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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 3
Winter, 1988



There is, perhaps, no modern dramatist whose work seems so stylistically different from Eugene O'Neill's than Samuel Beckett. Where Beckett is concise, O'Neill is long-winded; where Beckett is abstract, O'Neill is concrete; where Beckett is suggestive and subtle, O'Neill is descriptive and repetitive; where Beckett is minimalistic, O'Neill is expansive, perhaps even excessive. Yet many of their plays begin with the same premise--that life is apparently meaningless; and their characters struggle with the same basic existential problems--how to find meaning, or how to cope with meaninglessness.

These contrasting approaches to similar concerns can readily be seen in comparing Waiting for Godot with The Iceman Cometh. In Godot, the image of waiting captures Beckett's vision of the human condition: life is seen as passing the time in idle chatter and activity until some larger purpose reveals itself. In Iceman, belief in pipe dreams sustains hope in the face of life's meaninglessness. In each play, the stylistic imprint of its author is unmistakable: Godot is a sparse, abstract, minimalist work, while Iceman is dense, concrete, and excessive. What makes Hughie so interesting in this context, then, is that it seems to be O'Neill's Godot--a relatively short play limited to two male characters who seem to have little else to sustain them except each other, and whose world seems to be essentially confined to the space defined on stage. But on closer examination, Hughie proves to be unmistakably O'Neillian.

The setting is one aspect of the plays in which the parallel between the two works can be seen; while they serve similar purposes, they are quite different in detail. Godot takes place on a country road; the only physical feature is "a tree," which in Act II gains several leaves. In Hughie, the setting is much more concrete, realistic, and elaborately described:

The desk and a section of lobby of a small hotel on a West Side street in midtown New York.... It is one of those hotels, built in the decade 1900-10 on side streets of the Great White Way sector, which began as respectable second class but soon were forced to deteriorate in order to survive.... The desk faces left along a section of seedy lobby with shabby chairs. The street entrance is off-stage, left. (Hughie 262)

And so on. This sets the action of the drama in a specific place at a specific time, unlike Godot, which seems to take place outside of familiar time and space. The setting for Godot seems more like the Cosmos. The point here, though, is that for O'Neill the lobby of a run-down New York hotel is the Cosmos; for O'Neill, the human condition is glimpsed much more clearly in this hotel lobby than on a country road.

The recent production broadcast on public television, with Jason Robards, originally directed on stage by Jose Quintero and redirected for television by Terry Hughes, confirmed this view of the setting very effectively in the final moments of the play. A shrinking circle of light gradually enclosed the two characters while the rest of the stage darkened, so that all signs of the hotel lobby were lost in the darkness. All the viewer could see were the two characters surrounded by darkness, adrift in the Cosmos, an apt image indeed for O'Neill's vision of man's plight. Hughie has been called one of O'Neill's most optimistic plays by some critics, and the paradoxical hope for human contact within the dark void of the modern world invites comparison with Waiting for Godot; but as this recent production suggests, that optimism is tenuous, at best.

The introduction of characters in the two plays further indicates the different approaches of the two dramatists. In Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are simply listed in the dramatis personae by name. When the play begins Estragon is described as follows:

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before. (7)

When Vladimir enters, he is seen "advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart" (7), suggesting a caricature of Charlie Chaplin perhaps, but not providing much in the way of physical or psychological characterization. In Hughie, on the other hand, O'Neill describes his two characters in great detail. For example, he indicates that the Night Clerk is "in his early forties. Tall, thin, with a scrawny neck and jutting Adam's apple. His face is long and narrow, greasy with perspiration, sallow, studded with pimples from ingrowing hairs" (263). He also describes Erie as being "around medium height but appears shorter because he is stout and his fat legs are too short for his body. So are his fat arms" (263). These stage directions go on at great length, specifying details of dress, color of eyes and hair, styles of walking, and so forth. O'Neill's characters are often based on people he knew, which partially explains the abundance of detail; but in contrast to Beckett's, these descriptions suggest another effect. Beckett's characters are described in action: who they are is defined by what they do; and what they do very quickly involves the other character. Vladimir and Estragon are seen together, interacting virtually from the moment the curtain rises. (Even at the opening of Act II, when Vladimir appears alone on stage, he is highly agitated until Estragon appears, and Estragon's boots are on stage, which suggests the presence of Estragon himself.) In Hughie, on the other hand, the characters are described in isolation from the outset, and they remain rather separate from each other until the very end. Erie speaks, and Charlie barely listens; Charlie's thoughts are hardly ever verbalized, and they are often less than friendly.

