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“The Iceman Cometh”

In my opinion, “The Iceman Cometh” is the greatest American play. It was written by Eugene O’Neill in 1939, and actually not published and performed until 1946, as O’Neill was apparently concerned about how it would be received after he wrote it. When it was finally on stage, it received much acclaim; but somehow, although its initial staging and later revivals received many award nominations, it did not win as many awards as I would have expected, which may be due to the fact that it is more powerfully thought-provoking than emotionally intense.

If you have never read or seen a version of the play, you might have some difficulty diving into it, as there is a dated aspect to it, though that is true of many other plays, including “Death of a Salesman,”and “All My Sons,” by Arthur Miller, as well as anything by William Inge. Very few plays, outside of Shakespeare’s, could be seen as “outside of their era,” and Shakespeare’s are set in a period so long ago, as to now give them a mythological quality. O’Neill writes about a time and place that he lived in, but it is certainly recognizable in terms of human character. And in my opinion, virtually no one writes as poetically and powerfully as O’Neill.

The play is set in New York, 1912. It all takes place inside of a bar, owned by a man named Harry Hope. O’Neill spent a good deal of his early life in bars, and so was intimately familiar with the environment and the people who inhabited them. In the bar where this play takes place, there are many people, not just habitues, but who actually live there, out of what may be seen as the compassion of Harry Hope, who does gripe at them, but mildly. Of course, one may think that he needs them to give himself some sense of being a kind person, or mainly because he needs the company. Not very much is quite what it is initially meant to appear as, in this play.

There is the bartender, Rocky, who schemes to get ahead. He is essentially supplementing his income by being a pimp, though he insists that he is not, to two women, Pearl and Margie, who claim that “we’re not whores, we’re tarts.” This reflects the central theme of the play, of people needing to believe in their own perception of themselves, fortified by the drinking, which along with the occasional conversation, is the only thing which goes on the bar.

There is Hugo, a European who insists that he is an idealistic champion of the proletariat, who keeps repeating a line from a poem called “Revolution.” “The days grow hot, O Babylon! ‘Tis cool beneath thy willow trees.” But we learn that he probably is a would- be bourgeois who hates the potential revolutionaries. There are Cecil, an Englishman, and Piet. a Boer, who fought as enemies in the Boer War, but have since become friends of a sort, gibing and talking about those great days. We later learn that Piet ordered a retreat out of cowardice, and Cecil gambled away regimental money.

Jimmy Tomorrow, what an unforgettable name, was a journalist who lost his job, and keeps telling the others that he will go and ask for it back again tomorrow. Joe Mott is a Black man who once owned a gambling establishment. Willie Oban was a bright graduate of Harvard Law School, who gave up his career and turned to drink after the downfall of his wealthy but corrupt father. Harry Hope himself was a successful ward heeler in the neighborhood, but lost his job. Pat McGloin, an old friend of Harry’s, was a crooked cop who was fired from the force.

They sit in the bar all day, reminiscing about past days, and vowing that any day, they will get their old job back, or find a new career. The term “pipe dreams” recurs throughout the play. When I first read it, I knew the term, but perhaps not the origin, which referred to opium-induced dreams. There is no drug here, except for alcohol, but the dreams are the illusions which they seem to need for sustenance and even sanity.

Two of the most powerful characters in the play are Larry Slade , an older man who was an Anarchist out on the West Coast, and a member of a group which included the mother of Don Parritt, who is also in the bar, and has apparently just come to see Larry. In the brilliant version of this play which was put on by the American Film Institute, which in 1973 and 1974 put on a series of great plays made into films, Larry was played by Robert Ryan, in his last film performance, and Don Parritt was played by Jeff Bridges. Both are absolutely extraordinary, two of the greatest performances I have ever seen.

Larry has left the movement, he says he is now just a viewer of the human scene, and is waiting for the long sleep of death. Don is searching for some kind of absolution, which we learn more about in the brilliant dialogue between them.

One thing which animates the people in the bar is looking forward to the return of Hickey. Hickey (first name Theodore, but almost never used), is a successful traveling salesman who each year comes to the bar on Harry Hope’s birthday for a week-long bender. He is a bon vivant, always full of jokes and good humor.

The title of the play is based on “that joke about the iceman” that Hickey loves to tell. The joke, which I had no idea about when I first read it, is that a man comes home after work, and calls up to his wife, “Has the iceman come yet?” Her answer, “Not yet, but he’s breathing hard.” The actual title, “The Iceman Cometh,” is a brilliantly created revision, in archaic language, which evokes the image of the iceman being death, and Hickey ultimately bringing it into the bar for his last visit there.

Hickey finally shows up, to great excitement. He brings presents for everybody. He says that he is there to have the usual good time, but he has also come with a serious purpose, one that he brings his usual salesmanship to, with an added fervor. He tells each of them that they are living in pipe dreams, and that it is time to get out into the world and do what they keep saying they will.. He alternately goads them, encourages them, disparages them, does not let them get away with their usual lines and excuses.

Eventually, he gets them so angry, that they are determined to go outside the bar and do something, just to spite Hickey. But it is disastrous. Harry Hope comes back terrified, of cars coming toward him on the street, of the noise. The rest eventually straggle back, all have failed in whatever they were intending to do. They try to drink, but say that the liquor does not have any taste, they cannot get drunk.

Hickey then tells them that this was all intended, he knew that they would not be able to face the real world. But he says that now they will realize this, and will give up these hopeless dreams, and accept what they are and what their lives are. He expects this to be a great and welcome revelation for them. But they cannot drink, they verbally attack one another, they are very unhappy.

