Before realism came to the stage there was a whole lot of mustache twisting and over-acting going on. O’Neill deserves a lot of the credit (or castigation, depending on your view point) for bringing the glory days of American melodrama to an end. The shift from melodrama to realism, which O’Neill underwent himself, stands out in his later works like The Iceman Cometh. The setting stands in for a real bar, not an impressionistic image of a bar. The dialogue is meant to reflect exchanges that could take place in any seedy American saloon or hotel of the time, where people only care about getting drunk and forgetting:
PARRITT: What do they do for a living?
LARRY: As little as possible. (1)
Even the dialects O’Neill employs for certain characters like Rocky, Margie, Pearl, and Hugo are meant to add to the realism of the play (though its effect remains debatable):
MARGIE: We told de guys we’d wait for dem ‘round de corner. (1)
Theatrical realism means more than just writing realistic dialogue, though. O’Neill sets out to create fully formed characters with depth, inner conflicts, back stories, and reactions that remain true to who they are throughout.
Man, Hickey talks a lot, right? This guy goes on for like half an hour at one point barely coming up for air in the process. Take a look at the monologue that starts with “For God’s sake” and ends with “peace she’d always dreamed about” (4). That’s a sizeable chunk of text, and that’s really only one small part of much, much larger monologue.
O’Neill wrote a wordy play. That’s why it usually runs well over four hours when it’s staged. It’s also why a lot of theatre companies won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. However, Hickey finds his power in words. It’s how he gets people to do what he wants, so it makes sense that he would go on and on and on and on and…