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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 3
Winter, 1988



Eugene O'Neill is so tragic a dramatist, offering so strong a sense of loss, so heavy a sense of death, so pervasive a sense of fate, that the subject "O'Neill and Comedy" could be viewed as merely tangential to O'Neill's main dramatic interests. Still, a prolonged look at O'Neill's development reveals that he made progressively greater and more important use of comedy. Some element of comedy can be found in each of his plays, and of course he wrote that one unequivocally successful comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, and such unsuccessful spiritual comedies as Lazarus Laughed and Days Without End. Only in his late plays, however, does his essentially tragic view of human nature successfully incorporate comedy to produce works of the largest inclusiveness.

What prodded me to take a closer look at O'Neill's comedy were two recent, deservedly praised O'Neill productions performed on. Broadway: Strange Interlude (directed by Keith Hack and starring Glenda Jackson) and The Iceman Cometh (directed by Jose Quintero and starring Jason Robards). The audience response to Strange Interlude, which includes my own response, was surprising. The play produced laughs that I never thought were there and that O'Neill did not put there consciously, it seems. The play contains many awkward and melodramatic moments which provoke what we can call illegitimate laughter. But I'm not referring to these moments. The imported British production exuded an atmosphere of comedy because Charles Marsden (played brilliantly by Edward Petherbridge), from his first appearance on stage to his last words--and he does begin and end the play, and remains an important presence throughout--functioned as the critical wry observer of the world around him, a "foolosopher" of sorts, whose fussily superior point of view was so engaging that he carried the play, even though Glenda Jackson effectively met the demands of that impossible role of Nina Leeds. Good 01' Charlie won more than Nina in that production. He gave Strange Interlude a comic dimension that made the interlude even stranger for those of us who thought we knew the play. This was unexpected comedy, offering a kind of clarifying shock, and most welcome--although not what O'Neill would have approved, I think. He said he liked Charlie (next to Nina his favorite character in the play), but I do not believe he liked him so much to allow him to tilt the play toward comedy.

Then along came The Iceman Cometh, which I knew was comical in parts and which I knew O'Neill thought was comedy up to a point. Still, here too the audience laughed more frequently and louder than I had anticipated. I did not expect so much comedy from the inebriated Willie Oban, for example, or from Hugo Kalmar, or from Ed Mosher's drunken doctor story. Seeing that Quintero production made me realize anew how much laughter the play contains. Almost every character in The Iceman Cometh combines traits that are both comical and pathetic, with the line between the two indistinct. This is especially true of Harry Hope, blustering and friendly, a bully and Mr. Easy. The laughter gave fresh meaning to O'Neill's oft-quoted statement about the play: "I think I'm aware of comedy more that I ever was before; a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long. I've made some use of it in The Iceman. The first act is hilarious comedy, I think, but then some people may not even laugh. At any rate, the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on...."

The quotation is important because it confronts head-on the question of the play's genre. O'Neill's words are especially interesting because of that well-placed "I think," as if O'Neill is not quite sure of the play's comic dimension or its effect. The "I think" presents a more tentative O'Neill than we are accustomed to. Is it that he didn't altogether trust the comic side of his own essentially tragic nature? Is it that the idea of comedy gave him problems throughout his career and he was protecting himself now? (How should we take that Anna Christie ending? Why does O'Neill label The Hairy Ape "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes"? Do we ever laugh or even smile when reading, never seeing, Lazarus Laughed? What is the effect of the divinely happy ending of Days Without End?) In any case, in The Iceman Cometh the comedy, O'Neill asserts, breaks up and tragedy takes over.

The nature of this tragedy is pinpointed by O'Neill in another important statement about the play: "there are moments in it that suddenly strip the soul of a man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. Those moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said." His tentativeness about the comedy in his play is not found in this statement. He knows these men, he knows the need for the pipe dream, and he states his position boldly and feelingly. This position, coupled with his statement on the play's comedy, prods closer discussion of the play's genre.

O'Neill need not have been tentative about the effect of his comedy. Certainly, the Quintero production fully exploited the play's comic possibilities. This dark play contains almost every characteristic of comedy, O'Neill opening up all the stops on his comic pipe. He offers jokes of all kinds, especially sexual jokes, including that big joke about the iceman. He presents a wide range of comic wordplay--bickering, insults, boasting matches, wisecracks, funny stories, semantic differences (tart vs. whore), bawdy songs (rap, rap, rap), dialectal humor. He creates comic characters whose attributes cling to traditional comic types--the parasite (McGloin and Mosher), the drunkard (all of the derelicts and the doctor of Mosher's story), the prostitute, the trickster, the braggart soldier, the newspaper cartoon character (the way Hugo is described). The play contains comical physical activity, like brawls and threatening gestures. And it includes the clichéd comic participants in the battle of the sexes--the shrewish wife, the hen-pecked husband, the cuckold.

