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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 1
Spring, 1985



In her decidedly unfavorable review of the original 1947 production of The Iceman Cometh, Mary McCarthy is highly critical of the depiction of drunkenness she apparently observed on the stage of the Martin Beck Theatre. She contends, in fact, that there was virtually no evidence in the performance of the effects that such an amount of drinking as occurs in the play would actually have on human beings:

In the day and a half that elapses on the stage of the Martin Beck, none of the characters is visibly drunk, nobody has a hangover, and, with a single brief exception, nobody has the shakes; there are none of those rancorous, semi-schizoid silences, no obscurity of thought, no dark innuendoes, no flashes of hatred, there is, in short, none of the terror of drink, which, after all, in the stage that Harry Hope's customers have presumably reached, is a form of insanity. What is missing is precisely the thing that is most immediately striking and most horrifying in any human drunkard, the sense of the destruction of personality. (McCarthy 51)

And for this, McCarthy condemns the dramatist--she condemns O'Neill himself--as an "incompetent reporter" regarding "drinking moeurs," and she dismisses the play as the work of a playwright who cannot write.

More recently, McCarthy has re-evaluated O'Neill much more positively. In fact, in September 1983, at a reading at Boston College, she responded to a question about her review of The Iceman Cometh by admitting that she was "wrong" about O'Neill, in general. She did not, however, retract her specific comments about O'Neill's depiction of drunkenness, and her previous condemnation of this play has gained considerable legitimacy over the years since it has been included in several anthologies of O'Neill criticism. In none of these anthologies is there any attempt to oppose her misguided critique. In fact, in the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh," John Henry Raleigh, the editor of the collection, definitively concludes from McCarthy's review that "the point to be made is that O'Neill does not describe the effects of alcohol realistically" (Raleigh 8). Nothing could be further from the truth. The point to be made is that O'Neill depicts the effects of alcohol and the symptoms of alcoholism with remarkable accuracy, and he uses these effects and symptoms to develop and enhance the rich characterizations that comprise the greatest accomplishment of the play.

It is apparent that most of the play's virtues were lost on much of the audience of that original production in 1947 because of poor acting. Louis Sheaffer reports of a "near-disaster in the final act" due to an "inadequate portrayal" of Hickey by James Barton. Sheaffer generally characterizes the reviews as "sharply critical," and at best, "only lukewarm":

Almost without exception the critics, including those favorably impressed, found the play repetitious and decidedly too long. While Eddie Dowling's direction was widely praised, Stark Young, an astute judge of acting, was so dissatisfied that he said in the New Republic: "I am not even sure as to the extent to which I can judge The Iceman Cometh after seeing such a production of it." (Sheaffer II 582)

It seems safe to conclude, then, that the production itself was seriously flawed. Perhaps the strongest evidence is the exuberant, positive response the play received when it was revived ten years later. As Sheaffer concludes from this critical reversal, "most of the reviewers" of the original production obviously "could not see the play for the performance" (Sheaffer II 584-585). Mary McCarthy wrote one of these misconceived reviews; in her denunciation of O'Neill's depiction of "drinking moeurs," surely she confuses the play with the performance.

McCarthy's first and perhaps most curious argument is that none of the characters is "visibly drunk." That O'Neill intended many of these characters to be drunkards is obvious from his introductory descriptions of them. About McGloin's face, for example, he stipulates that "time and whiskey have melted it down into a good-humored, parasite's characterlessness," and Ed Mosher has a "round kewpie's face--a kewpie who is an unshaven habitual drunkard" (Iceman 7).

These physical descriptions may be difficult to convey to an audience as being alcohol-related, but certainly O'Neill's directions are meant to inform the actors' characterizations; and there are still more specific, "playable" indications of drunkenness that should be quite visible, such as the behavior of Hugo and Willie in Act One.

