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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. V, No. 3
Winter, 1981



[We are pleased to initiate herewith the Newsletter's first serialization of a scholarly work. Frequently we come upon or receive studies too long to fit into one issue (even in the miniprint format we sometimes reluctantly adopt) but so important and deserving of a broad readership that we would not be fulfilling our function if we did not share them with subscribers. Dr. Peter Egri's monograph--whose full title is "European Origins and American Originality: The Adoption, Adaptation and Reinterpretation of Some European Models in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh"--was originally published in Budapest: in the Modern Philology section of Annales Universitatis Scientiarum Budapestinensis de Rolando Etvs nominatae, XI (1980), 83-107. It will appear, slightly revised but unabridged, in this and the next two issues of the Newsletter.

Dr. Egri is without question the major O'Neill scholar in Hungary today, and the editors are delighted to make his seminal study available to readers whose distance from major research libraries would prevent them from reading it in the publication that first printed it. The editor has made a few changes--mostly matters of idiom--and has incorporated many originally footnoted page citations into the text of the essay itself. (This last may make for periodic confusion in the second and third installments, when two works are being compared and page references alternate fast and furiously between the two; and we apologize, should such occur.) But the editor has striven to retain the exact meaning of the original throughout, even reprinting verbatim a few passages that he felt were ambiguous, rather than risking an inaccurate alteration.

The first "episode" considers the influence of Ibsen and Gorky. Succeeding installments will concern Chekhov and especially Joseph Conrad. --Ed.]


One of the most tormenting problems Eugene O'Neill found himself confronted with during and after World War II was the experience of ideals becoming illusions. For this reason, the relationship between ideal and truth, illusion and reality, proved to be of crucial importance for him. A number of factors explain his predicament.

1. The world-wide cataclysm and the threat of fascism filled him with dread and revulsion, calling into doubt, with its unbridled barbarity, the validity of human and humane ideals. In his as yet unpublished Work Diary (1924-1943) a great many entries describe his war obsession, anti-Hilter exasperation, spiritual disintegration and attempts at intellectual regeneration.1 In a letter of July 17, 1940, O'Neill wrote to Lawrence Langner: "To tell the truth, like anyone else with any imagination, I have been absolutely sunk by this damned world debacle. The Cycle is on the shelf, and God knows if I can ever take it up again because I cannot foresee any future in this country or anywhere else to which I could spiritually belong."2

2. Even after the war, O'Neill retained his grim outlook. In his famous interview with J. S. Wilson on September 2, 1946, amidst the general euphoria celebrating the end of the war and the victory over fascism, O'Neill appalled his countrymen with a challenging statement:

I'm going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure ... because it was given everything, more than any other country. Through moving as rapidly as it has, it hasn't acquired any real roots. Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, thereby losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too. America is the prime example of this because it happened so quickly and with such immense resources. This was really said in the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" We had so much and could have gone either way.3

This concise and bitter view may be one of the most important insights into the chief cause for the rise of modern American drama, into the birth of American tragedy as seen and presented by its greatest representative. It contains a clear delineation of alienation brought about by monopolistic developments. Pointing out the rapidity of the process, it also provides a key to understanding the relationship between the dramatic methods of O'Neill's European predecessors (including Ibsen, Chekhov and Gorky) and the dramaturgy of O'Neill himself. O'Neill's view also explains the title and conflict of his comprehensive cycle, "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed"; and last but not least, it throws an explanatory light on O'Neill's assessment of contemporary American social and historical trends, casting a veil of doubt on the feasibility of the American dream.

3. O'Neill's fear and experience that greed is not missing from the Left Movement either, shows his awareness of sectarian, dogmatic, totalitarian dangers and distortions as well.4

4. There is evidence that the dramatist was concerned with the present plight and future perspectives of all mankind:

If the human race is so damned stupid that in 2000 years it hasn't had brains enough to appreciate that the secret of happiness is contained in one simple sentence which you'd think any grammar school kid could understand and apply, then it's time we dumped it down the nearest drain and let the ants have a chance. That simple sentence is: "what shall it profit a man."5

In this passage the viability of human values would seem to be called into doubt.

