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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 3
Winter, 1984


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HUGHIE--BY WAY OF INTRO

The vast majority of playgoers remember Eugene O'Neill as a writer of unwieldy megadramas that challenge the backside as much as the mind, tax the resources of even the best endowed of acting companies, and must begin in the afternoon if the audience is to leave the theatre before midnight. The nine-act Strange Interlude; Mourning Becomes Electra, a trilogy in thirteen acts; and Lazarus Laughed with its cast of thousands: it is works such as these that have earned the playwright his cumbersome reputation. Even Long Day's Journey Into Night, surely the finest play ever penned by an American, and limiting itself to the interrelations on one day of a family of four, more than justifies the first word of its title.

The problem with this public reputation is that it is false--false because incomplete. O'Neill not only wrote some of the longest dramas in American theatrical history; he also wrote some of its best short ones, both early and late. In 1916, at the start of his legendary association with the Provincetown Players, he produced Bound East for Cardiff, the first in a series of brilliant realistic miniatures about the joys and travails of life at sea. And near the end of his career, in the early 1940s, he returned to the short form that had served him so well in the past and created, in Hughie, a work that stands confidently with the best he ever wrote. After two decades away from the genre--he had not written a one-act since 1920--he came full circle and crowned his career with what Travis Bogard has called "a perfect dramatic poem."

Hughie, which is all that O'Neill completed of an envisioned series of six plays to be collectively entitled By Way of Obit, bears interesting similarities with that first one-act of 1916. Though one is set on a British tramp steamer and the other in the lobby of a tawdry, run-down hotel in midtown Manhattan, and though the earlier play has a cast of eleven, each play's central core is a night-time duet for two men whose spiritual and emotional communion provides comfort and solace against the surrounding menaces of life and death. In Bound East, a sailor named Yank, fatally injured by a fall, is rescued from terror and afforded an easeful passage into the unknown by the consoling companionship of his shipmate Driscoll. In Hughie, the menace shifts from death to life--the life of impersonal violence, sordid shabbiness, and lonely anonymity spawned on the fringes of the modern metropolis. Two dispirited down-and-outers--a nihilistic night clerk with nothing and no one to believe in, and a third-rate gambler whose luck has run out since the death of his one admirer, the former night clerk--meet and slowly find, in one another, a reason for going on, a way (in the words of the night clerk) to "live through the night."

Both plays are amply leavened with humor, but neither posits a view of life that could be called upbeat or rosy. O'Neill may well have agreed with Hobbes that life is "nasty, brutish and short," and with T. S. Eliot that "human kind cannot bear very much reality." But in both one-acts, and in many plays between them, he showed with compassion that individuals, together, can hold the brutishness at bay; and that beliefs, even illusory ones (in The Iceman Cometh he called them "pipe dreams"), can render reality bearable, even happy.

O'Neill was to write more, and longer, before physical disability put an end to his days as an author. A Moon for the Misbegotten and the unfinished More Stately Mansions were yet to come. But Hughie seems to me the ideal keystone to his extraordinary dramatic career. Short in duration, but long and deep in implication and meaning, it deserves to stand, as it does this evening, alone. Many a long play offers less. Few, of any length, offer more.

Frederick C. Wilkins
Professor of English, Suffolk University
Editor, The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter

Provincetown Playhouse
Provincetown, Mass. 02657

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