During the opening moments of the play, Hugo has been sleeping, "bent forward in his chair, his arms folded on the table, his head resting sideways on his arms" (4). Larry awakens him, much to Rocky's dismay: "Aw, fer Chris' sake, don't get dat bughouse bum started!" Following this introduction, Hugo awakes and speaks:

HUGO (Raises his head and peers at Rocky blearily through his thick spectacles in a guttural declamatory tone). Capitalist swine! Bourgeois stool pigeons! Have the slaves no right to sleep even? (Then he grins at Rocky and his manner changes to a giggling, wheedling playfulness, as though he were talking to a child.) Hello, leedle Rocky! Leedle monkey-face! Vere is your leedle slave girls? (With an abrupt change to a bullying tone.) Don't be a fool! Loan me a dollar! Damned bourgeois Wop! The great Malatesta is my good friend! Buy me a trink! (He seems to run down, and is overcome by drowsiness. His head sinks to the table again and he is at once fast asleep.) (11)

It does not seem difficult to perceive Hugo's drunkenness here. At first, he appears to be crazy, or "bughouse," as Rocky calls him, but Hugo's seemingly empty slogans and crazy behavior have more serious implications on a deeper psychological level.

One of the most apparent psychological aspects of Hugo's behavior is his childishness, which is a significant symptom of his condition. In a 1946 study of alcoholism, Edward Strecker and Francis Chambers discuss heavy drinking as a manifestation of an "unconscious desire to regress" (Strecker and Chambers 14). One of their conclusions is that the heavy drinker often "enacts an alcoholic drama of escaping the burdens of maturity and retreats to childish levels of mentality." This regression will intensify as the drinker moves to further stages of intoxication. At a certain level, they claim, the drinker will simulate the reactions of an infant. Hugo's "giggling" and "wheedling" seem to indicate this kind of regression.

At a final stage of intoxication, the drinker experiences what Strecker and Chambers call an "anesthetic effect," which involves an increased release of inhibitions, silly laughter, maudlin tears, lisping baby talk, smearing the face with food, excreting publicly, indecent exposure, clumsy and grotesque imitations of various sex acts (14). Obviously, Hugo does not engage in all of these specific behaviors, but several are applicable, and others are not inconceivable for him. Furthermore, Larry points out that "no one takes [Hugo] seriously," suggesting that the others treat him rather like a child.

There are also instances of childish regression in the behavior of several other characters. It is most apparent in Willie's behavior, for instance, when he sings the "New England folk ballad" (Iceman 39-40) with a rather adolescent sense of naughtiness, and Harry then threatens to punish him, much as one would a child. Willie reacts with "pitiable terror" when Rocky threatens to "lock him in his room," and the discussion between Rocky and Harry on this subject is couched in terms parents might use when reprimanding a child.

Given the patently autobiographical quality of O'Neill's writing, and especially of the late plays, it is certainly relevant, in order to appreciate the realistic texture of the drunken behavior he portrays on stage, to refer to a brief discussion of O'Neill's own drunken behavior in Sheaffer's biography. First, Sheaffer claims that "O'Neill never became boisterous and loud when he drank; neither did he stagger or show the other usual signs of inebriation." Sheaffer then proceeds to quote Agnes Boulton on this subject:

"He never," Agnes has written, "seemed to be what is called drunk," but during their years together there would be "some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence ... [when] he appeared more like a madman than anything else." (Sheaffer I 424)

While it has been well-documented and convincingly argued that Hugo is, in large part, based on Hippolyte Havel, whom O'Neill had known in his early days in Provincetown (Alexander 63-71), still there seems to be something of the intoxicated O'Neill in Hugo's resemblance to a "madman."

In further comments on O'Neill's drunk behavior, Sheaffer reports that "after the first few drinks, though [O'Neill] moved slower, he seemed to gain in vitality, talking and smiling more freely. After downing too many, however, his humor became increasingly sardonic, sharp-edged, until he sank into a despairing mood" (Sheaffer I 424). Hugo, who is well beyond the "first few drinks," hardly moves at all, but when he is aroused, he talks and smiles quite freely. O'Neill's sardonic humor is saved for other characters, like Larry, but Hugo constantly sinks into a "despairing mood" (and in fact, this will become the pervasive mood of almost all the characters in Act Four).

