In 1998, I had the pleasure to see one of American theater’s great dramas, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, staged at one of the grand old theater houses of London’s West End, the Old Vic, where Kevin Spacey was then headlining in the role of doomed interventioner (and erstwhile salesman) Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. I’ve reread the play a couple times over the years, including this past week. This most recent reading uncovered some of the plays more deeply held pleasures—well, deeply held from me, that is—and I’d like to talk about ‘em. Maybe during this discussion, I’ll discover why I keep returning to O’Neill’s depressing world of drunks, addicts, layabouts, and ne’er-do-wells.
I’ve always been drawn to scope. I became a novelist because one of my earliest, most elemental feelings was a sense of awe at the sheer length of the novel. Even the short ones looked long to my child’s eyes. The amount of work that went into crafting such a narrative boggled my young mind. One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of the Stephen King novel IT. My mom had the hardcover edition, and I remember thumbing through it, flipping the pages, smelling the paper, marveling at its detailed table of contents. To read such a massive tome felt like looking out at the sea before embarking on an odyssey. To write such a tome felt even grander, even more impossible.
Of course, I’ve since read IT, and although I’ve written some long novels, none has approached the length of any of Stephen King’s lengthiest works. And that’s okay. My fascination with large books has carried me through Anna Karenina (recommended to me by a good friend) and Moby-Dick, among others. As I’ve made my way through these long books, a happy truth has settled over me, as I’m sure it has any serious student of literature:
Once is never enough.
It isn’t. Of course it isn’t. I’ve read Moby-Dick once, but I barely grasped it. I mean—don’t get me wrong. I got it, but I’ve yet to plumb its depths. At best, I’ve skimmed a layer of chum off its surface. (I also read the book in concert with Nathaniel Philbrick’s companion piece Why Read Moby-Dick. Philbrick, a nonfiction author and Melville scholar, conducts a survey of the major themes and imagery in the book, with an eye toward how Melville takes a snapshot—well, less snapshot and more “deep focus, five thousand gigapixel, panoramic photo”—of the United States right before the Civil War.)
A mighty scope has also drawn me in other media—movies and theater, but especially theater. My favorite work of Shakespeare is King Lear, and although it’s not his longest play—it ranks seventh—I’d put it roughly in the same category as The Iceman Cometh in the sense that it’s a big, rambling, discursive work that explores the madness that can attend our twilight years. It took me a long time to get a handle on Lear. Back in the day, I tried and failed to read it twice before I plowed through it for a wonderful Shakespeare class (a subject to which I’ll return in a moment). After that, I listened to it on audio and saw it in performance for the first time, a solid production in San Francisco. I soon gave it another read, also on that same trip to London—and it was only after all those readings that I finally got a sense of the characters’ personalities. I could describe them vividly enough to pass muster for the Plinkett test.
My most recent reading of The Iceman Cometh also came with some production study of the mildest sort. I tracked down a copy of John Frankenheimer’s 1973 TV movie with Lee Marvin as Hickey, and I also tracked down as many scenes as I could find from the 1960 TV movie with Jason Robards. (Side note: Why in hell would you cast Lee Marvin in a major stage role?) My studies also uncovered a recent revival at Chicago’s Goodman Theater with Nathan Lane as Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry. (Like the Goodman’s late-90s revival of Death of a Salesman, their revival of The Iceman Cometh was directed by Robert Falls to great acclaim and success. Falls and Dennehy also teamed up to revive O’Neill’s similarly depressing familial epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night back in 2001, among many other classics. Man, I miss living in Chicago sometimes.)
Anyway, let me hasten to add that The Iceman Cometh is no King Lear, and O’Neill is no Shakespeare. I mean, he’s great, but he’s also the very definition of on the nose. To wit, if I were to describe The Iceman Cometh’s story, I’d say it was about a bunch of drunk losers who hang around a flophouse, clinging to pipe dreams about their glory days. An old friend comes back to said flophouse and stages an intervention en masse, attempting to dissuade them of their pipe dreams. They all try to clean up, but they hate it. Finally, the old friend confesses that he murdered his wife and gets arrested. Everyone returns to their original state. The end.
