A play in four acts set in "a cheap ginmill .. . situated on the downtown West Side of New York." The action covers two days and nights in early summer, 1912.
Act I: "The back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope's saloon," early morning. A dirty black curtain at the right separates the bar from the back room, which is crowded with round tables and chairs arranged in three rows, "front to back." In the left corner is a toilet, built out like a telephone booth; a nickel in the slot-phonograph is on the middle left wall, along with two grimy windows onto an interior courtyard. The walls and ceiling, once white, are now filthy. The floor, with iron spittoons here and there, is sawdust-covered. Four single wall brackets offer what illumination there is. Through the drawn back curtain at the right, the bar is visible by the light which filters in through windows onto the narrow street. It is obviously the morning after a habitually drunken evening for the denizens of the hotel who are sleeping it off.
At the left-front table is Hugo Kalmar, "a small man in his late fifties" with a large head, "crinkly long black hair streaked with gray, . . . square face with a pug nose, a walrus mustache, black eyes . . . thick-lensed spectacles," the stereotypical anarchist. He is asleep in his chair, his head resting on his arms folded on the table. Seated at the same table is Larry Slade, the only man in the room who is not asleep. He is a tall, raw-boned sixty-year-old with a gaunt, unshaven, Irish face and "a mystic's pale-blue eyes with a gleam of sharp sardonic humor." He is filthy and lice-ridden. Four men are asleep at the front-middle table: Piet Wetjoen, a huge Boer farmer type in his fifties who has run to fat but still owning "a suggestion of old authority"; Joe Mott, a light-skinned black, about fifty, in a derelict sporty suit, yet with an air of nattiness; James Cameron ("Jimmy Tomorrow"), about the same size and age as Hugo, in clean but threadbare black with "a face like an old, well-bred, gentle blood-hound's," educated voice and prim manners; Cecil Lewis ("The Captain"), a typical former English army officer of about sixty, lean figured, with white military mustache and bright blue eyes and "the big ragged scar of an old wound" visible on his shirtless left shoulder. Three men sit at the right-front table: Pat McGloin, a slovenly, sandy-haired, jowly man who looks like the ex-policeman he is; Ed Mosher, sixtyish, the habitual drunkard who shows "the influence of his old circus career in his [flashy] get-up"; and Harry Hope, the proprietor of the hotel. Hope is sixty, white-haired, and extraordinarily thin, instantly likable, "a softhearted slob, . . . a born easy mark" with a bark worse than his bite; he is a trifle deaf and wears badly aligned dime-store spectacles and cheap false teeth which click audibly. Alone at a table in the second line is Willie Oban, a Harvard law school alumnus in his late thirties, thin, haggard, dissipated, dressed in the remains of cheap clothes and shoes. "He keeps muttering and twitching in his sleep."
Rocky Pioggi, the night bartender, a swarthy, squat "Neapolitan-American in his late twenties," enters and slips Larry a quiet drink, laughing at the way Harry Hope has decided not to allow any more drinks on the house-"beginnin' tomorrow." In this way, the "touching credulity concerning tomorrow" is introduced as the theme which gives form to the play and identity to the characters, for this is a world of total failures, of people who live by what Ibsen in The Wild Duck called the saving lie. Larry, "de old Foolosopher" of the group, sums it up well: "The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." Each one of these characters has an illusion which makes existence, if not really living, possible. For Larry, it is the belief that he has achieved a sense of philosophical detachment about existence; he thinks he no longer cares about life because all his dreams are behind him: "What's before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I'm damned tired, and it can't come too soon for me." However, he takes no steps to seek out the death he claims he so much desires. Once upon a time he, like Hugo, had been involved with "the Movement," but when he saw "that men didn't want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they'd have to give up greed," he decided to adopt the role of "philosophical detachment." He shakes Hugo awake for confirmation, but the old anarchist mouths a few revolutionary slogans and then tries to wheedle a drink from Rocky before falling asleep again. No one takes Hugo seriously any more, even in the Movement, but he doesn't realize it. However, he does hit Rocky on a tender spot when he asks after the part-time pimp's "leedle slave girls."
