THE ICEMAN COMETH: EUROPEAN ORIGINS AND AMERICAN ORIGINALITY (PART TWO)
[This is the second of three installments of a monograph originally published in Budapest: in the Modern Philology section of Annales Universitatis Scientiarum Budapestinensis de Rolando Eötvös nominatae, XI (1980), 82-107. Part One appeared in the last issue of the Newsletter (Winter 1981) on pp. 5-10, and the concluding section will be printed in the next issue. Professor Egri, wishing to "round off the picture" of the European antecedents of Iceman, has added to his original essay the section on Synge's Well of the Saints which begins this second installment.--Ed.]
Illusion is also confronted with reality in Synge's play, The Well of the Saints (1905), in which the eyesight of two blind beggars, Martin and Mary Doul, is temporarily restored by a Saint, a wandering friar. When the couple realize how ugly they are, and Martin fails to win the love of Molly Byrne, a girl of exceptional beauty whom he initially and mistakenly takes to be Mary, they welcome the return of their blindness, refuse to be given a second and permanent cure, and start day-dreaming of the "grand" beauty that will be theirs when her long hair and his beard are white.
The illusory embrace of self-deceit as self-defense and the illusive rejection of reality as escape constitute too close a parallel between The Well of the Saints and The Iceman Cometh to be easily dismissed as fortuitous coincidence. The compositional rhythm and structural stages of darkness illuminated by illusion, the light of truth brought by an external agent wishing well but doing damage, and the relapse into darkness implying the rebirth of the pipe dream: these mark further links between Synge's play, which O'Neill certainly knew, and O'Neill's drama, which may have received creative impetus from the American playwright's Irish predecessor. The act of diving into and submerging in illusion is viewed with understanding and irony by both writers, and O'Neill's epic interest is also anticipated by Synge. If Iceman dramatizes and multiplies the mold of a short story, Well reads like a dramatized folk-tale, and The Playboy of the Western World creates the impression of a dramatized popular anecdote.
A meaningful similarity is, of course, far from being an absolute identity. Whereas in The Well of the Saints the day-dreaming inclination of the beggars is counterpointed by the sobriety of all the other characters, in The Iceman Cometh all the figures are caught in their pipe dreams. Where in Well only the Douls find themselves repulsive--and for Martin, Molly is the epitome of resplendent beauty--in Iceman no character on the stage can bear facing his or her reality, and only off-stage figures (like Evelyn and Rose) embody unambiguously positive values. In The Well of the Saints Synge's irony is playful and compassionate; in Playboy, where Christy Mahon is inflated into mock-heroic proportions through the boasting lie of having slain his father with a single swish of the loy, illusion turns into delusion and deception, and authorial irony is more pronounced. While Synge's laughter is charming and humorous, O'Neill's irony in Iceman is increasingly tragicomic and tragic.
The alternative of seeing or being blind in Well presents the opposition of reality and illusion clearly in both literal and symbolic terms, but it involves less of the underlying social and moral implications of the antithesis between actual truth and sustaining ideal than does the dichotomy of facing or eluding one's total predicament in Iceman. Synge's play implies the hope of the Irish Revival at the beginning of the century; O'Neill's drama expresses the hopeless hope of humanity alienated from itself and tottering in the ruins of World War II. All the same, O'Neill's Iceman seems to have taken at least a gulp from Synge's Well.
The relationship between O'Neill and the three aforementioned playwrights--Ibsen, Gorky, and Synge--can be described as an influence which was received and modified by O'Neill according to the requirements of his own world outlook. The Chekhov-O'Neill contact should rather be termed a typological convergence which is manifest on a number of planes.
1. So far as their artistic attitudes are concerned, G. Lukacs's characterization may be quoted:
The same applies to The Iceman Cometh as well.
2. The theme of yearning desire versus barren truth, of inspired illusion opposed to commonplace reality, also joins Chekhov's and O'Neill's dramatic art, even if the point of reference--the ideal fostering the illusion--beckons, with Chekhov, from a distant future, and has receded, with O'Neill, into a distant past.
3. Chekhov's and O'Neill's treatment (reduction) of the dramatic plot also offers an area for meaningful comparison. As Timo Tiusanen has noted,
We may add that the impressionistic and symbolistic overtones, and the coupling of social characterization with psychological insight, also provide significant links between Chekhov's and O'Neill's plays.
