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The Straw


O'Neill's romanticized account of his life in a tuberculosis sanatorium is a play using only two fragments of music. Both, however, are telling in their scenes.

At the beginning of act 1, scene 2, the concluding passage of Dvorák's "Humoresque" is heard on a decrepit Victrola in the infirmary reception hall. Stephen Murray, the play's protagonist, allows the record to run on after the music has finished in the hope that the record will break — a small gesture suggesting the tedium of the cure he is under-going.

In act 2, scene 1, as the tubercular patients assemble for their weekly weighing — an important event, since a gain or loss in weight provides evidence as to how the cure is progressing the tension they all feel is feverishly alleviated by the request that one of their members, Peters, play something: "Pedal up, Pete. Give us a rag!" Peters obliges on the tinny piano, and the patients "brighten, hum, whistle, sway their heads or tap their feet in time to the tune." The ragtime rhythm provides an ironic accompaniment to the central medical tension and has the effect of turning the patients for a moment into a band of grotesques, dancing in a surreal marionette show. O'Neill does not specify the rag. Any written before 1919 will serve.

There is a rule in the sanatorium that John Howard Payne's "Home Sweet Home" is not to be played or sung there. Evidently nostalgia works against recovery.

(...Stephen Murray is discovered sitting in a chair in front of the fireplace... He is staring into the fire, dreaming, an open book lying unheeded on the arm of his chair. The Victrola is whining out the last strains of Dvorak's Humoresque.... The record peters out. Murray sights with relief but makes no move to get up and stop the grinding needle.) [I, 732-33]

Humoresque - Anton Dvořák, opus 101 no. 7, published 1894


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