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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 2
September, 1978



In a startlingly dramatic effect, O’Neill announces the logos of Hughie in the opening monosyllable--“Key.” The word focuses upon the playwright’s lifetime theme, “fitting in.” For Hughie offers a variation on the problem of modern man’s existential fate, the impossibility of belonging and the attendant problem of loneliness. Isolated spiritually and psychologically, he can never entirely bridge the gap. Yet try he must. For in the attempt he makes occasional momentary contact in shared misery, a contact sufficient to keep alive his illusion of belonging. In this brilliant tour de force, O’Neill distills the essential theme of modern literature from “Dover Beach” to The Waste Land and all varieties of absurdism.

If The Iceman Cometh stands as one of the longest masterpieces of modern drama, Hughie is among its most compact. Like Albee’s The Zoo Story, it presents only two characters and takes no more than forty-five minutes to play. In tone and texture it closely resembles The Iceman. Instead of Harry Hope’s deadend bar, the setting is now the lobby of a third-rate hotel just off Broadway. Its location in a sleazy back alley suggests a place whose business once was life. What action there is seems to take place outside time; indeed, time and space have almost no relevance to the meaning of the play. The characters move as in a vacuum, a twilight chamber in which particles float willy-nilly, occasionally bumping and shoving off one another. The individual wishes vaguely for something that he cannot quite remember. Is it joy, connection, love?

This condition of loneliness marks O’Neill’s plays from the beginning: the lonely and God-forsaken sailor of the S. S. Glencairn of the early sea plays; the volatile Yank of The Hairy Ape who wants to “fit in”; the stoic Ephraim Cabot of Desire Under the Elms who knows that God himself is lonely; the tortured Dion Anthony who can make contact only with the whore; the human derelict Jamie Tyrone who finds a one-night surcease with Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Perhaps Erie Smith of Hughie is a distant relative of Yank--Robert Smith--who could not remember his name (or didn’t think it was worth troubling to remember).

The two characters seem unlikely to carry the play’s heavy theme. Erie Smith, a flop as gambler, avoids at all costs the terror of being alone. Charlie Hughes, the Night Clerk, is so low voltage that he is given barely a dozen lines and the play thus becomes a virtual monologue by Smith. Yet the play’s devastating point surfaces explosively in a brief exchange between these two misfits. At that point the ancient question that rings down the corridors of philosophy is asked and answered. The moment comes with dramatic swiftness, a moment whose irony is arresting in its focus on two losers. We will look at it presently.

For Erie and Hughes, existence has long since been ripped away from life tissues. Their world is disconnected, forlorn, its very nature a paralyzing ennui. Yet each wears a mask of the winner. Erie affects the sport, the kidder, the guy in the know. No “sucker” like his late friend Hughie, the former Night Clerk, Erie wishes to be seen as slick and sophisticated. For Charlie Hughes the mask is the grimace, a projection of non-committal friendliness and apparent animation. Sunk in a sea of silence, he tries desperately to fasten on to some reality which is forever eluding his imagination. The Night Clerk simply waits for the passing of the long night: “He is not thinking.... He stares acquiescently at nothing.” He marks time by the sounds of the night, for “it would be discouraging to glance at the clock.... One would say (he) had even forgotten how it feels to be bored.”*

Smith enters the lobby, a fast-talking sport who moves obscurely on the margin of the gambling world. Dead within like the Clerk, he has “the same pasty, perspiry, night-life complexion” (8). The race-track lingo provides a facade and hides his loneliness. Immediately we are told that “there is something phoney about his characterization of himself, some sentimental softness behind it which doesn’t belong in the hard-boiled picture” (9). After demanding the key Erie confesses, “I been off on a drunk” (10). In the manner of a bartender the Clerk must listen to the maudlin reconstruction of events. For to Erie he becomes a life-preserver, since anything is better than having to return to the terrifying silence of his room. Thus he launches into the story of his life and tawdry minor triumphs. Any perceptive listener could tell that his childhood (in Erie, Pennsylvania) had been a disaster and that he has never established many connections except what he could buy. As he continues, however, it becomes even more apparent that Erie had had a supportive relationship with the late Hughie, whose funeral provided the occasion for his binge. In fact, Erie had come to depend on Hughie’s caring about him: “And I’m still carrying the torch for Hughie. His checking out was a real K.O. for me. Damn if I know why.... I miss Hughie, I guess. I guess I’d got to like him a lot.” He recovers craftily to keep his image intact: “Not that I was ever real pals with him, you understand. He didn’t run in my class. He didn’t know none of the answers. He was just a sucker” (18). But Hughie was worth knowing because “that guy would believe anything.”