Then Hickey, with a preacher’s passion, tells his story. He loved a woman, he married her, but then he found that he could not be the ideal person she saw him as. He would come home after benders, after sleeping around, and she would always forgive him He began to hate himself for it. He says that he rid himself of illusions, seeing himself as he really is.

Finally. at the end of his story, he admits that he has just killed her, out of sympathy and pity,, he says. He has called the police, and they will come to arrest him. At the last part of his virtual soliloquy, something comes out that he did not intend to say, and then he seems to realize that rather than loving his wife, he hated her. So all this preaching about knowing thyself, separating reality from illusion, was in some sense another form of illusion. Hickey was deluding himself up until his last sentences. And the truth was devastating. But then in a last attempt to shield himself from reality, he says that he was insane, as the policemen lead him away.

The people in the bar are stunned. Eventually Harry Hope says that Hickey must indeed have been insane.. And others agree; nothing he has been saying about them was true, everything he was preaching to them was because his mind was addled. What a shame. They start to drink again; now the liquor has its old kick to it. They resume their usual badinage. The play ends, after we learn that Don Parritt has admitted to Larry that he turned in his mother to the authorities because she was more interested in the Movement than in him, and then goes upstairs and jumps off from the fire escape.

What is O’Neill saying to his audience? He was far too bright and gifted to be interpreted as having one simple moral or theme. Certainly one could read the play as suggesting that O’Neill believed that one had the choice of holding onto his or her self-illusions,or coming face to face with reality, and being destroyed. Not an appealing choice either way, but one could view it as his conception of the human condition.

But in one article, it is stated that according to O’Neill’s close friend, the screenwriter, director, and producer Dudley Nichols, O’Neill “didn’t feel that the fact that we live largely by illusion was sad.” “As Nichols explained, ‘No happy person lives on good terms with reality. No one has ever penetrated what reality is.'”

O’Neill had a poet’s soul, and affinity for people who lived in a world of desperate illusion. The people he portrays in “The Iceman Cometh” are not among the more relatable or sympathetic of his characters, but they are human, and recognizable, at least in the imagination. The play is unforgettable.

I saw and own the AFI version and also a TV version. That one starred Jason Robards, almost certainly the quintessential O’Neill actor. Lee Marvin was Hickey in the AFI version. Jose Quintero was the most esteemed director of O’Neill plays, and he restaged it at least two more times.

Why am I writing about this play now? I am not sure, sometimes various thoughts bring me to it. It might be encountering homeless people on the street, or more likely, just thinking about the human condition in general.. I am a little embarrassed to say that I don’t like the taste of alcohol, and I have never been drunk. I would go out on a dinner date, would order a half-carafe of wine, for good form, and then sip my one glass for two hours. My friends in the dorm in college would tease me about not wanting to drink beer with them, noting that I had said something to them about wanting to preserve my brain cells, which is true, but I didn’t like drinking anyway.

There was a very brief group in the 1970’s, The Modern Lovers, headed by Jonathan Richman, which had a great influence on music, even though they only made one album with the original lineup, which was actually a series of demo tapes. Richman wrote all the songs, including a memorable one, “I’m Straight” (the term being an earlier usage, which meant, “does not take drugs”). Competing with “Hippie Ernie” for a woman’s interest, he finally exclaims, “Tell me, if he’s so great/ why can’t he take this world, and take it straight?!” I considered that an anthem, not that humans have not found other ways besides drinking or drugs to try to shut out reality.

I remember someone writing a letter to one of the Los Angeles free weeklies, The LA Weekly or the LA Reader. She was very upset at this play being done, she said that it glorified drinking, and her father had died of alcoholism With sympathy for her father, this was a major misreading of the play, which in no way idealizes or supports drinking, or spending one’s life in a bar, but which does does have an empathy for the difficulty of trying to cope with the world.

Harry Hope’s bar is an indelible symbol, maybe unconsciously echoed by David Mamet in his play “American Buffalo,” which solely takes place in a store, and similarly evokes futility, with its intense dialogue counterpoised with nothing actually happening. I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a “regular” at a bar. It seems awful to me, but I guess that the television show “Cheers” tried to make it seem pleasant enough.

But the bar in O’Neill’s play is there as a wonderful device, albeit one based on his own experience, as it has the characters self-contained in a place where they interact. It is not difficult at all to see it as a metaphor for all of our lives.

There is no answer provided, no summing up by a Greek chorus or a highly respected character. Life will go on as it has, but without Hickey. Did Hickey ultimately become a victim to his own inability to keep lying to himself? Is that the price of giving up one’s pipe dreams?

T..S. Eliot wrote in the poem “Burnt Norton,” part of his “Four Quartets,” that “humankind cannot bear too much reality.” How much can it bear? And is retreating from things that cause anxiety or uncertainty. or fear of pain, a necessary part of surviving for most people? And if so, what would happen if everybody retreated and hid in that way, including creating a persona and a life history which masks who they really are, and then in many cases actually coming to believe it?

Are we moving closer to such a world, with “virtual reality,” and the looming horror called Meta? People who want to escape from reality, and soulless billionaires strangely lacking emotional affect, who will sell them the soft drugs to accomplish it, while they seek to become even more powerful and omnipresent, in a way that they could never accomplish as people having real-world interactions.

“The Iceman Cometh” is an engrossing and entertaining play with a variety of memorable characters. It is quite long, and it is bleak, and there are no laughs. But even so, and though it evokes a different period in American culture, there is a universality, a poetry and empathy to it, and it stays with one. I think it is one of the masterpieces of American literature.