Here’s the thing: O’Neill is the kind of playwright who writes a play like I described, and in which every character reminds you that you’re watching the play I described, right down to the settings, characters, and themes. Basically, everyone in The Iceman Cometh plainly states “I have a pipe dream, and it is _______, and boy, this sure is a flophouse, and this play sure is about how hopeless everything is.” There’s a clumsiness to O’Neill’s delivery of theme, a lack of elegance to his presentation of character, and an essential hammy melodrama to his dialogue, his wannabe-novelist stage directions, his everything—and yet, to quote a voice teacher from college, “He plays like a house on fire.”
Hell, on that note, let’s turn this review over to master scholar Harold Bloom, who contributed a foreword to the new edition of The Iceman Cometh that I would charitably describe as “sneering”:
Critics have rightly emphasized how important O’Neill’s lapsed Irish Catholicism was to him and to his plays. But “importance” is a perplexing notion in this context. Certainly the absence of the Roman Catholic faith is the given condition of The Iceman Cometh. Yet we would do O’Neill’s play wrong if we retitled it Waiting for the Iceman, and tried to assimilate it to the Gnostic cosmos of Samuel Beckett, just as we would destroy Long Day’s Journey into Night if we retitled it Endgame in New London. All that O’Neill and Beckett have in common is Schopenhauer, with whom they share a Gnostic sense that our world is a great emptiness, the kenoma, as the Gnostics of the second century of the Common Era called it. But Beckett’s post-Protestant cosmos could not be redeemed by the descent of the alien god. O’Neill’s post-Catholic world longs for the suffering Christ, and is angry at him for not returning. Such a longing is by no means in itself dramatic, unlike Beckett’s ironically emptied-out cosmos.
A comparison of O’Neill to Beckett is hardly fair, since Beckett is infinitely the better artist, subtler mind, and finer stylist. Beckett writes apocalyptic farce, or tragicomedy raised to its greatest eminence. O’Neill doggedly tells his one story and one story only, and his story turns out to be himself. The Iceman Cometh, being O’Neill at his most characteristic, raises the vexed question of whether and just how dramatic value can survive a paucity of eloquence, too much commonplace religiosity, and a thorough lack of understanding of the perverse complexities of human nature. Plainly Iceman does survive, and so does Long Day’s Journey. They stage remarkably, and hold me in the audience, though they give neither aesthetic pleasure nor spiritually memorable pain when I reread them in the study.
In any event, Bloom ain’t wrong when he says it’s unfair to compare O’Neill to Beckett. Earlier I promised I’d discuss a favorite Shakespeare class of mine. The one in question was an intro-level class that nevertheless included Lear, which we read in concert with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The result was remarkable. Both plays occupy the same godless landscape—Lear with its self-deposed king invoking a dead pantheon of pagan gods, Godot with its twin clowns waiting arm-in-arm for salvation. Tableaus from Lear would be at home in Godot: Lear as Gogo and the Fool as Didi, both on the same blasted heath, wondering where heaven went. They both see us as alone in the universe, though Beckett’s view is, in my mind, far cheerier than Shakespeare’s in Lear. Corruption and madness shatter Lear’s kingdom, while over in Beckett’s universe, Didi and Gogo huddle under that one lonely tree, loving each other for all time.
Moving on: Bloom also ain’t wrong when he says The Iceman Cometh stages remarkably and holds you in the audience. For perspective, my seat for the Old Vic production was in the nosebleeds, on a pew that offered no back or foot support and which forced everyone to lean forward onto a balcony railing—and yet the play was enthralling. Reading it again, I was reminded of its most powerful scenes, of the vivid posse of archetypes, of its crunchy dialogue. O’Neill’s beliefs—theological, cosmological—aren’t as sophisticated as Beckett’s or Shakespeare’s, and neither are his plays, and yet I don’t care.
When I started this review, I said I hoped to discover what keeps me coming back to O’Neill, in particular The Iceman Cometh. I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s a desire to one day stage a truly great production of something. Maybe its a foolhardy desire to play Larry, a role I once bungled in acting class. Maybe it’s a simple desire to master a masterwork. Maybe it springs from a dark-minded impulse to inhabit a world that reminds me of our own in its current dystopic state.
Who cares. I love this play, and I hope to see it staged again someday soon.