5. O'Neill's rapidly deteriorating state of health obviously contributed to his painful propensity for gloom and helps to explain his vision of the failure of human aspirations.

6. Nevertheless, in spite of all these social, moral, spiritual and personal threats, O'Neill was no more able to be reconciled to the death of human ideals than was Larry Slade, his one-time Syndicalist-Anarchist protagonist in The Iceman Cometh (1939). As Hickey, the hardware salesman, correctly observes: "That's another lie you tell yourself, Larry, that the good old cause means nothing to you any more" (643). Parritt quotes his mother as saying, "Larry can't kill in himself a faith he's given his life to, not without killing himself" (647). One might interpret these utterances as the opinions of the characters in question, and not necessarily the views of the author. A late stage direction, however, obviously expressing the dramatist's attitude, describes a long-forgotten faith returning to Larry for a moment when he has heard the muffled, crunching thud indicating Parritt's suicide (726). As long as people can make a sacrifice for a cause, the cause is not dead.

Under these circumstances it is understandable that The Iceman Cometh shows several points of contact with such works by European masters (Ibsen, Gorky, Chekhov and Conrad) as are also deeply concerned with the problem of illusion and reality.


A number of parallels indicate the extent to which O'Neill was influenced by Ibsen.6 The conflicts of both The Wild Duck and The Iceman Cometh pivot upon the collision between illusion and reality. In The Wild Duck Dr. Relling points out to Gregers Werle that he should not substitute the foreign term ideal for the native equivalent, lie. The validity and feasibility of the ideal are also considered a lie in The Iceman Cometh: Hickey kills his ideal, Evelyn, and lures the inmates to kill theirs to get rid of the remorse that living up to the ideal is only an illusion. Parritt's betrayal of his mother implies a comparable attitude.

Another point of contact is the great dramatic emphasis on the consequence of losing illusions. In Ibsen's play, Relling explains to Gregers Werle that if the average person is deprived of his self-deception, he becomes unhappy. In O'Neill's drama, the same can be experienced in Harry Hope's complaint that Hickey has removed the kick from the booze, and in the whole company becoming quarrelsome and morose and falling victim to stupor and cynicism, interested only in what they are unable to do--pass out.

Both Ibsen and O'Neill strive to affirm the ideal that the majority of their characters have failed to put into practice. In The Wild Duck Ibsen's qualified sympathies are obviously with Gregers Werle. Hedvig's suicide partly denies, partly proves the righteousness of Gregers' ideal claims. It denies them, because these claims were what led to her death. But it also proves them, because it demonstrates the validity of the ideals by the greatest possible sacrifice one can make to them. In The Iceman Cometh Parritt's suicide is characterized by the same two facets.

Both Ibsen and O'Neill use a central symbol as a leitmotif. The symbols are poetic in juxtaposing two layers of significance. In accordance with the structure of the symbols adopted by the Symbolist Movement, neither the wild duck nor the iceman are primarily signs of the things they are the pictures of, although they are the pictures of the things they are the signs of. Thus the wild duck soon ceases to be a simple bird and becomes the expression of illusion, lie and even of ethical values and beauty as it is associated with various characters in the play. Similarly, the iceman at first seems only to be a comic character in a joke of Hickey's--telling his pals his wife is safe because he has left her in the hay with the iceman. But quite soon, the iceman becomes a redeemer who cannot redeem,7 and develops into the embodiment of death. The confrontation of the two levels of meaning and significance gives the poetic symbols a dramatic function, and the intricate manner in which the symbols are woven into the fabric of the drama provides them with an epic quality. These poetic, epic and dramatic aspects bear out Hegel's view of the drama. In the German philosopher's opinion, the drama is a synthesis of epic and poetic elements which combine in an inseparable unity.8

The genre of tragi-comedy is a further link between The Wild Duck and The Iceman Cometh. In the former, Hedvig's fate is tragic: she gives her life for the ideal. But Relling also sees that in less than a year her death will only be an occasion for sentimental rhetoric, and life will return to normal with all its petty and comic compromises. Colonel Ekdal, Hjalmar Ekdal and Gina are essentially comic characters. Gregers Werle, however, is a veritable tragi-comic figure. In his predicament it is not possible to separate the tragic from the comic. The man who follows his noble ideals and constantly overstrains them is the same person.

