Pipe Dreams Under the
I stand at the corner of West 3rd and Fifth Avenue and gaze through the arch at Washington Square Park—like a keyhole, I see back to 1925. A man crosses the park and walks under the hanging tree, (in use only fifty years before) in his back pocket is a worn burgundy paperback. I know the book from here: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. Eugene O’Neill is on his way to work, a rehearsal of The Great God Brown, a dog-eared copy of Birth of Tragedy hits his body as he walks, dangling dangerously in his back pocket.
Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy is a ship that sets sail on a turbulent sea in whose waters swim the ancient sea creature Dionysus and whose wheel is piloted by the sailor Apollo. The trajectory of the entire book strives to:
This sailor who trusts in his rowboat’s sturdiness and the certainty of his individuality could well be the youthful Eugene O’Neill in his seafaring days. He chose to become a sailor after a series of failures: a year at Princeton, a New York administrative job, and as assistant manager of his father’s traveling theater company. As his father, James, famous actor and former matinee idol, told his son, “there was only one thing left for him to do. ‘Go before the mast!,’ he shouted, raising his arm and pointing presumably toward the sea.”(ii) Inspired by the adventure-driven writings of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, Eugene later recounted, “I wanted to be a two-fisted Jack London ‘he-man’ sailor, to knock ‘em cold and eat ‘em alive.”(iii) During the tail end of the era of great sailing ships, O’Neill stood before the mast and journeyed to Buenos Ares, England, and South Africa, and made friends and “felt at home with drifters, bums, alcoholics, or more accurately with failure—because he felt that he himself was a failure.”(iv)
Upon his return to New York, O’Neill continues his associations with derelicts and patronizes bars all over Manhattan. In particular Jimmy the Priest’s, a waterfront saloon at 252 Fulton Street(v) near the Hudson River where people down on their luck could rent rooms for three dollars a month. Jimmy the Priest’s served as the prototype for Harry Hope’s saloon in The Iceman Cometh (from here on IC), which directly connects with Nietzsche’s conceptions of tragedy. O’Neill began studying Nietzsche’s works when he came across a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra at the Unique Bookstore on Sixth Avenue near 30th Street. The Unique bookstore was “a cluttered establishment, owned by philosophical anarchist Benjamin R. Tucker, it was the headquarters for New York’s radical intellectual life.”(vi) Eugene read it every year thereafter, “I reread it, and I am never disappointed, which is more than I can say of almost any other book.”(vii) O’Neill continued reading Nietzsche in his first and only year at Princeton. In 1912, he read passages of BOT aloud to his girlfriend, Maibelle Scott, whom he would later call Mariel McComber in Ah, Wilderness!, and Barrett Clark records O’Neill walking around Lower Manhattan and at rehearsals for The Great God Brown with his dog eared copy of Birth of Tragedy in his back pocket.
In his first book, published in 1872, Nietzsche holds Attic Tragedy, created in the Greek Golden Era (5th century BCE), as the highest accomplishment of art. As he says in his preface, “I am convinced that art is the highest task and the essential metaphysical capability of this life.”(viii) Nietzsche premises that aesthetic values are the sole phenomena of meaning for humanity. Analogously, he suggests the drive to create drama is that self-same drive that caused the Greeks to make myth: fashioning gods after themselves. In the beginning, he perceives two antithetical forces operative in Greek Tragedy before Euripides (just as there are two biological sexes in humans). One force is Dionysian or intoxication, associated with music and the primordial unity of all things. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and ecstasy, worshipped by the wild women Maenads, and the patron deity of the theater. The other force is Apollonian or the dream: he is the human’s concept of himself as individual. Apollo is the Greek god of poetry, the sea and sculpture, worshipped by the priestesses at the oracle at Delphi; Apollo is associated with prophecy and self-knowledge. At war with one another, these two forces battle until, “through a marvelous, metaphysical act, (they) seem to pair up with each other, and, as this pair, produce Attic tragedy.”(ix) Like all enemies, they need one another, and the Dionysian drunkenness feeds the Appollonian dream. Fascinated, O’Neill called BOT “the most stimulating book on tragedy ever written.”(x)