4. So does both playwrights' integration of the pattern of the short story into the structure of the drama. This integration is, in fact, the formal (generic) equivalent of their achievement in preserving human integrity in the face of, in the teeth of, an alienated world.13
This procedure can best be studied in the Conrad-O'Neill relationship, whose starting point seems to be a short story by Joseph Conrad entitled "Tomorrow" and published in Typhoon and Other Stories in 1903.
"Tomorrow" is about a retired and monomaniacal coastal skipper, Captain Hagberd, who has been waiting sixteen years for the return from the sea of his runaway son, Harry, incessantly hoping and continually stating that he will turn up "tomorrow." When, however, "tomorrow" becomes "today," and Harry actually appears at Colebrook, a small British seaport, the Captain is unwilling and unable to recognize and acknowledge his son, and submerges even deeper into his cherished obsession. Thus the tale embodies a dramatic reversal and, by its epically exposed closing peripety, proves to be a characteristic short story, rather than a simple narrative.
The relationship between accident and necessity also bears out the presence of a dramatic interest in the epic story. Harry's learning about his father's having advertised for him is purely accidental. The consequences of the information, however, follow from the characters involved, the situation given, and are, therefore, necessary. When Harry finds out that his father expects him to arrive by the following day, he, quite naturally, warns the Captain that his supposition is incorrect: "I fancy there's something wrong about your news," he says.14 "I could give you some real information about your son--the very latest tip, if you care to hear" (262). His father, however, does not care to hear. In fact he finds the very idea an insult: "Here's a fellow--a grinning fellow, who says there's something wrong. I've got more information than you're aware of. I've all the information I want. I've had it for years--for years--for years--enough to last me till tomorrow. Let you come in, indeed! What would Harry say?" (262) The old man seems to have misunderstood his son's words. Harry's "There's something wrong about your news" simply means that his son cannot come the following day if he is right there already. But the Captain interprets Harry's encouragement as a menace--there's "something wrong" about his expectation. He feels his life's hope in danger.
The accidental misunderstanding, however, expresses a psychological necessity and a psychic need: the inevitable and unalterable fixation of his disturbed mind on the redeeming idea of his son's return in an ever-approaching and ever-shifting future. The reader's sudden realization that what seems to be a chance event is indeed the abrupt manifestation of a necessary trend is due to the operation of a dramatic change of aspect in the composition of the tale, which by this very organization proves to be a genuine short story.
Dramatic energy is channeled into Conrad's story in a number of other ways as well. Captain Hagberd and his son are strongly contrasted characters, the former sticking to the land, and the latter taking to the sea; the Captain (the son of a bankrupt farmer) having become a sailor against his will and Harry by inclination; the Captain being a tyrannical father often using a hard leather strap on his disobedient son, and Harry being an independent-minded boy who was unable to bear his father's ferocious whims. The Captain preferred to be confined to his house and garden and wanted to make his son a lawyer's clerk; Harry was a restless, reckless boy, who abhorred what he would call a rabbit-hutch and knocked down all sorts of barriers. The father was a penny-pincher; the son hated hoarding riches and didn't want or need more money than was absolutely necessary for a drink, a fare, and an easy-going life. The Captain was hardly able to shift his emotional allegiances and, especially after his wife's death, turned with all his stubborn, unflinching affection towards his absent son; Harry was incapable of developing strong and constant emotional ties with anyone, whether his father or a girl, and the only reason he returned home at all was that he had been told his father was advertising for him and he hoped he would be able to touch the old man for the five quid he needed to finish off a promisingly begun drinking bout. It is little wonder, given all these opposed traits, that the two figures are headed for a dramatic clash.