The general movement in The Iceman Cometh is from the comic to the tragic,9 but even the tragic denouement of the play does not lack grimly grotesque and desperately comic elements. The fact that the inmates relapse into their former illusions and accept as well as misunderstand Hickey's plea of insanity is neither clearly a comic compromise, nor solely a tragic failure, but a bitterly grotesque mingling of both aspects in a dark tragi-comedy, even if Hickey's plight is closer to the tragic and Harry's closer to the comic.

Besides these similarities, a number of dissimilarities can also be observed in the two plays.

Whereas Ibsen approaches the problem of the relationship between illusion and reality, ideal and truth, from the side of the illusion and ideal, testing their relevance for reality, O'Neill looks at the problem from the viewpoint of reality, showing the simultaneous inevitability of seeking illusion and reality.

Ibsen's truth-seeking hero, Gregers Werle, tries to relieve the tension between illusion and reality by asserting an absolute demand, an ideal claim in the face of a reality and practice which live by a lying compromise. To dispel illusion means, for Gregers, to live according to the ideal. O'Neill's reformer, Hickey, however, resolves the tension between ideal and truth by disowning and annihilating the ideal. While Gregers endeavors to raise reality to the level of the ideal, Hickey tries to lower the ideal to the zero-level of reality, a miserable existence. Whereas Gregers scorns
Hjalmar Ekdal because he had sunk to the bottom of the sea and, like an injured wild duck, would never come up, Hickey praises the stupor of reconciliation (625): "Let yourself sink down to the bottom of the sea.... There is no farther you have to go."

Gregers' is no split personality. His deeds correspond to his ideals and are prompted by them. His only illusion is that he can make people happy by dispelling their illusions. Hickey, however, is a guilt-ridden character. His attempt to bring peace to his mates was partly--if unconsciously--motivated by his own uneasiness over trying to find peace by killing his wife, and he even made himself believe that he did it out of love for her.


The parallels between The Iceman Cometh and Gorky's The Lower Depths are no less striking.10 The problem of illusion and reality obviously links the two plays, with Luka, the pilgrim, giving the deceptive solace of consolation.

A number of motifs are also similar in O'Neill's and Gorky's dramas. Harry Hope's saloon is not unlike Kostiljov's lodging, gathering down and out people who keep quarreling, drinking and dreaming of past and future happiness. Both plays end with a suicide (Parritt's and the Actor's) constituting a tragic dissonance to a drunken celebration. (Nora's desperate tarantella dance in Ibsen's A Doll's House, and the news of Lopakhin's purchase of Ranyevskaya's estate penetrating the seemingly merry mood of her dance-of-death party in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, build up comparable--though not identical--impressions of a painfully incongruous grotesqueness.)

A visitor acts as a catalyst in both The Iceman Cometh (Hickey) and The Lower Depths (Luka); he comes from a different world and stays but temporarily with the denizens of the lodging, whom he tries to reform and ultimately leaves. The absence of an immediate perspective of human liberation creates a favorable climate for the adoption of a mosaic design not only in the construction of The Iceman Cometh but also in the structure of The Lower Depths, which uses the Chekhovian pattern with a plebeian passion and an integrating impulse.

The divergences are no less marked. Luka favors telling a deliberate lie to people if it gives solace to those who could not otherwise be helped. Hickey, on the contrary, strives to drive away the inmates' illusions. He thinks he does them a service in showing truth and bringing peace; he is not aware of the fact that his way of peace is death. It is only at the end, when he realizes how much the roomers are dependent on their illusions, that he lets them resort to their earlier dreams by telling the deliberate lie of having been insane all the time.

