ARTIFICE AND ART--WORDS IN THE ICEMAN COMETH AND HUGHIE
A problem central to contemporary literature is sharply focused upon at the end of Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable:
For Beckett, and a great number of other contemporary writers, words have double and contradictory functions. They enable man to impose the constructs of his mind upon reality, thus ordering it and making it "sane." But simultaneously, words make man conscious, aware of a world outside of the mind--and this world, for Beckett and others, has no coherence or intelligibility. It is simply "the core of murmurs" expressing nothing but its own irrationality. The human voice, seen in this context, is paradoxically both a blessing and a curse--it dissolves rational order as it creates it. Hence much of Beckett's drama and fiction is at once a search for a truly human voice and also a quest for silence. Caught in the tension of such opposing impulses, the Beckett hero attempts to tell his "story," all the while cursing the fact that he has a story to relate, or suspecting finally that there is no real story to tell after all.
The tension of this double and contradictory quest can be found in most of Eugene O'Neill's plays and is particularly evident in his late work. One finds in many of O'Neill's major plays a deliberate search for silence, for pre- or post-verbal forms of experience. Lavinia Mannon and Adam Brant in Mourning Becomes Electra yearn for the Eden of the South Seas as an antidote for the consciousness-plagued world they are forced to live in. Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night, whose stammering is a major source of frustration, articulates a similar longing when he speaks lyrically of the wordless universe of the sea:
This world where "no sound of man" intrudes has a similar attraction for Yank, who at the end of The Hairy Ape makes a desperate attempt to merge himself with the non-verbal world of the zoo animals.
Such an attempt to avoid words and the consciousness they inspire has its own grim aspects too. Although O'Neill clearly associates peace with a pre-or post-verbal condition, he also gives it sombre overtones of death and destruction. Yank is mangled in his attempt to join the animal world. Although Mildred's words had given him a pained awareness of his own inadequacies, the animals at the zoo certainly do not provide him with an Eden or a womb. Edmund Tyrone's poetic outburst about the sea, similarly, is a very clear index to his own pronounced tendencies towards suicide. It is also notable that Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones is freed from the agonies of words and awareness only at the moment of death--which is powerfully dramatized on stage in a completely non-verbal way as a series of moans, weird background noises, and the sharp crack of the pistol discharging the silver bullet which kills him. The elaborate fictive identity he had created for himself through words is dissolved by noise, and the net result is a strange, inhuman silence.
Throughout his career, O'Neill viewed man's attempt to transcend language and consciousness as suicidally motivated and doomed to failure. In the real world--as O'Neill grasped and portrayed it--man is cursed with awareness and is forced to be verbal as a way of coping with experience. And words give the O'Neill hero two distinct options. Either he may employ them to devise illusions which are debilitating, or he may use them as a means of creating and sustaining fictions which will enable him to deal humanly with a sometimes impersonal, sometimes hostile universe.
These alternative possibilities are powerfully dramatized in two of O'Neill's late plays, The Iceman Cometh and Hughie--both parables about man as word-maker. While the former play describes the potential for human destruction in words, the latter play explores the creative uses of language. Man as verbalizer has the power either to destroy himself or, magically, to create alternative modes of existence which may allow him a marginally humane identity.
Words are an essential means by which the characters in The Iceman Cometh can separate themselves from realities they cannot face, thus creating a shabby illusory world to hide in. In this sense, they are verbal equivalents to the elaborate masks O'Neill rather clumsily used in earlier plays such as The Great God Brown.3 Rocky, for example, wants to be known as "a shrewd businessman," instead of the "dirty little Ginny pimp" (102) which Pearl reveals him to be. When his verbally constructed illusion is thus threatened, he responds with characteristic violence. Similarly, the "tarts" don't want to be known as "whores" (100) and also become violent when the latter word is applied to them. Joe is extremely sensitive to the word "nigger" (168), even though his role in the bar is precisely this. When Rocky calls him "a doity nigger," (168) Joe threatens him with a bread knife. All of his comfortable illusions about himself are built up and protected by words. Convincing himself that "I's a gambling man" (170), he can swagger out of the bar for a brief while.