Everyone is waiting for "Hickey" (Theodore Hickman), the salesman who always comes to the hotel on Harry's birthday to treat the denizens to a party. He always arrives on "his periodicals" two days before the date, joking about his wife "in de hay with de iceman." He has only until tonight to be in time for the birthday, and the drunks are beginning to give up hope of his arrival. Rocky and Larry then turn to consider Willie, who has pawned and repawned clothes until he is down to the last rags available. Usually Willie's mother has helped out, but this time her lawyer has told Harry that she is through with her son, and since he has no money to pay for drinks, he is in the middle of the d.t.'s. Rocky has been enforcing Harry's rule on Willie but then is told to use his own judgment, and Willie takes a long swig from the bottle.
Joe wakes up and asks whether Hickey has arrived yet because he is desperately thirsty and is waiting for Hickey to treat them all. But on hearing that Hickey has not come, Joe asks Larry whether Don Parritt, a young man who has just arrived to look for Larry, might not give them money. Parritt has claimed to be a friend of the "old Foolosopher," but Larry denies it, saying only that he and Don's mother were friends in the Movement on the West Coast. He tells Joe that Rosa Parritt, the young man's mother, has been arrested for her part in a bombing and will probably be sentenced to life in prison. Larry and Joe engage in some political banter as Don Parritt enters, a tall, good-looking eighteen-year-old with something shifty and ingratiating about him "and an irritating aggressiveness in his manner." He looks out of place in this dive, and with a certain nastiness, he stands Joe a drink and starts to tell the story of his life to Larry. First he complains about the dive which Larry calls "the No Chance Saloon. It's Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller," populated by those "with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays." Parritt says he has been devastated "by that business on the Coast," and since his mother's arrest he has been on the run from the police while looking for Larry: "He's the one guy in the world who can understand" because in the old days of the Movement, Larry had been like a father to him. Indeed, he has contacted Larry through some old letters that his mother had kept. Larry is distressed about the West Coast incident because it seems an informer within the Movement went to the police; he also wonders how Parritt has managed to avoid capture. The two discuss Larry's leaving the Movement; Larry claims that his reason was disillusionment, but Rosa had believed that she was the reason, according to Parritt. The young man professes himself worried about his mother in gaol, "She's always been so free," but he also tells of his bitter argument with her about his political commitment. He tries to enlist Larry's sympathy with his disillusion, but something does not quite ring true, an impression that is confirmed when Hugo wakes up enough to call him "Got-tamned stool pigeon" and is nearly punched for it. Larry has respect for Hugo because he served ten years in gaol in his own country, much of it in solitary confinement; but now the Movement considers him a drunken has-been.
Larry then recounts the lives of the other bar occupants. Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen fought on opposite sides in the Boer War (1899-1902), met at the St. Louis Fair, became friends, and have been fighting the old war ever since. James Cameron ("Jimmy Tomorrow") had been a war correspondent in South Africa. Harry Hope has become a recluse since his wife died twenty years ago, but he still stays in business and helps his friends. These include his brother-in-law Ed Mosher, a former circus worker, and Pat McGloin, a former police lieutenant dismissed from the force for graft. Joe, the black man, once ran a black gambling house, and Willie tells his own story. He is the son of a well-known criminal who died in gaol; Willie went to Harvard law school, but then came the booze. Now he touches Parritt for a drink, which the young man rather testily refuses. Oban is also waiting for Hickey to bring "the blessed bourgeois long green" and launches into a drunken song which nearly gets him thrown upstairs. But his fear of "the Brooklyn boys," the d.t.'s, is so abject that Harry Hope relents.
By this time everyone is more or less awake and more or less communicating with one another: Lewis and Wetjoen reminisce about the Boer War and refer to Joe as "Kaffir," while Jimmy joins with them in a sentimental reference to "brothers within the Empire united beneath the flag on which the sun never sets." He will straighten out—tomorrow. Meanwhile, Joe has been brooding about his past when he had a fine gambling house, partly as a result of Harry Hope's connections with Tammany Hall and the chief of police. After more nostalgic comments, Harry Hope speaks fondly of his wife, prompted by the calculated praise of McGloin: "A sweeter woman never drew breath." In fact, the late Bessie Mosher Hope had made his life miserable, but Harry claims that with her death, he gave up politics. However, one of these days, he plans to go out, "walk around the ward," and try to get back into political life. His dream is followed by Jimmy's that he will smarten up and go back to work in the publicity department of a newspaper. Similarly, Lewis speaks of the settlement of a family estate and invites Wetjoen to travel to London with him to see England in the spring, while the Boer recalls the beauty and vastness of the South African veldt to which he plans to return. McGloin and Mosher start to discuss Bessie Hope, and then the ex-policeman asserts his innocence while Willie offers to defend him and have him reinstated. Mosher also speaks wistfully of getting back his old circus job. This collection of pipe dreams is repeated with some variations many times throughout the play to indicate their life-giving importance to the dreamers.