The rhythm suggested by Sheaffer's description of O'Neill's behavior accurately defines Hugo's behavior in the play: he arises to smile and giggle and declaim childishly, to behave "like a madman," and then he sinks into a somber mood, and quickly passes out again. Strecker and Chambers' findings again seem to be borne out: alcohol is used as an "escape from the responsibility and burden of mature emotional life and its decisions" (12). Obviously, passing out "destroys all thought," and with it, any possibility that mature responsibilities will gain attention.

Willie is the second most obviously alcoholic character, but his visible symptoms are often those of withdrawal rather than of intoxication. Early in Act One, when he begins to gain consciousness, he "jerks and twitches in his sleep and begins to mumble." O'Neill has described Willie's face as "haggard," and he has indicated that Willie's "eyelids flutter continually as if any light were too strong for his eyes." Willie's appearance, as described by O'Neill, should show his destitution. His clothes look as if they "belong to a scarecrow"; Rocky classifies Willie's attire as one step below a "bum outfit," emphasizing that even the pawnbroker will not take back these garments:

Jees, I've seen him bad before but never dis bad. Look at dat get-up.... Willie sure is on de bottom. I ain't never seen no one so bad, except Hickey on de end of a coupla his bats. (14)

As Willie sits, "shaking in his sleep like an old dog," Rocky comments further that Willie is so far gone that his family has abandoned him ("de lawyer tells Harry nix, de old lady's off of Willie for keeps dis time and he can go to hell"). He also mentions that Willie used to get "the rush to a cure," indicating some acknowledgement of his alcoholic condition by Willie and/or his family. As Larry provides further confirmation of Willie's sorry state, by pointing out that Willie "hasn't far to go" to get to hell--"Be god, he's knocking on the door right now!"--Willie "comes to a crisis of jerks and moans" (14). Thus, O'Neill provides a vivid stage image to accompany the descriptive and informative dialogue.

A crucial key to perceiving the nature of Willie's condition is Rocky's early reference to "de Brooklyn boys." When Willie's sobbing and yelling awaken Hope and the others, Rocky explains to Hope that "de Brooklyn boys is after" Willie (15), meaning that Willie is suffering from delirium tremens or "the dt's," as it is commonly called. Sheaffer reports that "the boys from Brooklyn are coming over the bridge!" was "a favorite expression of the two [O'Neill] brothers for delirium tremens" (Sheaffer I 425). This condition is defined by Blakiston's Medical Dictionary as "a delirious state marked by distressing delusions, illusions, hallucinations, constant tremor, fumbling movements of the hands, insomnia, and great exhaustion. Usually associated with alcoholic poisoning" (Blackiston's 193). Many of these features of the condition characterize Willie's behavior throughout the first act, but more recent research suggests that what Rocky and the others perceive as "the dt's" are more likely the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, a somewhat less severe condition.

The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, defines the two disorders as follows:

Alcohol Withdrawal
The essential features are certain characteristic symptoms such as a coarse tremor of the hands, tongue, and eyelids, nausea and vomiting, malaise or weakness, autonomic hyperactivity (such as tachycardia, sweating, and elevated blood pressure), anxiety, depressed mood or irritability, and orthostatic hypotension, that follow within several hours cessation of or reduction in alcohol ingestion by an individual who has been drinking alcohol for several days or longer.... Sleep is often fitful and disturbed by "bad dreams." These merge with a variety of misperceptions and illusions. Brief, poorly formed hallucinations, occurring in any modality of sensation, may be experienced.

Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium
The essential feature is Delirium that is due to recent cessation of or reduction in alcoholic consumption. Autonomic hyperactivity, such as tachycardia and sweating, and elevated blood pressure, is present. Delusions, vivid hallucinations, and agitated behavior usually occur. Hallucinations, when present, are usually visual, but may occur in other sensory modalities.... A coarse, irregular tremor is almost always present. (DSM-III 133-134)

The DSM-III also stipulates that whereas withdrawal symptoms begin "shortly after cessation of or reduction in drinking," delirium tremens generally begins "on the second or third day" after cessation or reduction. Since Willie's hallucinations seem "poorly formed" rather than "vivid," and since he apparently has not abstained from drinking for more than a few hours, it is, in fact, more likely that he would be suffering from withdrawal than from the dt's. Obviously, however, O'Neill was familiar with the symptoms regardless of the precise diagnosis.