Now, these various comic elements were used by O'Neill throughout his career, more or less--more in his late plays. But what I find most interesting, in this connection, are the large ideas of comedy that O'Neill's drama has absorbed, ideas that complicate our response to this difficult play. For example, how exactly should we take Hickey? Is he the tragic protagonist, as many have claimed, or is he the comic catalyst? Of course, stating the question so baldly falsifies the complexity of this difficult character; and labeling him a comic character in a play as dark as The Iceman Cometh may seem perverse, as if we are playing with ideas rather than feeling what is happening in the play. Still, Hickey's comic dimension deserves attention.

O'Neill's stage directions allow us to picture a bald "stout roly-poly figure" who possesses "a salesman's winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship," whose eyes twinkle with humor even as they "take you in shrewdly." (No matter that Jason Robards is not roly-poly or bald; he had the other qualities. Quintero, in fact, thought Robards was clownish in appearance back in 1956, and that's what may have won him the part.) Whatever Hickey symbolically represents--and we all seem to agree that he is the play's Iceman, he's Death, he's the anti-messiah, etc.--he remains the salesman who provides a comic exterior, singing a song, tapping a dance, quick with his verbal retorts and his glad hand, a touchy-feely kind of guy who can do a vaudeville turn with the best of them. Small wonder that the bums look forward to his arrival--as we in the audience do--and when he does arrive, he's singing in falsetto, "It's always fair weather, when good fellows get together." The good fellows, O'Neill tells us, "roar with laughter at this burlesque which his personality makes really funny." Hickey, awaited a long time as we measure time on stage, comes to move the play along.

Certainly, Hickey's coming is the event that will resolve the plot, if plot is not too strong a word for the situation that we call The Iceman Cometh. Hickey comes, and comedy is in the air--in his appearance, in his manner and delivery, in his songs, in the laughter he provokes, and, perhaps surprisingly, in his function. For what have we? A character who enters a holiday world with a sobering sense of reality, with a moralistic drive that comes close to destroying the peace and security of the derelicts. The old Hickey once belonged to that holiday world; the new Hickey tries to change it by exposing its inhabitants to the truth of things. In this respect the new Hickey, the sober Hickey, is like Shakespeare's Malvolio who, because he is virtuous, cannot belong to a "cakes and ale" world. Perhaps the phrases "holiday world" and "cakes and ale"--phrases which describe the festive atmosphere of romantic comedy--are too joyous to denote accurately where the inhabitants of Harry Hope's saloon dwell. But the phrases do suggest the hermetic quality of that saloon world: its security, boozy and dreamy; a world in which the dwellers comfortably accommodate one another. Whatever their reasons for escaping the everyday life, whatever their weakness in avoiding reality, they do belong together, they do make up a distinct, self-contained society. They carry on life with one another.

Paradoxically, the character who comes on with a song and in the spirit of amiable affection (so unlike Malvolio in this respect) is trying to stop the music and disrupt the comedy, as did Malvolio. Hickey, in short, is functioning as the traditional blocking figure of comedy whose moralistic drive is rather frightening at times, almost demonic. His symbolic function, his close relationship with death, gives this son of a preacher an otherworldly quality. But part of his aura, I suggest, depends on his function as a conventional negative force in a comic world, a truth teller in a world that must be nourished by lies. In this sense, Hickey, like Malvolio, is the "mad" one, out of tune with the world of Hope and company. And he, again like Malvolio, must be thrust aside, removed, in order for the comic world to persist.

And that is exactly what happens at play's end. Not only does he leave the stage, but the derelicts latch on to the "mad" idea in order to convince themselves that his high-sounding truth-telling was a manifestation of a sick mind. Hickey helps them come to this conclusion by going along with Harry Hope's lie about Hickey's insanity; and here, as throughout, Hickey's genuine affection for the bums is evident. He is no Malvolio after all, except in function; he wants them to be "happy," that haunting and troublesome word in this play and throughout O'Neill's career. Well, they are "happy" when he leaves, the only time the word "happy" doesn't end an act, the only time the word is translated into a stage action of "happiness" for the derelicts as they sing and drink the whiskey that is now alive.

I do not wish to push the idea of comedy too far in connection with Hickey, but I do believe that he, in part at least, is a character who belongs to a comic tradition. I also believe that Harry Hope and company inhabit what in many respects resembles a traditional comic world. When Hickey arrives with the words, "Hello, Gang!," and then sings his song about good fellows getting together, he is highlighting a basic characteristic of comedy--it thrives on company, on companionship, on having the guys together. Add whiskey and laughter to this society, as Hickey immediately does, and we have a traditional tavern world inhabited by everyday creatures who retain individual characteristics that include the comic. So that Ed Mosher, for example, is a parasite, a practical joker, a teller of funny stories, the possessor of "a round Kewpie's face." And Hugo Kalmar's head is "much too big for his body"; Hugo is a type of Anarchist "as portrayed, bomb in hand, in newspaper cartoon." And Harry Hope is a "softhearted slob" given to tantrums. And so on.

