The windows in Harry Hope’s are so stained they fail the transparency test. Everything about the place reeks of the past and decay, which mirrors the lives of the men and women who inhabit the place. In short, the bar is a reflection of the characters. It goes unwashed, unkempt, and it carries the muck and dirt of the past on its sleeve. The perfect setting for a Tom Waits song.
All of the action takes place either at the front or the back of the bar in Harry’s. The characters talk about the outside world, but it’s never seen. What passes as life here is trapped inside the bar. The action of the play takes place more-or-less in the span of a day, so even though the play is long, it’s just because the day is long for these folks—a common theme for O’Neill.
Setting the play in 1912 New York allows O’Neill to make Harry’s a Raines Law establishment. The Raines Law was intended to reduce drinking in the city. In a lot of ways, though, it just encouraged bar owners to come up with clever ruses to exploit loop holes, including prop sandwiches and fake hotels.
Harry’s is a place where people can’t even be bothered to go through the charade dictated by the Raines Law. No one from the outside seems to care though, and so the inhabitants of Harry’s are emboldened in their devil-may-care attitude. They know the world is passing them by and that they are all but invisible to anyone from the outside. (That may also be why they are so surprised by Parritt’s initial appearance on the scene.)
The time period also defines the racial relationships of the day. It’s evident in the way that people speak to Joe (and Rocky to a lesser extent) that tolerance wasn’t high on the priority list in 1912 New York. What was high on the priority list? Change. Cars whip down the street now, which is just one sign that the city is different than it was when Harry set up his fine establishment.
O’Neill writes a lot of his dialogue in old timey dialects. This not only reinforces the time period in which the play is set, it also draws attention to specific characters’ races and economic standings. For instance, O’Neill chooses to make Rocky, the Italian American bartender, drop the ends of words that end in ‘g’, lose track of his ‘h’s, and a few other things that can make the character a little difficult to follow at times. Here’s a taste of Rocky talk: (1)
Well, don’t tink I’m interested in dis Parritt guy. He’s nuttin’ to me. (1)
This type of dialect can raise questions about stereotyping in the play. For better or worse, though, O’Neill uses it to flesh out the time period and setting of his show.