RECREATING A MYTH: THE ICEMAN COMETH IN WASHINGTON, 1985
Unnoticed by the audience, Josť Quintero left during the third act of The Iceman Cometh's Saturday night opening and quietly conferred with an associate in a corner of the Kennedy Center's lobby. He looked tired, burdened, his tall, robust frame hunched over with concern. At the Tuesday preview he had seemed more confident and relaxed and had used the play's three intermissions to meditate while strolling outdoors on the Center's Potomac promenade where the river's breeze was comforting and soothed him as he considered the remaining brushstrokes to apply while completing the pictorial canvas of O'Neill's playwriting masterpiece. Saturday night, however, his work was completed. The forces which had compelled him to take on O'Neill's purgatory of tortured souls had once again been met. Undistracted, he could now feel the weight of the week's pressure.
Ironically, the opening of The Iceman Cometh almost thirty years before had been easier because there were no myths to be challenged. In 1956 O'Neill was considered a has-been and Quintero's reputation as the definitive director of O'Neill's works was yet to be established. In the fifties Quintero could still drink his anxieties away safely. The maelstrom years of his alcoholism were ahead of him. His successful struggle with recovery and sobriety was unimaginable.
On that August evening in 1985 Quintero met the awesome task sober. Night after night he had sat watching a barroom full of middle class derelicts happily drowning their memories and had survived. In redoing The Iceman Cometh, Quintero had chosen to place personal as well as professional demands on himself. He was not just reweaving an historic production; he was working with material that placed incessant pressure on his subconscious obsession. Quintero's conscious focus, however, was not on his alcoholism: it was on the awesome task of attempting to recreate an American Theatrical Myth.
Quintero has been evading queries regarding his interpretation of Iceman in the current production, fearing the inevitable comparisons which will be made to the legendary original. The Washington reviews have been rapturous, insuring the show's transfer to New York when it closes on September 14th. Quintero looks upon this initial success with caution. The critical climate in Washington could be mercurial, a deceptive calm before a potential tempest. Although he has directed many celebrated O'Neill revivals (A Touch of the Poet, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hughie), he is well aware that in New York he will face an audience with expectations deeply influenced by his past success with the same play. New York's recollections of the '56 Iceman are vivid.
Quintero is not the only one connected with ANT's Iceman who is haunted with memories of the Circle in the Square production. The current work brings together many of the original artists who made the Circle's production so remarkable. Jason Robards recreates the character of Theodore Hickman (Hickey), the role which catapulted his acting career. Actor James Greene reappears as the mournful Jimmy Tomorrow. Roger Stevens, artistic director of the Kennedy Center and one of the original production's backers, is the reason why the 1985 production is being sheltered by ANT.
On the day the unanimously favorable Washington reviews came out, Jason Robards and James Greene were in the Kennedy Center's green room candidly reminiscing with me about the 1956 production. As the interview began Peter Sellars, artistic director of ANT, passed Robards on his way backstage. He spotted Robards and called out,
Sellars' distinctive cackle trails him as he disappears down the hall. Robards and Greene are obviously spurred by the critics' positive response and are more than delighted to talk. The two men are friends of long standing who first met at the Circle in the Square while performing there in a Quintero-directed production of American Gothic. Robards begins the dialogue by affectionately recalling that it was Greene who had told him that Quintero was staging a revival of the 1946 Broadway failure, The Iceman Cometh. "We were all struggling actors and we all used to talk about who was doing what so we could go up and see about a job ... making the rounds." Greene had just returned from an audition at the Circle. Knowing that Robards was "between engagements," Greene insisted that he "get right over there and let Josť know you're available."
Quintero was interested in using Robards in the role of Willie Oban, the alcoholic lawyer; but Robards wanted to play the pivotal character of Hickey. He had seen the '46 production and believed he could play the role. Quintero thought Robards was too young for the part but allowed him to give a reading of Hickey's fourth-act monologue. Robards already had it memorized. He gave an audition that stunned Quintero. Robards was Hickey. Quintero took a chance and gave Robards the role despite the age discrepancy. It was a gamble that paid off. The critics were beside themselves with accolades for Robards' portrayal. Even today Robards and Hickey are synonymous.
Robards' and Greene's remembrances moved to recollections of the old Circle in the Square and its comfortable "club-like" atmosphere. In 1956 the Circle--now located at Broadway and 50th Street--was on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. The building it occupied was a former nightclub converted into an arena theatre. Performances at the "old Circle" took place on the club's former dance floor. Audience members would pass an aged oak bar to be seated at tiny cloth-covered tables. The first Circle in the Square was the catalyst for the off-Broadway movement. Its reputation for producing landmark revivals was interwoven with the mystique of an atmospheric and intimate performance space.