Gorky does not look at the problem in a generalized manner. His question is not what the relationship between illusion and reality is or should be in general, but rather how people in a given situation can be helped. This explains why the most positive figure in the play, Satin, partly condemns, partly praises Luka. He knows that the lie is the creed of slaves, but he also understands that under the given circumstances the pilgrim did encourage people with hope and even assisted them with actual and immediate advice, support and help. In Gorky's play there is a greater possibility to fight for, and not only to dream of: real, reasonable human action which occasionally brings those in the lower depths together in solidarity in their struggle against the ruthless proprietors of the night's lodging.

In The Iceman Cometh the Movement aimed at liberating mankind appears sunk in the past; in The Lower Depths it lurks in the revolutionary future. The theme of Gorky's play is not and cannot be the revolution, but the play's world is open to the future, and this plebeian variety and closer version of a Chekhovian distant perspective is responsible for a different treatment of illusion and reality.

[Continued in next issue.]

--Peter Egri

1 See, e.g., entries for August 31, September 3, 21, 1939; May 10-16, 18-31, June 1-25, July 19, 1940; March 2, May 12, June 21-22, 27-29, September 29, December 7-10, 23, 26, 1941; January 20, August 3, 18, October 15, November 13, 1942; March 1, 1943. The type-script (call-marked Za, O'Neill, 126 X), made by Donald Gallup in 1968-69 from the four volumes of the autograph manuscript, is available at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. I am indebted to Mr. Gallup, Curator of the Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke, for his permission to consult the Work Diary in May 1977.

2 Quoted in John Henry Raleigh (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh" (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), p. 19. Hereafter cited as Raleigh.

3 Raleigh, p. 22; cf. Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston, Toronto, 1973), pp. 577-578.

4 Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1954), III, 579, 658, 672, 691. (Subsequent page citations refer to this edition and will be included in the essay in parentheses.) Cf. Doris M. Alexander, "Hugo of The Iceman Cometh: Realism and O'Neill," in Raleigh, pp. 63-71.

5 Raleigh, p. 23.

6 For the relationship between The Wild Duck and Iceman, see: L. Gaynor, "O'Neill's Iceman Seen as Ghost of Ibsen's Wild Duck," New York Herald Tribune (March 2, 1947);
S. Arestad, "The Iceman Cometh and The Wild Duck," Scandinavian Studies, XX (Feb. 1948), 1-11; E. Bentley, "Trying to Like O'Neill" (1952), C. Day, "The Iceman and the Bridegroom" (1958), and Robert Brustein, "The Iceman Cometh" (1962), in Raleigh, pp. 44, 82, 95, 101. See also T. F. Driver, "On the Late Plays of Eugene O'Neill" (1958), in John Gassner (ed.), O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, 1964), p. 118.

7 Cf. C. Day, "The Iceman and the Bridegroom," in Raleigh, pp. 79-86.

8 G. W. F. Hegel, Vorlesungen ber die Aesthetik (Stuttgart, 1953), Dritter Band, pp. 479-480.

9 Cf. O'Neill's view: "The first act is hilarious comedy ... but then some people may not even laugh. At any rate, the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on...." Quoted in Raleigh, p. 18.

10 On the connection between The Lower Depths and Iceman, see: "Review of the 1946 Production of The Iceman Cometh by George Jean Nathan," in Raleigh, p. 29; V. C. Hopkins, "The Iceman Seen Through The Lower Depths," College English, XI (Nov. 1949), 81-87; H. Muchnic, "The Irrelevancy of Belief: The Iceman and The Lower Depths," in Raleigh, pp. 103-112; G. Oppenheimer, "Long Night's Journey," Newsday (May 25, 1956); C. Day, "The Iceman and the Bridegroom," in Raleigh, p. 82; and John Gassner, Eugene O'Neill (Minneapolis, 1965), pp. 36-37.



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