IN IBSEN'S BACK ROOM:
RELATED PATTERNS IN
The impact of Henrik Ibsen on the mind and art of Eugene O'Neill is well known. After seeing Hedda Gabler in 1907, O'Neill was drawn to see it again on nine successive nights, later commenting that it had "discovered an entire new world of drama" for him and gave him his "first conception of a modern theater where truth might live."1 Nor has the specific influence of The Wild Duck escaped notice, especially in articles by Sverre Arested and Egil Törnqvist.2 Nevertheless, seeing the Ibsen play in production a few years ago led me to conclude that its influence on The Iceman Cometh, especially in terms of theatrical effectiveness, had not been fully analyzed. The areas of relationship I wish to explore in this essay are three: the plays' settings, especially the effect achieved by O'Neill in moving from the front room to the back room--the "Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller," in Larry Slade's phrase; the elemental conflict, central to both plays, between the Conventional Life and the Self--indulgent Life; and the architectonic similarities between the two plays in their mixture of comedy and tragedy.
In establishing the actual setting as well as its symbolic implications in The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill is openly referential. The set-up is a "back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope's saloon.... le right wall of the back room is a dirty black curtain which separates it from the bar."3 In the Ekdal home Ibsen sets up a large attic with sliding doors in the rear wall which, when opened, reveal a loft, much of it in "deep shadow."4 But this is not the only similarity in the two plays' settings: the Werle house in Ibsen's first act also features two rooms, each of which has a function and aura quite different from the other. At stage-front is a study whose soft lighting contrasts sharply with the room at the back, separated by folding doors and filled with brilliantly lit lamps and candelabra. What Ibsen suggests semiotically through the bifurcated settings are the dichotomies and contrasts in life which run thematically throughout The Wild Duck. And what O'Neill has done is to take the same viewpoint, turn the settings sideways, and focus on the darker side--the remnants of life which inhabit the back room. Perhaps he took the tip from Hjalmar Ekdal, who said, "It's useful sometimes to go down deep into the night side of existence" (192).
Although the major portion of Ibsen's play--all but the first of its five acts--is set in the Ekdal home, it is worth noting at least briefly the significance of the first setting, which reveals the bourgeois existence from which Hjalmar has been exiled and which he now fears. The front room is a study lined with books that will never be read by Old Werle, and the green-shaded lamps are very low to protect his failing eyes. Mrs. Sorby allows smoking only in the brightly lit back room where the overfed capitalists who are Werle's guests drink punch, play the piano, and compete at blind man's buff with the hostess. Of course it is clear that these elements are a shade off from respectability, as indeed is the whole Werle household. Nevertheless, it impresses Hjalmar and arouses in him a feeling of alienation that is reinforced by the embarrassing appearance of his father, shuffling through the room in his cheap wig. Both Ekdals want to get out of this household and retreat to the safety of their home.
The latter, as noted above, is similarly represented by two rooms. First, the large room where the family work and eat and Hedvig reads. When Gregers arrives, the drunken dreamer, Old Ekdal, can't resist opening the sliding doors at the rear to reveal the back attic and the treasure he and Hjalmar have created: an artificial forest with rabbits, pigeons, chickens, and the wild duck. The duck is the center of attention because catching one is so rare. Gregers assumes that after the duck was shot she "dived right for the bottom," and Ekdal responds,
O'Neill makes use of this symbolism in the description of Harry Hope's saloon, and in the characterizations of his derelicts.