Both Greene and Robards were well aware of the pitfalls of the old Circle's aura when beginning rehearsals for the ANT production of Iceman. Greene recalls having "great qualms. I was so worried about doing this play on a proscenium stage. I just thought, 'it's not going to have the same feeling...." Robards nodded while listening intently to Greene's comments. Finishing Greene's thoughts, Robards confessed to having trouble shaking the belief that "part of the success of doing Iceman back in '56 was doing it at the Circle. That theatre was the perfect space."
Ben Edwards had created a set for the ANT production which differed significantly from David Hays' 1956 single-room setting. Edwards saw the play as needing two distinct playing areas: the bar would be on a revolve and would disappear when scenes occurred in the saloon's back room. During rehearsal, however, Quintero decided that Edwards' idea didn't work. In Quintero's perception the play's developing conflict hinged on the relentless and claustrophobic presence of the emotionally frozen characters. After several pressured meetings a new approach was forged.
Revising the set mid-way through the production's rehearsal period was a major risk. Time was of the essence with the Washington opening looming, but to Robards and Greene the new floor plan revealed familiar home territory. Edwards' ground plan for a unit set was similar in concept to the 1956 production. A slight angle in the bar-side wall would suggest the division between both rooms. Shifts in focus between the bar and backroom would be established by subtle changes in the lighting and the stillness of non-speaking characters.
Robards' intuition is that Quintero aimed Edwards toward the recreation of an arena effect on the Eisenhower Theatre's proscenium stage. "Josť had a thing with that circular apron, a sort of sweep, a sort of round feeling that he wanted to establish. Don't you find, Jimmy?" Greene concurs:
Robards believes that, despite the fact that they are now playing on a proscenium stage with a much larger house,
Robards' and Greene's interpretation of Quintero's concept for the current Iceman is revealing. Their dialogue contradicts many of the Washington preview articles which portrayed Quintero as having little recollection of his original staging. In the Washington Times Quintero is quoted as telling reporter Hap Erstein that "the play has become a totally new experience. I found that I remember very, very little--as much as I remember of myself 30 years ago." It is apparent that Quintero is sending up smoke-screen messages for self protection. He wants the ANT production perceived as a "new" work. Perhaps it is recollections of the critics' response to the opening performance of the 1956 Iceman which cause Quintero to be evasive. As Greene describes it:
Such retrospection shows why the ties which bind this particular play to the Circle in the Square are multi-woven. Quintero was a founder and former producer of the Circle. Unfortunately, discussing aspects of his years with that theatre is painful because they are bound up with his years of alcoholism. Quintero is quoted as telling Erstein, "I remember bits and pieces of myself and see myself running up and down the Circle, but I don't remember much else." Yet the same theatre enabled him to hone his directing technique because he was able to work there regularly. Quintero's time at the Circle between 1951 and 1963 solidified his reputation as one of the great directors of his generation. Still, Quintero's mastery had not been fully realized until the 1956 Iceman revival. The religious scope and broad thematic landscape of O'Neill's late masterwork touched Quintero almost mystically. The O'Neill play offered the challenge of orchestrating clashing themes sung out by endearing, yet tortured characters. most of whom were alcoholic. Because Quintero shared the same agony, he well understood the characters' anguish and spiritual conflict. O'Neill's stylistic and self-conscious mix of expressionism and realism perfectly suited Quintero's directorial approach, which was deeply personal and idiosyncratic.
Robards relishes describing Quintero's directing and notes ways he leaves his signature on the current production:
Greene muses about the fact that Quintero has refused to cut the play, noting that the '46 Broadway premiere failed because O'Neill's script was so severely pruned:
Both Robards and Greene concur that the ANT version recreates many of the visual images Quintero had used in the 1956 production. Robards recalls that Quintero had had "that serpentine table" arranged in the same manner. The Washington critics called it "the Last Supper," but Greene denies that Quintero's intentions were overtly religious: "I don't think Josť ever thought about the last supper." Robards agrees: "No, no, never. Nor the Pieta when Colleen and I did A Moon for the Misbegotten. Josť says he never thought of it. Everybody said, 'look at this.' Josť said, 'They're reading all this stuff into it ... me, a failed Catholic.'"
Robards warms to the subject of symbolism and relates what he calls "the religious vein" apparent in Quintero's work to O'Neill's depiction of Hickey. Because he is the son of a "preacher, a salvationist," and is also a salesman, Robards thinks Hickey's approach to life is colored with religious motives. He notes that Hickey uses phrases such as "brother and sister" when speaking with his barroom cronies. In referring to Hickey's manner the characters say, "listen to him whoopin' up all that hell fire." Robards concludes that the religious imagery is inherent in the text and that Quintero is simply responding to what is already present: "Josť doesn't feel those things consciously. But, in a way, I suppose we've thought of all these things."
