Joe, a young man with money, the initiator of most of the action of the play. He sits at a table in Nick’s bar, near the waterfront in San Francisco, observing and commenting on the activities in the bar and trying to help some of the patrons, particularly Kitty Duval and Mary L. He directs his young flunkey, Tom, to run errands for him. When he sees that Tom is falling in love with Kitty, he does everything he can to promote the love affair, including renting a car and taking a romantic drive with the two lovers down the Pacific coast and then installing Kitty in a room at a fancy hotel. Joe gets Tom a job driving a truck and at the end of the play sends the two lovers away to get married. Joe also helps to defend Kitty when Blick, the vice cop, tries to arrest her. Joe states the philosophy that gives the play its title, his belief that one should live so that the time of one’s life is not wasted in game-playing, frantic pursuit of money and prestige, or regrets.
Tom, Joe’s younger friend, who idolizes Joe and does everything that Joe asks him to do. He is sometimes mystified by his tasks, such as bringing Joe on one occasion a collection of toys and on another a gun. He falls in love with Kitty, and their blossoming romance is the main plot device of the play.
Kitty Duval, a prostitute who wanders into the bar, angry at herself and the world because of her circumstances and occupation. She is revived by Joe, who reminds her that she once had dreams and still is capable of hope.
Nick, the owner of the bar in which most of the action takes place. He is bemused by the actions of most of his patrons but accepts their antics with good nature, although he halfheartedly complains from time to time that he does not understand what is occurring.
Mary L., a woman who comes into the bar and with whom Joe strikes up a slightly drunken conversation when he notices the initials “M. L.” on her bag. They realize that they may have fallen in love with each other, but Mary walks out of the bar and does not return.
Harry, a young song and dance man who tries (in vain) to entertain the customers with his comedic monologues.
Wesley, a young black man who plays the piano as entertainment for Nick’s customers.
Blick, a vice cop in his mid-forties. He harasses the patrons and provides the conflict in the play when he tries to make Kitty perform the burlesque routine that she did before she drifted into prostitution. Nick throws Blick out of the bar, and he is killed in the street.
McCarthy, a good-natured longshoreman who is on the side of ordinary people in spite of the mess made of the world. He tries to convince Krupp that he is in the wrong line of work.
Krupp, his friend, a slightly dim-witted policeman in his late thirties who is growing tired of his job and is unable to understand why people keep making what is basically a pleasant world worse.
Dudley R. Bostwick
Dudley R. Bostwick, a young man who continually uses the telephone in the bar to contact a girl. Any girl will do, but the one with whom he is in love would be best.
Willie, a young man who plays the pinball machine in the bar, sometimes with...
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Kit Carson, an old-time cowboy who tells tall tales of his wild adventures fighting Indians. These tales seem to be lies until he shoots and kills Blick offstage near the end of the play.
The Arab, who sits at the bar and mutters the recurring line, “No foundation. All the way down the line.”
Arab Throughout the play, the Arab sits at the bar in Nick’s saloon responding to the newspaper headlines with the comment, ‘‘No foundation. All the way down the line.’’ At one point, he says a few more words about how he has left ‘‘the old country’’ and come to America to work hard and not beg. After listening to one of the Arab’s brief monologues, Joe pronounces him, ‘‘in his own way, a prophet.’’
Blick Blick is a thoroughly unpleasant man, a ‘‘strong man without strength—strong only among the weak.’’ He works as a policeman with the city’s vice squad and struts into Nick’s bar as if he owns the place, threatening to shut it down if he catches any prostitutes there. When Blick comes back to Nick’s bar in the evening and sees Kitty, he taunts her, provoking many of the bar’s regulars to stand up to him. Blick responds by beating up Wesley, thus starting a chain of events that ends in his being shot and killed.
Dudley R. Bostwick Dudley R. Bostwick is a small man, about twenty-four years old, neatly dressed in cheap clothes when he enters the bar. He is well educated but ‘‘without the least real understanding’’ and is frustrated with life because he has not been successful in his one quest: to find a woman. Elsie Mandelspiegel is the great love of his life, and he spends a lot of time and energy on the bar’s phone trying to find her and speak with her. Eventually, he does find her and convinces her that their love is possible.
Kit Carson Kit Carson claims his name is Murphy, but everyone calls him by the name of the famous nineteenth-century frontiersman because that is who he looks like. He spends most of the play drinking in Nick’s saloon and telling stories of his life that sound too fantastic to be true. Only Joe says that he believes his stories.
Kit helps Joe load and unload his revolver. Though Joe’s gun is apparently not involved in Blick’s death, there is a special bond between Joe and Kit after Blick is shot in the street outside Nick’s bar. Kit is outside when Blick is killed; when he re-enters the bar, Joe asks him, ‘‘Somebody just shot a man. How are you feeling?’’ Kit responds by beginning to tell one of his stories; however, this story tells how he ‘‘shot a man once. In San Francisco. . . . Fellow named Blick or Glick or something like that. . . . Went up to my room and got my old pearl-handled revolver.’’ The assumption is that he did kill Blick and that, therefore, maybe all of his remarkable stories are true.
Kitty Duval Kitty Duval is one of the prostitutes who hangs out at Nick’s bar. She originally came from Poland to the United States with her family, and her name was Katerina Koranovsky. Her hard and troubled childhood ultimately led her to become a prostitute after her hopes of becoming an actress were gone.