It is now time to open the bar, and Margie and Pearl, two prostitutes, enter. "Margie has brown hair and hazel eyes," and Pearl is typically Italian. They are plump, vestigially pretty, "dollar streetwalkers," whose pipe dream is that they are "tarts," not prostitutes, while Rocky, the bartender who runs them, purveys his own illusion that he is not a pimp but takes care of their money—for a consideration. They treat him affectionately like "a bullying brother," and he looks on them like "the owner of two performing pets he has trained to do a profitable act under his management." The girls are "sentimental, feather-brained, giggly, lazy, good-natured and reasonably contented with life." They discuss their evening's business, hand over their money, and agree with Rocky, "Yuh don't live offa us. You're a bartender." Cora, a thin, peroxide-blonde prostitute, a few years older than they, then enters with Chuck Morello, her pimp, "a tough, thicknecked, barrel-chested Italian-American" in a loud suit. Their pipe dream is that someday they will marry and settle down on a farm, once Chuck gives up drinking. Their discussion usually focuses on the location of this farm—Long Island or New Jersey. Like the other girls, Cora also talks about her previous night's clients, but then she suddenly mentions having seen Hickey, an announcement that wakes up everyone except Hugo and Parritt. Hickey has sent a message to the "gang" that he will be around, but Chuck and Cora feel that he is different—sober, something none of the group has ever seen before, and he has said, "I'm just figurin' the best way to save dem and bring dem peace."
At this moment Theodore Hickman ("Hickey") enters. "He is about fifty, a little under medium height, with a stout, roly-poly figure." His smooth face is boyish with bright blue eyes, and his head is bald except for a fringe all around. His manner shows the affability of a professional salesman, a well-developed sense of humor, together with "an efficient, businesslike approach . . . an easy flow of glib convincingness." He looks like "a successful drummer whose territory consists of minor cities and small towns." He enters theatrically, greets the gang, and then, hand on heart, sings two drinking songs, one falsetto, the other bass; and while everyone laughs, he orders drinks for all "in a lordly manner" and proceeds to greet all the denizens of the bar. To everyone's surprise, Hickey announces that he has given up drink: "I don't need it any more." However, he feels "exactly the same as I always did. If anyone wants to get drunk, if that's the only way they can be happy, and feel at peace with themselves, why the hell shouldn't they? . . . The only reason I've quit is--Well, I finally had the guts to face myself and throw overboard the damned lying pipe dream that'd been making me miserable." The more he protests, the more atypical his behavior becomes; he has walked from Astoria, Queens, to Lower Manhattan, a six-hour trip, and he is offering a new sales pitch: "Honesty is the best policy—honesty with yourself, . . . Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows." He has decided that his mission now is to help all the "gang" to translate their individual pipe dreams into action, even Larry, "The Old Grandstand Foolosopher." Parritt applauds this move, and Hickey notices him for the first time, recognizing some kind of kinship between them, even though they have never met before: "I can tell you're having trouble with yourself." Still talking, Hickey starts to fall asleep, but before he does, he speaks about "real peace. . . . [When] you can let go of yourself at last. Let yourself sink down to the bottom of the sea. . . . Not a single damned hope or dream to nag you." Again he orders drinks for all, and collapses.
No one can quite figure out this new Hickey. Larry is sure that he is not kidding, and Parritt is highly suspicious of him; "He's too damned nosey." Hope and Cameron allow that he is speaking some sense, but Hope thinks him a wet blanket for a birthday party. Mosher is unimpressed and says that he will recover from "almost fatal teetotalism." Hugo momentarily awakens with his anarchist slogans, concluding with his favorite quotation, "The days grow hot, O'Babylon! 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!" He receives the usual "chorus of amused jeering," while Mosher goes on to talk of an old medicine pitchman he knew with a cure for everything. The roar of laughter called forth by this talk awakens Hickey briefly, who sleepily exhorts them to have a good time.