Hopeless hopes ennobled in art flourish throughout IC, wherein O’Neill takes up Nietzsche and Schopenhauer’s metaphor of the ship at sea in a stormy ocean; the struggle between dream and drunkenness embodies inmates in Hope’s saloon. These men are like boys who play at war, believing in tomorrow’s promise: a pipe dream prayer chanted over whiskey. Whiskey feeds the dream that gives them the courageous hope to continue living. This hopeless hope is the very friction that creates tragic drama. Rich drama intertwines with Nietzsche’s BOT in IC, making it so that IC would not be IC without BOT. O’Neill’s close study of BOT inspires his characters to dream in their drunkenness, great heroes of the religion of tomorrow. It is this drive to pleasure or desire for fulfillment that drives the tension in IC. Yet the very nature of the iceman is that he is beyond pipe dreams and drunkenness; he is death. “O’Neill was giving positive expression to an inner drive that was to be noted by others at many stages in his life—a drive which Freudian analysts have called “death instinct” and which Brooks Atkinson, a few years after O’Neill’s death, so nicely described as “an infatuation with oblivion.”(xii)
Having long pondered a tragedy á la Gorky’s Lower Depths, O’Neill composed IC in 1939 amidst the chaos of World War II, between the hot midsummer of June 6 and the late autumn of November. On June 6, 1939, O’Neill wrote in shorthand, “read over notes on various ideas for single plays—decide outlines of two that appeal most, and see—the Jimmy the Priest’s, Hell Hole, Garden Idea—and New London family one.”(xiii) That year O’Neill wrote both IC and Long Days Journey Into Night, both based on life experiences in 1912. As O’Neill told Karl Schriftgeisser, obituary writer for the New York Times:
The opening sequence of IC is not unlike those wooden clipper ships magically trapped inside a glass bottle. Hope’s bar is the boat inside the bottle, like Schoepenhauer’s metaphor of the sailor trapped in the storm’s elements, adrift and at the mercy of the sea. Except, in this case, the men are hiding inside the bar at the bottom of a bottle, and dream their pipe dreams which lull through their passed-out heads. As if the sing-song children’s nursery rhyme were sung by Apollo, “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” the sleepers sleep in a surreal morgue-like atmosphere. Only Larry Slade, former member of the Syndicalist-Anarchist Movement and self-proclaimed misanthropic derelict, is awake to drink at this late hour. We are in the, “no Chance Saloon. It’s Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller!”(emphasis added).(xv) Instead of a boys’ club, the atmosphere is more that of a dead man’s club.
“The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. And that’s enough philosophic wisdom to give you for one drink of rot-gut,” Larry Slade tells Rocky Pioggi, night bartender of Hope’s Saloon, as payment for a drink of nickel whiskey in IC.(xvi) O’Neill described sixty year old Larry as:
This weary old priest sits without a collar or a dogma, and instead is called the ‘Foolosopher’ by all (part Lear’s Fool and part philosopher). As philosopher, it is significant that Larry remains awake, for having abandoned politics altogether, Larry detaches himself from the world and its pipe dreams. O’Neill based Larry on one of his closest friends who made a deep impression on him from the time that they met at the Garden Room, referred to fondly by regulars as the Hell Hole. Terry Carlin, a disillusioned anarchist turned drunken Nietzschean, showed Eugene the ropes of the life of a Village drunkard: where to find booze, shelter, and the occasional meal, usually a bag of oysters bought on the docks. “Carlin was a philosophical anarchist to whom both socialism and communism were anathema. It was Nietzsche he worshipped, wrapping himself in the image of his spiritual and intellectual superman.”(xviii) O’Neill met Carlin during the Matthew Schmidt and David Caplan trial, two anarchists associated with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times Building in 1910. Donald Voss, son of famed anarchist Gertie Voss, an intimate friend of the legendary Emma Goldman, feminist-anarchist, betrayed Schmidt and Caplan to Detective Burns. O’Neill avidly read Goldman’s newspaper, Mother Earth, and later in life gave money to a fund that enabled her to pen her memoirs.