Willie, then, exhibits many of the symptoms of withdrawal cited above. The shaking is the most apparent sign, but his shouts to his father ("Oh Papa! Jesus!") seem to be part of some "poorly formed hallucinations," or at least suggest "bad dreams." He is clearly the most restless of all the sleepers, and he shows evidence of exhaustion as well as of hyperactivity. When he finally obtains his drink, the stage directions indicate that he "takes the bottle with both twitching hands and tilts it to his lips and gulps down the whiskey in big swallows" (17). When Rocky grabs the bottle away from him, he shows it to Larry, and announces that Willie has "killed half a pint or more." This is certainly a substantial quantity, but one that matches the nature of Willie's condition: as is well known, heavy drinkers gain an increasingly higher tolerance for alcohol (DSM-III 130, 170). Immediately after drinking, Willie "has closed his eyes and is sitting quietly shuddering, waiting for the effect." When he reawakens, moments later, O'Neill describes him as "drunk now from the effect of the huge drink he took" (37), and his subsequent self-description is a burst of loquacity and accentuated conviviality symptomatic of intoxication. Once he gets his drink, then, Willie begins to exhibit clear signs of drunkenness.

After he introduces himself to Parritt, at great length and with great relish, he sings his "folk ballad," which is followed by the aforementioned scene in which he is scolded by Hope and Rocky. After he shrinks in terror at the prospect of being sent to his room, he "closes his eyes and sinks back in his chair exhaustedly, twitching and quivering again." All of these changes reveal the "emotional lability" symptomatic of intoxication (DSM-III 130), and this symptom is also apparent in Hugo's behavior. Indeed, extreme mood changes characterize much of the behavior of several characters in the play.

All of these effects of heavy drinking may not be the "visible" signs of drunkenness that McCarthy had in mind, but they are realistic details that prove O'Neill to be quite knowledgeable about the real effects of heavy drinking, and quite accurate in his use of them in the play. Especially in the characters of Hugo and Willie (and with additional instances readily apparent in the behavior of other characters), O'Neill has incorporated many realistic details of drunken behavior that actors and directors must make manifest to the audience.

As for McCarthy's claim that nobody in the play has a hangover, we must again attribute it to a poor production because in at least two instances in Act One, and again later in the play, O'Neill indicates that the characters are hung over. When Hope addresses McGloin and Mosher, "who are sleepily awake," the stage directions explain that they "grin hangover grins of tolerant affection at him and wink at each other." And the very next stage direction states: "Meanwhile at the middle table, Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen are as wide awake as heavy hangovers permit" (42). Here, as in other stage directions, O'Neill does not specify how one depicts a hangover, and perhaps the actors McCarthy saw in these roles failed to convey it. Another possible explanation is that she may have been looking for the wrong signs. These characters are, after all, heavy, habitual drinkers, and the symptoms of a hangover for them would certainly go beyond mere headaches and nausea; their symptoms would look much more like the symptoms of withdrawal and the dt's described above.

As we have seen, Willie suffers the most obvious withdrawal symptoms, but Hugo's fitful and disturbed sleep is another visible sign of withdrawal, and the other characters certainly show indications of anxiety, depressed mood or irritability, misperceptions, and especially illusions. It is also important to note that the first concern each man shows as he awakens is to obtain a drink. This is a sure sign of an alcoholic condition, the drink being needed to ward off the effects of withdrawal as well as to enable one to face the world. Finally, Willie's "shakes" do not represent a "single brief exception," as McCarthy suggests, but rather an extended realistic characterization based on the poisonous effects of alcohol. In Act Three, several other characters will develop the "shakes," while Willie will suffer throughout the play.

Next, McCarthy claims that in The Iceman Cometh, there are "none of those rancorous, semi-schizoid silences" typical of drunken behavior. While it is not clear exactly what she means by that--what kind of silence she is expecting--it is quite clear that during the course of the play each character is silent for considerable stretches. When the characters do speak, they certainly convey rancor towards the others and especially towards themselves.

