If All God’s Chillun Got Wings exists in part as a mask disguising a portrait of the destructive marriage of Eugene O’Neill’s parents, then the next play to be discussed in terms of O’Neill’s techniques of mixing the issues of ethnicity and autobiography strip away one more layer of the mask. The Iceman Cometh, often considered one of O’Neill’s greatest achievements, stands firmly in the tradition of the playwright’s historical plays as a look at the withering effects of crass materialism and the failed promise of the United States, echoing the thematic concerns of such O’Neill plays as Gold, Ile, Dynamo, The Emperor Jones, and Mourning Becomes Electra. The play is also firmly planted in the author’s own autobiographical tradition as seen perhaps most clearly in Beyond the Horizon, Ah, Wilderness!, Hughie, and A Touch of the Poet, as well as his opus, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and its heir, A Moon for the Misbegotten. Iceman’s position at the crossroads of all of these plays, and others in his historical and family cycles, is appropriate, for it is perhaps the playwright’s most aching portrayal of that very bond of commonality, the idea of intrinsic relation that is, for O’Neill, central to the human experience. Evidence indicates that, except for some minor reworking shortly before its production, The Iceman Cometh was written primarily in a period of seven months. Begun in mid-1939, the play was already undergoing “trimming” and polishing until January 3, 1940, according to O’Neill’s diaries (Final Acts 21). A Theatre Guild production, it was first presented in 1946, after some minimal rewrites. Perhaps fittingly, O’Neill began work almost simultaneously with The Iceman Cometh on what is generally recognized as his greatest play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. These two plays, both set in 1912, are related in a more significant way than just the circumstances of creation and setting: in both plays, O’Neill’s characters are haunted by a past that seems to prevent any forward movement.
Art Imitates Life
Despite the fact that The Iceman Cometh had a relatively short gestation in terms of its actual writing, it is easy to recognize its far-reaching history, as it takes O’Neill back to his pre-World War I days, sloughing around the waterfronts and dives of lower Manhattan at the time of his failed suicide attempt (we will later see Iceman’s Don Parritt, the other “convert” to Hickey’s religion of death, succeed in what O’Neill himself failed). It is also set at the beginning of O’Neill’s writing career. As such, the play stands at another crossroads: it is both remnant of the past and harbinger of yet-to-be. In fact, a short story entitled “Tomorrow” was published by O’Neill in 1917, dealing with the same events that he would later expand upon and universalize in Iceman. Specifically, the play’s setting, Harry Hope’s bar, is based primarily on Jimmy-the-Priest’s bar in lower Manhattan, though Peter Hays clarifies O’Neill’s reliance on the “Hell Hole,” a bar named The Golden Swan, whose proprietor was the basis of the Harry Hope character (71). In fact, most of the bars’ habitues were recreated for The Iceman Cometh. Most germane to our study is the creation of Joe Mott, a watershed character for O’Neill and one that can be understood to epitomize O’Neill’s rhetoric of ethnicity.
Based primarily on Joe Smith, a gambler O’Neill shared rooms with at Jimmy-the-Priest’s, Joe Mott is black, a failed gambler, and, similar to Jim Harris in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a victim of the desire to be accepted as “white.” In trying to arrange funding for his gambling house, he self-identifies with the white man who is fronting him the money: “So I opens, and he finds out I’se white, sure ‘nuff, ‘cause I run wide open for years and pays my sugar on de dot, and de cops and I is friends” (590). To Joe Mott, money is the great equalizer, the passport to acceptance in the United States, the signifier of worthiness. In this realization, he is not unlike Brutus Jones. Joe Smith, on the other hand, was less successful in his pursuits. Apparently, O’Neill supported Smith financially for some time, payments Smith referred to as his “royalties” (Gelbs 656). O’Neill’s supplementing of Smith’s small pension is one indicator of the playwright’s concern for black people. And Joe Mott, unlike Jim Harris, at least is aware that his
“pipe dream”–existing as a successful white businessman—is a racist nightmare from which he is desperate to awaken (Pfister 136).