The opening scenes illustrate this difference further. In Godot, when Vladimir enters, there is almost immediate interaction:

(Enter Vladimir)

Estragon: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

Vladimir: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

Estragon: Am I?

Vladimir: I'm glad to see you back. I thought you were gone for ever.

Estragon: Me too.

Vladimir: Together again at last! We'll have to celebrate this. (7)

Although Vladimir does not, at first, directly address Estragon, he does respond to Estragon's words; he thinks about something that Estragon has said. He then welcomes their reconciliation, a decidedly hopeful and positive opening moment.

In Hughie, the opening is quite different. After the lengthy stage directions describing the Night Clerk, in which he is seen alone for several moments, with "nothing to do," Erie enters. Then, after further lengthy stage directions describing Erie, the latter speaks:

(ERIE avoids looking at the NIGHT CLERK, as if he resented him.)

ERIE: (peremptorily) Key. (Then as the NIGHT CLERK gropes with his memory--grudgingly.) Forgot you ain't seen me before. Erie Smith's the name. I'm an old-timer in this fleabag. 492.

NIGHT CLERK: (In a tone of one who is wearily relieved when he does not have to remember anything--he plucks out the key.) 492. Yes, sir.

ERIE: (Taking the key, gives the CLERK the once-over. He appears not unfavorably impressed but his tone still holds resentment.) (264-265)

This is the conversation of two potential combatants stalking each other. Very few words are spoken; only the most utilitarian kind of contact is made. Soon after, in this opening scene, Erie becomes "secretive, with sinister undertones," and the Night Clerk (Charlie) "appears to listen with agreeable submissiveness and be impressed, but his mind is blank and he doesn't hear unless a direct question is put to him, and sometimes not even then" (266).

This is the way many of O'Neill's other plays end, with this kind of disconnectedness. One thinks of Mary Tyrone rhapsodizing on her lost youth, while her husband and sons sit silently, isolated from each other and from her, each one lost in his own faded hopes and dreams. Or Lavinia, the lone survivor of the Mannon family, shutting herself off from the world to face her destiny within the Mannon mansion. Or even Larry Slade, sitting alone at Harry Hope's, unable to feel part of the life that has returned to the bar as the others celebrate the resurrection of the sustaining pipe dreams. All of these signs of isolation, or aloneness, usually take center stage at the end of an O'Neill play; more often than not, the opening depicts people together, communicating, somehow sustaining each other, or trying to do so--the Tyrones, the Mannons, the men at Harry Hope's. All are not necessarily happily together, but there is a bond, or several conflicting bonds, that are quickly established. Hughie begins where many of the others end (especially the later plays); these other plays move from togetherness to isolation, while Hughie moves from isolation to togetherness.

In Beckett's Godot, the characters do not move; time passes, and the characters remain together at the end, much as they were at the beginning, to continue their ordeal, their waiting, their lives, which are eternally bound together. The play has a circular, or cyclical, pattern, rather than a progressive or regressive one, which more accurately describes the structure of Hughie, as well as many of O'Neill's other plays. In the case of Hughie, the characters move from isolation to camaraderie, from suspicion to supportiveness.

In Godot, Beckett dramatizes the companionship between the two central characters through dialogue that is often, paradoxically perhaps, rather disjointed and nonsensical. At one point, for instance, they have decided that, to pass the time, they will begin to converse calmly all over, again:

Vladimir: When you seek you hear.

Estragon: You do.

V: That prevents you from finding.

E: It does.

V: That prevents you from thinking.

E: You think all the same.

V: No no, impossible.

E: That's the idea, let's contradict each other. (41)

And so it goes, seeming much more like stream-of-consciousness, or free association, than conversation. To make the connections, Vladimir and Estragon seem to be operating within the same consciousness, aware .of the subconscious workings of a single set of memories, rather than searching for conversational cues within a casual interaction between two people. Immediately after this exchange, Estragon congratulates them: "That wasn't such a bad little canter" (42). This frequently repeated sentiment calls attention to their ability to engage each other's interest, to participate with each other in some kind of interaction that will pass the time.

