THE ICEMAN COMETH: EUROPEAN ORIGINS AND AMERICAN ORIGINALITY (CONCLUSION)
[This is the third and final installment 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 Winter 1981 issue of the Newsletter (pp. 5-10), Part Two in the Spring 1982 issue (pp. 16-24), concluding with a comparative study of Joseph Conrad's short story, "Tomorrow" (1903), and his one-act dramatization of the story two years later, under the title "One Day More" (1905). These are the works referred to in the first sentence below. --Ed.]
There are good reasons to suppose that O'Neill knew both Conrad's short story and play. He had been an avid reader of Conrad's works since his high school days and retained his admiration for Conrad throughout his life.18 "Tomorrow" appeared in 1903, and "One Day More" was published in The Smart Set in February, 1914. Travis Bogard finds it probable that O'Neill was acquainted with the short story,19 and Kristin Morrison points out that "Certainly by 1917 O'Neill was familiar with The Smart Set since he sent three plays there that year ["The Long Voyage Home" was printed in the October 1917 issue, "Ile" and "The Moon of the Caribbees" in the May 1918 issue]; and it is likely that in 1914 as an aspiring author engaged in an intense program of literary activity, both reading and writing, he would have seen copies of this important magazine. Himself a beginning dramatist, he would not have passed over a first play by one of his favorite authors."20 Various motifs, appearing in "Tomorrow" and "One Day More" respectively, crop up in several of O'Neill's plays--among them "Ile" (1916-17), "The Long Voyage Home" (1916-17), "The Moon of the Caribbees" (1916-17), Beyond the Horizon (1918), "The Rope" (1918), "Where the Cross Is Made" (1918), Gold (1920), Chris Christopherson (1920), Anna Christie (1921) and The Hairy Ape (1921).21
The most direct line of descent from Conrad's story and play, however, would seem to lead to an early short story and a late play by O'Neill: "Tomorrow" (1916-17) and The Iceman Cometh (1939). Rather than inviting scrupulously minute comparisons of details, or flashing easily recognizable Conradian profiles, incidents and motifs, these works by O'Neill passionately and bitterly explore the central concern of Conrad's "Tomorrow" and "One Day More": the nature of illusions in a given social and psychological context, and the consequence of their confrontation with reality. The question, of course, constituted a personal puzzle for O'Neill, was a general preoccupation of the period (both in life, literature and art), and has been one of the recurring problems of man-kind, posed in different forms and with varying contents whenever ideals have shown a tendency to become illusions.
O'Neill's short story with the same title as Conrad's exposes and explores the dichotomy of illusion and reality in an independent narrative. Its central figure, Jimmy Anderson, a newspaper correspondent in the Boer War, had caught his wife Alice making love with a staff officer. His self-esteem crushed, he started drinking, lost himself, became a loafer, and developed the illusion of starting a new life--"tomorrow." His chance seemed to have come when he was offered a reporting job at one of the big morning papers in New York City. He gave up drinking, preached temperance to his friend and roommate Art, the narrator of the story, "with the obstinacy of the reformed turned reformer,"22 and spent a few days at work--only to realize that he was unable to live up to the requirements and his own expectations. So after getting drunk and inadvertently knocking his favorite pot of geraniums from the window sill, he jumped out of the window and smashed himself to death in the yard of Tommy the Priest's saloon. He could not abide and did not survive the confrontation of his illusion (of starting a new, creative life) with reality (his failure to write and regenerate his personality).