According to Kurt Eisen, Mott’s realization lies at the very heart of the play’s intentions. Therefore his presence as the sole black character inhabiting the bar is particularly revealing and makes him more truly representative of humanity’s common predicament—unsatisfied pipe dreams that lead alienated souls only to death—than any of O’Neill’s other black characters. He is, in a sense, a universalizing agent, and in being so, he embodies a nobility that expresses, on equal terms with the white characters in the play, O’Neill’s belief in a universal brotherhood. What O’Neill shows in the play is how humanity may learn about its tragic heritage and hopeless condition, but also how that awareness will not prevent eventual doom.
Joe Mott, the play’s sole voice of the black experience, is not a victim of an alleged ethnic unconscious (as Brutus Jones has been claimed to be), a minstrel throwback trembling before the white threat (like Dreamy), nor is he for long the victim of the desire to be white (like Jim Harris). Rather, he is only part of the cacophony of symbolic voices that erupts during the last scene of the play. The fact that he is just one of the gang represents O’Neill’s coming full circle in his ascending spiral of humanity. As the Sailor in “Thirst” is linked to his fellow passengers through Expressionistic use of color and language, Joe Mott is linked to his fellow travelers through the portrayal of common experience, his voice only one of the raucous chatter that ends the play, yet just as much a part of the play’s tragic final scene as anyone’s. Except for Hickey, Parritt (an aspect of Hickey’s own character) and Slade, the other sixteen down-and-outers exist communally, in a society and universe that care nothing for color or class. In The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill’s rhetoric of ethnicity is voiced in the cacophony, the repetitions, the stories and the common systematic recounting of experience. The characters all speak the same language, despite the ethnic inflections that punctuate their words.
In fact, it is a rhetoric that O’Neill uses in order to critique the failings of language itself, according to Bigsby: “Again and again he offers not only a dramatization of the inadequacy of words to feelings but enacted evidence of the betrayal of truth by words” (19). If Hickey, the long-awaited harbinger of death, betrays truth in his harangues, so do the flophouse residents. What is really true, what they really share that allows them to understand each other and to exist coincidentally, is the bond of experience, rather than the illusory bond of language. No longer satisfied to critique his own use of language, O’Neill goes after language itself. The truth is evident: Hickey’s preaching is useless in the face of the truth revealed in his own act of murder. Actions do speak louder than words, a fact Hickey should have known, for it was just such a message he was preaching to his friends. In coercing them to take action, to stop believing their own self-confessed failures, he was preaching a gospel of action. Unfortunately, his words carry less weight than his acts, and the losers drift back to the necessity of their respective pipe dreams. While, according to Frantz Fanon, mastery of language may afford remarkable power (18), in reality it is not limitless. We need to study how Brutus Jones empowered himself by speaking both black and white—his own language and that of the oppressor—but also how he was betrayed by his own actions. Similarly, Joe Mott, as with all the regulars at Harry Hope’s, may speak his own language, but it is his experience—the reality that the words mask—that truly binds him to the others.
My study, while relying on the character of Joe Mott to draw comparisons among the various black characters already analyzed, will not focus on Mott in the way previous chapters focused on their black protagonists. He is, after all, not a leading character in terms of his word count and speaking time on stage. However, I will examine him in the context of the despair prevalent in the world of Harry Hope’s bar. Hickey is the central figure in this tragedy of souls, and it is his agenda that collides with those of every inhabitant of the bar. Employing “the language of social cohesion” (Pfister 101), Hickey masks his camaraderie in the disintegration of the community, forcing the band of pipe dreamers to look inward and dismantle their elaborate life-lies. Their lies are a shared lie—that someday they will regain their self-respect—but they also share the knowledge that their pipe dreams are vital. When the pipe dreams become recognized for what they are, death comes, even though as Pfister claims, “Hickey represents unmasking as the therapeutic mean of freeing oneself” from one’s life-lies (100), or what Hickey himself calls “guilt and lying hopes” (Iceman 680).
Only Larry Slade, the resident cynic and former anarchist, observes the death that Hickey trails in his wake. Slade realizes that the characters’ desire to avoid the outside world in favor of their pipe dreams is a two-edged sword: even subconsciously, they know that they will fail in their efforts to re-enter the greater world beyond the saloon doors; and they will lose the community that binds them together in their shared failure. At one point, Harry threatens Willie Oban with banishment to his room, a punishment that Oban rejects, pleading with Harry to let him stay. “Please, Harry! I’ll be quiet,” he says. “Don’t make Rocky bounce me upstairs! I’ll go crazy alone!” (596). Indeed, separation from the social body is as much to be feared as the surrender of one’s pipe dreams. The only comfort to be found in a world in which life is measured by what one simply cannot accomplish is the fact that everyone else is sharing it. Whether realized in “Thirst”’s raft of survivors, Jones’ regression to a social, if not cultural, subconscious, Dreamy’s need to be part of his family in the face of certain death, Jim’s need to be assimilated, or the shared despair of Harry Hope’s, the vital necessity of the community to the pipe dream anchors and intensifies the difficulty of escape.