Discussion about artistic intentions triggers a memory in Robards, who suddenly exclaims, "What is it about this play? It's something Peter [Sellars] said the other night which I'd never thought about. Is this play subconsciously or unconsciously about alcoholism? What do you think?" Greene is surprised: "I never thought so." "I agree," says Robards,
Settling the issue seems crucial to Robards' peace of mind. Quintero had not been alone in his alcoholism: Robards was once violently ill from the same addiction, and Greene had witnessed the worst of their drinking. Quintero's health was ravaged from alcohol abuse; Robards almost died in an alcohol-related automobile accident. Some ten years ago Quintero and Robards fought and won the battle to stay sober. Since that time they have publicly discussed their problem.
In the hopes of preventing others from suffering the same torment, Robards has been working with alcoholics through a recovery program at the Mayo Clinic. He appears there regularly to discuss his fight with alcohol. Because the character of Hickey is also alcoholic, Robards often uses Hickey's fourth-act monologue to demonstrate two signs of alcoholism, enablement and denial. The piece shows that Hickey's wife Evelyn encourages his drinking by continuing to forgive his behavior. The result is that Hickey, who already despises himself for his weakness, begins to hate his wife.
But Robards doesn't want the public's knowledge of his addiction to overshadow the significance of the Iceman event. He looks to Greene for help in articulating his conflict:
Greene considers Robards' reasoning: "Only the sober people die. You and Parritt." Robards appears pained: "Is that what O'Neill's saying? You've got to be drunk to live? Is that it?"
They begin to reconsider the play, noting the ramifications of seeing it as a single-issue piece. Greene, who is not an alcoholic, tries to reassure Robards, saying he believes there are many ideas and issues in the play which place O'Neill's work on a grander, broader scale. After considering Greene's comments, Robards begins to relax. The conversation then turns to the more immediate implications of Iceman's coming transfer to New York.
Robards and Greene are well aware that last year's Broadway season had been disappointing. The major event was British--the Royal Shakespeare Company's Cyrano de Bergerac and Much Ado About Nothing. It was not a season marked by great breakthroughs in American playwriting or staging. Iceman's arrival means both--a distinctive style of production coupled with a playwright of grand schemes.
The '46 Iceman's premiere was a failure; the '56 Iceman was an off-Broadway production; and its only other Broadway production was a brief run at the uptown Circle in the Square in '73 which starred James Earl Jones as Hickey. The fact that we have had so little opportunity to see one of America's greatest plays showcased in the most public theatrical platform in the country is revealing.
The play boasts a cast of 19 characters. The size is unusual. Unlike the average Broadway musical, most modern American dramas have much smaller casts, predominantly for financial reasons. Musicals tend to be more heavily attended than dramas, making it economically feasible to support a larger company. Having fewer characters, however, means having fewer philosophical points of view. Robards' fear of a one-issue play becomes more pressing. A grand range of characters, whose themes are orchestrated by a "maestro" such as Quintero, are impossible in a small show. In recent years Broadway theatre has been missing the kind of drama which reaches toward an operatic grandeur and speaks to our complex and diverse social structure and values.
There is no exclusive theatre on Broadway besides the Circle in the Square which attempts regularly to revive American classics. Regional non-profit institutions such as the American National Theater, however, regularly afford Americans the chance to see revivals and to appreciate their own dramatic heritage. The next generation of American playwrights needs the living example of its forebears if it is to continue to mature and replenish its cultural heritage. Broadway is the most critically scrutinized and attended theatrical arena in the country. It is still the nation's theatrical crossroads, the key to sustaining that process in a national sense.
It is exciting to realize that Iceman's coming means that generations of American Theatre will be represented this season. Jason Robards, probably America's greatest living actor, will lead an American cast. Eugene O'Neill, winner of three Pulitzer prizes and the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel prize, will be heard as he deserves. Finally, an American classic production will be recreated in the same spirit that Jerome Robbins' work is preserved by the New York City Ballet or Aaron Copland's by the New York Philharmonic. And, although Josť Quintero is not from the United States, he is a product of our theatre schools (Los Angeles City College and the Goodman) and has repeatedly understood and championed our dramatic literature--often better than we have ourselves. That is why it is especially sad that Quintero can't trust us enough to declare openly that he is reviving his production. We should be applauding Quintero and Robards' willingness to take that risk. There's more than a Broadway opening at stake as Iceman comes to New York. Its regeneration is another milestone on the way to a mature American Theatre.
James Greene summarizes the importance of Iceman's arrival when he describes Jason Robards' first entrance as Hickey:
As the production moves from Washington to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York, many a Broadway playgoer shares that infectious eagerness.
--Sheila Hickey Garvey
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