It is not only the title which links O'Neill's short story and Conrad's. Like Captain Hagberd, Jimmy Anderson lived entirely in the immediate future: he was going to have his dilapidated typewriter fixed "tomorrow"; he hoped his dyspeptic geranium would finally blossom "tomorrow." Though life never failed to deal him the expected kick, Jimmy firmly believed that "the longed-for caress would come ... if not today, then tomorrow" (153). His "career as a sober, industrious citizen" (158), as Art ironically puts it, was to begin "tomorrow"; in fact, he "lived in a dream of tomorrows" (148). If Captain Hagberd in Conrad's "Tomorrow" had his trust in "an everlasting tomorrow,"23 Jimmy Anderson in O'Neill's "Tomorrow" had eyes "bright with the dream of a new hope, or rather, the old hope eternally redreamed" (155-156).24
Despite these parallels, there are also marked differences between Conrad's and O'Neill's short stories. The most striking deviation can be observed in the degree of dramatic quality in the two narratives. Conrad's "Tomorrow" certainly does not lack in this quality, but O'Neill's "Tomorrow" far surpasses even Conrad's play in dramatic charge, concept and organization.
Already in Conrad's story the illusion of the main protagonist is in paradoxically sharp conflict with reality: Captain Hagberd rejects his son in the name of his son; he drives Harry away because he expects Harry to come "tomorrow"; "tomorrow" defeats "today." The Captain, in fact, behaves in the way that Art supposes Jimmy would behave should his self-deception meet with truth: looking searchingly at Jimmy's "squat nose, wistful eyes, fleshy cheeks, weak mouth, thick lips, the whole of his characterless, unfinished face," Art wondered "what Jimmy would do if he ever saw that face in the clear, cruel mirror of Truth. Straggle on in the same lost way, no doubt, and cease to have faith in mirrors" (O'Neill, "Tomorrow," p. 153).
This was, however, the final reaction not of Jimmy, but of Captain Hagberd. Harry's grin, reminding the captain of the townfolks' scorn over his attitude; Harry's suggestion that there was something wrong about old Hagberd's news; the very idea of something wrong: these can be taken as short and forced glimpses at the "mirror of Truth." And no sooner had the captain looked into the mirror than he ceased to have faith--not in his delusion, but in the mirror. His story ends with his affirmation of an everlasting tomorrow. His partly effected, partly dodged encounter with reality leads to his perseverance in his delusion. Illusion laughs the mad laughter of victory. (Tragic defeat becomes the fate of another character--Bessie Carvil--as if it were the punishment of a sinless victim.) Save for Bessie's single, timid attempt, the idea of enlightening old Hagberd about the truth is abandoned. He is spared being made miserable through a thorough and final confrontation with reality which might have ruined the defense-system of his personality.
Conrad's "One Day More" is more dramatic than his "Tomorrow" proved to be, not simply and not mainly because the descriptive passages in the story were made into stage directions, the speeches were freed from their quoting sentences, and, in general, representation was replaced by presentation. These formal alterations were only the consequence of modifications in the very concept of the conflict. The final clash between Captain Hagberd and Bessie Carvil casts a thick and entangling veil of doubt on the tenability of the captain's illusion. When Bessie, who remains the chief victim of events even in the play, shouts her final bitter and sacrilegious conclusion--"There is no tomorrow!" (Conrad, "Tomorrow," p. 165)--into the face of Captain Hagberd, she shocks and shakes the old man; her disillusionment starts old Hagberd on the way to becoming disillusioned himself. How far such an impulse proved fatal for the captain, or how far it meant but a temporary loss of mental balance, is a question left open in the one-act play.
The fundamental reason why O'Neill's short story is more dramatic than Conrad's drama lies in the fact that O'Neill radically pursued the course started by Conrad to its very end. What is only a diffident attempt in Conrad's "Tomorrow" and an undecided issue in "One Day More" becomes a tragic truth in O'Neill's "Tomorrow": the central protagonist experiences a headlong confrontation of his illusion with reality, lives to see the total disintegration of his illusion, and dies of his realization. His identification with his self-delusion is so complete that the disruption of one means for him the destruction of the other; the death of his illusion is tantamount to the total collapse of his personality. His final verdict on himself is painfully relentless:
Unlike the captain in Conrad's story, ultimately it was not the mirror that Jimmy Anderson ceased to have faith in; it was himself. "Life had jammed the clear, cruel mirror in front of his eyes and he had recognized himself--in that pitiful thing he saw" (166). He was unable to survive the experience. O'Neill ends his story with two dramatically terse and appropriately short sentences: "The sky was pale with the light of dawn. Tomorrow had come" (170). For Jimmy Anderson this is the tragic fulfillment of Bessie Carvil's surly prophecy at the end of "One Day More": "There is no tomorrow!" But while Bessie survives her realization, Jimmy perishes with it. The outer contradiction between Captain Hagberd and Bessie Carvil has been dramatically contracted and sharpened into the inner contradiction within Jimmy Anderson. Rather than merely making someone else suffer, the main protagonist dies of his own disillusionment.