Hickey, in fact, returns to his saloon family in order to secure his own pipe dream of converting them. He adopts a new pipe dream in an effort to supplant the old dream of a happy marriage. His return to his pipe dream at the end reinforces the idea that the communal experience of that dream is indeed a vital necessity. O’Neill’s theory of tragedy, according to Zander Brietzke, requires this failure to overcome the pipe dream and the community supporting it. Man’s inability to achieve the impossible is the tragic condition of humanity. It may be that “failure alone grants humanity nobility” (2), but failure grants that nobility unequivocally to all inhabitants of what Slade calls “The End of the Line Café” (577). Though they may all be signified by their ethnic or cultural origins or behaviors, the characters exemplify how O’Neill avoids providing them a solely ethnic, individualized existence in favor of one that avoids such boundaries. In doing so, he seems to suggest that we are more connected than separated, that ethnicity is an identifying label that loses its usefulness in the context of the greater vision of humanity’s commonality. According to Stephen Black, O’Neill’s development as an observer and reporter of the human condition can be seen in how he shows the group surviving this most intimate of intrusions by one of their own, leaving them laughing and singing while they ignore the tragedy that continues to loom (429). Their mutual pipe dreams comprise the vague hope that in the future they will recapture their glory days. Or as Norman Berlin states, “Sustained by their pipe dreams and alcohol, the hangers-on in Hope’s saloon belong together and feed off each other; they are family” (85).
Joe Mott at Stage Center
When we begin to analyze Joe Mott’s place in O’Neill’s play, we see foremost that his presence in the social body is as vital as any other character’s. Perhaps even as hinted at in his surname, one that suggests “mutt” and its connotations of inclusiveness, he’s a conglomeration of varied characteristics existing in one being and creating a cultural complexity that deepens the character, despite his subjugation to his own false dreams. As Edward Shaughnessy claims, “if the playwright’s black characters (like all his others) derive support from illusions, that dependency in no way robs them of complexity” (“faithful realism” 154). Precisely because Joe Mott is allowed to exist on such equal footing with the other sixteen losers, we can see his equal position in the human family more clearly than in such characters as Brutus Jones or Dreamy or Jim Harris, all of whom are highlighted as main characters whose equality with those around them is blown out of proportion because of their status as protagonists.
In the majority of O’Neill’s plays the conclusion drawn is that the fusion of two human beings can take place only in the world of pipe dreams (Dubost 102); here, the fusion is much greater, more universal and perhaps therefore more significant. It is a fusion of all beings, a human community perhaps hinted at in the variation on Joe’s last name. Such a conclusion could easily be supported by Norman Berlin’s description of O’Neill as “a white playwright who used black characters to explore his own sense of alienation” (85). This claim may be most obvious in even a brief glimpse at All God’s Chillun, where O’Neill encoded his parents’ identities into his central, black-white couple. In Iceman, everyone belongs, and in belonging, is doomed. Brutus Jones may represent humanity in his expressionistic existence, but Mott is part of humanity, with no favored status.
It is important to remember that O’Neill’s own politics of inclusion would suggest Mott’s central location. When Iceman was scheduled for Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre—a theatre that refused to seat black people—he was quoted as being “opposed to racial discrimination of any kind,” pledging to “insert a nondiscriminatory clause in all future contracts” (Gelbs 886). It remains true that a few years earlier he halted a production of Mourning Becomes Electra that a black troupe wanted to present, but this refusal may have been for artistic or pragmatic, theatrical reasons, a result of his fear that the non-traditional casting would so disrupt audience perception of the play that its intentions would be missed. He had no problems, after all, allowing Paul Robeson to play the title character in a production of The Hairy Ape, in which the color issue would work with, rather than against, the expressionistic presentation of the play. As previously noted, O’Neill also protested the rescinding of Charles Gilpin’s Drama League dinner invitation.
