It is early morning in the summer of 1912. In the back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope’s saloon, with tables and chairs squeezed closely together, nine men are seated, mostly dozing, at the tables, including sixty-year-old host Harry Hope and Larry Slade, about the same age. Larry’s expression of tired tolerance gives his face “the quality of a pitying but weary old priest’s.” These men are alcoholics who frequent the saloon. With the exception of the black Joe Mott, they are also roomers who live on the upstairs floors. All are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the salesman Hickey, due to join them to celebrate Hope’s birthday the next day. Larry, contemplating his friends’ and his addiction to alcohol, comments in an early speech, “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us.”
Don Parritt, an eighteen-year-old, good-looking but unpleasant fellow who rented one of Hope’s rooms the previous night, engages Larry in an intense conversation. Don is the only son of Rosa Parritt, an anarchist leader arrested and imprisoned for a bombing on the West Coast. Larry speculates that some member of the movement betrayed Rosa to the police and hopes that the informer’s soul will rot in hell. He left the movement eleven years ago, having come to regard humanity as too base for its idealism. Parritt describes his mother as an independent, fierce-willed woman who took and abandoned many men, including Larry. Sardonically, Larry tells Parritt not to expect any intimacy from him, because he has none left to give and only wishes to be left alone.
Willie Oban, a dropout from Harvard Law School, hopes that “Hickey or Death would come!” Two streetwalkers, Margie and Pearl, return from their night’s work and turn their earnings over to Rocky, the night bartender, who deeply resents being called a pimp, just as they insist that they are tarts, not whores. The day bartender, Chuck, a tough but amiable Italian American, enters with his girlfriend Cora, a thin blonde several years older than Pearl and Margie. Cora is also a prostitute.
Toward the end of act 1 Hickey finally arrives; he’s a roly-poly man of fifty, with a salesman’s affable, hearty personality. Warmly welcomed, he shocks his friends by announcing his abstention from alcohol and his evangelical program for these derelicts: He will rescue them from the illusions of their “pipe dreams,” will force them to confront themselves honestly and realistically; then they will find the peace that he now has.
In act 2 the regulars assemble toward midnight for Hope’s long-awaited birthday party. They are anxious and irritable: Hickey spoke to many of them in their rooms, urging them to discard their delusions. The women, for example, should admit to themselves that they are whores and that the bartenders are pimps. Larry should befriend Parritt and help him punish himself for having betrayed his mother to the police. Mosher should return to the circus; and Hope should leave his saloon and reacquaint himself with the neighborhood. As for Hickey, he announces, as a climax to the birthday celebration, that Evelyn died and that he feels no grief for his “dearly beloved” mate. She found her peace at last, released from his faithless and drunken ways.
Act 3 takes place in the middle of the next morning. The sobered residents of the saloon turn in their room keys, resigned to risking life in the outside world. Their mood is bellicose. Chuck and Cora, then Chuck and Rocky, quarrel. Joe is subjected to racial taunts and in turn threatens others with his knife. Piet, a former Boer commando, and Cecil, a former British officer, refight the Boer War. Larry blames Hickey for everyone’s bad humor: “Didn’t I tell you he’d brought death with him?”
As the roomers hesitate to step outside the building, Hope and Jimmy enter the bar, followed by Hickey, who goads them to leave the premises. Hope is particularly hesitant to stroll...
(The entire section is 1,094 words.)