It would seem, therefore, that a rancorous and schizoid state would prevail (although it is not at all apparent how one defines "semi-schizoid"). Rosamund Gilder has pointed out, in a review of the original production, that the characters "spend most of their time in blissful or tormented alcoholic slumber," and that the sleep induced by alcohol allows O'Neill to move characters in and out of the action without many awkward entrances and exits (Gilder 31). It is also true that the characters often "drowse" rather than sleep, and that some, most notably Larry, often simply sit staring, wide awake. Perhaps, in fact, this device suggests an important response to the frequent complaint that there are too many characters in the play, and thus, too much unnecessary repetition. The fact is that drinking can induce long periods of silence, and it would be quite tedious to watch two or three drunks, at the stage these characters have reached, interacting realistically for long periods of time. By peopling his stage with many drunks, however, O'Neill is able to alternate their periods of silence, thus allowing for almost constant dialogue while some characters remain realistically silent. Even if repetitious at times, the dialogue and actions of many drunk characters are theatrically more interesting than the drunken silence of a few characters would be. In other plays--Long Day's Journey Into Night, for instance--with fewer drunks on stage, the silences are more noticeable. In Iceman, the silence is far less prominent, but it is certainly there.

As for the lack of "obscurity of thought," McCarthy is presumably influenced by the
moments of relative lucidity experienced by Larry, Rocky, and a few others. One explanation of these demonstrations of comparatively clear perception and thoughtfulness is that
at the stage of alcoholism these characters have reached, they have developed rather high
levels of tolerance, which means that it requires progressively more alcohol for them to
reach each stage of intoxication (DSM-III 130, 170). We know that in the early phases of
intoxication, a person may "appear exceptionally bright, expansive, and hyperactive, with
a subjective sense of well-being and increased mental sharpness" (DSM-III 130). Thus, it
is possible that someone like Larry, for instance, needs more alcohol than he consumes in
the play to cause him to lose clarity of thought. It is also important to note here that Larry controls his intake of alcohol, and probably drinks somewhat less than many of the others do. The same is true of Rocky, who does not drink much at all. So, it is not sufficient for McCarthy simply to claim that there is not enough "obscurity of thought" in the play to make all the drinking believable; she must also consider who is speaking, how much he has had to drink, and how high his tolerance might be.

On the other hand, there are surely several instances in the play of some "slowing down" of characters' mental faculties, if this is what McCarthy means. A number of the characters clearly do go beyond the initial stage of "mental sharpness." With some exceptions, many of the words spoken by Hugo and Willie, for example, express thoughts that are certainly far from lucid. It is useful to consider Shakespeare's Porter in Macbeth for contrast here (II, iii). That character demonstrates far more clarity of thought while intoxicated than does O'Neill's Hugo or Willie. O'Neill's drunks are certainly less eloquent than Shakespeare's, but they are more purposefully realistic. The amount of alcohol consumed by the Porter is irrelevant to Shakespeare's purpose, but the amount consumed by O'Neill's men is quite important to his. If by "obscurity of thought," then, McCarthy is referring to this slowing down of the mental processes typical of the extreme stages of inebriation, then either she or the actors missed the suggestions of the symptom that appear in the text. More important, McCarthy seems to have missed a central insight that is so crucial to O'Neill's depiction of drunk characters: O'Neill knows that alcohol has a variety of effects on different people at different stages of intoxication, and his characterizations are shaped by this awareness.

The "dark innuendoes" and "flashes of hatred" that McCarthy looks for are as poorly defined as most of her other criteria. We can certainly see "flashes of hatred" in much of Hope's cantankerousness, and "flashes" of self-hatred abound in the play. Larry, for one, expresses his hatred constantly; often, it is hatred of the Movement, or of the world, and by implication, hatred of himself:

The material the ideal free society must be constructed from is men themselves and you can't build a marble temple out of a mixture of mud and manure. When a man's soul isn't a sow's ear, it will be time enough to dream of silk purses.... I have no answer to give anyone, not even myself. Unless you can call what Heine wrote in his poem to morphine an answer:
     "Lo, sleep is good; better is death; in sooth,
     The best of all were never to be born." (31-32)

