Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 3
Winter, 1985



While Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh has from the start generally been viewed as stageworthy, if overly long, critical reception of the play as dramatic literature has been steadily on the rise since its 1946 premiere. Three landmark New York productions help chart the critical response to O'Neill's play, which was written in 1939, but was neither produced nor published until 1946. In that year, critics were moderate in their praise for O'Neill's first new Broadway production in twelve seasons, feeling in general that the Theatre Guild's production surpassed the inherent quality of O'Neill's script. Josť Quintero's 1956 revival of the play, with Jason Robards, Jr. in the role of Hickey., was an unqualified success which forced a critical revaluation of Iceman. Suddenly, a work that had been deemed melodramatic in many scholarly quarters came to be viewed as a modern tragedy. By 1973, critics had so generally accepted the play as an American classic that a Circle in the Square revival with James Earl Jones found itself unfavorably compared not only to Quintero's 1956 production but to the demands of the script as well.

Critics now differ and will continue to differ on the meaning of a play which has been called everything from a "morality play" (Muchnic 126) to the "most nihilistic" work in dramatic literature (Day 9)--but this is a sign of the play's hermeneutic vitality even today. The Iceman Cometh presents enormous challenges in the staging, not the least of which is the role of Hickey, one of the most massive in American drama. But it is a proven classic, and the three aforementioned productions of The Iceman Cometh dominate its stage history in America in terms of our present understanding of the play.

The first opened on October 9, 1946, at the Martin Beck Theatre and had a respectable but far from smashing run of 136 performances before going on the road. This production indicates that a successful, tragic interpretation of the play is impossible without a fully realized Hickey--a point that needs emphasizing since many critics see Larry Slade as the play's central character. We learn from the reviews that Eddie Dowling directed his ensemble superbly, but that James E. Barton's Hickey fell short of the tremendous demands that role places on the actor: "The part calls for a more engaging and whimsical player," Ward Morehouse reported, "but the others in the cast are magnificent" (Morehouse 319). In the opening night performance, James Barton "virtually fell apart, breaking into tears twice during Hickey's long monologue at the end of the play" (Orlandello 148), and asking for help from the prompter on those occasions. Contributing to Barton's problems, and indicative of the demands of the role, was his failure to rest during intermissions: he entertained friends instead, severely weakening his voice before the final act.

Apart from these notations on Barton's technical shortcomings, a more important consideration is the actor's interpretation of Hickey. Hickey is a part for an actor who can capture the comic and tragic in one line, in one breath, even in one word. It takes an actor of the greatest imagination to give the play its momentum, its "action"; otherwise it will merit the criticism it has regularly received of being static, overwritten, and repetitive. Capturing the whimsy, remorse and tragic vision is essential not only in Hickey's final "aria" but in ever--deepening tones throughout the play. O'Neill himself clues us in on the mixture of comic and tragic visions in the play: "The first act is hilarious comedy, I think, but then some people might not even laugh. At any rate the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on" (Gelb 871).

Hickey's final moments on stage complete his hermeneutic circle of development. Having finally seen with horrible clarity his true motives for murdering Evelyn---hatred---Hickey sinks back into illusion as he is being led off----a peculiarly modern twist on tragic anagnorisis:

I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it was something I'd always wanted to say: "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!" He stops with a horrified start, as if shocked out of a nightmare, as if he couldn't believe he heard what he had lust said. He stammers: No! I never--! . . . Bursts into frantic denial: No! That's a lie! I never said--! Good God, I couldn't have said that! If I did, I'd gone insane! (Iceman 242-243)

In a recent study, Michael Manheim finds Hickey to be a "tragic hero" who takes full responsibility for his crime for the remainder of the play (Manheim 155). Though I do not agree that Hickey retains his vision of truth, I concur with Manheim's assessment of the dramatic effect of Hickey's moment of anagnorisis. Clearly, Barton did not convey the complicated extremes inherent in a part that possibly only one actor per generation can play successfully to its tragic limits.

Proving clear biographical or real-life sources for the play's setting and characters ultimately becomes problematic. The locale of the play, the "dump," as O'Neill calls it in a letter to Kenneth Macgowan, "is no one place but a composite of three in which I once hung out" (Bryer 255). Similarly, the characters are reminiscent of O'Neill's old friends--the anarchist Hippolyte Havel becomes Hugo Kalmar, for one. According to O'Neill (in the same letter), they are finally all composites: "None is an exact portrait of any one" (256); and as for Hickey, "He's the most imaginary character in the play" (258). Thematically, these characters in the ensemble are important because they indicate, paradoxically, the "deep inner contentment of the bottom" (257), the fact that "there is always one dream left, one final dream, no matter how low you have fallen, down there at the bottom of the bottle" (O'Neill 3). O'Neill is emphatic about the function of their pipe dreams: "They must tell these lies as a first step in taking up life again" (Bryer 257). They all cling to their life-saving dreams, but only Hickey journeys into the realm of tragic vision: he is the source of the play's "horrible contrast and tension" (Bryer 257). Larry alone is left with a clear vision of the truth, but his growth of knowledge leads him surely on a hermeneutic spiral toward death. O'Neill carefully plots his characters' relationships toward truth and illusion, taking the play away from melodrama and realism and toward high tragedy.