(xix) Imaginatively, O’Neill based Don Parritt on Donald Voss, who, instead of betraying his comrades, gives up his mother to the authorities for a pay-off, Judas-style. O’Neill made Don Parritt, the son of Rosa, a woman with whom Larry was intimate while in the movement. Parritt fled the West Coast, after Rosa was incarcerated for a bombing with fatalities. He journeyed to New York looking for Hope’s saloon, the address on Larry’s last letter to Rosa, and hoping to find Larry. Passionately, he tells Larry, “I guess I got to feel in the years that you lived with us that you’d taken the place of my Old Man.”(xx) Seeking a lost father, Parritt finds a man who has swallowed his identity at the bottom of a bottle, but still believes in the integrity of the movement: Larry refuses to believe that anyone amongst his former associates would have betrayed Rosa:
Larry’s contempt for the Anarchist movement shows characteristic Nietzschean scorn for the motives of many social revolutionaries who, under the guise of helping the downtrodden, are really exercising their will to overthrow masters so that they themselves may be masters. Instead, Larry reveals that it was not the greed of others, but his ability to see all angles of a question, that forced him to quit the movement:
Instead of wearing blinders and committing to one cause only, Larry converts to the ultimate religion: death. As he tells Parritt while quoting Heine: “Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth, / The best of all were never to be born.”(xxiii) This poem has a familiar ring. It sounds remarkably similar to a Greek folktale Nietzsche references in BOT:
Nietzsche argues that primordial pagan forest deities like Silenus and Dionysus generated tremendous fear, and that the creation of the Olympian gods was a direct response to this primordial terror of death. By extension, the creation of Apollonian art and dreams, the Attic Tragedy, was motivated by a desire to transcend death. After giving up illusion and pipe dreams, there is only death left. But Larry is all talk, for he is a convert of death in name only. “I’ve refused to become a useful member of society. I’ve been a philosophical drunken bum, and proud of it.(xxv)” Similarly, when asked by an aggressive actor in rehearsals where he stood on the ‘labor movement,’ O’Neill revealed that he was close to Larry not only in age but also in temperament. “I am a philosophical anarchist,” O’Neill said, smiling faintly, “which means, ‘Go to it, but leave me out of it.’”(xxvi) Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo, ‘The emancipated are the anarchists in the world of the eternal feminine.’(xxvii) Emma Goldman certainly was emancipated and as a revolutionary thinker, O’Neill casts her as the mother betrayed, one of the most sympathetic unseen women in IC.
Especially in the theater world, O’Neill was a revolutionary: awake and more or less alone in a room full of people. O’Neill was as critical of the Broadway Show Shop as Larry was of pipe dreams. His attitude was precisely defined by Con Melody’s repeated quotation from Lord Byron which in his youth O’Neill quoted on many a drunken occasion, ‘“I stood/ Among them but not of them.” In 1946, the year of IC opening, O’Neill had not had a play produced on Broadway in a dozen years (A Touch of the Poet, 1934). When asked what he was going to do on opening night of IC, O’Neill replied, “If I weren’t in temperance, I’d get stinko.”(xxviii) These somewhat enigmatic assertions are reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s famous statement, which O’Neill was also fond of quoting: “Do I contradict myself? Alright, then I contradict myself.” Like the battle between the pipe dream and intoxication ever present in IC, O’Neill embraced paradox.
In this spirit of paradox, all the sleeping characters at the bar tables await the arrival of Hickey, hardware salesman, joker, and big spender (buyer of drinks). Hickey honors Harry’s birthday every year by going on a periodical drinking binge at the saloon. Hope’s birthday celebration begins at midnight. O’Neill wrote George Jean Nathan that Hickey was based on Happy, a collector for a laundry chain, who make frequent visits to the Hell Hole on Friday nights and gave out cheer and free drinks. O’Neill remembered Happy, as “a periodic drunk salesman, and a damned amusing guy.”(xxix) For Larry, it is not the drinks that Hickey offers that make him anticipate his arrival but a cure for melancholia, as he says it is, “not so much the hope of booze, if you can believe that. I’ve got the blues and Hickey’s a great one to make a joke out of everything and cheer you up.”(xxx) Hickey is much later in his arrival than usual, and anticipation builds as the characters lament his late entrance.