The couplet encapsulates one of O'Neill's central concerns in the play; it suggests a hatred for life that is bitter and profound. It surely carries a "dark innuendo" with it that again denies the validity of McCarthy's argument. If she is looking for the "dark innuendoes" of the threatening, drunken villain of melodrama, she will not find that here. The innuendoes and the hatred of Iceman tend to turn inward rather than outward, but they are certainly present. O'Neill uses intoxication here as a "device," as several critics have pointed out, to convey inner feelings realistically. As Robert Whitman has observed, "liquor breaks down inhibitions, pulls aside the facade which men build up in self-defense and self-delusion and shows us the tormented, divided spirit within" (Whitman 160)

McCarthy sums up all of her criteria as the "terror of drink, which after all, in the stage that Harry Hope's customers have presumably reached, is a form of insanity." While O'Neill was experienced enough with drink to know that its effects are distinct from insanity, he also was apparently aware that those effects often seem to signify insanity. Thus, Rocky refers to Hugo as "dat bughouse bum," and the term "bughouse" recurs throughout the play in reference to drunkenness. On a deeper level, however, there is a sense of terror in O'Neill's drunkards.

Terror is a factor in Larry's lonely, bitter confrontations with his own sense of emptiness, and in Jimmy's exit line in Act Three, when he calls Hickey a "dirty swine" in a "burst of futile fury"; as he exits, he is clearly terrified of the outside world. The "terror" comically and pathetically accompanies Harry Hope out of the bar, and it is present when he comes face to face with reality in the form of the "automobile" that almost runs him down, and that sends him, terrified, back into the saloon, where he is safe from the "terror" outside. McCarthy is again unclear, but if this is the "terror of drink" she means, then it exists in the play, palpably.

If McCarthy means, though, that the act of drinking somehow signifies the human terror of facing the truth about one's own existence, then to say that this sense of terror is absent from the play is to miss a central function of all the drinking. For these characters, drinking is a means of maintaining sanity and of avoiding the insane terror of confronting the emptiness of existence; in the end, only Parritt, Larry, and Hickey are denied this means of escape. Robert Whitman quotes an important speech of Larry's in reference to this subject:

LARRY...All I know is I'm sick of life!... I'm drowned and contented on the bottom of a bottle. Honor or dishonor, faith or treachery are nothing to me but the opposites of the same stupidity which is ruler and king of life, and in the end they rot into dust in the same grave. All things are the same meaningless joke to me, for they grin at me from the one skull of death. (Iceman 128)

Whitman then comments on the suggestion in this speech of the "relationship between this fear of existence and alcohol": "Afraid of life, and hating it, but equally afraid of death, men try to find at least temporary escape or forgetfulness by hiding at 'the bottom of a bottle'" (Whitman 162). O'Neill strongly implies that it is a feeling of terror, precisely, that leads his characters to seek escape by drinking, and that underlies much of their intoxicated behavior.

In her final effort to explain what she believes is missing from the drunkenness in Iceman, McCarthy speaks of the "sense of the destruction of personality," which she believes to be the most "striking" and most "horrifying" feature of the human drunkard. She claims that "each of O'Neill's people is in perfect possession of the little bit of character that the author has given him" (McCarthy 51). If alcohol does destroy the personality, then it is unclear why McCarthy would expect these characters, at their advanced stages of alcoholism, to have more than the "little bit of character" O'Neill has given them. That they each have only a "little bit of character" would clearly be a result of their dissipation. This is all O'Neill has given them because this is all they have left. Each character, though, has a past, and this should influence the characterizations, both in terms of the real past and the past as it is seen in retrospect, clouded by alcoholic illusions.

If these characters do not exhibit destroyed personalities, and I do not believe they do, surely they are, at best, fragmented. McCarthy complains that "the Boer is boerish [sic], the Englishman english [sic], the philosopher philosophizes, and the sentimental grouch who runs the establishment grouches and sentimentalizes in orderly alternation" (McCarthy 51). What she overlooks here is that each of these characters presents a mask to the world, underneath which is a different reality. The Boer tries to act Boerish, and the Englishman tries to act English, each appearing to be proud of his heritage, but actually hiding a very real sense of shame in himself for not living up to that idealized heritage. Indeed, in Act Three we learn that each has so disgraced his nationality that he stands little chance of being readmitted into his homeland (174-176). Similarly, it does not take unusual powers of perception to recognize Larry's sham persona. The "foolosopher" who objectively philosophizes from the sidelines is actually torn apart, emotion-ally, by the confessions of Parritt. In the end, Larry recognizes his self-delusion, but we should be aware much earlier that Larry is not really what he wants to appear to be.