He also continued to defend the honor of yet another of society’s lower rungs: prostitutes, or “tarts” as they are referred to in Iceman. Again, here is O’Neill working across cultural lines, focusing more on common human existence than artificial cultural designations. According to the Gelbs, he “bristled” when a friend made a casual remark about an Army experience involving a “two-bit whore” (127), resenting the term much as the prostitutes in Iceman embrace the term “tarts” and challenge the term “whores.” And in a particularly vivid account, the Gelbs recall an example of O’Neill’s tolerance that showed itself during rehearsals for the original production of Iceman. Walking from the theatre to a restaurant for lunch, the actors, still in their costumes and makeup that made them look like bums, picked up half a dozen real derelicts who thought that the actors were real bums. At the restaurant, the real derelicts were thrown out, along with some of the actors, but O’Neill appealed to the owner, and the real derelicts lunched with the cast,
as O’Neill’s guests (866).
Regarding Mott in particular, according to Shaughnessy, there are no minor male characters in The Iceman Cometh. In claiming primacy for all of O’Neill’s male characters in the play, no matter the number of lines or amount of stage time (which, for Mott, is relatively small), he claims Mott “is on an equal footing with the other characters” (“faithful realism” 153). If he never fully belongs and if he is taunted by the bartenders, he lashes back with equal vigor. “You white sons of bitches,” he cries; “I’ll rip your guts out!” (Iceman 658). While his threat may be as much a pipe dream as his return to proprietorship of a successful gambling house, Mott is showing how easily racial epithets can be used as double-edged swords. They are equally deceptive no matter which group, minority or majority, they are directed toward.
Joe Mott is admired by Larry Slade, the play’s resident cynic and ironist, and Slade approves of Mott’s comments about the pursuit of financial happiness. In his speech about the exploitation of anarchists and socialists, Joe seems to sum up Slade’s take on existence. Describing how a Socialist feels “bound by his religion to split fifty-fifty” with others less fortunate, he says, “So you don’t shoot no Socialists while I’m around. Dat is, not if dey got anything. Of course, if dey’s broke, den dey’s no-good bastards too.” Slade responds, “Be God, Joe, you’ve got all the beauty of human nature and the practical wisdom of the world in that little parable”(575). Slade is highlighting the universality of Mott’s position, a subject that Dubost describes as “humanity confronted with the world.” Dubost claims that the dramatist cared “a great deal” about the link between human individuals and the greater world, that in Iceman in particular, “the question of [people’s] relationship to the world is one of the most important issues” (2). Dubost also suggests that what is at stake is their sense of belonging in that world, their recognition as individuals that make up the community, even though they themselves are the cause of their own failures “because the process followed in their pursuit of happiness carries within it the seeds of failure” (135). It is a pursuit shared by all of O’Neill’s main characters, black, white or otherwise. For example, Brutus Jones fails in his quest because, as we have seen earlier, he is trying to break his link to his own culture. This game of hide-and-ego-seek, as it might appropriately be termed, leads to the eventual realization of who the characters are in the greater world. In Iceman, each character reveals the conscious and unconscious motivations behind his respective downfall. However, the play does not necessarily reflect a strict determinism, though perhaps it is dramatizing a greater sense of an impending existentialism, since each is responsible for his own achievement and failure. Or, as Stephen Black states, “the group in Hope’s bar has been forced to face no less a bugaboo than human mortality” (426). However, the characters may be seen more as hopeful than faithless, since each also has the chance to recreate his past successes, making all characters symbolic of their own responsibility to humanity’s destiny.
If O’Neill is indeed claiming such a mutual responsibility, it must be understood that he was fully aware of the equal status of all human beings, regardless of color or class, allowing us to perceive the main conflict of the play as that between the conscious and unconscious, and the pursuit of illusion as central to existence. In these ideas, the play reflects not only such works as A Moon for the Misbegotten, A Touch of the Poet, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but also The Emperor Jones, “The Dreamy Kid,”, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, among others. For O’Neill, then, the self (nor its self-concept) has no greater importance for one character than for any other character, and all that human beings can ask of each other is pity and forgiveness (Falk 194). Such a description calls to mind the picture of life and death in Harry Hope’s bar so vividly drawn by O’Neill, a picture to which I will now turn to see how the playwright’s depiction of Joe Mott does indeed signify a language of inclusion.