The conflict reaches its paradoxical acme when, enwrapped in his illusion about his son's advent "tomorrow," the Captain throws a shovel at Harry, just missing his head. He considers the boy a grinning informer offering him unsolicited and dangerous news about his son, and he rejects him in the name of that son--so sure to arrive the following day. Harry cannot be Harry if he is to arrive "tomorrow" rather than "today." Nor can the loving son of his well-guarded self-deception be identical with this insolent lad who laughs at him the way common townspeople do. His son, as seen in the Captain's mind's eye, is a psychological defense against their mockery, so how could this mocking fellow possibly be he? Awaiting the return of the mythical Harry is the only kind of life the monomaniacal Captain is able to accept as real, so how could an unpleasant youngster with a gloating grin be anything but unreal? If Harry is real, the Captain is mad. Would it not be mad to admit he is mad? So, for the near-deranged Captain, the only sane action saving his ideals is the insane rejection of his son. In short, the incompatibility of illusion and reality in Captain Hagberd's mind is the main theme and thrust of the story.
The dramatic dichotomy between father and son is accompanied and reinforced by the antagonism between the Captain's tenants (and neighbors) Josiah Carvil, a former boat-builder and a blind widower, and Bessie Carvil, his daughter, whom he keeps entirely to himself, isolates from the world, and subjugates and terrorizes with his capricious and selfish whims. What could be voluntary, filial service is thus turned into hostile, forced servitude. Old Carvil's physical sightlessness and old Hagberd's mental blindness are like opposite mirrors between which a tragic truth passes and becomes multiplied.
The clash between the Captain and his son, the contrast between illusion and reality in old Hagberd's mind, and the opposition between Josiah and Bessie Carvil are linked with a further conflict that evolves between Harry and Bessie.
The Captain considers Bessie the only sensible girl in town and the only one worthy of becoming Harry's wife. He is even prepared to cut Harry off without a shilling if he does not marry her. The Captain's frequent hints about such a marriage, and Bessie's forced isolation at the side of her exacting and nagging father, naturally arouse her interest in the mythical son. And when Harry actually returns, his nonchalant, casual, world-trotter's manners, as well as his good looks and his need to rely on her in approaching his father, awake her tender feelings for Harry. When the Captain drives Harry away, never to return, and the lad kisses her for the first and last time, Bessie feels humiliated and heartbroken, left alone for good, exposed endlessly to old Hagberd's hopefully hopeless insanity and old Carvil's harassingly helpless tyranny.
All these various sorts of conflict seem to combine into a major contrast: the simultaneous necessity and tragic impossibility of a change. The Captain will be unable to face reality as long as he lives; the blind Carvil will continue wallowing regally in his armchair and bellowing unbearably for Bessie throughout his life; and Bessie is destined to lead a miserable existence until her death. Unable to tell whether "it was the beat of the swell: or Harry's "fateful tread that seemed to fall cruelly upon her heart" (278), she heard the fiendish voice of her father, "and, as if overcome by fate, began to totter silently back towards her stuffy little inferno of a cottage. It had no lofty portal, no terrific inscription of forfeited hopes--she did not understand wherein she had sinned" (279). A realistic representation of a naturalistic hell; in part the price of Captain Hagberd's illusion, in part the consequence of a fateful constellation.
Part of the dramatic effect of the story is derived, one might say, from the abrupt changes of narrative focus; the sudden shifts of the inner scenes of deliberation and assessment. At first one is involved with the predicament of the Captain, and, though the reader sees the delusion of old Hagberd's unreal expectation, he can sympathize with the old man's paternal anxiety, love and hope. The malice of the local barber, who provides the exposition for his customers as well as Conrad's readers, arouses one's emotions rather for than against the Captain.
With the appearance of Harry the reader is provided with an insight into his attitude. Harry's references to his father's having used the hard leather strap to keep him at home, and, sixteen years ago, having thrown a shovel at him to keep him out of home (one of the carefully constructed antithetic situations in the story) highlight the whimsicality of the Captain's behavior and strongly qualify his image of himself as an affectionate father. From a son run away to the sea, Harry partly changes, in the reader's eyes, into a son driven away to the sea, even if his restless and reckless stance gives an independent motivation to his act as well.
The end of the story emphasizes the
tragic plight of Bessie--an innocent victim,
These shifts of focus, insight and emphasis seem to suggest that the dramatic strategy underlying Conrad's story is developed along the lines of a mosaic design. The dramatic pattern of the narrative is supported by what might be called scenic effects, appro¬priately scaled down to the scope of the short story.