The pattern O'Neill has here created is a clear and frightening one. Violence and disorder are the real core of the lives which Rocky, Pearl and Joe lead. While words can put a comfortable veneer over these realities, words can also dissolve that veneer, precipitating actions which are essentially destructive.
Harry also builds and controls an illusory world largely through language. He has convinced himself that the tarts are "good kids" (62) and that his bar "ain't a cathouse" (Cora teasingly replies: "My, Harry! Such language!"--70). He has also reshaped his wife's identity through words until she has become "Poor Old Bessie" (50) instead of the "Goddamned Bitch" (132) she probably was. He is similarly able to varnish over his fear of the street and the outside world by concocting the verbal fiction that an automobile almost ran him over when he attempted to cross the road.
Hickey also denies reality and creates a world of illusion with words. First known to Harry Hope's clientele as a fiction maker (they love him for his "million funny stories"--61), he controls everyone in the play with a nearly masterful use of language. His skill with the rhetoric of salesmanship assures everyone that they can dispense with their pipe dreams and follow the course of action he has carefully devised for them. Even Larry Slade is controlled for the most part by the verbal fiction Hickey very gradually reveals. When Slade properly names him "the Iceman of Death" (182), Hickey neutralizes Slade's opposition to him by revealing the story of his wife's murder. Drawn sympathetically into Hickey's world now, Slade declares to Rocky: "Leave Hickey alone." (205) In effect, he becomes a character in Hickey's story and is therefore safely under Hickey's control.
The story of his life as it is revealed in the play shows how Hickey has used language as a method of selling himself a series of illusions which have shielded him from a knowledge of his real identity. First "a hell on wheels sport" (232), he then becomes a "drummer." Next, he becomes the epitome of middle class married happiness --"Yes sir, as far back as I can remember, Evelyn and I loved each other" (233). Finally, he sees himself as a strange kind of Christ figure, sacrificially redeeming himself and his wife through murder.
But Hickey becomes too enraptured with his fictions and loses control of them in the end when he intuitively labels his wife "a damned bitch" (241). His rhetoric now turns on him, dissolving his illusions and revealing the core of his real self--a tormented mad-man. Language, which had earlier functioned as protective coating, now heightens his consciousness to an unbearable pitch. The results are predictable in O'Neill's world: madness and death.
Language fails each of the other characters in precisely the same way. The verbal house of cards each has built comes tumbling down, revealing chaos and death. Hugo's earlier statement, "I love only the proletariat" (169), is inverted by his later babbling which reduces all men to swine. In a moment of rage and frustration, Harry blurts out that he hated Bessie and all she stood for. Slade's stance of philosophical detachment is contradicted by his passionate words defending various people from Hickey's attacks. Parritt, who is afraid to drink because he suspects that alcohol will loosen his tongue and reveal him as the betrayer of his mother, is intoxicated by Hickey's story and fully confesses. His "low voice in which there is a strange exhausted relief" (241) condemns him.
The characters' rational control of language completely dissolves into incoherent noise at the play's end. The "weird cacophony" (259) of people simultaneously singing a bewildering assortment of cheap popular songs is suggestive of the garble of sounds which brings Ionesco's The Chairs to such a terrifying close. Hugo, in incoherently spitting out bits and pieces of Carlyle's prophecy of doom, breaks down language as he speaks it. His attempt at "poetry" is as pathetically futile as the crude political rhetoric he has spewed out throughout the play. Like so many of O'Neill's word-makers, he has only a small "touch" of the poet. His words easily disintegrate and become part of the "core of murmurs" Beckett talks about at the end of The Unnameable.
Larry Slade, while refusing to join in the singing at play's end, is still unable to create a meaningful alternative to it. His silence--so unlike the defiant silence of Camus' Sisyphus and so much like the pathetic silence of Beckett's tramps--is a sobering reminder that he will soon end up like Parritt, or worse, Hickey himself.