Our first glimpse of Mott is in O’Neill’s stage directions. Markedly, the playwright’s description of Mott as “a Negro, about fifty years old, brown-skinned, stocky” contrasts with O’Neill’s more potentially pejorative descriptions of his earlier black characters. “His face is only mildly negroid in type,” the directions continue; “The nose is thin and his lips are not noticeably thick. His hair is crinkly and he is beginning to get bald. A scar from a knife slash runs from his left cheekbone to jaw. His face would be hard and tough if it were not for its good nature and lazy humour” (566). In comparison to the descriptions of other black characters in earlier plays, these descriptive words are much less subjective. While it may be claimed that a “thin nose” and “thick lips” are stereotypical, Mott is treated no differently than are other characters, whose descriptions also rely on stereotype for easy identification and, tellingly, with greater subjectivity. O’Neill refers to Lewis as “obviously English as a Yorkshire pudding” (567), leaving it to the audience to assign characteristics at will. Hugo has “a foreign atmosphere about him” (566), and Rocky the Italian bartender has “a flat, swarthy face and beady eyes” (569). Perhaps most interestingly, Hugo initially refers to Rocky as “monkey-face” (570), a description for which O’Neill has been criticized in applying to black characters. If critics must cite O’Neill for ethnic slurs, they must do so fairly, indicating how he does so consistently, just as he treats his Irish characters in other plays with the same detachment. The telling point here is that in Iceman, there is no obvious cultural bias. Rather, O’Neill’s Hell Hole is a microcosm of what was then known as the American melting pot. In the darkness of the barroom, people of all types support each other, for without that support, their own dreams would die.
Such a claim does not obviate the fact that ethnic epithets are flung about with abandon. Slurs such as “wop,” “ginny,” “nigger,” and “limey” are hurled about even as they function rhetorically as an equalizing device. Because the play is not a study of ethnicity or nationality, the application of such slurs to any particular group is mediated by their frequent use. Anyone at any time is subject to the same verbal treatment, a potent statement of the playwright’s rhetoric of inclusion, or as Rocky himself says, “Dis dump is like de morgue wid all dese bums passed out” (572). We are all equal in death.
Rocky’s comment indicates that O’Neill continues to struggle with his creation of dialect. Harold Clurman concluded after the American premiere of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1956 that O’Neill’s “stammering,” a term taken from Edmund’s poetic reflection near the end of the autobiographical play, was “still the most eloquent and significant stammer of the American theatre” (Cargill 216). Because Rocky’s words are only part of the aural tapestry of the multicultural population of the bar, however, they stand out less as evidence of O’Neill’s alleged racism than his inclusiveness. Everyone has his own manner of speech.
Interestingly, the denial-ridden Slade makes a claim early in the play that increasingly calls its own veracity into question as our awareness of the dramatic conflict unfolds: “As history proves, to be a worldly success at anything, especially revolution, you have to wear blinders like a horse and see only straight in front of you. You have to see, too, that this is all black, and that is all white” (580-81). Ironically, he will be converted to Hickey’s sense of death precisely through his acceptance of the fact that nothing can be divided so easily, an idea that there is an intrinsic connection among people that prevents the success he dreams of. He denies his real reasons for leaving the anarchist movement in favor of an easy and deceitful explanation that he uses to distract Parritt from learning his true motives, just as Hickey tries to make his own world sensible by providing a concrete validation for his actions. He, too, realizes the inefficacy of the lie, despite its attractiveness. Indeed, those lies are central to humanity’s existence, according to both Hickey and O’Neill, as we have seen.
For Joe Mott, the lie of ethnic slurs is made evident when Lewis refers to him as “kaffir.” Joe, unfamiliar with the term, asks what it means. Wetjoen replies, “Kaffir, dot’s a nigger, Joe…Dot’s de joke on him, Joe. He don’t know you” (588). In effect, Wetjoen is claiming that Joe is not a “nigger,” that skin color is an ineffective determinant in the language of signification, O’Neill’s rhetoric of ethnicity. Joe then acknowledges the comment: “But I don’t stand for ‘nigger’ from nobody. Never did. In de old days, people calls me ‘nigger’ wakes up in de hospital” (589). O’Neill is showing his own awareness of black people’s sentiments, as well as Joe’s awareness of what it means to be black in the United States.