Act II: The back room, near midnight the same day. The room has been prepared for a party. Four circular tables have been pushed together to make one long one and are covered with borrowed table cloths. An "uneven line of chairs" follows the contours of the tables, bottles of bar whiskey have been placed within easy reach of all diners, and the table is laid with glasses and cutlery. The rest of the room has been cleared for dancing, and "an old upright piano and stool have been moved in and stand against the wall at the left, front." Right-front is a table without chairs. The floor has been scrubbed and the walls washed, and the light sconces are decorated with red ribbon. In the middle of the separate table is a birthday cake with six candles and some packages containing gifts. Cora, Chuck, Hugo, Larry, Margie, Pearl, and Rocky are discovered, all except Larry and Hugo dressed for the occasion. Larry is "in frowning, disturbed meditation," while Hugo is, as usual, passed out. Their manner indicates an undercurrent of artificiality, "nervous irritation and preoccupation." They are discussing Hickey and his new "line of bull about yuh got to be honest wid yourself and not kid yourself, and have de guts to be what yuh are," as Rocky puts it. But he sees himself as different: "I don't kid myself wid no pipe dream." Hickey has made an impression on Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope, while the rest are hiding out in their rooms to escape from this bearer of a new gospel. Hickey has even tried to get after Cora and Chuck, who claim they will be married tomorrow, but their conversation deteriorates into argument when Margie and Pearl tell Rocky that they have admitted to Hickey that they are whores, and therefore that makes Rocky "a dirty little Ginny pimp." Real violence is about to occur, but the tension is broken by Larry's sardonic laughter and his comments on Hickey as "the great Nihilist." With this Hugo wakes up; clearly Hickey has been after him, too, questioning his commitment to a new social order, but he returns to sleep. No one knows what to make of the situation; Hickey has not yet mentioned his wife, nor has he played the old gag about finding her with the iceman. All the old camaraderie seems to have vanished, and the group members act scratchily toward one another. Larry is particularly puzzled, noting Hickey's recognition of Parritt, and wonders whether he is really dying to tell something to his old drinking companions but at the same time is afraid to do so. Perhaps this is the reason for his new sobriety.
Hickey reappears, laden with packages; he ribs Larry as "Old Cemetery, the Barker for the Big Sleep" and then speaks of his mission to help Larry "and the rest of the gang" to find their own personal peace. But then he offends the girls by calling them whores; they forgive him. And as the drinking continues, he tries to make Larry admit that he's "just an old man who is scared of life, but even more scared of dying." The philosophical detachment he has cultivated is just a defense mechanism. Hickey attempts to explain himself further and suggests that for Parritt "there is only one possible way out you can help him to take." He tries to find out more about this stranger, but Larry becomes angry, particularly when Hickey suggests that he is still committed to the Movement and that a woman is behind Parritt's troubles. But Hickey remains tolerant, having expected Larry to be "the toughest to convince of the gang," claiming that Larry, Harry, and Jimmy are the three he most wishes to help.
With this, he starts to plan the party, and Cora, with Joe's assistance, tries to play the piano. Under cover of the noise, Willie Oban announces his plan to get his clothes out of pawn tomorrow and go to the district attorney to ask for a job. Larry tells him to have another drink, and Willie moves away in anger. Parritt then comes in to talk to Larry. Obviously, he is somewhat afraid of Hickey and wants Larry's support. He returns once more to the subject of his mother and Larry's relationship with her, recalling their fight when Larry walked out, calling her a whore, an allegation Larry denies; but Parritt continues to speak of his mother's lovers and recalls that Larry alone had treated him "like a father." He expresses his anger with Hickey and then suggests that Larry has guessed his secret. Angrily, Larry denies it, and Parritt goes on to speak about his disillusion with the Movement and his duty to his country (a hint of his identity as informer), but Larry sees through "such hypocrite's cant," insisting that he has forgotten Rosa Parritt and no longer cares about life. Parritt counters with the insult, "You'll never die as long as there's a free drink of whiskey left," and Larry controls himself with difficulty. A noise of fighting and cursing is heard, and Wetjoen and Lewis enter. They have been fighting; after some words with Hickey, their good-natured ribbing has turned to nastiness. Then McGloin and Mosher come in, concerned over Harry Hope's behavior and the consequences it may have for them, particularly if he visits Bessie's family. However, they, too, are affected by Hickey, for Mosher plans to leave tomorrow to look for his old job, and McGloin is going out to seek reinstatement.