1. Harry Hagberd's appearance is
preceded, prepared and introduced by the window
2. Harry's arrival is accompanied by a cold white light lingering in the western sky. The hour of the day, of course, perfectly justifies this glimmer. Again, though, in the given context, one cannot help feeling that it also flashes a glimmer of hope, even if its coldness would seem to give the lie to much expectation. Perhaps it is not without reason that the clear streak of light under the clouds dies out when Bessie is explaining to Harry the nature of the Captain's obsession, which Harry sums up aptly (265): "It's all tomorrow, then, without any sort of today, as far as I can see." Any kind of open statement in the story about the possible symbolic meaning of the appearance and disappearance of the light would be an overstatement, and would inevitably ruin the possibility of sensing a symbolic connotation in the total image,15 whose symbolic charge and scenic value are enhanced by the figure of Bessie Carvil appearing in black silhouette in the parlor window, then flitting out before the other cottage, "all black, but with something white over her head" (262).
3. Another characterizing scenic image is Harry's stepping aside, out of the streak of light, upon hearing old Carvil shout for Bessie. Harry inquires whether it is her husband, "with the tone of a man accustomed to unlawful trysts" (268-269).
The style of Conrad's story is often dramatically condensed and polarized, corresponding to the frequent parallelisms and confrontations in the characterization of figures and composition of situations. Accordingly, the language of the story can be dramatically abrupt and directly challenging, as in the unexpected and epically unintroduced question put by Bessie: "'What are you?--a sailor?' said an agitated voice" (269). It can be terse, eloquent and patterned in rhythmic parallel phrases, as in Harry's answer to Bessie's question about where he thought he ought to have been born by rights if not in that hutch of a house: "In the open, upon a beach, on a windy night" (268). It can be based on sharp contrasts, as in Harry's reference to the role played by women in his life: "The scrapes they got me into, and the scrapes they got me out of!" (274), or as in his rather unkind remark to Bessie, who gives him the money he has asked for: "'You can't buy me in,' he said, 'and you can't buy yourself out''', (277). It can even reach the level of a witty dramatic dialogue with spirited retorts to sharp reproaches linguistically patterned in succinct parallelisms and antitheses, as in the swift exchange of words between Bessie (referring to the Captain) and Harry (defending himself):
In the last unit of the passage, even the formal "he said," the last narrative remnant of a distance-keeping quoting sentence, has been dropped. The text is ripe for dramatization.
Conrad lost no time in turning his short story into a one-act play. It was presented under the title "One Day More" by the Stage society in London, on June 25, 1905.
"One Day More" retains practically all the essential features of "Tomorrow": its conflict, its main characters, the basic situation, and the development of the plot are fundamentally the same. Even much of the dialogue has been retained in the play, which is subdivided into five small scenes, thus making the latent mosaic pattern of the story explicit. The close parallelism of story and play underlines and retrospectively justifies the dramatic quality of the former. And the deviations between "Tomorrow" and "One Day More" release and crystallize this quality in the process of dramatic adaptation.
The conflict between the Captain and his son becomes sharper, for instance. There is a true dramatic ring to Harry's characterization of the inevitability of their clash. Explaining to Bessie why he cannot stay at home and behave as an obedient son of an irascible father, he speaks in short, hard, lapidary sentences: "I ain't accustomed to knuckle under. There's a pair of us. Hagberds both. I ought to be thinking of my train." 16 In this way the statures of both father and son have been raised and made compact.
The antithesis in Captain Hagberd's consciousness between illusion and reality is represented minutely in the story. There are a number of tangled references (approaching, though not copying, the haphazard turns and returns of everyday speech) to how the Captain professed that his son would surely return "next week," "next month," "next spring," "next year"--and "tomorrow" (T, 246-247, 249, 250, etc.) In the play the set of phrases is contracted, abbreviated, arranged in a rapid succession and in a dramatically decreasing--one might say, tumbling--order. As Josiah Carvil puts it, grumbling to Bessie in grim malice: "He bothered everybody so with his silly talk of his son being sure to come back home--next year--next spring--next month--What is it by this time, hey?" (ODM, 136) And the Captain, though the question is not put to him, is quick with the answer in the play's following scene: "tomorrow. ... One day more" (ODM, 139). Dramatic generalization, propelled by fateful necessity, tends to discard or cut through narrative curves and episodic digressions.