This is quite different, structurally and dramaturgically, from the way in which O'Neill depicts the "Interaction" between Erie and Charlie. Their conversation makes more sense, on the surface, because it is mostly narrative and mostly in the form of monologue. For instance, early in the play, Erie explains that he received his "moniker" because he was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania:

I don't remember nothing much about Erie, P-a, you understand--or want to. Some punk burg! After grammar school, my Old Man put me to work in his store, dealing out groceries. Some punk job! I stuck it till I was eighteen before I took a run-out powder. (The NIGHT CLERK seems turned into a drooping waxwork, draped along the desk. This is what he used to dread before he perfected his technique of not listening: The Guest's Story of His Life. He fixes his mind on his aching feet. ERIE chuckles.) Speaking of marriage, that was the big reason I ducked. A doll nearly had me hooked for the old shotgun ceremony. Closest I ever come to being played for a sucker. This doll in Erie--Daisy's her name--was one of them dumb wide-open dolls. All the guys give her a play. Then one day she wakes up and finds she's going to have a kid. I never figured she meant to frame me in particular. Way I always figured, she didn't have no idea who, so she holds a lottery all by herself. Put about a thousand guys' names in a hat--all she could remember--and drew one out and I was it. Then she told her Ma, and her Ma told her Pa, and her Pa come round looking for me. But I was no fall guy even in them days. I took it on the lam. For Saratoga, to look the bangtails over. I'd started to be a horse player in Erie, though I'd never seen a track. I been one ever since. (269-270).

This is the standard O'Neill story of the "conventional," stifling, small-town youth left behind; it provides exposition, as well as an opportunity for an actor to tell an amusing, "theatrical" story. The details of the story, though, exclude the listener from participation in the experiences being recounted. Daisy, her Ma and Pa, Erie's Pa, the grocery store, escape to Saratoga--all of these concrete references make Erie an individual, different from other individuals with other stories and other details. Vladimir and Estragon seem to share a vaguely defined past, but O'Neill emphasizes that Erie and Charlie come from different molds. Thus, O'Neill engages the audience directly with his characters, as individuals, recognizing universal, concrete differences, while Beckett capitalizes on the more abstract notion that we share a collective past as human beings. Both approaches allow an audience to see the universal applications of the characters and situations depicted on stage; but Beckett's assumes a sense of sharing and connectedness, while O'Neill's derives from a sense of isolation and disconnectedness.

Apparently, O'Neill designed Hughie more to be read than staged (Carpenter 164), an intention which may help to explain one of the devices he uses to indicate the separation between the two characters. As the play progresses, although many of the stage directions relate to Erie, most of them consist of the thoughts of Charlie. Visually, the reader begins to separate stage directions (in italics in the Modern Library edition) from spoken words, and to associate most of the spoken words with Erie and many of the (italicized) inner thoughts with Charlie. The reader is further aided in this by the text, which also uses all upper case letters for CLERK (or NIGHT CLERK) frequently within the stage directions, thus making the attribution of thoughts often as visually clear as the attribution of words. The reader thus gains a sense that there is much dialogue here, and in a sense, there is, but it is really between the characters and the reader, rather than between the two characters, who remain quite unaware of each other's words and thoughts.

How to depict this on stage is, of course, the central challenge this play presents to any director. Whether one chooses to keep the thoughts silent, to use a voice-over with the actors on stage remaining silent, or to have Charlie speak his thoughts without any response or acknowledgment from Erie, perhaps using a lighting effect to set off thoughts from words, or to use projection screens to convey the Clerk's interior monologue; whatever approach is taken, the important point is that it should serve to bring the audience into an interaction with Charlie, while it should exclude Erie. In this way, through theatrical effect, the separation of the two characters is reiterated.

The dialogue in both Godot and Hughie may, for different reasons, then, seem disjointed, obscure, ambiguous. In Godot, the audience is the outsider, unaware of the precise connections the two characters make; but the connections are there, communication works, the dialogue races ahead. In Hughie, however, the audience is aware of more than either character, in terms of what the other says or thinks; the audience understands the connections, but communication between the two characters barely functions, and the dialogue often comes to an uncertain halt.

About midway through Hughie, for instance, Erie is laughingly remembering Hughie's naiveté concerning horses, when he suddenly becomes "reflective":

ERIE:...Y'know, it's funny how a dumb, simple guy like Hughie will all of a sudden get something right. He says "They're the most beautiful things in the world, I think." And he wins! I tell you, Pal, I'd rather sleep in the same stall with old Man o' War than make the whole damn Follies. What do you think?

NIGHT CLERK: (His mind darts back from a cruising taxi and blinks bewilderingly in the light: "Say yes.") Yes, I agree with you, Mr.--I mean, Erie.

