Eugene O'Neill

New York Times, May 9, 1956

O'Neill Tragedy Revived


Since José Quintero's productions at Circle in the Square are always admirable, no one should be surprised by his latest achievement.

But it is impossible not to be excited by his production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," which opened in Mr. Quintero's theatre yesterday. It is a major production of a major theatre work. Taking a long script with a massive theme, Mr. Quintero has succeeded in bringing every part of it alive in the theatre. Although he tells the story simply and spontaneously, he leaves no doubt about the value he places on O'Neill's place in the literature of the stage. Mr. Quintero seems to take him on the level of Ibsen, Strindberg, Gorki and other modern masters of tragic writing.

If "The Iceman Cometh" seems to belong in Mr. Quintero's theatre, there is a good reason. For Circle in the Square was a night-club originally, and all four of the acts of the O'Neill drama are set in a saloon. The audience has the sensation of participating. The rows of seats are only an extension of David Hays setting of the battered, blowzy waterfront saloon and flop-house that is under the fabulous proprietorship of Harry Hope. A few tables and chairs, a squalid bar, a flimsy door leading into the street, a handful of fly-blown chandeliers and a few ranks of benches for the audience--they are all part of the same setting and closely related on that account.

In the circumstances, it is difficult to be objective about this melancholy, sardonic drama that pulls the rug out from under the whole structure of life. It seems, not like something written, but like something that is happening. Although it is terrible in its comment on the need for illusions to maintain an interest in life, it is also comic. Some of the dialogue is pretty funny. On the surface, all the characters are comic, since they live in a world of befuddled fantasy and talk big to compensate for the puniness of their spirits.

But beneath them there is nothing more substantial than a void of blackness. These are creatures that once were men--very pungent and picturesque creatures, too, for O'Neill was a good deal of a romantic. But the tone of "The Iceman Cometh" is devastatingly tragic. Life is bearable, it seems to say, only when men contrive not to look at the truth.

The performance lasts four and three-quarter hours. For "The Iceman Cometh" is one of the O'Neill marathon dramas. No doubt it could be cut and compressed without destroying anything essential. But as a creative work by a powerful writer, it is entitled to its excesses, which, in fact, may account for the monumental feeling of doom that it pulls down over the heads of the audience.

The performance is a vital one. Mr. Quintero is a versatile conductor who knows how to vary his attack with changes in volume and rhythm; he knows how to orchestrate a performance. In one important respect, this performance surpasses the original of ten years ago. Jason Robards Jr. plays Hickey, the catalyst in the narrative, like an evangelist. His unction, condescension and piety introduce an element of moral affectation that clarifies the perspective of the drama as a whole. His heartiness, his aura of good fellowship give the character of Hickey a feeling of evil mischief it did not have before.

Although the narrative is sprawling, the acting is vibrant in every part. Conrad Bain's fanatical philosopher who sees all sides of all questions and is therefore a futile human being is especially well acted. But it would be difficult to pick and choose among the others. Farrell Pelly's crusty but soft-hearted boss of the saloon; Addison Powell's bitterly-humorous relic of culture; William Edmonson's highly emotional Negro; Richard Bowler's cashiered British Army officer; Phil Pheffer's circus con-man; Peter Falk's cocky bar-keep; Paul Andor's left-wing intellectual; James Greene's degraded war correspondent; the tarts played by Dolly Jonah, Patricia Brooks and Gloria Scott Backé--are excellent character portraits.

In both the writing and the acting, "The Iceman Cometh" is a mighty theatre work. O'Neill is a giant, and Mr. Quintero is a remarkably gifted artist.


© Copyright 1999-2007