Cora arrives, a whore who dreams of turning virgin, whose john is the day bartender, Chuck. Cora fantasizes about getting married and moving to a New Jersey farm. She brings news, telling the gang she has just seen Hickey on the street corner:
Hickey is famous among the crowd for joking about catching his wife having an affair with the iceman. In fact, it is such a long-standing joke, it is the way the others think of Hickey: a cuckold who drowns his sorrow to obliterate the memory of an adulterous wife. The irony here is that the peace Hickey feels, along with his desire to ‘save’ the others, is as a result of him playing iceman. Hickey has walked to Hope’s saloon from Astoria after murdering his wife; the iceman is death. Rocky goes out to the corner to bring Hickey onto the ship of Hope’s saloon. When he enters, Hickey is jovial and sets up drinks for all, and sings in a false tenor:
Hickey quickly reveals people can have drinks on him but not with him. He has given up drinking, but is not a teetotaler, as he explains it:
Hickey, the hardware salesman, returns to Hope’s selling his newly found gospel of salvation, not of giving up booze, but of abandoning pipe dreams and the religion of tomorrow. However, Hickey’s converts find that giving up their pipe dreams only makes way for the iceman—death. Hickey embodies Nietzsche’s depiction of Socrates in BOT in which Socrates is the arch-vivisectionist who, by means of his ideal of knowing the truth, brought about the murder of destruction and illusion, and thereby destroyed Greek tragedy. Socrates destroyed the middle world compounded of dreams and drunkenness with which the Greeks had isolated themselves from the horror of reality (death). Realizing this, Socrates possessed both the wisdom and courage to drink his hemlock cocktail and die.(xxxiv) Nietzsche suggests that for Socrates there was no cure for life but death. Hickey begins to pass out, as if the walk from Astoria had been too much for him:
Two progresses in the back room where all the inmates prepare for Harry
Hope’s birthday party. Most people are in a somewhat dejected and anxious
state. They cannot let go of their pipe dreams, and resist Hickey’s
admonitions to face the truth about themselves. Hickey wants them to abandon
their illusions, and their refusal to do so suggests O’Neill agrees with
Nietzsche’s dictum that illusion is of primary importance in life, more so
than truth. As Nietzsche writes in Beyond
Good and Evil, “Whatever value one places on truth and honesty and
altruism, it might yet be that illusion, the will to self-deception,
selfishness, concupiscence were more valuable and more fundamental to
Hickey makes converts in Act III and convinces people to leave the ship of
Fools to go out in the world to face their illusions, the people leave
sober, with DT’s but in high spirits. In several hours, each one returns
to the saloon, crushed by what they discover about their lives: that
tomorrow’s pipe dream never arrives.
In Act IV, it is the evening of the day upon which all the inmates
realized that they were free to leave Harry Hope’s saloon and reclaim to
their lives, they have all returned from their failed attempts. They sit
around the bar, drinking, but unable to get drunk.
The inmates are kicked
dogs, full of dejection. Doubt begins to creep into Hickey’s mind. If he
was wrong about saving the others, perhaps he was also wrong about himself.
Amazed his scheme has not worked for them, he says, “you’ve all done
what you needed to do! By all rights you should be contented now, without a
single damned hope or lying dream left to torment you! But here you are,
acting like a lot of dead stiffs cheating the undertaker!(xxxviii) As the scene
progresses, everyone attempts to get drunk and return to their usual
behaviors. The most markedly different are Chuck, the drunken pimp and Cora,
the generous and abused whore, both of whom give up their pipe dream of
marriage, a family, and life on a farm. The dramatic crux of the play occurs
when Hickey calls the police and turns himself in for the murder of his
wife. Just before the cops enter in plain clothes, the men in their bar
reveal they have taken the word of Hickey like that of a prophet:
The drunkards have lost
their hopeless hopes and the religion of tomorrow and cannot get buzzed.
Like a reversal of water into wine, Hickey has reversed the distillation
process and turned whiskey into water.