It is now just about midnight, and Hickey pulls the whole gang together to greet Harry, who comes downstairs with Jimmy Tomorrow to the sound of a dispirited shout of "Happy Birthday, Harry!" Harry is distinctly "pugnacious" while Jimmy seems afraid. Cora is trying to sing and play the piano, but Harry screams angrily at everybody, telling them to keep quiet, reducing Cora to tears and bringing a rebuke from Hickey. As Harry and others try to resuscitate the party spirit, Hickey continually exhorts individual members of the group to face themselves and life; but then when the champagne comes, he, too, drinks a toast, even seeing that Hugo, who complains that the wine is not iced, is wakened for the occasion. However, Hickey's speech is curious: "I meant it when I say I hope today will be the biggest day in your life, and in the lives of everyone here, the beginning of a new life of peace and contentment where no pipe dreams can ever nag at you again." In reply, Harry Hope speaks belligerently of not being an easy mark for all the spongers he sees around him and asserts that he really will show them all that he has the courage to go out and take "a walk around the ward." But then his belligerence collapses and he apologizes. With this, Hickey rises and delivers a long, hortatory monologue in which he tries to explain his tactics and extols the glories of self-recognition, concluding with the comment, "I don't give a damn about anything now. And I promise you, by the time this day is over, I'll have every one of you feeling the same way!" Larry sneeringly asks for an explanation of what has led Hickey to this discovery: "Did this great revelation of the evil habit of dreaming about tomorrow come to you after you found your wife was sick of you?" The mood of the party shifts to open hostility against Hickey, and they taunt him as a cuckold, Willie leading his "Sailor Lad" tune. Hickey replies good-naturedly and then reveals that "I'm sorry to tell you my dearly beloved wife is dead." The mood instantly shifts to shame and sympathy, as Hickey apologizes for being a wet blanket, saying that at least Evelyn has found peace in being rid of him, "a no-good cheater and drunk." She had loved him, but now in death she is better off. But "she wouldn't want me to feel sad. Why, all that Evelyn ever wanted out of life was to make me happy." And as everyone stares "in bewildered, incredulous confusion," the curtain falls.
Act III: The barroom, including part of the back room showing the tables arranged as in Act I. It is around mid-morning of Harry Hope's birthday, a hot summer day, but the sunlight does not filter into the room. Joe Mott is strewing sawdust on the floor; Rocky is irritably tending bar; Larry is sitting without a drink, staring straight ahead; Hugo has passed out; Parritt sits at a front table staring tensely in front of him. Rocky and Larry discuss the "Reform Wave" that Hickey has begun. He has dragged Jimmy out to get his clothes ready to look for a job and has given Willie the money to redeem his stuff from the pawnbroker, while the others are all busy shaving and getting presentable. Larry remarks that Hickey hadn't called on him, perhaps because he was scared. Parritt sneeringly notes that Larry had locked his door, and Rocky recalls what Hickey had said about Larry's illusion that he really wants to die. Defiantly Larry says that suicide is a coward's way out, but Parritt suggests that "he's all quitter," a comment that rouses Larry's anger.
When Rocky falls asleep, Parritt starts to confide in Larry, first noting his discomfort and even fear of Hickey, especially since Hickey gave the news of his wife's death. This has started Parritt thinking about his mother as if she were dead, and finally he tells Larry, "I once had a sneaking suspicion that maybe, if the truth was known, you were my father," a suggestion Larry vehemently denies. His mother will never forgive him (Parritt) for giving up the Movement, Parritt says, and then confesses that he was the one who sold information to the police, in order to get money for a whore. Larry, angered, shakes him into silence. Rocky wakes up, and he and Larry discuss the death of Hickey's wife, concluding that it probably wasn't suicide. Larry says he feels the "cold touch" of death on Hickey, and then Rocky tells what has happened to him as a result of Hickey's work of salvation: Margie and Pearl have taunted him with being a pimp and so he slapped them; in turn they claim they want to work for a proper pimp, not a part-timer like Rocky, and so they have gone on strike to visit Coney Island for the day. Chuck then comes in all dressed for his wedding to Cora, asking for a sherry flip for her. She has kept him awake with her doubts all night, and he would dearly love a drink, but, as he says to Rocky, "Yuh'd like me to stay paralyzed all de time, so's I'd be like you, a lousy pimp!" At this, Rocky's violent side is shown and he reaches for his gun; Joe attempts to patch things up, but Rocky calls him a "doity nigger," so Joe pulls a knife. This time Larry stops them, and Hugo wakes up briefly. Joe, however, is not so easily placated; he asks for the drink he has earned, turns in his room key, and after draining his glass, he breaks it to save Rocky trouble; "so's no white man kick about drinkin' from de same glass." He's off to open up his "old gamblin' house for colored men."