The 1946 production of The Iceman Cometh had a tremendous impact on the reception of the play, since publication was held back until the opening performance. (In essence, O'Neill's script was damned with faint praise until Quintero's revival in 1956.) Even enthusiastic reviewers like Richard Watts of the New York Post and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times felt compelled to admit that the play was too long and repetitive. Seven of eleven major daily reviewers firmly approved of the production, but only four felt as strongly about the script. Sterling North in the New York Post was the play's sharpest critic: "action draggeth, dialogue reeketh, play stinketh" (Miller 343). Few disputed his contention about its length, but most critics agreed with William Hawkins that "O'Neill has the greatest compassion for people's littleness and frailty" and that O'Neill "had chosen a canvas of heroic size for a universal idea" (Hawkins 316). The year of 1946 ended leaving in its wake the critical estimation that O'Neill's return to the Broadway stage was very nearly a complete success. Very nearly, but not quite.

Just working reasonably well is not what The Iceman Cometh is capable of, as Jose Quintero's 1956 Circle in the Square production demonstrated, running for 565 performances. Quintero showed conclusively that more than a strong ensemble is needed to convey the tragic vision in the play. Jason Robards, Jr. made his name in the starring role of Hickey, playing him as a man growing ever more fully aware of his guilt and expressing that guilt subtextually throughout the play. Instead of giving us a slick salesman who "misleads" his audience before "exploding" the secret melodramatically at the end, as Eric Bentley suggests (Bentley 242), Robards played Hickey as a man on a tortured journey toward a revelation of truth. Played this way, The Iceman Cometh is neither melodramatic nor static. Quintero had planned to use Robards as Jimmy Tomorrow, but changed his mind when Robards persisted in being auditioned as Hickey:

He kept on with the speech [Hickey's fourth-act monologue], and I sat there watching him gouge his eyes out and tear the very flesh from his bones. His arms stretched out, begging for the crucifixion. Rivers of sweat distorting all his features. But driving his points cleanly, with the precision and clarity of the mad, of the holy, of the devil. (Quintero 168-169)

Showing how the comic mask and tragic vision merge, Quintero further describes Robards' technique in delivering Hickey's speech about destroying Evelyn's picture: "'I tore it up afterwards.' The beginning of a smile pulled the muscles of his face upward as he said, still staring at me, 'I didn't need it anymore'" (169). Robards, in short, did the work the play demands of Hickey: to seek the horrible truth of his existence and state it fully. Though he returns to illusion, he completes a hermeneutic circle on the plane of tragic awareness--unlike his friends. The circle of meaning cannot be imparted without the right Hickey; otherwise the plot is static--a lyric on the pipe dreams of bums. Hence the accuracy of O'Neill's comment that the play "has no plot in the ordinary sense, I didn't need a plot; the people are enough" (Sheaffer 568), since the movement toward meaning in the play comes from Hickey's and Larry's moments of recognition. In contrast to the monotonous delivery of James Barton, Robards' "heartiness, his aura of good fellowship, give the character an evil mischef it did not have before" (Atkinson 38). Robards' stunning achievement in the role made the 1956 production a success and led scholars and daily reviewers to revaluate the play.