The construction of O'Neill's story also betrays a dramatic interest. It has an extended exposition which lays a heavy stress on Jimmy's attempts to lead Art back to a sober and industrious life. The emphasis on his efforts to bring back a lost sheep to the fold renders sharper the reversal of his proving a lost sheep himself. His late confession to Art about his failure and inner collapse, his long withheld revelation of the trauma his wife's unfaithfulness had caused in his self-appreciation and ambition, and finally his suicide: these draw the descending curve of his peripety with a steep fall. The belated disclosure of his secret motive increases tension. In the bulk of the story a compositional counterpoint can be felt between Jimmy's solemn, somber and pathetically clumsy formality and Art's condescendingly ironical attitude undercutting many of his roommate's assumed poses. It sometimes reaches the level of what might be termed facical awareness expressed with a wink at the reader. This happens, for example, when Jimmy asks Art why he has repeated the word tomorrow a dozen times--a question the reader is also inclined to put. When, however, Art reassures Jimmy that he only keeps repeating the word because tomorrow is the day when Jimmy's new life begins, Jimmy sighs with relief--and at the very moment becomes comic. Clearly, Art acts a role, as if winking again at an imaginary audience. However, when Jimmy is fired and relapses to drinking, Art's ironical attitude completely vanishes, and his earlier mockery turns into a compassion that is shared by the drinking pals in the bar: "they stared at [Jimmy] with genuine regret that he should have fallen. Their faces grew sad. They had done the same thing themselves so many times. They understood" (165). The contrast between good-humored scorn and sincere understanding accompanies the movement of the action from comic to tragic.
Thus O'Neill's "Tomorrow" is much more dramatic than Conrad's. This, however, does not automatically make it a better story. Despite obvious signs of his talent in characterizing his figures, building up his conflict and constructing his plot, O'Neill makes too many direct statements, is over-meticulous in explaining his symbols (e.g., p. 165), and occasionally even pats his own back. "Here was real tragedy. Real tragedy!" Art exclaims (168), commenting on Jimmy's story of his wife's infidelity. Conrad's short story as a work of art is, in fact, a much more successful, balanced and experienced creation.
But O'Neill was, after all, a beginner when he wrote "Tomorrow." It took him more than twenty years to restate his early vision of illusion and reality in accomplished dramatic terms. The result was staggering, the achievement enormous.
Based on O'Neill's early story of 1917, written in the dark shadow of World War II,25 and first produced and published in 1946, The Iceman Cometh is a late play of ripe wisdom and rare excellence. It is a drama composed in a mosaic pattern and enlarged into epic, indeed novelistic dimensions.
Its epic aspect is evident in its very conception. The play owes to the short story not only its locale and time (1912) but also one of its characters.26 Jimmy Anderson, who commits suicide at the end of "Tomorrow," is raised from the dead in the figure of James Cameron (nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow) in The Iceman Cometh. It is impossible not to recognize him at first glance: if Jimmy Anderson had "wispy, grey hair combed over his bald spot" (151), Jimmy Tomorrow has "mouse-colored thinning hair";27 if the hero of the short story had "wistful eyes," a "squat nose" and "fleshy cheeks hanging down like dewlaps on either side of his weak mouth" (153), the figure in the play possesses "big brown friendly guileless eyes," "a little bulbous nose" and "a face ... with folds of flesh hanging from each side of his mouth" (575). Whereas Jimmy in the story could look at his friend "with the appealing look of a lost dog" (149), Jimmy in the play looks like "an old, well-bred, gentle bloodhound" (575). While Jimmy Anderson would sit "prim ... in his black suit" in a room at Tommy the Priest's with his clean collar and fresh shirt and looking, when sober, "a respectable nuisance" (151), Jimmy Tomorrow, one of the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon, "wears threadbare black, and everything about him is clean.... There is a quality about him of a prim, Victorian old maid, and at the same time of a likeable, affectionate boy who has never grown up" (575).