Such silence and verbal disorder have persuaded most critics that O'Neill's final vision was totally hopeless, a philosophical and religious dead-end. Such a claim is voiced by Doris Falk:
John Howard Lawson wrote in 1936 that "O'Neill can find no salvation outside of religion,"6 and critics since that time have seen little in his religious outlook that could inspire hope. Cyrus Day, for example, has brilliantly discussed Iceman as a powerful inversion of traditional Christianity, portraying Hickey as a failed Christ and the play itself as a grotesque and meaningless Last Supper.7 Tom Driver has argued that even art failed to provide O'Neill with any positive meanings:
Finding O'Neill both "anti-religious" and "anti¬aesthetic,"9 Driver concludes that such complete negativity is a serious weakness in O'Neill's vision since its ultimate result is to encourage a sickly indifference to the existential facts of the human condition.
It is my purpose here to demonstrate that O'Neill was never really comfortable with an absolutely bleak view of the world and that he strove, even in his late work, to discover positive meanings in life and the possibility of salvation. Hughie, written only a year after Iceman, illustrates this vividly, for it provides a fascinating reversal of the process of verbal and moral disintegration depicted in the earlier play.10 Here O'Neill allows his characters to overcome silence, alienation, and despair by creating with words a fictive world which can be the source of creative, useful illusions.
To use Conrad's terminology, the two characters in Hughie have enough poetry in them to create "a great and saving illusion"11--a fiction which is humanizing, the only light available in an otherwise dark universe. Such humane illusions constitute for O'Neill a genuine form of art which is radically different from the paltry and transparent artifices which all the characters of Iceman use to mask their real selves and merely withdraw from reality. O'Neill, who once remarked that "a work of art is always happy; all else is unhappy,"12 was finally able to discover in art a substantially qualified but affirmative response to life.
The parallels between the characters of the two plays are striking. Erie Smith is clearly another version of Hickey. Identified in the dramatis personae as "a teller of tales," he too is a con artist in mourning who had early left the innocence of small town life, expecting success in the big city. Like Hickey, he has two ways of negating the brutal realities around him--drinking and fabulating. He identifies himself as Hickey does, not only as "a Broadway sport and a Wise Guy,"13 but also as someone possessing a special knowledge denied most people. The latter is made clear in an early stage direction: "he and his kind imagine they are in the Real Know, cynical oracles of the One True Grapevine." (264)
Initially, the Night Clerk is a good deal like Larry Slade, especially as he is imagined at the very end of Iceman. Radically alienated, apathetic, and nearly silent, the Night Clerk is unable to either confront or productively work around the sometimes indifferent, sometimes hostile world of random noises and urban emptiness which surrounds him. Just as Slade is finally portrayed as a convert to death, the Night Clerk is initially described as a "corpse." (273) Facially, there are also strong physical resemblances between the two--Slade's "gaunt Irish face" (4) becomes the clerk's "long and narrow face." (263) Both also wear a mask of absolute indifference and try to protect themselves with heavy doses of sardonic humor.
Hughie and Evelyn are also cut from essentially the same bolt of cloth because each represents an ideal of goodness for those who perceive them. Radically innocent and pure, they are presented as objects of faith which are debased by a crude world that no longer can sustain real belief. Just as Hickey was amazed by Evelyn's capacity to forgive all of his excesses and was astonished by her apparently boundless capacity to believe in him, Erie characterizes Hughie as someone who "would believe anything." (276) Indeed, Hughie's death has robbed Erie of his confidence in himself because Hughie was the only person who trusted and believed in him. (In religious terms, it is tempting to see both characters as Christ figures--Hughie as one who sustains life, and Evelyn as one who torments with an impossible ideal.)
The plays are further likened by the settings they employ. Each envisions the city as a harsh and sterile world which overwhelms with anonymity and violence. However, the bar in Iceman and the hotel in Hughie are retreats which shelter their inhabitants by providing a place to talk, dream and contact each other.
