The Iceman Cometh. A play in four acts by Eugene O’Neill. New York premiere: Martin Beck Theatre, 9 October 1946. Production and lighting design by Robert Edmond Jones; produced by The Theatre Guild; directed by Eddie Dowling. With James Barton (Hickey), Carl Benton Reid (Larry Slade), Dudley Digges (Harry Hope), Paul Crabtree (Don Parritt), E.G. Marshall (Willie Oban), Jeanne Cagney (Marcie), Leo Chalzel (Hugo Kalmar) and others. Closed 15 March 1947 (136 performances). Text: The Iceman Cometh, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006. With an introduction by Harold Bloom.
If you were to ply me with drinks at a cocktail party (which doesn’t happen often enough, by the way) and ask for my nominee for the greatest American play of the twentieth century, my answer would be The Iceman Cometh, without hesitation. One of O’Neill’s two great masterworks of the postwar period, O’Neill completed the play in 1939 then withheld it from production for the duration of World War II. “A New York audience could neither see nor hear its meaning,” he wrote to Lawrence Langer. “The pity and tragedy of defensive pipe dreams would be deemed downright unpatriotic. … But after the war is over, I am afraid … that American audiences will understand a lot of The Iceman Cometh only too well.”  O’Neill was wrong about this; the play lasted a scant six months on Broadway, its power and brilliance recognized only with the 1956 revival of the play off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square theatre, directed by Jose Quintero and featuring Jason Robards as Hickey (Robards’ performance as Hickey in the 1985 Broadway revival of the play, also directed by Quintero, is one of the most indelible memories of my entire theatregoing experience). And it is the product, most certainly, of a tragic, and not a comic, consciousness.
O’Neill’s consideration that the play might be received as “unpatriotic” points to the peculiarly American nature of its theme — the “pipe-dream” as the dream of America, new beginnings and, once again, a prelapsarian experience that would leave European history behind. I use the word “theme” deliberately, for the play’s structure itself doesn’t resemble the three-act structure of Ibsen or the five-act structure of Shakespeare but rather the four-movement structure of a symphony, containing a theme and its variations more important than a storyline. O’Neill’s reputation as a repetitious writer may have some of its ground in a consideration of the play’s four-hour length, but it was not a failing of O’Neill’s work as much as a well-considered compositional approach. Bogard also cites a moment during rehearsals for the play when producer Lawrence Langer noted that one point had been made eighteen times — “O’Neill told him ‘in a particularly quiet voice, “I intended it to be repeated eighteen times!”‘”
The musical structure is additionally revealed in the first act of the play, by far the longest of the four at 81 pages in the published text. The fifteen denizens of Harry Hope’s backroom (no doubling possible here, either), significantly set in 1912, just before the First World War, engage in a lengthy polyphonic fugue of their dreams and aspirations, all of which they will fulfill “tomorrow”; it is a suite of voices of varying tone and note. And it is a polyglot tongue with which the play speaks, reflecting also the mass immigration to America at the turn of the century; Dutch, Irish, British; a Harvard-educated law student next to a cop and a carnival barker; Hugo Kalmar, an anarchist revolutionary who has spent ten years in prison and upon his release has been easily assimilated into the America which Harry Hope’s back room signifies; and the black Joe Mott.  There are three women as well, generating an aural soundscape of urban America at the time.
At the end of the act the salesman Hickey arrives for his annual bender on the occasion of barowner Harry Hope’s 60th birthday, but he arrives this time selling something to the denizens of the bar — a release from illusion and pipe-dreams, urging them to take action to make these dreams true. It is, as it transpires, something of a trick; Hickey knows that none will be able to do so, but convinces them to make the effort in a project to bring “truth.” In attempting to reveal the lies beneath human hope, he reveals also the nothingness that lies beneath both eros and death.
The title of the play, The Iceman Cometh, is a sickly double-entendre marrying death and orgasm; while death is the iceman, so is Hickey, for even the peace to be found in death is an illusion. Perhaps its key can be found in the realization achieved by Larry Slade, an ex-anarchist who believes he has resigned himself to the failures of the human spirit, describing himself as a “grandstander,” waiting for the peace of death. But even this is a lie, in the words of the play a “pipe-dream”:
LARRY (With increasing bitter intensity, more as if he were fighting with himself than with Hickey): I’m afraid to live, am I? — and even more afraid to die! So I sit here, with my pride drowned on the bottom of a bottle, keeping drunk so I won’t see myself shaking in my britches with fright, or hear myself whining and praying: Beloved Christ, let me live a little longer at any price! If it’s only for a few days more, or a few hours even, have mercy, Almighty God, and let me still clutch greedily to my yellow heart this sweet treasure, this jewel beyond price, the dirty, stinking bit of withered old flesh which is my beautiful little life! … You think you’ll make me admit that to myself?