Willie then comes in, very shaky, but dressed in his good clothes, washed and spruced up. He really needs a drink, but that won't help him get a job. Captain Lewis and Net Wetjoen then enter separately, also dressed up but with last night's enmity smoldering, trading allegations of cowardice and peculation. Both claim they will get temporary jobs and then go home, but they independently decide to wait to say good-bye to Harry. Chuck then realizes that he has forgotten about Cora, who is waiting, and goes back to her with a drink. Meanwhile, Willie starts to talk to Parritt, offering his legal expertise in the young man's defense, because a position with the D.A. may not materialize for some time, and a few independent successes would look good. Parritt says that the cops are not after him, but Larry comments, 'I wish to God they were! And so should you, if you'd the honor of a louse!" In retaliation, Parritt suggests that Larry is still in love with the Movement, but even more, still in love with Rosa Parritt. Again he claims he sold out the Movement to get money for a whore, and when Larry becomes enraged, Parritt begs his help. Mosher and McGloin now enter separately, also spruced up and ready to go out. Again Willie offers legal assistance, this time to McGloin, who refuses it. As both men turn in their room keys, Cora enters, very drunk, with Chuck behind her, to announce that they are off to get married but want to avoid Hickey who is shepherding Harry and Jimmy down the stairs, both looking as if they are on their way to the electric chair.
Hickey looks around him and tries to encourage one and all to go out and "lead the forlorn hope." Lewis goes first, followed by Wetjoen, Mosher, McGloin, and Willie. Jimmy attempts to break for a drink, but Hickey heads him off, and he too goes out. Harry Hope is left, and he confesses fear of the automobiles outside, asking Hickey to accompany him. But Hickey tells him he must go alone, and after considerable lingering and discussion Hope leaves, and his progress across the street is monitored by Rocky. Larry then turns to Hickey and asks whether Hickey wants him to admit that he is eager to hang onto life, and when Hickey points out that he has indeed just made such an admission, Parritt jeers. Meanwhile, Harry Hope has gotten to the middle of the street and has stopped there, frozen with fear; then he turns and rushes back into the bar, calling for a drink and telling of nearly being knocked down by a nonexistent automobile. Rocky pours him a drink, threatening to give up his job, and also says, "Dey wasn't no automobile! Yuh just quit cold." Rocky has lost a bet. Hope appeals to Larry for corroboration, and Larry agrees that he had a narrow escape; but Hickey insists on absolute truth, claiming that Larry has offered "the wrong kind of pity." When forced by Hickey to rethink the situation, Harry Hope collapses, tries to pour himself a drink, and in so doing wakes Hugo, who doesn't say his usual things but starts to attack Hickey: "Peddler pimp for nouveau-riche capitalism." But then he looks at Harry more closely: "You look funny. You look dead. Vat's happened?" He feels some sympathy with him because he feels he is dying from drink, but "I can't sleep here vith you. You look dead." Larry, "with bitter condemnation," points out to Hickey ironically that Harry is "another one who's beginning to enjoy your peace!" Hickey insists that he will come through, but Hope tells him he sounds "a worse gabbler than that nagging bitch, Bessie, was" and then says, "I want to pass out like Hugo." Larry angrily says that all that Hickey has brought Harry is "the peace of death," but Hickey will not be persuaded, though he is a trifle shaken, recalling "it hit me hard, too. But only for a minute. Then I felt as if a ton of guilt had been lifted off my mind."