In a very real way, the fundamental tensions in each play are revealed sharply by these settings. The outer world of urban emptiness (silence) and violence (noise) is counterpointed against the more human world of bar and hotel. Each is a place which enables the characters to talk and define for themselves a reality they find congenial. The clerk in Hughie, for example, has two choices: either he can succumb to the brute life of the city; or he can respond to Erie's voice, which asks for human contact. At first he tries the former, as is revealed in the stage direction that follows Erie's remark, "You missed a lot not knowing Hughie, Pal. He sure was one grand little guy."
Unlike Erie's voice, which is a source of value because it is centered upon genuine feelings of loss and compassion, the city noises offer a cheap release which deadens memory and leads to a final Nirvana of emotional and spiritual numbness. In this way, these meaningless sounds are exact equivalents to the awful pandemonium which concludes The Iceman Cometh. It is significant that the Night Clerk tries throughout the play to drown out Erie's voice with the garble of sounds from the city. At the very outset of the play he "wishes 492 would stop talking" and prefers instead "to listen to the noises of the street." (267) As Erie recounts the details of having dinner at Hughie's house, the clerk's mind "has hopped on an ambulance clanging down Sixth Street." (281) As Erie discusses Hughie's marriage, the clerk tries "to count the footfalls of the cop on the beat." (279) The implications of all this are clear: the clerk fears the human voice because it is a call to the pain, joy, and responsibility of human existence.
Ultimately he is compelled by Erie's voice, but only when the clatter of the city subsides and he is forced to encounter the terrible silence which is underneath such noise:
The clerk's concerned stammer, expressing interest in "the truth" (so different from the smooth but meaningless formulae which have up until this point characterized his speech), saves him from psychological death. His words activate his mind, emotions, and imagination. They also provide him with "company," somebody who is "awake and alive" (285). Responding to Erie's need for an audience and his own need to avoid the silence of death, the clerk endows his life with purpose, thus enabling him to "live through the night." (285)
Erie's story of Hughie, therefore, is the dramatic reverse of Hickey's narrative about Evelyn. The effect is to awaken consciousness and equip both speaker and audience with the ability to cope with life in more humane ways. Unlike Hickey, whose stories are as debilitating as the cheap booze he uses to "paralyze" himself and others with, Erie can create something worthwhile with his fictions. His tales are not grounded in a compulsive and corrosive guilt but spring rather from a simple lyric desire to probe his own pain, feel his own worth, and touch other human beings. His stories have not only given interest and meaning to Hughie's drab existence; they are also responsible for saving the Night Clerk from his morbid suicidal tendencies. Unlike Hickey, who nearly destroys people by egoistically depriving them of their illusions, Erie creates warmth and meaning by giving people illusions which have a positive, life giving function:
Yeah, Hughie lapped up my stories like they was duck soup, or a beakful of heroin. I sure took him around with me in tales and showed him one hell of a time. (He chuckles--then seriously--) And, d'you know, it done me good, too, in a way. Sure. I'd get to seein' myself like he seen me. (284)
By the end of the play, Erie's words have created a meaningful, though temporary, bond between himself and the Night Clerk. The latter drops his "false poker face" (286) and enters into Erie's saving fiction. The brutal truth of the actual world is enriched with a higher fictive truth which touches down upon but is not overwhelmed by reality. For Erie's stories artfully straddle two worlds--that of his own direct experience, and that of pure imagination. He makes it clear that his tales are not empty pipe-dreams: "I didn't lie--not any more'n a guy naturally does when he gabs about the bets he wins and the dolls he's made." (293) In such a world, where actuality is heightened by imagination and imagination is given substance by actuality, it is possible for people to live with some dignity.