HICKEY (Chuckling): But you just did admit it, didn’t you? (168)
Hickey has turned his merciless project onto himself already, having killed his wife Evelyn in an effort to relieve himself of the guilt of being human, a guilt which Evelyn was willing to forgive; but it is something in the human spirit, some mysterious force which hovers over all the characters of the play, which turns eros to violence. The second act of the play is perhaps one of the most telling, as Hickey’s admittedly successful attempt to tear the illusions from each of the characters leads to the physical violence — racial, political, sexual — among those who peaceably enjoyed each other’s company, drunk as they were, in the hours before Hickey’s arrival.
But death, whether it comes to Evelyn through murder or Don Parritt through suicide in the last moments of the play, does not bring peace. This truth confuses Hickey as he surveys the broken human community he has created; but he has sold this truth. In Act Four, which features Hickey’s tortured 40-minute monologue describing his murder of Evelyn, the drunks of Harry Hope’s bar can’t even find peace in the booze, which has “lost its kick.” It is only with Hickey’s departure that it regains its effect.
If Don Parritt is the Judas figure of the play, having ratted out his anarchist mother out of both hatred and greed (and Larry Slade just might be his father), Hickey is its corrupt Christ, bringing a spiritual truth which he himself may not fully understand. What is left is the human figure of Larry Slade, and the human community. It is no surprise that the final curtain falls on a raucous cacaphony of popular song, drinking and laughter:
([Hope] starts the chorus of “She’s the Sunshine of Paradise Alley,” and instantly they all burst into song. But not the same song. Each starts the chorus of his or her choice. Jimmy Tomorrow’s is “A Wee Dock and Doris”; Ed Mosher’s, “Break the News to Mother”; Willie Oban’s, the Sailor Lad ditty he sang in Act One; General Wetjoen’s “Waiting at the Church”; McGloin’s, “Tammany”; Captain Lewis’s, “The Old Kent Road”; Joe’s, “All I Got Was Sympathy” [and on for a bit] … while Hugo jumps to his feet and, pounding on the table with his fist, bellows in his guttural basso the French Revolutionary “Carmagnole.” A weird cacophony results from this mixture and they stop singing to roar with laughter. All but Hugo, who keeps on with drunken fervor.)
Dansons la Carmagnole!
Vive le son! Vive le son!
Dansons la Carmagnole!
Vive le son des canons!
(They all turn on him and howl him down with amused derision. He stops singing to denounce them in his most fiery style.)
Capitalist svine! Stupid bourgeois monkeys!
“The days grow hot, O Babylon!”
(They all take it up and shout in enthusiastic jeering chorus.)
“‘Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!”
(They pound their glasses on the table, roaring with laughter, and Hugo giggles with them. In his chair by the window, Larry stares in front of him, oblivious to their racket. Curtain.) (218-219)
Metatheatrically, the “dirty black curtain which separates [the back room] from the bar” at upstage right (7) is a mirror of the proscenium curtain that separates The Iceman Cometh from its audience, and indeed the curtain falls. In these final moments, O’Neill masterfully presents a remarkable picture of America (this is Walt Whitman’s America singing, its democracy to be found in the individual songs each singer chooses to bawl), drawing the audience too into that back room and rendering them similarly denizens of illusion. Even the ideals of Hugo’s revolutionary political fervor are rendered as just one additional instance of the noise of America, a putatively joyful noise which isolates those who have learned the truth, who have pierced through the illusion to see the yawning abyss beneath it; once truly seen and recognized in the self, it is impossible to turn away again and lose oneself in that community, as Larry Slade knows. (O’Neill, interestingly, was also one of America’s few dramatists with a firm grounding in philosophy, especially that of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer; as Harold Bloom notes in his foreword to the Yale University Press edition: “We live and die, in the spirit, in solitude, and the true strength of Iceman is its intense dramatic exemplification of that somber reality. … Life, in Iceman, is what it is in Schopenhauer: illusion.” [x]) America — and the newly Americanized world — have not become less cacophanous since 1946; over sixty years later, with the Internet, mass media and other devices, it may be more cacophanous than ever, rendering The Iceman Cometh perhaps the greatest American play of the 21st century as well. O’Neill’s work is a deeply moving, shockingly sublime and disconcerting (in the best sense of the word) experience on the page or on the stage; anyone who does not know it does not know the American theatre, what it has been, is, and could be, for better or worse. It is, with the novels of Herman Melville, the canvases of Mark Rothko and the music of Morton Feldman, among the most majestic expressions of the tragedy that lies at the heart of the American experience.
A DVD of John Frankenheimer’s very good 1973 film of The Iceman Cometh, with Lee Marvin as Hickey, is available from the Superfluities Redux bookstore. And via YouTube, two more Hickeys: first, Al Pacino reads from the play in this excerpt from Ric Burns’ 2006 PBS documentary on O’Neill (I admit it is of sentimental value; a DVD of this documentary was the last present I received from my father before his death):
- Cited in Travis Bogard’s notes on the play in Contour in Time, available online here. [↩]
- It is little noted just how O’Neill’s extraordinary and subtle sense of the black experience in America makes its way into his plays; the romance between a white woman and a black man in his 1924 All God’s Chillun Got Wings brought the play to the attention of the New York mayor’s office. [↩]