Written for a beautiful production of O’Neill’s Hughie, directed by Doug Hughes. -DL
In September of 1940 Eugene O’Neill finished the first manuscript of Long Day’s Journey into Night. On July 22, 1941, he gave the final draft to his third wife, Carlotta, on the 12th anniversary of their marriage. Dedicating the play to her, he signed it, a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.”
This was almost literally true. Toward the end of his life, O’Neill developed a severe tremor in his writing hand, making the composition of his plays – he could only write long-hand – slow and painful. One of O’Neill’s heroes, the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, had a similar blood-thinning disorder at the end of his life, causing his fingers to literally bleed onto the page of the manuscript, pooling with the black ink of the words below. Like Strindberg and Beethoven, who worked arduously to complete his Ninth Symphony after going deaf, O’Neill was driven on by the artist’s ferocious desire to create, even as his body was decaying. And like Strindberg’s and Beethoven’s final works, O’Neill’s late plays are works of visionary intensity. They summon ghosts in an atmosphere of American myth, depicting dreamlike scenes inspired by O’Neill’s past life, so detailed that one can scarcely believe they are fictional.
Consider, for example, Hughie. A short play, it possesses the perfect formal symmetry, the extraordinary artistic invention, and the concentrated atmospheric effect of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas. In drama, the play looks back to Strindberg’s “chamber plays” and forward to the taut, evocative, poetic pieces of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
Despite his painful tremor, O’Neill started writing Hughie on April 9, 1941, shortly after completing Long Day’s Journey. Three weeks later, he was finished. The play came out of O’Neill fully formed: it would need only minor revisions. Set in an anonymous New York hotel lobby during the halcyon era of 1928, Hughie consists of one scene, requires only two actors, and takes typically one hour to perform. Through the dialogue of its two characters, punctuated by brief silent interludes, O’Neill skillfully and economically draws three brief but surprisingly detailed life stories. The play is a dramatic snapshot, a moment frozen in time. But it is an image that deepens the longer we look at it. What starts out seeming like a simple character study emerges as a dying playwright’s ruminations on life and death, dreams and reality. And form follows content. As if in response to O’Neill’s thematic interest in the deep truths of life, the play’s seemingly straightforward setting and time scheme gives way to a permanent midnight. The stage becomes a metaphysical landscape, and the audience is asked to confront underlying truths.
The life stories are those of Erie Smith, Charlie Hughes, and “Hughie,” the title character, who is never seen. All are purgatorial figures, souls lost in their own worlds of illusion. Erie, a small-time Broadway gambler, has spent the best years of his life in the play’s hotel lobby, regaling Hughie the night-clerk with tall tales of his prowess at the races. But Hughie has died recently, and Erie hasn’t won a bet since. We never meet Hughie, but the more Erie talks, the more a rich portrait of him emerges as a man who found the magic in the mundane. If Erie pines for his lost friend – and for his own lost sense of self – Charlie Hughes spends his hours pining for a different life for himself, lived anywhere else. Listening to the sounds of the city, Charlie dreams of being anything but what he is: a garbage man, a doctor, a fireman. Watching the play we can understand why Hughie could build Erie up into a character of mythic proportion, even though he seems in reality to be nothing of the sort, or why Charlie would yearn to be someone else, rather than a lowly night clerk. When life is filled with the routine, one looks for an exciting dream to transform it into something that has meaning. It’s too unbearable to look at what it truly is. As Erie says of Hughie: “He’s out of the racket. I mean, the whole goddamned racket. I mean life.” It’s one of Erie’s few lines that receives a response from Charlie Hughes, who cheerfully agrees with him.
O’Neill’s stage directions are unusually detailed in this play, even for the typically prolix O’Neill. Through them he creates a vivid series of dream tableaux for Charlie Hughes, commingling with the urban jangle of Broadway and creating a fog of unreality that envelops the kitchen-sink realism of the hotel lobby.
The question of how to illustrate these private thoughts in Hughie is one that has bedeviled theatre practitioners since its premiere in 1958, in Stockholm. O’Neill once said that it would take “tremendous imagination” to stage the play and not leave one of its worlds out. Those two worlds – fantasy and reality – are the ones that O’Neill grappled with throughout his playwriting career. But nowhere else does he present the two side-by-side and with such elegant simplicity. Significantly, this is also the only one of O’Neill’s plays in which he suggests that the life-lie, the pipe dream that gets us through the “whole goddamned racket” of life, can be a positive thing as well as a tragic one. A few months after completing Hughie, on October 28, 1941, O’Neill began working on A Moon for the Misbegotten, a play that similarly explores the dreams of a life remembered and the realities of a life soon over. But it is in Hughie where O’Neill most fully suggests an alternative to his tragic view of life, looking beyond tragedy, beyond mourning, to something that could be called hope.