Egil Trnqvist has pointed out that O'Neill uses liquor in these late plays to depict "the dichotomy in man between his 'mask'--his sober faade--and his 'face'" (Trnqvist 149). Trnqvist suggests that O'Neill's characters reveal the truth when they are intoxicated ("'in vino veritas' stuff," as Jamie Tyrone calls it), and that this drunken truth destroys the sober faade--or "mask"--that the drunkard normally attempts to present to the world. On the other hand, Strecker and Chambers explain that the drunken extroverted personality is merely a "surface change," or a "psychic masquerade." They point out that the "underlying personality remains constant." When this personality "lacks its mask," they continue, the alcoholic believes that the underlying personality appears ridiculous and so he or she has an abnormal fear of facing reality as he or she is (Strecker and Chambers, Chapter 3). These observations of the behavior of alcoholics suggest that Tornqvist oversimplifies matters in his analysis of the mask-face dichotomy in O'Neill's plays. In fact, there is much evidence that O'Neill's characters do not always reveal the truth when they are drunk; they are often quite deceptive, in fact, and they try to hide what they perceive to be inadequate personalities beneath their drunken masks. Indeed, in The Iceman Cometh, the truth emerges most clearly when the characters are not drunk--in Act Three and part of Act Four.

The faade, then, is deceptive in Iceman, and it is often as much a matter of self-deception as deception of others. There are few indications of self-awareness in most of these characters. Larry's facade of detachment, for instance, is surely aimed at convincing himself as much as anyone else that he has actually taken his place in the "grand-stand." The same can be said of the constant proclamations of pride in their countries by Lewis and Wetjoen. The question of "subconscious revelation" in Iceman is more a matter of self-revelation than revelation to others. One of the problems with Robert Whitman's analysis of O'Neill's use of drinking in his plays is that Whitman ignores the significance of O'Neill's use of liquor in terms of the revelation of a character's sub-conscious thoughts and feelings to himself (Whitman 160-161). In The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill's concern is not primarily with the communication of truth among the characters. (Note that Hickey's revelation of truth about himself--not brought on by intoxication--is eagerly rejected as insanity by the others.) Rather, his main concern is with the characters' self-awareness. Most of the people in the play remain happily self-deceived, while Larry and Hickey become miserably self-aware. The analyses of both Whitman and Tornqvist do not account for O'Neill's use of intoxication in facilitating self-deception.

In 1932, O'Neill wrote the following about masks in The American Spectator:

One's outer life passes in solitude haunted by the masks of others; one's inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself. (O'Neill 117)

When O'Neill had attempted to dramatize this notion of masks by using real ones in such plays as The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed, or by using asides in Strange Interlude, these devices seemed awkward and sometimes confusing, but they served O'Neill's expressionistic purposes. In intoxication, however, O'Neill discovered a more realistic device with which to convey the complex internal dynamics of personality in his later plays. If McCarthy could not see the fragmented personalities beneath the faades the characters project in their drunkenness, it is not because O'Neill's characterizations are weak. If the Boer seemed merely Boerish, the Englishman merely English, and so on, then the actors failed to convey the complexities that O'Neill so clearly developed in his characters.

The best example of McCarthy's shortsightedness on this matter is her comment on Harry Hope: to say that he merely alternates between grouchiness and sentimentality misses the point of the inner struggle that this alternation makes manifest. And here, O'Neill incorporates still another aspect of intoxication in his development of character, one which McCarthy completely overlooks--extreme mood changes. In the first act, Hope's moods shift radically. As the other characters attempt to wangle free drinks from him, he responds with anger and obstinacy; but when reminded of his wife Bessie, or the "good old days," he can become nostalgic and congenial.