But more important than these individual comic characteristics is the group feeling, the social unity that they display--in their drinking, laughter, pipe dreams; in their sleepiness, inability to face reality, accommodation to one another; in their physical togetherness in that one saloon that is a haven for all of them; in their relationship to Hickey, and in their general function as chorus. Both the comic and the pathetic comprise their small lives, and if we were forced to place them in a distinct genre, I believe it would be comedy. It would not be tragedy, although O'Neill does force us to take a step closer to these men; we have a feeling for their pitiful conditions; we clearly realize that the word "happy" cannot be attached to them without much qualification.

O'Neill, we remember, believed that the play strips the souls of these characters "stark naked," producing moments of "deep tragedy." He seems to be saying that all creatures are tragic, even these seemingly small men. My argument against their tragic status--a status that traditionally depends on the isolation of a character, aloneness, uniqueness, and a kind of height because of this uniqueness--depends upon the social togetherness of the gang, coupled with their survival at play's end. Survival is an idea that usually belongs to comedy, the genre that allows us to acknowledge continuity, preservation, harmony, a condition of "happily ever after." We may wish to discuss what survival really means in connection with Harry Hope and his friends, whose weakness and constant inebriation may lead us to ask, "What price survival?" But if we do discuss them in these terms we come dangerously close to moralistic judgment, perhaps discovering a little touch of Hickey in ourselves.

We begin the play with the bums existing, merely existing, in their self-contained tavern world. We live with them for four hours, a long time--a time that is necessary because O'Neill wants us to feel the sheer survival quality of these creatures who have come to the "last harbor." They are always on stage; their presence is felt throughout. They were there when the curtain rose, and they will be there after the curtain descends. At play's end they are where they were at play's beginning, only more jovial, singing and laughing, whereas in the beginning they were asleep. Hickey has shaken them up; Hickey has "happened" and made them unhappy "for a time"; but now they are back to their old selves, and they are carrying one. They will live in that comedy world of "happily ever after," although the world "happily" comes strangely to our lips, of course, because Death hangs heavily in the play's atmosphere. A literal death has come to Parritt (we just heard the thud!); Hickey is going to his death; Larry is staring at death. But the survival of the others seems secure. It is not the survival of vitality, or of truth, but it is survival.

O'Neill himself said about them, "In some queer way they carried on." Well, not so "queer" when we acknowledge the life-giving power of their pipe dreams and the strength of their whiskey. And we should recognize that the whiskey and pipe dreams function the way the genre of comedy functions: comedy blurs reality to the point where it is acceptable; it allows one to laugh away a true awareness of self and mortality; it allows for life. (Is it mere coincidence that O'Neill's one unequivocal comedy, Ah Wilderness!, is his most deliberate lie about his own life?) When the play ends, we hear the songs and laughter of the gang at Harry Hope's. "The End of the Line Cafe" it is, as Larry insisted, and the men can go no further. But they can go on where they are, in Hope's secure, comfortable, comic tavern world.

Dudley Nichols said that "O'Neill himself delighted in the play's laughter." Some of this laughter persists to the end, even though the play itself is tragic. And that is why Larry Slade is so crucial a character in any discussion of the play's genre. Without Larry the play would be precariously lodged on the curve of tragicomedy; with Larry it settles into tragedy, but not without some complicating problems for the audience.

There is no need to rehearse all that has been written about Larry Slade, who for many, including myself, is the play's central character, certainly the most haunting character. What I wish to emphasize here is his changing generic role. It seems appropriate that this tortured creature who has been condemned to look at two sides of every question should himself occupy two generic worlds, moving from one to the other.

Larry Slade, from the moment the curtain rises, is the critical commentator on what is happening on stage. The only one awake, his statements are naturally accepted by the audience. O'Neill invests his utterances with a prose rhythm and range of metaphor that indicates we are listening to an educated, intelligent man. O'Neill's physical description of Larry supports his role as spokesman: his eyes, always containing "a gleam of sharp sardonic humor," are those of a mystic; his face is that of a weary priest. His first words on his fellow "inmates" offer a literary allusion to the Feast of All Fools, followed by references to the sea and ships. The two ideas come together in our minds as the traditional Narrenschiff, ship of fools, an indication that we may have entered a comic world, after all.