When she first enters the bar, she is loud and brassy, but Joe is able to get at her core, finding out her real name and that she was never really a famous actress to whom ‘‘European royalty’’ sent flowers. Tom’s love also seems to soften her and, even though she believes that she has been through too much to be with someone as sweet and innocent as Tom, she accepts his overtures and marriage proposal.
Harry Harry arrives at the bar looking to be hired for his comedy or dancing routine. Nick gives him a tryout but is not terribly impressed with his abilities as a comedian. Harry’s routines are primarily about the impending war in Europe and are not terribly funny. He is convinced that the world desperately needs to laugh and that he is the best man for the job. ‘‘Nobody’s got a sense of humor anymore,’’ he complains, but he believes that he has ‘‘all kinds of funny ideas in my head to make the world happy again.’’ Nick eventually relents and hires Harry to dance while Wesley plays the piano.
Joe Joe is the character around which much of the action takes place. He has a ‘‘boyish appearance’’ and dresses well, and he is ‘‘always thinking, always eager, always bored.’’ Joe has a somewhat mysterious past, although it is clear that he is wealthy and does not ever have to work again. Joe does not feel good about having earned this money, though. When Tom asks him where he got his money, Joe answers, ‘‘If anybody’s got any money— to hoard or to throw away—you can be sure he stole it from other people. . . . I’m no exception.’’ He spends most of his time in the play sitting at a table in Nick’s bar, drinking champagne that Nick stocks just for him. Through his conversation with Mary L., more is learned about his character, including that his last name begins with the letter T., that he fell in love once with a woman named Mary in Mexico City, and that his family background is Irish.
Joe and Tom have a relationship that is built on the fact that Joe once saved Tom’s life. For that, Tom must be at Joe’s beck and call, running in and out of the bar on errands for odd items such as toys, jellybeans, a map, and a revolver. In fact, throughout much of the play, there is a real question as to whether Joe can walk by himself. Tom seems to be Joe’s way of getting around except on a few occasions. Joe is someone who mainly observes life, as opposed to living it.
Krupp Krupp is a policeman who comes into Nick’s bar occasionally, primarily to share a beer with his friend from high school, McCarthy. He is married with two sons and pained by the fact that, as a policeman, he may be asked to break up a union strike and physically hurt McCarthy. He admits to Nick late in the play that he does not really like being a policeman and thought about quitting almost as soon as he started the job, years ago. Krupp has a soft heart but is worried about the future of man.
Mary L. Mary L. is a beautiful married woman with two children who comes into the bar about halfway through the play. She gets drunk and talks with Joe, and the two seem to be quite charmed by each other. Mary leaves the bar on a bittersweet note, with Joe obviously smitten by her.
Elsie Mandelspiegel Elsie Mandelspiegel is Dudley’s girlfriend. She works at a hospital as a nurse and has a serious outlook on the world. Elsie feels that she and Dudley cannot be married because the world is too harsh for love to survive, so she has been avoiding his desperate phone calls, during which he proclaims his love for her. Toward the end of the play, Elsie succumbs to Dudley’s pleadings, and the two of them walk out of Nick’s bar, in love and promising each other that they will make an attempt at being together.
McCarthy McCarthy is a longshoreman working at the docks near Nick’s bar. Occasionally, he stops in for a beer with his friend from high school, Krupp. McCarthy is something of an intellectual, and Krupp cannot understand why he became a laborer instead of a white-collar worker. Joe and McCarthy talk with each other about the world, but Krupp is amazed and confused while listening to them.
Murphy See Kit Carson
Newsboy The Newsboy comes into Nick’s Pacific Street saloon a number of times during the play’s action to sell newspapers. Typically, Joe buys all of the papers the Newsboy has, looks at the headlines, and tosses the papers aside. The Newsboy brings the news of the outside world into the bar, but everyone in the bar rejects that information.
Nick Nick is the ‘‘big red-headed’’ owner of a saloon on Pacific Street in which most of the play’s action takes place. He is first-generation Italian American and a man of very deep but hidden feelings. He admits to crying over a sad story he heard on the radio and privately expresses great love for his daughter after gruffly chastising her for showing up at the bar. Twice in the play, he understands that someone is hungry or broke, even when they have not told him, and sends them into the kitchen to have a free meal. He feels a fierce pride about his bar and defends it from Blick.
Tom Tom is Joe’s friend and assistant. Their relationship is based on a time when Joe saved Tom’s life. He is a large but childish man, about thirty years old, and wears a cheap suit.
Tom is one of the more innocent of the play’s characters; for example, he is confused by Kitty’s question about whether he has two dollars, thinking that she simply wants to know how much money he is carrying and not that she is giving him a price for sex. He and Kitty fall deeply in love despite the differences in their backgrounds, but Tom needs Joe’s encouragement to ask her to marry him.
Wesley Wesley is a young black man who shows up at Nick’s in need of a job. He says he will do anything, ‘‘run errands, clean up, wash dishes,’’ but surprises everyone when he happens to play the piano and the result is remarkably good music. Nick decides to hire him to play the piano in the evenings at his bar. Wesley is full of pride but not the false kind. When Nick tells him he has to be a union member to get a job, Wesley is confused and answers that he just needs a job and does not expect any favors or handouts.
Willie Willie is a young man, less than twenty years old, who keeps feeding nickels into the marble game for most of the play. He takes it as a personal challenge when Nick tells him that no one can beat the game, facing the machine as if it is his nemesis. When Willie does finally win and the game explodes with patriotic songs and waving flags, he automatically salutes and cries out, ‘‘Oh, boy, what a beautiful country.’’