomington/London: Indiana University Press, 1971.
O'Neill, Eugene. Hughie. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.
Porter, Laurin Roland. "Hughie: Pipe Dream for Two." Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill. Ed. James J. Martine. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1984, pp. 178-188.
Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973.
*A paper delivered at the Comparative Drama Conference sponsored by the Classics Department of the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, on March 27, 1987.
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