ERIE: (With good-natured contempt.) Yeah? I bet you never seen one, except back at the old Fair Grounds in the sticks. I don't mean them kind of turtles. I mean a real horse. (The CLERK wonders what horses have to do with anything--or for that matter, what anything has to do with anything--then gives it up. Erie takes up his tale.) (276)

On several occasions in the play, Charlie summons himself back to the "conversation" like this, guessing at an appropriate reply. Often it works, and the conversation (or, that is, Erie's monologue) continues uninterrupted. In this case, however, his response is strikingly inappropriate, and even Erie is surprised by it. By responding affirmatively to Erie's proposition that it is better to sleep with a horse than with a woman, Charlie's words suggest a connection between the two men that does not exist. And so Erie does not respond in kind to Charlie; rather, he becomes defensive, challenging Charlie's agreement. Erie meant to shock Charlie into confrontation, followed, he hoped, by admiration; he was not expecting simple agreement.. Erie's misogyny goes unchallenged, as Charlie wonders what "anything has to do with anything." Charlie cannot make the connections because he does not listen to Erie; Erie cannot make the connections because he cannot hear what Charlie is thinking.

It is evident, even in this scene, that Erie wants to communicate. His speeches are not monologues because he does not attempt to engage in a dialogue. He obviously had a communicative relationship with Hughie for fifteen years. Now, he attempts several ploys to get Charlie to interact with him, and he is never malicious. If he insults Charlie, he does so playfully, "good-naturedly." In fact, ironically, by comparison, Vladimir and Estragon are far more malicious towards each other, calling each other names such as "moron," "vermin," "sewer rat," and worst of all, "Crritic!" (48). Vladimir often gives orders to Estragon, and the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky adds a malicious element to Godot that is absent from Hughie. The characters in O'Neill's play do not become outwardly angry at each other; that requires communication. They do, however, express frustration, anger, and bitterness at their situation, at Life.

Towards the end of the play, Erie wishes that Hughie were still alive so that he could boast to him of his false conquests with games and women, but then he has second thoughts, as he declares, "bitterly resigned":

But Hughie is better off, at that, being dead. He's got all the luck. He needn't do no worryin' now. He's out of the racket. I mean, the whole goddamned racket. I mean life. (287-288)

Charlie's frustration is evident in his responses to the street noises that break the silence throughout the play, from the relatively peaceful garbage men, taxicabs, and trains, to the more violent policemen, ambulances, and firemen. This audible movement towards violence parallels his own increasing sense of frustration and loneliness:

NIGHT CLERK: (His mind has hopped an ambulance clanging down Sixth, and is asking without curiosity: "Will he die, Doctor, or isn't he lucky?") (281)

and then,

("A fireman's life must be exciting." His mind rides the engine, and asks a fireman with disinterested eagerness: "Where's the fire? Is it a real good one this time? Has it a good start? Will it be big enough, do you think....I mean, big enough to burn down the whole damn city?") (282)

Charlie's silent nihilism is important because it conveys one of the options available in response to the existential plight.

In Hughie, destroying the city would end Charlie's misery. In Godot, however, there is no city, no concrete setting, but the contemplation of double suicide is the equivalent:

E: Let's hang ourselves immediately!

V: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn't trust it. E: We can always try.

V: Go ahead.

E: After you.

V: No no, you first.

E: Why me?

V: You're lighter than I am.

E: Just so!

V: I don't understand.

E: Use your intelligence, can't you?

(Vladimir uses his intelligence.)

V: (finally). ,I remain in the dark.

E: This is how it is. (He reflects.) The bough...the bough...(Angrily.) Use your head, can't you?

V: You're my only hope.

E: (With effort). Gogo light--bough not break--Gogo dead. Didi heavy--bough break--Didi alone. Whereas--

V: I hadn't thought of that.

E: If it hangs you it'll hang anything.

V: But am I heavier than you?

E: So you tell me. I don't know. There's an even chance. Or nearly.

V: Well? What do we do?

E: Don't let's do anything. It's safer. (12)

They ultimately decide to defer to a "higher" authority; they decide to wait for Godot to find out where they stand.

Similarly, in Hughie, Charlie is dissuaded from his desire to see the city destroyed when (in his mind) the fireman warns him of the danger:

("Sorry, Brother, but there's no chance. There's too much stone and steel. There'd always be something left." "Yes, I guess you're right. There's too much stone and steel. I wasn't really hoping, anyway. It really doesn't matter to me.") (282)

In both cases, the prospect that destruction may not be total, that someone will be left to endure, makes the nihilistic response unacceptable. In both plays, there is a sense that the individual actions of the characters are unimportant in the context of the larger problem, which is life itself. In Godot, the characters defer a final decision to wait for Godot; but in Hughie, the Night Clerk is confronted with steel and stone, formidable resistance.

