On “The Iceman Cometh”

It was this day, October 9, in 1946 that the greatest play of the greatest American playwright premiered. The playwright was Eugene O’Neill, and the drama was “The Iceman Cometh.” (Of course, that’s just my assessment, though I am not alone. I rate it the greatest non-Shakespeare play in the English language.) Like almost all O’Neill works it is an exploration of ethics. A traveling salesman, a professional liar, returns to a dive where he is worshiped by its drunken denizens to change their lives by forcing each of them to confront reality rather than avoid it using rationalizations, delusions and drink.

Few Americans have seen “The Iceman Cometh,” largely because it is seldom produced. The original version is well over four hours long, and in my view, every minute cut diminishes the play’s message and power. (The film version above was cut significantly) The play also requires a large ensemble cast of unusual talent and intelligence. It’s so much easier and safer to produce “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s plays are meant to be experienced on stage, and on stage, they work. Reading O’Neill is a chore, and another reason his works are not produced enough is that directors, producers and playreading committees can’t get past the text. O’Neill didn’t help by often writing dialogue in dialect. It’s tough going, though no more so than Shakespeare. (You can read the play here.)

Born in 1888, Eugene O’Neill led an alcoholic, illness-blighted life that began with a remarkably unhappy family. His father became wealthy and famous playing a single character, the Count of Monte Cristo, in tours across the country as he came to loathe the role, and considered his career a failure for failing to expand into more serious and challenging parts. Eugene’s mother was addicted to morphine, and his beloved older brother became an alcoholic. All three died between 1920 and 1923.

O’Neill was haunted by his family’s pain, and was himself an alcoholic.  He suffered from tuberculosis, and became a depressive recluse in the last decades of his life. after he developed the degenerative s disease that killed him in 1953.

O’Neill was well aware that his plays had the reputation of being dark and depressing, so he wrote a single comedy, “Ah! Wilderness!” just to prove he could do it. The play is about the kind of loving, supportive family he never had, and it is superb. Then, in the tradition of Ty Cobb deciding to try to hit home runs for a single day (he hit three) and going back to bunting and stealing bases after he had proven his point, the playwright never sought laughs again.

Try reading one of Arthur Miller’s comedies or Edgar Allen Poe’s “humorous” stories, and you may appreciate O’Neill a little bit more.

21 thoughts on “On “The Iceman Cometh”

  1. And then his 18-year old daughter became Charlie Chaplin’s fourth wife.

    Poor guy couldn’t catch a break.

    I’ve never seen any of the plays you mentioned. I may have to seek them out when plays resume.

  2. The movie which was release in 1973 was quite good in my opinion with Lee Marvin playing “Hickey” Hickman” the traveling salesman. It also featured Robert Ryan and Frederick March. The film ran nearly 4 hours with an intermission.

    • It was ambitious, and admirable, part of a large and ultimately failed Hollywood project to film great stageworks. I really didn’t think Lee Marvin was up to Hickey, but he was adequate. I would have loved to see Jason Robards do the role.

      • I saw Robards’ Hickey in the two-part B&W television broadcast in 1960. It was mesmerizing; I remember thinking I could have been quite happy seeing it all at once. My dad had wanted to see it at Circle in the Square in 1956 … had to look that up … but my mother didn’t want to go: she had read “something about it.” He kept reminding her that O’Neill had written Ah Wilderness which she and her sisters had gone to see in the 30s and thought their favorite play. She went. She sat through it. She said the next time he wanted to go to the theater he could take me instead . . . . which is how I got to see Long Day’s Journey Into Night the following year, so it all worked out for the best.

  3. Jack,
    “… Edgar Allen Poe’s “humorous” stories ..”

    That’s the thing, Jack; they’re all humorous if you know how to look. “Masque of the Red Death” keeps me in stitches. How does one read “The Conqueror Worm” and not smile? Classics all.

  4. Maybe not everyone here knows the old vaudeville joke underlying the play’s title:

    Husband in the living room: “Has the iceman come yet?”

    Wife in the kitchen: “No. But he’s breathing hard.

  5. If any of you have yet to find the Criterion Channel for your streaming on your smart TV I recommend it highly. In the past week, I watched Burt Lancaster, along with Ava Gardner, in their debut, “KILLERS.” Then BL in “Criss Cross,” his second in the film noir genre. Last night, it was his Oscar Performance of “Elmer Gantry.” I will search for this!

  6. I had the privilege of seeing Nathan Lane star in “Iceman” when it came to Chicago a few years ago. His performance was wrenching. At the curtain call, I have never seen a cast so thoroughly depleted. I left the theatre depressed, but knowing that I just witnessed something remarkable.

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