Looking for a way to set the tone of a play early? How about curtain up on a collection of drunks sleeping off their hangovers in a run-down, window-stained bar on the bottom floor of an old, beat-up flop house? Yep, that’ll work.
Rocky Pioggi, the night bartender, gets things set up before the bar opens for the evening. He sneaks Larry Slade, the only regular who is not sleeping, some free drinks.
Larry tells Rocky he’s done with his past life as an anarchist—ugh, make that life on the whole.
Hugo Kalmar, another former anarchist, blurts out some pleasantries about “capitalist swine”, calls Rocky a slaveholder and slips off back to sleep.
Offended Rocky claims he’s not a pimp and that “dem tarts, Margie and Poil” (1) are just a side line.
Rocky and Larry wonder where Hickey’s at. He comes every year for Harry’s birthday party, and it’s going to be Harry’s birthday at midnight. This might not seem all that important, but talking about Hickey is kind of what Act 1 is all about.
Other drunks around the bar start to call out haunted fragments from their nightmares.
All that yelling is bound to wake a man up, so it’s no surprise that the owner of this fine establishment, Harry Hope, finally shakes off sleep. He complains about Rocky giving away free booze, but then tells Rocky he should give Hugo a free drink to shut him up. The inconsistency seems lost on him.
Joe, the only black patron of the bar, wakes up. Okay, so the play was written in 1939 and it takes place in 1912. This is important to keep in mind, because this is definitely not an environment of equality. In fact, laws of the time make it illegal for Joe to be at the front of the bar during certain times of the day. He has to hide himself in the back room.
Joe, Rocky, and Larry start talking longingly about Hickey. Remember, talking about Hickey is kind of where it’s at.
Let the intrigue begin! Don Parritt, an eighteen-year-old with an attitude problem, enters.
Parritt met Larry the night before (before the play opens), and it’s clear that they go back somehow.
We discover that Larry was with Parritt’s mother when Parritt was just a little boy. We also discover that Parritt is an anarchist who has been forced to go undercover, because a member of the Cause ratted him out. This rat also got Parritt’s mother, a leader of the Cause, thrown in jail.
Parritt wants to know whether Larry left the Cause on account of his mother, but Larry responds that he’s “condemned to be one of those who has to see all sides of a question” (1).
Willie Oban wakes up. A former Harvard Law School wiz and son of a disgraced leader of a Bucket Shop, Willie has dreams of returning to the law game.
Guess what happens next? Willie talks about the coming of Hickey, whom he calls “the Great Salesman” (1).
Willie sings and wakes the other drunks up. Harry tells Rocky to shut him up. Rocky does. Harry gets angry at
Rocky for being rough with Willie. Harry likes to play both sides.
Lewis and Wetjoen, former enemies in the Boer Wars, recount their past adventures. Wetjoen claims with all the English soldiers he killed, he’s sorry he didn’t kill Lewis. They laugh. What’s a little joke about murder between friends?
James Cameron (aka “Jimmy Tomorrow”) wakes up momentarily to shout about how he’s not going to just sit around and get drunk anymore. He’s going to get his shoes shined and try to get a job in the morning.
Now that most of the group is awake, Harry shares the story of how he hasn’t left the bar/boarding house since his dear wife Bessie died twenty years ago. But that’s all going to change. Tomorrow, on his sixtieth birthday, he’s going to walk around the neighborhood and connect with his old political chums.
This story leads the other patrons to share their big plans. Mosher will re-join the circus, McGloin will get his job on the police force back, and Joe will re-open his gambling establishment.
Time to get some women involved in this sausage fest, right? Margie and Pearl enter. They’re fast, sassy prostitutes. Of course, they get angry when others call them that. They claim that they’re tarts and there is a difference. Rocky, their pimp, also claims he’s not a pimp, because he works as a bartender. It’s all in the deets, people.
Cora, another prostitute who calls herself a tart, arrives with Chuck, the daytime bartender who also claims he’s not a pimp. He is, though.
Hold the phone, people. Cora says she saw Hickey on her way to the bar.
News of Hickey’s close proximity gets everyone doing one thing. You got it. They start talking about Hickey.
Cora claims something seemed different about Hickey, but they all know that as soon as he shows up and starts drinking, he’ll be good old Hickey, and he’ll make everyone feel better about themselves.
Everyone fawns over Hickey who bursts onto the scene like the brilliant salesman he is.
Hickey buys everyone a drink, but he doesn’t want one for himself. He tells everyone he’s off the stuff, but he still wants them to celebrate.
Hickey reveals he’s here to change their lives for the better. He tells them that they need to stop lying to themselves with their pipe dreams and start letting themselves “sink down” until “[t]here’s no farther [they] have to go” (1).
Exhausted from a very long walk, Hickey goes to sleep. Everybody hopes he’s just pulling one of his famous gags on them, but they all feel a little uneasy.
Popping up from his slumber for just a second, Hickey manages to tell them that he just wants them all to be happy. He falls back to sleep. They all stare at him resentfully.