Hickey is now acknowledged as one of the most prodigious roles in American drama, a role I would claim is genuinely tragic. Eric Bentley's most serious charge against the play's structure is that O'Neill unwittingly placed Larry, not Hickey, at the center of the action: "Once the diffuse speeches are trimmed and the minor characters are reduced to truly minor proportions, Larry is revealed as the center of the play and the audience can watch the two stories being played out before him" (Bentley 237). His view is shared by critics who admire the play, like Doris Falk, and it is true that the play ends with Larry facing the truth Hickey finally cannot face. Larry, too, shares in Hickey's crime of murdering through hatred, and undergoes more briefly the same psychological torment. O'Neill himself refers to "the tension of Larry's waiting for the sound of Parritt hurtling down to the back-yard, and the agony he goes through" (Bryer 257). Larry repeats Hickey's crime as Hickey repeated Parritt's, all part of the same circle of revenge and hatred as human motivations. Yet each time, the criminal gains more knowledge. Parritt commits suicide, Hickey lapses back into illusion, but Larry comes away with firm insight: "Be God, I'm the only real convert to death Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward's heart I mean that now." This anagnorisis emerges in a short speech that calls for the actor to convey "horrified pity," "bitter self-derision," and "intense bitter sincerity," culminating with a "sardonic grin" (Iceman 258). An ineffective Hickey would indeed throw more of the play's burden on Larry, but Larry's role is more that of chorus leader than tragic protagonist, one who receives Hickey's dark wisdom without having had to take Hickey's journey. If we cut the ensemble's lines in accordance with Bentley's suggestions, we lose part of the play's theme--that life in the "Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller" is cheerful and, finally, life-nourishing. Their experience corroborates O'Neill's theme that man cannot live without illusions since the truth is too horrible to face. We as an audience part company with the ensemble when they attribute to Hickey a madness he does not have. Baritt, Hickey, and Larry cannot permit the audience to leave the theater believing in the facile conclusions of Harry Hope's patrons, who "are comic, since they live in a world of befuddled fantasy and talk too big to compensate for the puniness of their spirits" (Atkinson 38). Their job is simply to convey the viability of those who fully embrace their illusions. Quintero's ensemble was well choreographed, the most successful of the three in revealing the comic vision inherent in the play.

Where the 1946 production had a strong ensemble and a weak Hickey, and the 1956 production had strength in both, the 1973 revival that opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on December 13, 1973, had a strong lead in James Earl Jones but a weak ensemble. This production was heavily cut in the ensemble parts, and was only a partial success, running 85 performances. Where the 1956 production took place in an intimate arena setting, which greatly helped the audience to feel kinship with the ensemble members, this production was staged in a larger, more remote, thrust configuration.

Intellectually, if you have heard one pipe dream, you have heard them all; but O'Neill wants, I believe, to bury his cast and audience in an avalanche of pipe dream speeches. Cut those speeches, and you cut down the size of the canvas O'Neill works with. Like a Breughel painting, this play is a cityscape--or barscape--filled with clearly delineated, somewhat grotesque characters involved in their daily routine. Individually, they do not amount to much, but collectively they fill up the canvas. In what he called "a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny long," O'Neill examines their human foibles, but his view of humanity is compassionate, seeing life here as "a sort of unfair non sequitur, as though events, as though life, were being manipulated just to confuse us" (Gelb 871). Compare O'Neill's compassion with Edwin Wilson's account of the perfunctory, mechanical choreography of the ensemble in the 1973 production: "All clink their glasses on the table on cue or murmur together on cue, as if in a musical chorus" (Wilson 8). This business distances the audience from the ensemble members with whom they should become more emotionally involved as the play proceeds. Theodore Mann, the director, evidently staged the play as a star turn for Jones, a limiting approach to the play that resulted in its limited success.

Jones was, inevitably, compared to Robards in the role, and he received unfavorable reviews for the most part. No one questioned his ability as an actor or his stage presence, but most had reservations about his interpretation of Hickey. Richard Watts of the New York Post speaks for the majority of daily reviewers: "Jones is one of the ablest actors in America, but Hickey isn't one of his best performances. I thought he lacked the menace behind the surface geniality that made Jason Robards so memorable in the role" (Watts 148). Aknother critic, T. E. Kalem of Time, felt that Jones strayed from the play's theme of truth versus illusion: "James Earl Jones' Hickey is overwrought, a maniac-morose evangelist given to fits of hysterical joviality" (Kalem 57). In playing Hickey as psychologically impaired, Jones recalls the pre-1956 interpretations of Hickey as a madman proposed by critics like Bentley and Mary McCarthy. In this least favorably received of the three productions, the main fault would seem to lie more with overall directorial interpretation than with Jones' ability. Interestingly, criticism of this production in the dailies was of a much higher order than that of the 1946 production, partly because O'Neill's play had generally achieved the status of a masterpiece. None of eight major New York daily reviewers denied the power of O'Neill's play this time, though two, including Martin Gottfried, decried its "lack of organization" (Gottfried 149). By contrast, seven of eleven 1946 daily reviewers had had serious reservations about O'Neill's text, three of them--Kronenberger of PM, Sterling North of the New York Post, and Robert Garland of the New York Journal American--panning it entirely. By 1973 O'Neill's play had gained enough of a reputation as a classic to survive even a mediocre production.