Larry now asks very specifically what happened, and Hickey tells him, "It was a bullet through the head that killed Evelyn." Larry believes that Hickey means that Evelyn committed suicide, but Hickey disabuses him, saying, "My poor wife was killed." The reactions of Larry and Parritt differ: Larry thinks she was murdered, and Parritt that she is still alive. Rocky, with total practicality, asks, "Moidered? Who done it?" But Larry, looking "with fascinated horror on Hickey," tells Rocky not to ask. Hickey sees this as "the old grandstand bluff, ... Or... some more bum pity? The police will soon know, anyway." Hope suggests, "my bets are on the iceman," but now for him the booze doesn't matter. However, there are other reactions: Parritt calls on Larry, "You've got to believe what I told you! It had nothing to do with her! It was just to get a few lousy dollars!" At this, Hugo awakens in rage, pummels the table, suddenly afraid, and collapses in tears: "Please, I am crazy drunk! ... do not listen to me!" The scene turns into a curious tableau: Larry shrunk against the bar with Rocky leaning over it, both staring at Hickey, while Parritt looks pleadingly at Larry. Hickey, however, looks "with worried kindliness at Hope," wondering why he has not yet begun to feel happy now that he has killed his "nagging pipe dreams."
Act IV: The same setting as Act I, 1:30 A.M. the next day, with a new arrangement of tables. Larry, Hugo, and Parritt are at one table; Hugo is passed out; Larry looks at the floor; and Parritt "keeps staring at him with a sneering, pleading challenge." Cora, Captain Lewis, McGloin, and Wetjoen are at another table, while Willie, Hope, Mosher, and Jimmy Tomorrow form a third group. "There is an atmosphere of oppressive stagnation in the room," and the last two groups seem to be getting drunk mechanically. In the bar section, Joe is sprawled out, asleep, while Rocky stands behind his chair, hostile, looking like a minor gangster. He rouses Joe, "Yuh damned nigger," and orders him into the back room because it is after hours. Chuck enters, drunk, and has obviously been fighting. He says he is through with Cora and admits that marriage to her was one of the pipe dreams about which Hickey had spoken. He goes up to her and she hands over her money with "Jees, imagine me kiddin' myself I wanted to marry a drunken pimp." Parritt then takes out after Larry, telling how the older man had locked himself up with a bottle of booze because he was afraid. But Parritt seems confused about himself and his motives. One minute he taunts Larry with inability to commit suicide, but then Larry counters, "Are you trying to make me your executioner," and Parritt starts to attack the sincerity of The Movement, finally suggesting that Larry "ought to take a hop off the fire escape!" Rocky's "Who cares?" calls forth an echo of total despair from the rest of the room, but only for an instant, and silence descends until Rocky tries to enlist both Larry and Parritt as pimps. When they refuse, he suggests that they keep away from Hickey, who is bound for the Chair. Larry has momentary sympathy for him; but now at least three suspect what has happened, and Larry is sure Hickey will return because "he's lost his confidence that the peace he's sold us is the real McCoy, and it's made him uneasy about his own."
At this, Hickey enters, denying the statement. He looks around and castigates all the drunks because they are complaining, "We can't pass out! You promised us peace!" He is fed up with them "That's why I phoned—" but he does not say whom. "By rights you should be contented now, without a single damned hope or lying dream left to torment you!" He claims he has only a little time left because he has made a date for 2 A.M., and he tries to make them understand the advantages of their new condition. Tomorrow is dead, so they no longer need to care about anything; but their silence makes him believe they hate him. Again he speaks about facing the truth and seeing "the one possible way to free poor Evelyn and give her the peace she'd always dreamed about." They don't want to hear, but Hickey continues with his confession: "I had to kill her." This revelation shocks them all, and Larry tells him to keep quiet. They don't want to know anything that would send Hickey to the chair; but Parritt suggests that Larry is still refusing to face facts, saying, "It's worse if you kill someone and they have to go on living." Hickey wants no more to do with Parritt, because their crimes have nothing in common. "There was love in my heart, not hate," says Hickey. Parritt claims he did not hate his mother and calls on Larry for support, which he does not get. Hickey then turns to his friends to tell them what "a pipe dream did to me and Evelyn." His long monologue is interrupted once by Jimmy; and just before Hickey begins the full account of his motivations in murdering his wife, two detectives, Moran and Lieb, arrive to arrest him, and they hear everything.