Through the magic of imagination and words, both Erie and the Night Clerk indeed become "Big Shots" (287) like Arnold Rothstein, an authentic gambler. In a very real sense, each becomes a gambler--willing to risk a genuine commitment to life. (Significantly, Joe in Iceman can only talk about becoming a gambling man but doesn't have the courage to back up his words.) So the Night Clerk leaves the safe and sterile world of his isolation, and Erie resists the urge to go quietly up to his room and renew his drinking bout. Although both agree that life indeed is "a racket,"14 they resolve to "make the best of it" (285) by imagining and sharing a world that gives each a protean identity. Fiction-making of this sort provides them with "a saving revelation." (290)
In short, Erie's tales are oddly salvific whereas Hickey's are murderous. While the story of Evelyn reveals a brutal killing, triggers a suicide, and "converts" Larry Slade to death, the story of Hughie results in the remarkable rebirth of three people, Significantly, the stage directions tell us that a "Beatific vision" (287) illuminates the clerk's blank face as he becomes part of the fiction which Erie has created. In entering such a rich fictive world, the Night Clerk, whose last name is Hughes and whose age is the same as Hughie's, literally becomes the person whom Erie had earlier lost. Erie's story, in a strangely beautiful way, performs a resurrection of a very real kind. And by recovering Hughie, his audience and friend, Erie is also reborn--he is finally "purged of his grief, his confidence restored." (293) Hickey's narrative, which masks hatred as love, results in damnation. But Erie's vignettes, which mask love15 in an artful veneer of protective cynicism, result in the only kind of salvation which O'Neill's Catholic-trained imagination could endorse late in his career.
Helen Muchnic, therefore, is wrong when she claims that for O'Neill "there is no distinction between useful and useless illusion."16 O'Neill's position in Hughie is very close to that of Robert Coover and other post-moderns who argue that the human world itself is a series of fictive constructs and that it is the task of the artist to supply mankind with truly humanizing fictions.17 In the final stages of his career, O'Neill had certainly given up the search for absolute meaning and coherence in external reality, but this did not bring him to ultimate despair. Redemption of a very private and precarious sort is possible in the tragic world of O'Neill's later plays, but only for those who can go beyond the first primitive stages of the artistic process. People like Con Melody and Hickey, who are cursed with only a "touch" of the poet, are doomed to destroy themselves and others in a world of inadequate illusions. And Edmund Tyrone's severe stammer is a revealing index to why he is one of the "fog people"--a fledgling writer who cannot deal with the confusion of his life because he lacks the verbal skill to shape an adequate response to the world. But characters like Erie Smith, whose creative imaginations endow them with more than a mere touch of poetry, can construct for themselves and others fictions which are sound and humanizing. Flawed as he is, Erie Smith is redeemed by his superior imagination and verbal artistry. And the same can be said of the playwright who created him.
1 Samuel Beckett, Malloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable (New York, 1958), pp. 413-414.
2 Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey Into Night (New Haven, 1956), p. 153. Although this concern for words and wordlessness plays a central role in O'Neill's drama, very little critical discussion has been devoted to it. Travis Bogard compares The Iceman Cometh to Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood because "both are plays for voices." (Contour in Time (New York, 1972), p. 409.] But he discusses this mainly as a tonal device and does not concern himself with language as a key theme. Robert Whitman's "O'Neill's Search for a 'Language of the Theatre'" [Quarterly Journal of Speech, XVI, No. 2 (April, 1960), 154-170] is primarily devoted to a discussion of non-verbal language in O'Neill's plays and says relatively little about his use of verbal language. Likewise, Nancy Reinhardt's penetrating study of "visual and aural patterning" in Iceman restricts itself largely to thematic patterns and non-verbal designs such as positioning of characters, musical analogies and sound effects. ("Formal Patterns in The Iceman Cometh," Modern Drama, XVI (Sept., 1973), 119.] Indeed, it has become a critical commonplace that O'Neill had neither talent for nor interest in the complexities of verbal language. John Gassner, for example, claimed in his Introduction to O'Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays that O'Neill was "without verbal virtuosity." (New York, 1964, p. 5]. And Mary McCarthy has grouped O'Neill with Dreiser and Farrell as having not "the slightest ear for the word." [Sights and Spectacles (New York, 1956), p. 81.]