As he eagerly anticipates Hickey's arrival and the "million funny stories" Hickey always tells to cheer things up, he complains to Mosher: "You and the other bums have begun to give me the graveyard fantods" (61). The word "fantods" here, meaning irritability and tension, has clearly defined Hope's behavior so far in the first act; but Hope is not an irascible old man, as we often observe in the play, and his words often indicate that he does not like to behave that way. He often retracts and apologizes for his irritable behavior. It becomes apparent that his changeability is an effect of the alcohol he consumes. This is one of the symptoms that Whitman accurately describes when he points out that liquor "allows the rapid juxtaposition of contradictory moods and impulses....It is a device which O'Neill uses ... to reveal the conflicts which tear his characters apart and frustrate their potentialities as complete human beings" (Whitman 161). McCarthy apparently does not recognize that there is a conflict within Hope, reflected in his behavior when he is intoxicated; in this, she seems to misunderstand one of O'Neill's most important uses of intoxication for the purposes of characterization in his drama.

It is quite clear, then, that Mary McCarthy's critique was misguided. Her observations may have been valid in terms of the production she saw, but they are invalid in terms of
the play O'Neill wrote. While McCarthy was perhaps looking for the work of a "naturalistic" reporter, O'Neill was working as a "realistic" dramatist, not dealing merely with surface realities, but with deeper psychological realities as well. To say that his depiction of drunk behavior on stage is "realistic," is not to say that it is absolutely precise and complete, or clinically exact, but rather that those features O'Neill chooses to utilize
do, in fact, reflect accurate observations of and insights into the physiology and psychology of alcoholic intoxication and of alcoholism.

Doris Alexander has commented that "perhaps the greatest value of the play lies in all the, to use Hugo's expression, 'nice, leedle, funny monkey faces' in it." In an essay that focuses on the source of the character of Hugo and on how O'Neill recreated this person for the stage, Alexander concludes with a provocative suggestion as to the ultimate impact of The Iceman Cometh:

O'Neill told Barrett Clark that The Iceman Cometh is one of the two plays that have given him the greatest satisfaction of any he has ever done. Probably his satisfaction lay in the vivid recreation of a group of broken but strangely loveable people he had known. In the characters also lies, perhaps, the satisfaction of any who read or see the play. Whatever enduring value The Iceman Cometh holds consists, probably, not in its dramatic or ideological qualities, but in its fine character sketches of a group of fascinating lost souls. (Alexander 71)

These "fascinating lost souls" are alcoholics, and they are at the center of the drama's theatrical effectiveness. Mary McCarthy and the 1947 production notwithstanding, these characters come to life on stage because O'Neill has endowed them with many rich details of personality and behavior that are truly characteristic of their alcoholic condition.

The Iceman Cometh is not made of ice or iron, as Mary McCarthy concluded in 1947; it is made of flesh and blood and hearts and souls--mixed convincingly with a great deal of alcohol.

--Steven F. Bloom


Alexander Alexander, Doris. "Hugo of The Iceman Cometh: Realism and O'Neill." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Iceman Cometh: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Henry Raleigh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 63-71.
Blakiston's "Delirium tremens." Blakiston's Illustrated Pocket Dictionary. 2nd edition, 1960, p. 193.
DSM-III Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (third edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1980.
Gilder Gilder, Rosamund. "The Iceman Cometh." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Iceman Cometh: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Henry Raleigh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 29-31.
Iceman O'Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh. New York: Vintage Books, 1957.
McCarthy McCarthy, Mary. "Eugene O'Neill--Dry Ice." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Iceman Cometh: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Henry Raleigh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 50-53.
O'Neill O'Neill, Eugene. "Memoranda on Masks." In O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. Oscar Cargill, Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher. New York: New York University Press, 1961, p. 117.
Raleigh Raleigh, John Henry. "Introduction." In Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Iceman Cometh: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Henry Raleigh. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, pp. 1-18.
Sheaffer I Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
Sheaffer II Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill, Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Strecker and Chambers Strecker, Edward A., and Francis T. Chambers, Jr. Alcohol: One Man's Meat--. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1946.
Trnqvist Trnqvist, Egil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Supernaturalistic Technique. Upsala: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktrycheri, AB, 1968.
Whitman Whitman, Robert. "O'Neill's Search for a 'Language of the Theatre.'" In O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Gassner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964, pp. 142-164.



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