Menu Bar


by Margaret Loftus Ranald

This play marked O'Neill's return to the Broadway theatre in 1946 after a twelve-year absence during which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1936). The portrayal of Hickey by James Barton was weak in this production, and while most critics praised the play, they also complained about its length and repetitiousness. A well-known anecdote of Lawrence Langner concerning this original production has him remonstrating quietly with O'Neill during rehearsal that the playwright had repeated the same point eighteen times. To this O'Neill replied quietly, "I intended it to be repeated eighteen times" (see Bogard, 1972, pp. 408-409). Also, Langner suggested that the true greatness of the play would be discovered only when it would be possible to make cuts in the text—after the expiration of copyright (Gelb and Gelb, 1973, pp. 874-875). To some extent this comment represents the truth, because when the play was revived in 1956 at the Circle in the Square, with Jason Robards, Jr., as Hickey and under the direction of José Quintero, it was extremely successful, making Robards a star and beginning his career as an O'Neill actor. It also began Quintero's preoccupation with O'Neill and his as yet unfinished task of producing the entire canon. But even more important, it reestablished O'Neill's reputation as a playwright of the classic American theatre—no longer dated, not box-office poison—and began the currently continuing O'Neill revival.


Agreed, this play is long, at times tedious, but an audience attuned to the deliberate experiential longueurs of writers of the theatre of the absurd is more able to deal with the situation than the audience of 1946. Superficially, The Iceman Cometh has almost no action, and indeed what happens can be summarized very baldly and very briefly. However, its use of contrapuntal characterization and dialogue, and the interplay of the literal and symbolic, make this play extraordinarily interesting and challenging. In addition, its known autobiographical elements and renditions of actual characters lend added fascination. O'Neill's only published short story, "Tomorrow," also offers a preliminary study for Iceman.


But what does it mean? That is a question which, as with all great works of dramatic art, is almost impossible to answer. The title is allied to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who await the arrival of the Bridegroom in Matthew 25. There, of course, the Bridegroom represents Christ and the virgins those who have prepared for salvation. In such a reading, Theodore Hickman, whose name has a curious combination of God's gift, and "hick" human character, is the savior for whom this particular microcosm of human existence is waiting. Certainly O'Neill does seem to have made some attempt to convey a sense of human variety, though not as much as in The Hairy Ape.  All the characters of the ironically named Harry Hope's saloon are the failures, the misfits, the petty criminals of society; and in this setting, Gorki's The Lower Depths is automatically recalled. So, too, is Ibsen's The Wild Duck with its insistence on the necessity of the saving lie which alone provides identity and, in this case, hope to the hopeless. But Hickey is the savior who cannot save, and the only salvation he can offer is that of annihilation, of death, of the iceman in the title. The Iceman is death; but at the same time, O'Neill combines a series of meanings in his use of this character, which gives added resonance. Hickey is a travelling salesman, with the usual tales of drunkenness and infidelity which that occupation has drawn to itself. In addition, he tells tales of Evelyn, his wife, in bed with the iceman, which recall the old bawdy vaudeville joke concerning the husband who calls up the stairs to his wife, "Has the iceman come yet?" and the answer, "No, but he's breathing hard." Similarly, "The Sailor Lad" song of Willie Oban is one familiar to barrooms and undergraduate drinking parties. So there is no salvation except death for these characters and by extension no salvation for mankind—certainly not the religious solution for John Loving in Days Without End.


There are other interpretations, too, and Cyrus Day in a well-known article (1958), lists correspondences between Harry Hope's birthday party and Christ at the Last Supper, seeing Hickey as an antichrist and Parritt as a Judas Iscariot. Day notes the number of the "disciples" at the party, among other similarities; and while they may not be identical, the referential resonances remain important. Here also, the play is perceived pessimistically, and as Travis Bogard has suggested (1972, p. 415), O'Neill has come, after a long poetic search, to accept the view of Nietzsche, that man lives in a world without God.


The autobiographical elements are in themselves fascinating, and they have been investigated very thoroughly. Harry Hope's saloon is a combination of several that O'Neill frequented: Jimmy-the-Priest's (James J. Condon's saloon), the Hell Hole (the Golden Swan), and the taproom of the Garden Hotel (near the old Madison Square Garden). The year is important, for it was in 1912 that O'Neill himself attempted to commit suicide by mixing alcohol and drugs. Harry Hope is closely modeled on one Tom Wallace who lived above the Hell Hole; Hugo Kalmar represents Hippolyte Havel, an old radical; "Jimmy Tomorrow" Cameron is James Findlater Byth, a former press agent of O'Neill's father; while Larry Slade is Terry Carlin, a former anarchist acquaintance of O'Neill. The anarchist incident on the West Coast also has its basis in fact in the McNamara case, which involved the bombing of the Los Angeles Times. The perpetrators were arrested when Donald Vose, the son of a woman anarchist, informed on them. Further ramifications of the case are noteworthy, for Emma Goldman, on whom the character of Rosa Parritt is based, was a friend of Vose's mother and was also aunt to O'Neill's editor at Random House, Saxe Commins. The Boer General Wetjoen's name is also a consolidation of the names of the two famous guerrillas, De Wet and Viljoen. Ed Mosher was based on Bill Clarke, a former circus man. Altogether, this play offers dense structure, symbolic meaning, careful orchestration of characters and dialogue, skillful shifting of relationships, subliminal understandings, and calculated ambiguities. One never knows, for in-stance, whether Parritt is, as he suggests, the son of Larry, but certainly both have betrayed Rosa Parritt and the Movement, and both suffer for it. Hickey, too, is a betrayer, for he has betrayed Evelyn, and for that reason he perceives a kinship with Parritt and must also try hard to make Larry understand his new philosophy of death, in the purveying of which he is indeed a most persuasive salesman. O'Neill clearly understood the pessimistic nature of this play and consequently withheld it from production during World War II, thinking that the postwar years might be more receptive. In this he was right, as production history corroborates.


© Copyright 1999-2008