Like Jimmy in the story, Jimmy in the play also used to be a Boer War correspondent who found his wife in the hay with a staff officer, was shaken by her unfaithfulness, and blames the failure of his career and his taking to drink on this shattering experience. "We've all heard that story," Hickey says (657). And indeed we have--in O'Neill's short story!
Jimmy Anderson's illusion, of regaining his old job "tomorrow," is, naturally, also shared by Jimmy Tomorrow; and when this illusion is put to the test of truth, the drama reaches its disillusioning turning point just as the short story did: in the description of Jimmy's fate, the structure of the play integrates the strategy of the short story.
Moreover, it does so more than once. After failing the test of reality, Jimmy Tomorrow confesses to himself, in a moment of bitter and cold clairvoyance, that he had been indulging in an unreal pipe dream: it was not his wife's unfaithfulness which made him a drunkard, but his being a drunkard which made his wife unfaithful; he did not resign his position but was fired for drunkenness and--unlike Jimmy Anderson--he did not even dare trying to undertake the job again. In the short story we are supposed to take Jimmy's blaming of his wife seriously; in the play even this gesture proves to be a self-defensive illusion. The degree of clear-sightedness is greater in the Jimmy of the play; his self-exposing insight is keener and more relentless.
All the same, though he is reported to have contemplated it, he simply cannot bring himself to the point of committing suicide. His self-analysis may be more radical than that of his short story counterpart, but he is certainly less consequent in his actions. He rather flinches, and eagerly accepts the idea that Hickey's criticism can only be attributed to his insanity. Either Hickey is insane, or Jimmy is a coward, a weakling and a liar plunged in self-deception. So Hickey must be insane, and Jimmy had only been kidding when he pretended he would reapply for his old job. With this sudden and sharp change of attitude, Jimmy swings back from the pole of total and barren disillusionment to the pole of a total and comfortable pipe dream. In terms of form, another short story-like turn had found its way into the dramatic structure. The mosaic design becomes perceptible.
The design is made clearer and more complete by the fact that the fortunes of a great number of other characters are also presented in the same way--are also shown in a similar pattern with a double turn: Harry Hope, the proprietor; Ed Mosher, one-time circus man; Pat McGloin, one-time police lieutenant; Willie Oban, a Harvard Law School alumnus; Joe Mott, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house; Piet Wetjoen, one-time leader of a Boer commando; Cecil Lewis, one-time Captain of British infantry; Hugo Kalmar, the Hungarian anarchist and one-time editor of periodicals; Rocky Pioggi, night bartender; Chuck Morello, day bartender; and the three street walkers, Pearl, Margie and Cora. Each has his or her particular pipe dream, disillusioning test, and re-illusioning quest. Jimmy Tomorrow is, as Larry Slade describes him with sardonic relish, "the leader of our Tomorrow Movement" (593). But he is one of many, as is clear when the mosaic flags become multiplied.
