O’Neill’s stage directions describe a “dirty black curtain” that separates the backroom from the bar. The backroom, the location of the primary action of the play, is so crammed with tables that it is difficult for anyone to pass through. There is a toilet built out into the room and a nickel-a-slot phonograph. The windows, which look out on a backyard, are filthy, and the walls and ceiling are “splotched, peeled, stained and dusty.” Larry Slade, the “old Foolosopher,” calls it the “No Chance Saloon” and “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller.”
Walled from the street outside, Harry Hope’s saloon provides a place of escape for its occupants, who are social outcasts, derelicts, and failures, existing with their five-cent whiskey, free lunch, and pipe dreams of tomorrow. It is a setting in which one can forget, repress, deny. Symbolically, Harry Hope’s is like a womb: It is warm, cozy, dark, and filled with fluid.
At the end of the first act, the comfortable booziness of the backroom is disturbed by the entrance of Hickey, the salesman, arriving ostensibly to help celebrate Harry’s birthday, as is his annual custom. However, he differs somewhat from usual: first, because he refuses to drink, and second, because he is determined to persuade the residents to act upon their dreams.
In the second act the backroom has been prepared for a party. It is midnight, signifying the beginning of a new day. The bar is closed off, the floor has been swept, tables have been pushed together to make one long table, and a space has been cleared for dancing. There is a birthday cake, red ribbons on the light fixtures, and presents and bottles of whiskey on the table. The setting has been transformed into something that grotesquely approximates the celebrations of the outside world. Similarly, Hickey seeks to transform his friends into participants in society by convincing them to confront their dreams.
The effort to alter the setting and its inhabitants continues through act 3 and into the next morning. Now more of the bar is seen, including its swinging doors to the street. Significantly, the doors will introduce the characters to the reality beyond Harry Hope’s, and, one by one, seduced by Hickey’s arguments relating to their peace of mind, they make abortive attempts to bring their illusions of tomorrow into reality.
In the last act the setting reverts to the original scene but with an “atmosphere of oppressive stagnation.” Even the booze has no life to it. The patrons were unsuccessful in facing reality, and only when Hickey blurts out that he hated his wife and must be insane can they reinstate their pipe dreams and therefore their stasis. They, as all humankind, need their illusions to survive.
Jimmy the Priest’s was a Raines Law hotel of the early twentieth century. It could allow service of liquor after hours and on Sundays if a meal was served with the liquor. Generally this meant a moldy sandwich festered in the middle of each table. The building was a narrow, five-story structure, with the proprietor occupying the second floor, while the upper floors were rented to the regulars. When O’Neill lived there for a while in 1912, he met many of the characters who appear in this play; and it was here that he probably attempted suicide and was saved by his friend, James Byth, the model for Jimmy Tomorrow.