This reference to fools reverts to Larry himself, who is called the old "foolosopher," and who functions as the Fool--capital F--in this play. That is, like the Fool in comedy and tragedy, he is seemingly set apart, looking at the others in the play, commenting on them, allowing us to see the world through his eyes, which are clear and awake and contain a gleam of sardonic humor. He seems to be a kind of detached spectator, standing where Puck stands, or Feste, offering comments on human nature that we accept. O'Neill gives him the important statements of the play, the most important coming almost immediately: "To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It's irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober." Larry Slade places himself--wrongly, we come to realize--where the Fool is placed traditionally, "in the grandstand of philosophical detachment," where he observes a dance of death.

Throughout, he seems pleases with his own objective stance and his own ability to see the world more clearly than the others. There's something foolish about his smugness at times, and the others are right to mock "de old Foolosopher." In this respect Larry reminds us of Jaques, who is anxious to wear the motley of Touchstone in order to inveigh against the world with license, to philosophize in good set terms on how the world goes--"we ripe and ripe ... we rot and rot." Larry's belief that the lie of the pipe dream gives life to the bums proves true, and, in fact, touches the very nature of comedy, which is the lie that affirms life, that represses the terror of death, that allows for a kind of "happiness." (O'Neill, in a letter to Macgowan, December 1940, said that the bums at play's end "must tell these lies as a first step in taking up life again.")

Larry' Slade, in short, functions as the Fool, looking at two sides of every question, the critical commentator sporting a sardonic grin. We know, however, as Hickey knows, as the others know, that Larry is not an outsider, that he is involved, that he cannot sustain his role as objective looker-on, standing apart from the others, but must, because of his essential nature, take a step closer to them. His comic stance, in other words, is his way of hiding from himself his tragic pity. He wishes merely to observe the dance of death, but he is dancing with the rest. This is his important discovery at the end of the play, thanks to Hickey and Parritt. As he himself states, he's "the only real convert to death that Hickey made." Jaques, who wanted to be Touchstone, has become Hamlet, contemplating the skull. We, the audience, have actively participated in his generic struggle throughout the play, and at play's end we participate in his accomplishment of realizing that he is finally facing the truth, which means death because in terms of the play only the lie can give life. A creature of comedy has become tragic, and we admire him and pity him, a combination of feelings that traditionally belong to the tragic hero.

The end of The Iceman Cometh is emotionally charged, perhaps too charged for the reconciling closure we usually experience in witnessing tragedy or comedy. Too much happens in the end, and in a play that lasts four hours too much happens quickly and together. Hickey calls his murdered wife a "damned bitch," catches himself, pleads insanity; Harry Hope pounces on that idea in order to survive; Hickey understands the pouncing and goes along with it; Hickey leaves the stage declaring his love for Evelyn; Parritt declares his guilt, echoing Hickey's words; Larry sends Parritt to his death; Hope and the others are jubilant, the whiskey now alive again; the thud of Parritt's body is heard; Larry realizes he's Hickey's only convert to death; and Hope and the chorus, pipe dreams restored, sing and roar with laughter. An abundance of happenings within twenty minutes of playing time, maintaining a rhythm, a speed, that makes the ending of the play more alive than any previous dramatic segment.

Certainly, Hope and company are more alive now than they were at the play's beginning. Larry, in contrast, is now the dead one, "oblivious to their racket," O'Neill tells us. He is looking directly at truth, at mortality, at existence; in fact, Larry, now a tragic figure, is looking at what the genre of tragedy traditionally looks at: the truth of our existence, the terror of death, the vulnerability of mankind. The racket of the bums, their laughter, their togetherness, their survival, their ability to weather the storm and come to a safe harbor--last harbor though it is--all belong to a world of comedy. These two clashing ideas make the ending of The Iceman Cometh especially complex and troublesome. When O'Neill says that "the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on," he seems to be tracing the movement of Larry Slade, as I have attempted to describe it.

I believe, however, that some of the comedy remains to the very end, that Hope and his comrades are not as tragic as O'Neill maintains. He sees them as victims of life, and he treats them with "understanding compassion," as he states, but we leave them in the midst of life, poor life though it is, lacking the vivacity we associate with the soul of festive comedy, but carrying on, in illusion and drink. They live.

A survivor of the Belsen concentration camp said: "In my happier days I used to remark on the aptitude of the saying, 'When in life we are in the midst of death.' I have since learnt that it's more apt to say, 'When in death we are in the midst of life.'" This could apply to Harry Hope and company. Our last image before the curtain descends is an uneasy one. We look at the tragic Larry, alone, facing the truth of things; and we look at and hear Harry Hope and the gang carousing. We witness the death of illusion and the life of illusion, and we leave the theatre recognizing that O'Neill's vision of life, tragic though it is, contains the important dimension of comedy, thereby offering his audience the deepest sense of reality.

-- Normand Berlin



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