Jimmy Tomorrow, however, is not the only person to revive the figure of Jimmy Anderson. Anderson is also reincarnated and partly developed further in the character of Hickey himself. Anderson's preaching temperance to his friend Art, and the inner uncertainty of the reformer: these give a foretaste of the predicament of the hardware drummer whose inner collapse constitutes another short story-anticipated mosaic flag.28
If Jimmy Tomorrow is unable to take the grim and mortal consequence of facing the truth, and cannot follow Jimmy Anderson to death, there are other characters in the play who draw the inevitable conclusion with a fateful necessity and commit suicide like the protagonist of the short story. One is Parritt, who manages to make a confession to Larry, elicits his condemnation and throws himself out of the window just as Jimmy Anderson had done. The play's "sound of something hurtling down, followed by a muffled, crunching thud" (726) repeats the story's "swish, a thickish thud as of a heavy rock dropping into thick mud" (169). The other person is Hickey, who, by summoning the police, also punishes himself and faces what he had brought to Evelyn--death. The changes of Larry's, Parritt's and Hickey's attitudes add further mosaic flags to the overall dramatic design.29
At the same time, Parritt's suicide and Hickey's self-punishment not only repeat but restate the meaning and significance of Jimmy Anderson's death: whereas Anderson's suicide was essentially the collapse of a weak person, Parritt's and Hickey's acts also possess the cathartic quality of a moral deed, the redeeming gesture of ethical reparation. The drama not only embodies and multiplies the short story; it also transcends and transforms it.
Showing significant parallels with--and no less important divergences from--works by Ibsen, Gorky, Synge, Chekhov and Conrad in the treatment of illusion and reality; adopting the mosaic design so characteristic of Chekhov's late plays; evolving from dramatic short stories by Conrad and O'Neill and multiplying their pattern in a novelistic structure, The Iceman Cometh represents an original drama corresponding to O'Neill's specific vision of the world. It is a truth-seeking play of grotesque dissonance and tragic beauty.
18 Cf. Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York, 1962), pp. 79-80, 112, 351; Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston, 1973), pp. 28, 604.
19 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1972), p. 93. Cf. William R. Brashear, "'To-morrow' and 'Tomorrow': Conrad and O'Neill," Renascence, XX (Autumn 1967), 18-21.
20 Kristin Morrison, "Conrad and O'Neill as Playwrights of the Sea," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter (May 1978), p. 3.
21 Bogard, pp. 106, 154, 161; Morrison, pp. 3-5. Besides the "established" correspondences, one may also think of some other parallels. (1) In both "Tomorrow" and "One Day More," Harry Hagberd abhors the idea of dying in a rabbit-hutch of a paternal house, and would prefer facing the end "In the bush somewhere; in the sea; on a blamed mountain top for choice" ("Tomorrow," p. 272; "One Day More," p. 154). A variety of Harry's pantheistically somber program is accomplished by Robert Mayo at the end of O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon. (2) In Conrad's "Tomorrow," explaining to Harry why she did not, as a rule, contradict Captain Hagberd when he was talking about his great hope, Bessie says: "It was easier to half believe it myself" (p. 265). Even the malicious barber admits that the delusion was catching. Sometimes, when a stranger came to his shop, he himself could not help supposing that the visitor might be old Hagberd's son. There was a time when the whole town shared the illusion (p. 248). The infectious nature of a mad expectation is dramatized by O'Neill in the figure of Nat, the son of the mad captain in "Where the Cross Is Made." (3) The shovel old Hagberd throws at his son in anger and anxiety is paralleled by the shovel Yank throws at Mildred in The Hairy Ape. Taken one by one, parallels of this kind should not, of course, be exaggerated. They may be merely fortuitous, or may derive from the similarity of themes, the authors' attitudes, and their life experiences. But taken together, they are too numerous to be easily dismissed as irrelevant to the Conrad-O'Neill relationship.
22 Eugene O'Neill, "Tomorrow," The Seven Arts, II (June, 1917), 152. Subsequent page citations refer to this edition and are included in the essay in parentheses.
23 Joseph Conrad, "Tomorrow," in Typhoon and Other Stories (Leipzig, 1928), p. 279. Subsequent page citations refer to this edition and are included in the essay in parentheses.