Like the Iceman Hickey, Erie Smith is a compulsive talker whose audience again is not interested in what he has to say. The Clerk just wishes he’d go to bed. But Erie wishes to tell of an act of kindness, precisely the opposite of Hickey’s confession of the murder of his wife. Moreover, he rambles on out of fear of returning to Room 492, just as Willie Oban in The Iceman fears to remain alone in his room. In the room one confronts himself in company with nothing, Nada. The light that surrounds Erie and Hughes at the desk offers the one small spot of warmth in an otherwise cold and dark universe.

At this point in his monologue Erie is willing to admit his loss in Hughie’s death: “Christ, it’s lonely. I wish Hughie was here” (28). He patronizes Hughie’s romantic idealization of gangsters but admits its effect on him: “And, d’you know, it done me good, too, in a way. Sure. I’d get to seem’ myself like he seen me” (29). Hughie had supplied connection and acceptance. Obviously his death plunged Erie into gloom. He has sent a $100 horseshoe of roses for the funeral, the greatest act of affection in his life. Indeed, he has put himself in physical danger to buy it because he cannot pay the money back. Still he humors himself pathetically: “Hughie liked to kid himself he was my pal.” But his mask drops for just an instant as he acknowledges, “And so he was...even if he was a sucker” (31).

Throughout most of this the Night Clerk has hardly pretended interest. Lost in a fantasy born of low-level hostility, he imagines the city burned to the ground, but in this fuzz of wishing a fireman tells him there’s not a chance that the city can be destroyed and the Clerk replies in his dream: “Yes, I guess you’re right. There’s too much stone and steel... . It really doesn’t matter to me” (27-28). He cannot even summon up anger to vent on the modern heartless metropolis.

In a brief but powerfully significant exchange of dialogue, the play’s theme is established. Just as Larry Slade argues the irrelevance of the truth in The Iceman, an even more devastating point is made in Hughie. Erie has been relating his philosophy of kidding. At the end of his speech, the Clerk is finally shaken into response and we hear the following lines almost as if repeated endlessly in an echo chamber:

ERIEBut what the hell, Hughie loved it, and it didn’t cost nobody nothin’, and if every guy along Broadway who kids himself was to drop dead there wouldn’t be nobody left. Ain’t it the truth, Charlie?

NIGHT CLERK(His glassy eyes stare through Erie’s face. He stammers deferentially.) Truth? I’m afraid I didn’t get-- What’s the truth?

ERIE(Hopelessly.) Nothing, Pal. Not a thing.

If we may be permitted a moment of license, we can hear in the mind’s ear, ricocheting of f the chamber walls and gaining a terrible resonance--the question posed by Greek philosophers, the query put to Christ by Pilate:

“WHAT’S THE TRUTH, THE TRUTH, the Truth, Truth, truth?”
“NOTHING, Pal. NOT A THING. NOTHING, Nothing, nothing--
PAL, Pal, pal....”

Modern man can hardly muster the courage to ask the question. And if he does, the answer reduces his momentary courage to hopeless resignation. One is reminded of Prufrock, in intelligence light years advanced beyond Erie and Hughes but dealing with the same question and playing the same games near “one-night cheap hotels”:

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

In spite of all, however, O’Neill does not leave his loners totally broken. For in his late plays the philosophical implications, while always characteristically grim, are muted. The focus becomes the person, not the idea, and the toppled illusions are mended and set up again. The question answered, it is dismissed.

Erie’s long confession, with its mixture of bravado and touching honesty, has somehow connected with the imagination of the Night Clerk. Like the earlier Hughie, Charles Hughes can be conned by the romantic gambler image. The name of Arnold Rothstein comes into his mind, and Erie takes on stature as a link to the dangerous and glamorous world of violence: “Do you by any chance know--Arnold Rothstein?... So you’re an old friend of Arnold Rothstein!” (34-35) A kind of “beatific vision” comes into his eyes, and Erie’s “face lights up with a saving revelation.” He can still be accepted by the (new) Night Clerk in his role, his mask; he can reclaim the old relationship. To symbolize their rapport, they shake hands--contact, a touch, a level of kinship. Each will play his part, which is of course a pipedream but which gives some meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. So they roll the dice on the desk, an act which seems to signify acceptance of the rules of the game. Each will respect the other’s illusion. The Clerk now sees Erie as “the Gambler in 492, the Friend of Arnold Rothstein--and nothing is incredible.”

Erie Smith readjusts his mask and plays the game with renewed enthusiasm: “I just want to show you how I’ll take you to the cleaners. It’ll  give me confidence.... You remind me a lot of Hughie, Pal. He always trusted me” (37-38).

--Edward L. Shaughnessy

*Eugene O’Neill, Hughie (New Haven: 1959), pp. 7-8. Further passages are followed by page numbers in parentheses.



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