The opposition between Josiah and Bessie Carvil is also thrown into greater relief in the one-acter, which begins with their conversation during a walk. This change in composition has a number of dramatic advantages: it gives emphasis to Carvil's domestic tyranny and Bessie's suffering; it provides a more stable framework to the piece--a rondo form starting and finishing with Bessie's plight; and it is an appropriate way to reveal the necessary antecedents in action and dialogue rather than in the barber's narration which, along with the barber himself, can be dispensed with. The function of suggesting the townspeople's malice against the Captain is transferred from the relatively lengthy narrative of the barber to the flash-like dramatic appearance of a new figure, the Lamplighter, who also shows Harry the way to his father's cottage.
Bessie's mistreatment by her blind father is also focused later in the play by scenic presentation. In the story, old Carvil's blindness and nagging are described. In the play his condition and attitude are effectively shown: in Scene 2 he shouts for his hat, continues yelling while Bessie is walking toward him with his hat in her hand, and only stops bellowing--but then abruptly, in mid-sentence--when she puts his hat on his head.
The tragic conflict between Bessie and Harry also gains greater momentum in "One Day More" than in "Tomorrow." In the story Bessie is rather passive, even submissive. In the play her personality asserts itself with much greater clarity, consciousness and energy. Already before Harry's arrival, she defends emphatically old Hagberd's belief in his son's return against her father's derisive remarks about the old lunatic's delusion: "What is so mad in keeping up hope?" (ODM, 136). And even when old Carvil conjectures that the Captain may not have had a son at all, Bessie speaks out strongly in the Captain's defense: "What does it matter? His talk keeps him up" (ODM, 137). When Harry does arrive, she gives up her earlier attitude of soothing the Captain by reassuring him that there is nothing wrong about him anywhere, and she is "calm and forcible" (ODM, 162) when, continuing her earlier half-attempt to enlighten the Captain about the truth, she decides she will make him see that his son has come back.
In the story, Bessie is passively distressed and hopelessly ashamed when Harry learns that it was she whom his father intended him to marry, and makes up his mind to leave immediately. "She had not moved, and she remained half turned away from him, pressing her head in the palms of her hands.... She stood a little on one side, with her head drooping as if wounded; with her arms hanging passive by her side, as if dead" (T, 276-277). In the play Bessie "turns unexpectedly and pushes him with both hands" (ODM, 164), and orders him fiercely to go away.
After Harry's final departure the Bessie of the story is overcome by fate, overwhelmed by tearful sorrow, and subdued by her private inferno which swallows her although she does not understand wherein she had sinned. Her sobbing is counterpointed by the triumphant chuckle of Captain Hagberd's mad and inextinguishable hope in an everlasting tomorrow.
The Bessie of the play is no less desperate and broken, but she is more ferocious and clear-sighted. At play's end, three kinds of laughter are contrasted: Bessie's, first faint and then louder, expressing her realization of the tragic irony of her fateful situation; that of the grinning vagabond, as the Captain calls him; and the "affected gurgling laugh" (ODM, 165) of Captain Hagberd, whose chuckle cuts Bessie's laughter short and turns it into a sob. Whereas the Bessie in the story does not understand what sort of sin she is suffering for, the Bessie in the play understands much more and turns to the Captain, who is triumphing in his delusion, with the bitterly perspicacious words: "Go in; be quiet! You have done harm enough" (ODM, 165). And finally, upon the Captain's insane reassurance about Harry's coming home "tomorrow," she loses control of herself, shouts at old Hagberd's face, "You make me mad" "with rising inflection" (ODM, 165), a statement which seems to shake, perhaps even shatter, the Captain's illusion:
In the story Bessie refrains, as a rule, from arguing with the Captain. Only once does she try to throw some doubt on his unreal hope doomed to disappointment; but seeing the expression of horror and incredulity come at once over his face, she ceases her attempt to sober him up and relapses into her habit of humoring him in silence. She explains to Harry her usual failure to contradict his father by referring to the harm she might have done the Captain: "It would only have made him miserable. He would have gone out of his mind" (T, 265). What is a diffidently rejected, distant and abstract possibility in the short story becomes a desperately bitter, actual dramatic deed in the one-act play.
