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Dream and Live

 
BY Arthur Gelb
FROM The New York Times, April 19, 1959

"Hughie" is the last play by Eugene O'Neill that is likely to be published.  Ironically, in view of the fact that O'Neill spent a lifetime planning and writing double and triple-length plays and play-cycles, this final, posthumous volume is one of his shortest.  It is a one-acter, the first of eight that he outlined under the collective title, "By Way of Obit," and the only one of the projected series that he completed.

O'Neill gained recognition as a writer of one-act plays about the sea.  But soon after he had established his reputation with the full-length "Beyond the Horizon" in 1920, he commented, "I am no longer interested in the one-act play.  It cannot go far enough."

By 1940, he had gone so far that he felt impelled to return to the one-acter as relaxation from more arduous work.  He wrote "Hughie" soon after he had finished "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and while he was still struggling with his eleven-play cycle, of which he was to complete only "A Touch of the Poet."  "Hughie" reflects the theme of the longer plays, the them that occupied O'Neill during most of his life: Man cannot live without illusions; he must cling to his pipe dreams, even knowing they are pipe dreams, in order to survive.

Hughie himself is not a character in the play.  He was the night clerk of a seedy hotel, and had been dead for a week or two.  A small-time gambler and horse-player, down on his luck, named Erie Smith, is the play's protagonist.  He delivers O'Neill's message in a series of monologues: Hughie had pretended to believe in Erie as a species of Runyonesque, Broadway big shot and had thereby given both himself and Erie a raison d'tre.  Erie needs to recreate this relationship with the new night clerk, a colorless, defeated man, who is the play's only other character.  Erie finally succeeds in drawing the new clerk into his game, and the curtain comes down on the two men, gratefully picking up the pieces of the old pipe dream.

"Hughie" is a compassionate, shattering character study, more short story than play.  O'Neill has captured faultlessly the racy argot of Broadway, with its hollow, slangy cynicism.  In Erie's mouth it becomes an oddly moving expression of man's bogus, pitiful attempt at self-justification.  The night clerk is largely unheard.  His character is conveyed by the author's lengthy, often poetical stage directions, an absorbing counterpoint to the monologues, but design obviously for the reader, rather than the spectator.

As for example:

"The Clerk's mind remains in the street to greet the noise of a far-off El train.  Its approach is pleasantly like a memory of hope; then it roars and rocks and rattles past the nearby corner, and the noise pleasantly deafens memory; then it recedes and dies, and there is something melancholy about that. * * *"

Although "Hughie" is set in a West Side hotel, and the time is 1928, its two characters would be at home in Harry Hope's waterfront saloon of 1912, which is the setting for "The Iceman Cometh."  Erie is a less astringent Hickey, a Hickey not burdened with O'Neill's symbolic message of despair, a coarser, more elementary type -- but a blood-brother, nonetheless.  O'Neill has described them in almost the same words.  Both are short, stout, balding, with boyish faces, blue eyes, button noses and pursed mouths.  Both have the shrewd glance and breezy familiarity of manner, the air of the wised-up salesman confident he can always find a sucker.  Underneath the faade both are on the verge of crumbling.

The play has been put on successfully in Sweden, but O'Neill did not intend "Hughie" to be given a conventional stage production.  He had thought of some new technique, possibly utilizing a filmed background and sound track.  But in 1940, he was less interested in production than in publication of his work, and declined to be specific about what sort of innovation he had in mind.  He shrugged off the problem, saying: "It would require tremendous imagination.  Let whoever does it figure it out.  I wouldn't want to be around to see it."

 

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