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A Hidden Side of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on November 6, 2008.

A Hidden Side of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie?
By Ian Ayres ’86

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.”