The successful production of The Iceman Cometh in 1956 had several results, such as paving the way for Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway later in the year. But mainly, it was a pivotal event in the scholarly revaluation of the play itself. The critical view of Iceman as static and melodramtic, shared by Bentley, Doris Alexander, and McCarthy, came to be replaced by more profound critical estimations of the play's worth. Cyrus Day would revise its stature in American drama by placing it and the main character Hickey above Miller's Death of a Salesman and Willy Loman: "Loman is adrift in contemporary American society; Hickey is adrift in the universe. The difference is a measure of the difference between O'Neill's aims and the aims of almost all other modern dramatists" (Day 9). Doris Falk sees existential themes in the play and puts Larry at its center: "His is the problem of projecting value in a world devoid of absolutes--the 'existential' dilemma" (Falk 163). By the early and mid-1960's, Clifford Leech and Robert Wright could compare O'Neill's play favorably to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Othello, Leech saying, "In The Iceman Cometh O'Neill was to devote a whole play to the terror of self-recognition" (Leech 340). The very word "melodrama" has slipped out of currency in recent assessments of the play, while "tragedy" has grown more and more dominant. The critical debate over the play's meaning indicates its hermeneutic complexity, particularly in terms of the theme of recognizing truth and illusion.

Perhaps Harold Clurman's experience with these three productions can stand as a barometer of the play's reception. Upon seeing it in 1946, Clurman rejected its "callow pessimism" (Clurman 29). In 1956, he reported being "absorbed" by the production, with all his philosophical disagreements with the play suspended. And after seeing the 1973 production, Clurman felt that final pronouncements on the play's themes had better be avoided, favoring instead a study of the play's "peculiar ambiguity," which is illustrated by the ribald joke in the title and the inverted symbolism of Hickey as Savior.

The most recent full-scale British production of the play, at the Cottesloe Theatre in London in 1980, received mixed reviews. John Russell Taylor felt let down by the production and remained skeptical of the script's quality, but Harold Hobson spoke of the performance in superlatives: "I defy anybody to see Bryden's production of this play without coming out of the theatre refreshed, strengthened, and filled with a deep sense of the huge tragic significance of life" (Hobson 35).

Since roughly thirty years have passed since its last great success in New York, The Iceman Cometh deserves its full-scale revival in 1985. Even though the play is a proven success and a proven American tragedy, putting on The Iceman Cometh is still a challenge to the capabilities of the American theatre.

--William Hawley


Atkinson Atkinson, Brooks. "Theatre: O'Neill Tragedy Revived." New York Times, 9 May 1956, Sec. 1, p. 38.
Bentley Bentley, Eric. In Search of Theater. New York: Knopf, 1952.
Bryer Bryer, Jackson R., ed. "The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982.
Clurman Clurman, Harold. "Theater." Nation, 218 (1974), 29.
Day Day, Cyrus. "The Iceman and the Bridegroom: Some Observations on the Death of O'Neill's Salesman." Modern Drama, 1 (May 1958), 3-9.
Falk Falk, Doris. Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension: An Interpretive Study of the Plays. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1958.
Gelb Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Hawkins Hawkins, William. "O'Neill's Iceman Here at Last." New York World Telegram, 10 Oct. 1946. Rpt. in New York Theatre Critics Reviews: 1946, 7 (New York: Critics Theatre Reviews, 1946), 316.
Hobson Hobson, Harold. "Hobson's Choice." Drama, No. 136 (April 1980), 35.
Iceman O'Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh. New York: Vintage, 1946.
Kalem Kalem, T. E. "Agon of the Sad Cafe." Time, 24 Dec. 1973, p. 57.
Leech Leech, Clifford. "Eugene O'Neill and His Plays: II." The Critical Quarterly, 3 (1961), 340.
Manheim Manheim, Michael. "The Transcendence of Melodrama in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh." In Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, ed. James J. Martine (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984), pp. 145-158.
Miller Miller, Jordan Y. Eugene O'Neill and the American Critic: A Bibliographical Checklist, rev. 2nd ed. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1973.
Morehouse Morehouse, Ward. "The Iceman Cometh Is Powerful Theatre, Superbly Played at the Martin Beck." New York Sun, 10 Oct. 1946. Rpt. in New York Theatre Critics Reviews: 1946 [see Hawkins entry above for fuller citation], 319.
Muchnic Muchnic, Helen. "Circe's Swine: Plays by Gorky and O'Neill." Comparative Literature, 3 (Spring 1951), 119-128.
O'Neill O'Neill, Eugene, interviewed by Karl Schriftgreisser. New York Times, 6 Oct. 1946, Sec. 2, p. 3.
Orlandello Orlandello, John. O'Neill on Film. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1982.
Quintero Quintero, Jose. If You Don't Dance They Beat You. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.
Sheaffer Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Watts Watts, Richard. "O'Neill's Defense of Illusions." New York Post, 14 Dec. 1973. Rpt. in New York Theatre Critics Reviews: 1973, p. 148.
Wilson Wilson, Edwin. "Harry Hope's Hopeless Bar." Wall Street Journal, 21 Dec. 1973, Sec. 1, p. 8.



© Copyright 1999-2007