Hickey speaks of his early life as a minister's son, his love for Evelyn, and hers for him. She had always stuck up for him and later married him against her parents' wishes, even though he had tried to break with her when he left town to try his luck as a salesman. She told him, "I'll wait, and when you're ready you send for me and we'll be married. I know I can make you happy, Teddy, and once you're happy you won't want to do any of the bad things you've done any more." This was her pipe dream. So Hickey went off to "the Big Town," enjoying the salesman's life, getting drunk, and then hearing from Evelyn. Finally they were married, and then Hickey would get bored, get drunk, and be unfaithful—and Evelyn would always forgive him. Once he contracted venereal disease and accidentally infected her; but even then she forgave him, and his sense of guilt commenced to pile up. This year he had sworn to her that he wouldn't come to Harry Hope's birthday party for his annual drunk. But soon he realized he would have to go, yet at the same time knew that "I'd never have the guts to go back and be forgiven again, and that would break Evelyn's heart because to her it would mean that I didn't love her any more." That is why he shot Evelyn—to give her peace—and as he looked at her, feeling a weight of guilt lifted, he found himself saying, "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch." Suddenly, however, Hickey is shocked into denial and appeals to Harry Hope: "You know I must have been insane, don't you, Governor." He has found another pipe dream; but at this he is arrested and leaves protesting that he must have been insane when he spoke to his dead wife as he did. Hope tries to support this contention and offers to testify to his insanity, as do some of the others.
Left alone, they start to drink: "maybe it'll have the old kick." Larry delivers an epitaph for Hickey: "May the Chair bring him peace at last, the poor tortured bastard." The emphasis now shifts to Parritt, who speaks of his guilt in his mother's arrest and imprisonment. He remembers saying in words which prove an ironic echo of Hickey's, "You know what you can do with your freedom pipe dream now, don't you, you damned old bitch!" In fury, Larry turns on him: "Get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you! Go up—!" Parritt is almost transformed at this: "Thanks, Thanks, Larry. I just wanted to be sure. I can see now it's the only possible way I can ever get free of her." Then, after a brief farewell from Larry, "Go, for the love of Christ, you mad tortured bastard, for your own sake!" Parritt leaves, telling Hugo he will buy him a drink "tomorrow—beneath the willow trees!" In this cryptic exchange, Larry, "the old foolosopher," has finally been goaded into giving Parritt the advice the young man has been seeking. Parritt does not deserve to live and he really has no choice but to commit suicide, "take that hop from the fire escape." Death is for him the only answer, because he has committed the ultimate crime for a revolutionary—he has been an informer.
Hugo now expresses relief that Hickey has been taken away because he caused him bad dreams; "He makes me tell lies about myself.... He was selling death to me, that crazy salesman." Hope attempts to salvage something of himself by claiming that he had gone out into the street to humor "a lunatic's pipe dream" and was nearly run down by an automobile. Rocky supports him "On de woid of an honest bartender," a remark that causes laughter at both him and Chuck, the other pimp. Then Harry Hope offers a sentimental toast to Hickey, 'the kindest, biggest-hearted guy ever wore shoe leather." All drink to that, but Larry sits by the table, waiting tensely, as the others talk about the folly of trying to translate their dreams into reality. They continue to get drunker, but Hugo becomes concerned about Larry: "You look dead. What you listen for in back-yard?" Hugo moves away in fear, drinking with Harry: "Gottamned stupid bourgeois! Soon comes the day of Judgment!" They laugh at him, and at the height of the merriment in come Margie and Pearl: "Gangway for two good whores!" They are very drunk and proceed to become more so, while Larry is still "torturedly arguing with himself" over the advice he has given Parritt. He is waiting for the sound that will show that Parritt has committed suicide by jumping off the fire escape, in that way making reparation for the crime of informing on a revolutionary associate (in this case also his mother). Larry's tension increases until he says, "I'll go up and throw him off! like a dog . . . you'd put out of misery!" With that the sound of something falling is heard and then "a muffled, crunching thud." Hope also hears the noise, but no one thinks to investigate, while Larry quietly mumbles, "God rest his soul in peace." He knows now that for him life means that he is a "weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything." And then he realizes that "I'm the only real convert to death Hickey made here." Meanwhile the party is getting merrier and everyone sings, "but not the same song." Out of the cacophony Hugo's rendering of the French Revolutionary song, "La Carmagnole," takes over; but he is shouted down, and the curtain falls on his favorite line, " 'The days grow hot, 0 Babylon' " which is taken up by the rest of the company (in enthusiastic jeering chorus) " 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!' " Larry remains by the window, "oblivious to their racket."
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