24 This is not to prove that Conrad need have been O'Neill's sole model. He may have been a literary source and an eye-opener, but O'Neill's short story is autobiographically founded: Art bears many of O'Neill's traits, and the figure of Jimmy Anderson can be traced back to James Byth, a press agent of O'Neill's father, who was O'Neill's neighbor at the saloon called Jimmy the Priest's (the original of Tommy the Priest's) in New York. He even committed suicide the way in which O'Neill describes Jimmy's death. Cf. Bogard, p. 93.
25 Cf. the Gelbs, p. 830, and Sheaffer, p. 489.
26 For the autobiographical facts of cheap hotels that Harry Hope's dive and its clientele were based on (Jimmy the Priest's, the Hell Hole and the Garden Hotel), and for the identity of a number of its characters, see the Gelbs, pp. 170-171, 186, 285-286, 296-298, 368, 457, 459, 831; Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston, 1968), pp. 171, 192, 319-320, 130-131, 203, 214, 329, 333, 335, 338, 386, 425; Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist, pp. 62, 428; John Henry Raleigh (ed.), Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh" (Englewood Cliffs, 1968), pp. 4-6, 63-71. As the entry for June 7, 1939 in his Work Diary (1924-1943) shows, O'Neill first gave The Iceman Cometh the tentative title "Tomorrow."
27 Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh. The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1954), III, 575. (Subsequent page citations refer to this edition and will be included in the essay in parentheses.)
28 The fatefully fortuitous and sudden realization of his hidden hatred for Evelyn is comparable to a similarly accidental and fatally unexpected insight of Lavinia's--about her secret love for Adam--in Mourning Becomes Electra. Both Lavinia and Hickey accept responsibility by punishing themselves: Lavinia by rejecting Peter and shutting herself up in the Mannon house, and Hickey by phoning the police.
29 The mosaic method is also thrown into relief by the chopping up of the dramatic plot into minor incidents, stories, anecdotes, even jokes. Examples abound:
a. Hickey's joke about his wife and the iceman (p. 580; cf. pp. 610, 616, 617, 662, 694). Later the joke becomes a grim symbol of death.
b. Hugo Kalmar accuses Parritt, then recognizes him, asks for and gets a drink. The semblance of a tense, pugnacious dramatic scene is built up, but with a short story-like turn it deteriorates, is resolved and relieved into a jovial drinking partner-ship (592).
c. Willy Oban's story (595).
d. The anecdote of how Ed Mosher short-changed his sister, Bessie (608-609).
e. The story about how Cora showed a drunk and shy guy the nearest way to the Museum of Natural History, frisking him for his roll and picking twelve bucks off him (616-617).
f. Ed Mosher's anecdote about a physician who claimed he could cure heart failure with rattlesnake oil in three days (626-628). The doctor was of the opinion that staying sober and doing work cut people off in their prime. But the doctor did not follow his own advice. He died of overwork at eighty. When he felt his end coming, he told Ed, sobbing: "I'd hoped I'd live to see the day when, thanks to my miraculous cure, there wouldn't be a single vacant cemetery lot left in this glorious country" (627-628). The physician's words, as quoted by Ed, evoke a roar of laughter, but they also fore-shadow the dark predicament of Hickey, whose cure also remained inefficient and brought death. Act I appropriately ends with Hickey's drowsy words spoken in encouragement, causing discouragement, and arguing unwittingly, as it were, against his own cure: "don't let me be a wet blanket--all I want is to see you happy--" (628). The example also shows how O'Neill made even his relatively independent narrative units organic parts of the dramatic plot.
g. The nervous oscillation between tension and relief, hate and friendship, irritated affront and precarious reconciliation in the first phase of Act II, describing how the inmates, after Hickey's reform activity, welcome the unadorned truth--about their companions (628-638).
h. Harry's crucial walk and Hickey's self-exposing speech (686-691, 708-717) also imply a dramatized short story-oriented mosaic unit, but they are important enough to call for separate treatment. See Peter Egri, "Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh: An Epic Tragicomedy of Illusion and Reality," Hungarian Studies in English, XI (1977), 96-102, in which I have analyzed The Iceman Cometh in greater detail than in the present study.
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