A Hidden Side of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie?

I just saw a wonderful performance of Eugene O’Neill‘s Hughie at the Long Wharf Theatre. (If you’re within driving distance of New Haven, I recommend that you go see it before it closes on November 16.) The entire play, which runs about an hour, is set in the lobby of a shabby hotel (O’Neill describes the hotel as a “third-class dump, catering to the catch-as-catch-can trade”). The Long Wharf set is an amazing re-creation of a 1928 lobby — complete with a massive wooden front desk. Brian Dennehy delivers a powerful performance as Erie Smith, a mournful denizen of the hotel. For most of the play, Erie is imploring, cajoling, and talking to a rather implacable night clerk, Charlie Hughes (played by Joe Grifasi). Long Wharf describes the play:

Erie Smith, a small-time gambler, wanders home to a seedy New York hotel fresh from a grief-stricken bout of drinking: Hughie, night clerk and once-captive audience for Erie’s tall tales, has died. Will Erie find in Hughie’s replacement the affirmation and companionship he craves? One loner seeks solace in another in Eugene O’Neill’s snapshot of two souls on a city’s margins.

While this description is accurate, it occurs to me that the entire play might also be seen as a political allegory. It’s not much of a stretch to think that the night clerk, Charlie Hughes, represents Charles Evans Hughes, the mythic Republican statesman of the early 20th century.

Hughes served on the Supreme Court — twice! He was first appointed as an associate justice in 1910 by William Howard Taft. Hughes then resigned from the court to unsuccessfully run as the Republican nominee against Woodrow Wilson in 1916. But in 1930, Herbert Hoover returned him to the court as chief justice. It was Hughes who led the fight against F.D.R.’s court-packing plan. And even though Hughes struck down as unconstitutional the N.R.A., he ultimately sided with the three musketeers (Justices Louis Brandeis, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Benjamin Cardozo) in upholding the constitutionality of several New Deal innovations.

Instead of seeing Charlie Hughes as a deadpan night clerk sitting behind a massive wooden front desk, we can begin to see a judge sitting behind a bench. The taciturn Charlie is quietly listening, sitting in judgment of the extended case put forward by Erie Smith.

So if Charlie is Justice Hughes, who is the claimant Erie Smith? This is a stretch, but I’m thinking that we might see him as a surrogate for F.D.R. — who is basically making claims on the clerk’s humanity. Erie is metaphorically asking Charlie to break free from his old views and be more human. Under this reading, the play, which is set in 1928, is a great metaphoric foreshadowing of events that are going to transpire over the next decade.

Literary criticism is definitely not my game — and I imagine that savvy readers will blow this idea out of the water. (The play stands up very, very well without any of the allegoric overlay.) But it is interesting that O’Neill wrote Hughie from 1941 to 1942. Charles Evans Hughes served as chief justice until 1941. It’s not implausible that O’Neill was thinking, in part, about “Charles” and the events of the prior decade when he was giving flesh to “Charlie.”

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  1. Matthew Otto says:

    Wait plays have subtext? Amazing! I think you came away with exactly what the production team wanted you to. In fact m ost plays are not only about that especially from a playwright as good as O’Neil.

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  2. Brandon J. Mendelson says:

    I don’t know if that’s what O’Neil was going for (we can’t ask, he’s dead), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with viewing the play in this manner.

    Look at “Inherit The Wind”, it was meant to be an attack on McCarthyism, but over the years it became more and more about the play’s subject matter (evolution vs. creationism).

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  3. AaronS says:

    Actually, I think your take is pretty insightful. Successful literary critics are often doing nothing more than you are doing–seeing some metaphor or subtle theme from the work.

    And the hotel desk as representative of the desk behind which the justices sit…well, that’s a good one.

    Good job!

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  4. Browning says:

    I saw these actors in HUGHIE as presented by the Stratford (ON) festival. Dennehy was brilliant and Grifasi did a wonderful job, moving from total incomprehension of Erie Smith to acceptance of Erie’s need for someone to listen to his self-identifying stories. I don’t think the play has anything to do with Justice Hughes, but Erie Smith shares some of the desperation of Willy Loman.

    Dennehy also presented Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett, as a companion one-act. Stratford Festival does fabulous work. And the dollar has gained on the Canadian dollar. Give it a try.

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  5. jonathan says:

    Without in any way discarding your reading, I thought the reference was to O’Neill himself. First, he almost died in such a flophouse as a drunk and even, if I remember, tried to kill himself there. (His brother had earlier drunk himself to death.)

    But more to it, Hugh O’Neill was the 2nd Earl of Tyrone and, of course, the Tyrone family is A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The names aside, the life of “The O’Neill” has some resonances in Gene’s other plays. For example, his magnificent A Touch of the Poet is centered around an Irish former soldier for Wellington – now a tavern owner in America – who has always passed himself off as English and who breaks during the play to reveal – in a not very pretty way at all – the stresses within him. The Earl of Tyrone was known for allying with the English and then fighting them.

    O’Neill’s plays are often about what he called “pipe dreams,” the desperate yearnings of the alcoholic, those unhappy souls unable to see the reality of their lives.

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  6. Grant says:

    Driving distance or public transit! New Haven is on Metro North! Don’t you know MTA is green?

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  7. Anon says:

    Struck down as unconstitutional the N.I.R.A (National Industrial Recovery Act) not the N.R.A. (National Rifle Association).

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  8. Asher says:

    They called it the NRA, Anon.

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