Later in Act One, he tells Wetjoen, “I’ll treat you white. If you’re broke, I’ll stake you to buck any game you chooses. If you wins, dat’s velvet for you. If you loses, it don’t count. Can’t treat you no whiter than that” (594-95). In Act Three, Mott’s intentions become even more apparent.
Unlike Jim Harris, he is able to survive without the white man’s approval. Unlike Brutus Jones, he does not have to secure his success at the hands of his own people. Unlike Dreamy, he is not afraid of the white threat. Rather, he is, at least in his pipe dream, ready to take on all comers, regardless of skin color, culture or class. O’Neill has realized a richly developed, if secondary, character in Joe Mott, a feat all the more remarkable in that his stage time and dramatic weight, in comparison to that of his predecessors, is limited. “Listen to me, you white boys!” he says aggressively in Act Two. “Don’t you get it in your head I’s pretendin’ to be what I ain’t, or dat I ain’t proud to be what I is, get me? Or you and me’s goin’ to have trouble” (625). Though he shortly will apologize for his aggressive threats, his subsequent repetition of them suggests that they are not merely evanescent, unlike the permeable borders of ethnicity and culture that both separate and unite Joe and his fellow bottom-dwellers.
In fact, Joe even recognizes exactly how untenable those borders are in his boasting of how he will treat his customers right. As his statements indicate, when he was “flush,” he was treated “white.” Here and throughout the play, “white” is equivalent to financial success, to achievement of the materialistic American dream. Anyone can be white, he seems to argue, as long as you have the money to show how you have succeeded. In this idea, Mott reflects the beliefs of Brutus Jones, who used the capitalist strategies he learned from white men during his days as Pullman porter to create his own empire. If Wetjoen denies that Mott is a “nigger,” his grounds for doing so are that Joe is just like the rest of the residents of Harry Hope’s, who still believe themselves
successful through the haze of their pipe dreams.
Perhaps the paradigm can be most clearly observed in O’Neill’s description of Hugo Kalmar, the anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois, failed anarchist revolutionary who continues to believe in the overthrow of the capitalist movement. Even down and out, “everything about him was fastidiously clean. Even his flowing Windsor tie is neatly tied” (566). On the other hand, Slade, who has given up on anarchy as a means to empower the powerless, “has the appearance of having never been washed” (566). O’Neill’s sympathies are further evident in his portrayal of Rocky, who represents perhaps the only successful inhabitant of the bar, even in limited degree. He not only works for Harry Hope (and is clearly in charge of his supposed boss), but also serves as pimp for Margie and Pearl. “What if I do take deir dough?” he asks. “Dey’d on’y trow it away” (571). As Kalmar might charge, the businessman is growing rich at the expense of his workers. When Rocky talks about Willie Oban’s father’s success, Slade says, “It’s a great game, the pursuit of happiness”(572), clearly referring to the capitalist, or at least materialist, vision of success. Of course, Slade is more broadly cynical. He has given up even on pipe dreams before the play begins, so his targets are greater than the parochial individual targets of the pipe-dreamers. “I know they’re damned fools, most of them, as stupidly greedy for power as the worst capitalist they attack,” he says, referring to Parritt’s compatriot’s in “the Movement” (579). It should be no surprise, then, when Parritt claims his betrayal for his mother was “just for the money” (654). As he was early in his career, O’Neill remains wary of the materialism that led to his own father’s artistic and psychological ruin, his mother’s failed treatment at the hands of a quack doctor, and even the system that contributed to the validation of slavery and its lingering effects.
Victim as Victor
Joe is as much a victim of the culture that he hopes to buy into as Brutus Jones, Dreamy, or Jim Harris. In fact, actor James Earl Jones, who has played both Brutus Jones and Hickey (and whose father once played Joe Mott), suggests O’Neill’s dilemma:
My point exactly. The difference in The Iceman Cometh is that Joe is not seen as the victim of American capitalist culture that created the conditions of his subordination. Rather, he is only one of the victims, part of the universal brotherhood of death, which remains the great equalizer. As Michele Mendelssohn states, “O’Neill eschews a facile opposition between white and black and suggests that the boundaries between both are not distinct but painfully permeable” (27).