All these modifications in the concept and method, enhancing and releasing the dramatic quality in the story, justify the generic change from narrative fiction to drama. But a change in kind is not necessarily tantamount to a change in value. Although "One Day More" was praised with good reason by such different and reliable critics as Shaw, Galsworthy and Max Beerbohm,17 Conrad himself had misgivings about the achievement of the play, which certainly does not reach the literary level of the short story.
The process of dramatization involves disrupting the capillary network of minor everyday episodes, outer and inner motifs, in order to emphasize what is necessary and inevitable in the protagonists' relationships. One of Conrad's strengths as a narrator lies in representing dynamic charge in small details and characteristic circumstances. Dramatic shortcuts, eliminating such details, posed a difficulty which he could not always and entirely solve.
In the story, for example, Bessie's embarrassment over how to tell Harry it is he whom the Captain expects "tomorrow"--i.e., that his father is insane--is described in a credible way: "She did not answer, helpless before an insurmountable difficulty, appalled before the necessity, the impossibility and the dread of an explanation in which she and madness seemed involved together" (T, 263). Her inhibition is convincingly rendered by the psychological elements of the suggestive description. Even the use of the word "helpless" as an apposition, and the cumulative rhythm inherent in the repetition of nouns like "difficulty," "necessity" and "impossibility," play their parts in the total effect. In the play, however, such dramatically condensed narrative means cannot be applied, and Conrad was unable to find the dramatic equivalent of his epic description. Bessie's wringing her hands and lamenting to herself and to the audience--"What had I better do?" (ODM, 148)--just do not do.
Similarly, in the story Harry asks Bessie for money in a straightforward and believable way. In the play, however, the dichotomy between Harry courting Bessie and needing her money is "dramatized" by such awkward asides as "I don't seem to get any nearer to my railway fare" (ODM, 158, 161), which are inappropriately "funny" and unnecessarily overemphasize a calculating trait in Harry, who has just made a clean breast of his unsteady ties with both women and ships, and does not seem to be a person beating about the bush.
To give a true, dramatic significance to the theme of illusion and reality involved in the story, a real dramatist was needed.
[Concluded in the next issue]
11 G. Lukacs, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, translated from the German by John and Necke Mander (London, 1969), pp. 83-84
12 Timo Tiusanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton, 1968, p. 270. It should be noted that Mary McCarthy also sees the characters of the play as a unified body reacting to the exigencies of their illusory predicament and O'Neill's argument collectively, and she also relates The Iceman Cometh to The Three Sisters, but she finds Chekhov's play superior to O'Neill's: "O'Neill might have studied the nature of illusion through the separate relations of a group of characters (The Three Sisters), but his people are given but a single trait each, and they act and react, in the loss and recapture of illusion, not individually but in a body. Bare and plain, this play has the structure of an argument...." Mary McCarthy, "Eugene O'Neill--Dry Ice" (1956), in Raleigh, p. 52. I personally do not agree that such a kind of collective reaction would make O'Neill's play inferior to Chekhov's. [Here, for readers without installment one of Professor Egri's essay, is the full citation for the work subsequently referred to as Raleigh: John Henry Raleigh (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh" (Englewood Cliffs, 1968). --Ed.]
13 I have analyzed the problem in detail in my forthcoming book, Chekhov and O'Neill: The Uses of the Short Story in Chekhov's and O'Neill's Plays.
14 Joseph Conrad, "Tomorrow," in Typhoon and Other Stories (Leipzig, 1928), p. 261. (I have dropped the hyphen in tomorrow.) Subsequent page citations refer to this edition, and will be included in the essay in parentheses.
15 For a dramatic-symbolic use of natural lighting effects, compare, e.g., the scenic connotations of the setting and rising sun in O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms.
16 Joseph Conrad, "One Day More," in The Modern Theatre, Vol. III, ed. Eric Bentley (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), 161. Subsequent page citations refer to this edition and are included in the essay in parentheses with the identifying initial ODM. (Future parenthetical references to "Tomorrow" are preceded by a T.)
17 See Eric Bentley (ed.), The Modern Theatre, Vol. III, editor's notes, p. 305.
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