In Godot, the possibility that Godot may still come tomorrow keeps Vladimir and Estragon waiting; if they were to kill themselves today, they might miss Godot if he came tomorrow. They can convince each other to endure because, together, they have a purpose; alone, either one would lose his will. In Hughie, however, it is only after rejecting the nihilistic option, after facing the steel and stone, that Charlie finally confronts his loneliness, and then begins to turn to Erie:

The CLERK's mind still cannot make a getaway because the city remains silent, and the night vaguely reminds him of death, and he is vaguely frightened, and now that he remembers, his feet are giving him hell, but that's no excuse not to act as if the Guest is always right: "I should have paid 492 more attention. After all, he is company. He is awake and alive. I should use him to help me live through the night. What's he been talking about? I must have caught some of it without meaning to." The NIGHT CLERK's forehead puckers perspiringly as he tries to remember. (285)

In the face of silence, Charlie now needs companionship, but because of the flawed communication between them, now Erie does not hear him until, in his bitterness, he faces the same truth. After he claims that Hughie is lucky to be "out of the racket," Charlie responds:

NIGHT CLERK: (Kicked out of his dream--with detached, pleasant acquiescence.) Yes, it is a goddamned racket when you stop to think, isn't it, 492? 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. There'd always be something left to start it going again. (288)

Here, Charlie's thoughts become his words, without his awareness, and this moment marks the beginning of genuine interaction between the two men, as they move, together, away from the reality of silence and death, and towards a mutually beneficial companionship, ultimately symbolized by the two men huddled over the dice, shooting craps. Just as Vladimir and Estragon play games to get them through the day, so now, Erie and Charlie have found a game to get them through the night. Day or night, the game symbolizes the human interaction we need to survive.

There is an important difference, though, between these two relationships. The friendship between Charlie and Erie is based on a false premise: "The CLERK sees [Erie] now as the Gambler in 492, the Friend of Arnold Rothstein--and nothing is incredible" (291). Charlie now has a "real" Gambler to replace his imaginary street characters; now he has someone real through whom he can live vicariously. And in this way, Erie gains another Hughie, someone who will sustain his pipe dream of being a skillful Gambler, thus renewing his confidence, and giving him life. This is very different from Vladimir and Estragon, whose relationship seems so much more complete, honest, and enduring. They also have Godot. Erie and Charlie do not even have an appointment; there is no evidence that anything like Godot exists to give their lives greater meaning than they now have.

Therefore, it is difficult not to interpret the final stage directions of Hughie as a signal to the audience, much as other stage directions have been directed at the audience:

[ERIE] chuckles, giving the NIGHT CLERK the slyly amused, contemptuous, affectionate wink with which a Wise Guy regales a Sucker. (293.)

Could this not be O'Neill himself winking in this way, not only at the Night Clerk, but at Erie and at the audience? Although the play clearly does move from isolation to connectedness, which is an optimistic movement, the connectedness is not firmly established, and it is not entirely clear where the movement ultimately is headed. In O'Neill's world, this kind of connection among people is often seen to be fragile indeed.

The final moment of Waiting for Godot has come to be somewhat emblematic of the existential dilemma:

V: Well, shall we go?

E: Yes, let's go.

(They do not move.)


Vladimir and Estragon have nowhere to go; their only hope is to wait together for Godot, who may or may not come. Their relationship, however, has developed over the course of the entire play, and is so endearing that this does not seem such a terrible plight. The same cannot be said, however, for Erie and Charlie. They, too, have nowhere to go; their only hope seems to be with each other. But their relationship is built on false dreams and premises, and they have no Godot for whom to wait. Erie and Charlie have only Lady Luck, who has come and gone before, and seems mostly to have gone. Waiting for their luck to turn, to win some "dough," holds far less certain promise for these gambling characters than the promise that Godot will come holds for Vladimir and Estragon. An unknown quantity seems more hopeful than one that is known to be capricious.

Compared to the endings of his other late plays, such as A Touch of the Poet, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Moon for the Misbegotten, in Hughie, O'Neill seems to present a relatively optimistic view on coping with life's apparent meaninglessness. The knowing wink at the end, however, suggests that O'Neill knows better, and so should we.

-- Steven F. Bloom


Beckett, Samuel. Waiting For Godot. New York: Grove Press, 1954.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Eugene O'Neill (Revised Edition). Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

O'Neill, Eugene. The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill, ed. Travis Bogard. New York: The Modern Library, 1967.



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