To convince himself and his congregation of the righteousness of his
honesty religion, Hickey unloads oneself the particulars that led to his
‘salvation.’ In a public confession, Hickey explains he murdered Evelyn,
to end her pipe dream, believing he would one day stop drinking, and to
assuage his guilt:
monologue of confession may be one of the most powerful speeches in any
O’Neill tragedy. For several pages, he explains that it was a pipe dream
that ruined their relationship, as well as Evelyn’s ardent faith in the
religion of tomorrow:
Hickey goes on in an attempt to justify the murder:
he conveys his deep love of Evelyn, their childhood together, and the small
town they grew up in. Hickey reveals his contempt for Evelyn’s naivete in
trusting his empty promise. “Nothing on earth could shake her faith in me.
Even I couldn’t. She was such a sucker for a pipe dream.”(xxxix)
Hickey continues his confession, in a desperate attempt to explain himself:
cathartic awareness that the reigning cause of Evelyn’s murder was his own
madness, possesses the same kind of shocking energy that Agave experiences
in end of The Bakkhai when she realizes it is not a lion on her staff, but the
blood-soaked head of her son Pentheus. Hickey’s confession lends itself to
revelation: the desire to kill all pipe dreams is insane. The death of pipe
dreams has been Hickey’s own distorted pipe dream, he has been “a raving
the entire time. Hickey’s insanity reaffirms the world of Dionysian
intoxication and the pipe dream of Apollo, giving the inmates back their
religion of tomorrow.
is thrilled that Hickey was nuts throughout his entire birthday visit. The
social order, represented by the police, intervenes to arrest Hickey. Hope
tells the cops Hickey has been strange since his arrival, quickly backing up
Rocky and Hope begin to test the liquor to see if ‘it has its kick’ now,
they toast the grand old Hickey they knew, not the one who has left the ship
as a madman. Meanwhile, Larry and Parritt have a final confrontation about
Parritt’s betrayal of his mother: Parritt suggests that he, like Hickey,
had to betray his mother and her, “damned old Movement pipe dream!”(xlii)
(i) Friedrich Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy Translated by Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Random House, 1927: 5. Nietzsche takes this quote from Schoepenhauer’s World as Will and Idea, Vol. I, p.416 and is quoted in Section One.
(ii) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959:30.
(iii) Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000: 268.
(iv) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959:30
(v) (v) Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000: 365.
(vi) ibid., 216.
(vii) ibid., 220.
(viii) Friedrich Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy Translated by Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Random House, 1927: 2.
(ix) ibid., 1.
(x) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959:?
(xii) ibid., 152.
(xiii) Jim Floyd. Eugene O’Neill’s Correspondance. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981:281
(xiv) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959:311.
(xv) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 581.
(xvi) ibid, 569-70.
(xvii) ibid., 566.
(xviii) Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000: 517.
(xix) Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000: 511-7.
(xx) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 578.
(xxi) ibid, 579.
(xxii) ibid, 580.
(xxiii) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 582.
(xxiv) Friedrich Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy Translated by Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Random House, 1927: 14.
(xxv) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 581.
(xxvi) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959:311.
(xxvii) Judith Esther Olson. An Analysis of the Nietzschean Elements in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Microfilms, 1956: 537.
(xxviii) Croswell Bowen. The Curse of the Misbegotten, a Tale of the House of O’Neill New York: McGraw Hill, 1959: 311.
(xxix) Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause, 2000: 508..
(xxx) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 571.
(xxxi) ibid., 606.
(xxxii) ibid., 607.
(xxxiii) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 613.
(xxxiv) Judith Esther Olson. An Analysis of the Nietzschean Elements in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1956: 525.
(xxxv) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 612.
(xxxvi) Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Random House, 1927: 152.
(xxxvii) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 684.
(xxxviii) ibid, 689.
(xxxix) ibid., 694.
(xl) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 703.
(xli) ibid., 702.
(xlii) ibid., 704.
(xliii) Eugene O’Neill. Complete Plays of 1932-1943. New York: Library of America, 1988, 700.
(xliv) ibid., 704.
(xlv) ibid., 705.
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