This criticism, however apt it is for O'Neill's early and middle work, is misleading in the extreme when applied to his late masterpieces, especially The Iceman Cometh and Hughie. As this paper will demonstrate, O'Neill's understanding and control of words in these plays is masterful. Indeed, the function of words became one of his major themes, and verbal language served as a rich and subtle instrument for exploring character and evoking mood.
3 Eugene Waith has argued effectively that masks in many of O'Neill's plays are both a way of presenting a surface and perceiving the reality underneath it. ["Eugene O'Neill: An Exercise in Unmasking," Educational Theatre Journal, XIII, No. 3 (October, 1961), 182-191.] In "Memoranda on Masks" O'Neill claimed: "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 and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and Richard J. Fisher (New York, 1961), p. 117.]
4 Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh (New York, 1946), p. 12. (All subsequent parenthetical citations relating to Iceman refer to this Vintage Books edition.)
5 Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J., 1958), p. 201.
6 John Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting (New York, 1936), p. 130.
7 Cyrus Day, "The Iceman and the Bridegroom: Some Observations on the Death of O'Neill's Salesman," Modern Drama, I (May, 1958), 3-9.
8 Tom F. Driver, "On the Late Plays of Eugene O'Neill," Tulane Drama Review, III, No. 2 (December, 1958), 15.
9 Ibid., p. 16.
10 Although I would agree with Travis Bogard's contention that Hughie is a more positive "epilogue" to The Iceman Cometh, I would sharply disagree with his claim that language has very little to do with the play's affirmations. His view that Erie's words "spatter and drain away unheard" [Contour in Time, p. 420] is at variance with the text of the play, which makes it clear that Erie's story is an essential way of making human contact with the clerk. Bogard is wrong, therefore, when he asserts: "The emotional center of the play perhaps evolves less from its words than from its silence." [Contour, p. 419.] As I shall demonstrate, quite the reverse is true.
11 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York, 1960), p. 122. Arthur and Barbara Gelb point out that Conrad was an especially strong influence on O'Neill. A great novelist of the sea, he was a model for the American playwright, whose early ambition was to be a great dramatist of the sea. They quote O'Neill as a college student: "Wilde, Conrad, and London were much nearer to me than Shakespeare at that time. And so, later, was Ibsen ...." [O'Neill (New York, 1962), p. 112.] The necessity of illusion is surely rooted in O'Neill's appreciation of Conrad and Ibsen, whose late plays attest to the need for "life-lies."
12 Quoted in John Gassner's Theatre at the Crossroads (New York, 1960), p. 85.
13 Travis Bogard, ed., The Later Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1967), p. 284. [All subsequent parenthetical citations relating to Hughie refer to this Modern Library edition.]
14 The word "racket" is used as a motif which goes to the core of the play's meaning. Basically, it involves two important meanings. It refers on a literal level to the clatter of sounds in the city, which become a symbol of modern incoherence; while it also refers to Erie's outward cynicism that lifein general is a "racket" and even the institution of the family is a "racket."
Erie's story transcends each of these meanings. By drawing both speaker and listener away from the emptiness of the outer world, it endows their experiences with meaning, convincing them that life is more than a mere "racket." Also, the story, which is so poetically crafted, is the diametric opposite of the random cacophony of the city. Finally, the story brings together Hughie, Erie and the clerk into a kind of human "family," a basic unit of human solidarity.
15 Although Winifred Frazer is essentially correct when she argues that the central meaning of The Iceman Cometh is "that belief in love is the greatest of man's illusions" [Love as Death in The Iceman Cometh (Gainesville, Florida, 1967), p. 4], she overgeneralizes when she claims that this was O'Neill's final position on life. The meaning of Hughie dramatically reverses this theme. Here, verbally crafted fictions paradoxically generate love of an admittedly frail but nevertheless genuine sort. In a world as dark and terrible as that depicted in O'Neill's last play, this is no small affirmation.
16 Helen Muchnic, "The Irrelevancy of Belief: The Iceman and The Lower Depths," Comparative Literature, III (Spring, 1951), 125.
17 Frank Gado, ed., First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing (Schenectady, 1973), pp. 147-148.
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