During rehearsals of the original Theatre Guild production of Iceman in 1946, O’Neill implicitly linked pipe dreams to what Joel Pfister labels “the concept of ideology” (102), or the American Pipe Dream: “This American Dream stuff gives me a pain…If it exists, as we tell the whole world, why don’t we make it work in one small hamlet of the United States?” (Estrin 222) In Iceman, the same sentiment may be found in Willie Oban’s Act Three comments on his father’s disgrace. According to Kurt Eisen, Oban is implying that the revolution that made American possible also was a pipe dream, one that led not to genuine happiness or spiritual fulfillment, but to the avarice that, as our observation of Slade has indicated, is integral to human nature (175). The conventional apprehension of that American dream and its coincident moral position is challenged, just as Hickey’s wife, with her insistence on a pipe dream of any such conventional morality, is murdered at Hickey's hands. Rather, Hickey seems to call for a new morality, a progressive culture that would take into account its members who have been historically suppressed. Perhaps, not so ironically, Hickey’s comments reverberate with O’Neill’s philosophy of common human experience.
And of course, the metaphor of the pipe dream is central to the common plight of the characters in The Iceman Cometh. A story continues to be told about The Iceman Cometh, one that emphasizes O’Neill’s use of repetition to enforce the central ideas of his play. Lawrence Langner of the Theatre Guild pointed out to O’Neill himself that the phrase “pipe dreams” is repeated eighteen times throughout the play. O’Neill, not to be outdone, responded, saying that he meant it to be repeated eighteen times (Langner 405). And while most of the daily newspaper critics generally applauded the Guild production of the play, there was also some grumbling about its worthiness, particularly in what they felt was excessive length and needless repetition. But if the repetition of a particular image or phrase creates a pattern and therefore emphasizes the ideas to be conveyed, it can also be seen as an inherent strength of the play, rather than a weakness. According to Zander Brietzke, “O’Neill’s plays can be seen as musical compositions in which developing themes recur and transmute over time” (19), requiring the length that the playwright gives them for all the notes to be played and all the repetitions to be performed so that an audience cannot miss his meaning, despite the variations on the themes that might be generated. And if Breitzke is correct in his observations that critics cite O’Neill’s failure to create poetry that resonates on first hearing, then perhaps such repetition is key to perceiving the meaning that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The Rhetoric of Eugene O’Neill’s Art
It is not only patterns of rhetoric within one play that are important, but patterns throughout Eugene O’Neill’s career. With Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh, the dramatist culminated a process that began with “Thirst” and developed throughout his career, not only in his dealings with black characters, but with all characters; that is, expiation of guilt, of psychological distress, of fear is more than a dramatic device. It is a psychic necessity. Awaiting their final punishment with equal parts dread and anticipation, knowing that the outcome will finally allow them to escape from the pain which has held them captive and simultaneously bound them to the rest of their universal coinhabitants, O’Neill’s character-victims accept their destruction as a necessary part of their lives and do so in voices that may stammer, but are nonetheless dramatically revealing. As the character of Long asks in The Hairy Ape, “Yerra, what’s the use of talking? ‘Tis a dead man’s whisper” (42).
Despite dialogue couched in what at first seems a poor recreation of black dialect, Brutus Jones exists as a microcosmic representative of the basic atavistic nature of all humans. The nature of the individual in O’Neill’s work is the nature of the cosmos. According to Lionel Trilling, man inhabits just such a universe, with his glory lying in his accession to its demands even as those demands affirm life in the face of individual defeat (22). Yes, the journey is difficult and long, as O’Neill’s plays themselves often were, but they must be so to allow room for the devices the playwright uses, particularly those of language and culture, and nowhere more strikingly than where the two combine and ignite into something universal, something transcendent.
If there is no key to certainty in O’Neill, if his language and his characters continue to be controversial even in the context of his historical position and his achievements as both artist and political being, what might be agreed upon is that his plays, including those relying on black characters to carry the weight of O’Neill’s aesthetic, scrutinize the dilemma of contemporary American life. Trapped by an inescapable past yet reaching toward the future, the characters explore their personal and cultural experiences in order to find some order and significance in the ultimate doom of human existence. Ultimately, Eugene O’Neill was not writing about black people or white people, but about people who are haunted by a past that refuses to die even as they themselves strive to journey beyond the horizon and into the unknown.
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