Ibsen's back room is mysterious, and filled with echoes of past life. Gregers questions Hedvig regarding the room, learning that most of the things in it were left there by a sea captain called "The Flying Dutchman" who never returned. Hedvig is fascinated by the books (one with the picture of "Death with an hourglass and a girl") and a clock with "figures that are supposed to come out. But the clock doesn't go any more." Gregers remarks, "Even time doesn't exist in there--with the wild duck" (162). As the discussion between Hedvig and Gregers continues, the strange aura of the room--with its old Christmas trees, useless furniture, and wild animals living tamely--is established. Phrases such as "depths of the sea" and "bottom of the sea" are repeated several times, and the conversation (which, by the way, is not advancing the plot at all) takes an odd turn:
I think it is apparent that the entire Gregers-Hedvig discussion, with its implications of the tension between life and death, the stopping of time, and the mystery of the "bottom of the sea," must have appealed to O'Neill and influenced his total conception of The Iceman Cometh. Consider simply the influence of the setting. As I remarked above, O'Neill takes the front and back rooms of the Ekdals, turns them sideways, and puts the focus on the back room. Here, as at the Ekdals', there is a "front room"--the section of the bar which is open to the public and in which Rocky and Chuck do a normal business selling sandwiches to workers. Through the window of this room can be faintly seen the outside world from which the inhabitants of the back room have retreated, just as the Ekdals had retreated from the world represented by the Werle home. Past a "dirty black curtain" is the saloon's back room, which Larry Slade describes as
Here, referentially, Larry establishes the same aura which prevailed in the attic. In one way that was just an attic; but it was also something much larger, with echoes of the hunting of former times, echoes of the "Flying Dutchman" who never came home again, foreshadowing of Death and the girl, and all of the inhabitants, including the wild duck who dived for the bottom. Relling's line to Gregers about the household in The Wild Duck could as easily be applied to the inhabitants of Hope's saloon: "There's no one but fugitives here" (202). As the attic existed as an attic, this exists as the back room of a New York bar; but, again like the attic, it also has another level of existence as "the bottom of the sea." Also present are the piano, smoking and drinking from the back room at the Werle house--the symbols of easygoing self-indulgence.
Another similarity between O'Neill's back room and Ibsen's attic room is that normally, in both, time has stopped. Years go by and Hope never leaves the saloon. Only Hickey comes and goes between this world, the haven at the bottom of the sea, and the other, outside world of capitalistic enterprise. But time takes on meaning in both plays because a birthday is about to occur, and in Hope's saloon time becomes important to people who wait for that member of the outside world who brings them free liquor and laughs twice a year. Now it is two days before Harry's birthday, but Hickey has not arrived. Previously, "You could set your watch by his periodicals" (13). And so the question is repeated, "What time's it?" (18). Time is again important at the end of the play, for the detectives will arrive at 2:00. But after Hickey's departure, time again stops, and the booze has its kick again, because hope/pipe dreams have returned.
Hickey is the only habitué of Hope's back room to venture voluntarily into the outside-world. He epitomizes the person who is torn between two modes of existence that are markedly contrasted in Wild Duck and Iceman--the Conventional Life, and the Self-indulgent Life. O'Neill himself was drawn in both directions of this standard dichotomy, as were many other writers of the time, including Robert Benchley and Ring Lardner. Hickey's description of his "periodicals" and his returns home seems an apt description of Lardner's life.
The elements of the Conventional Life, as it is mirrored in the plays of Ibsen and O'Neill, are capitalism, the family, order, thrift, cleanliness and self-control. In contrast, the Self-indulgent Life is characterized by drunkenness, sloth, sexuality, parasitism and dirt. In The Wild Duck, Hjalmar Ekdal may seem a man suited to the Conventional Life, but in fact he is not. The Fat Gentleman, the Bald-Headed Man and the other dinner guests at Werle's represent those for whom conventionality is not only attractive, but essential if the society from which they make their profit is to continue. Hjalmar has never been suited to this life; he knows nothing of conventional, would-be witty conversation, and he is cowed into silence by the successful men around him at Werle's. He is happy to escape to his home, put on his old smoking jacket, loosen his tie and play his flute. He is at home in his front room because of his pipe dream that he is an inventor; but in reality his life exists in the back room with the animals, the trees, and the rifle that doesn't work but is "a lot of fun to have anyway, because we can take it all apart and clean it and grease it and put it together again" (166). He dreams of the tomorrow when his invention will bring him success, his father will be able to wear his uniform in public again, and Hedvig will have money to live on after he is gone. In other words, he is just like the inhabitants of Hope's back room, who live on Hope both literally and figuratively, surviving on the idea that one day they will be able to take their places in the outside world and lead the Conventional Life. For Hickey the case is harder than it is for Jimmy Tomorrow and the others: he cannot dive to the bottom of the sea as the others have, and so he is filled with hatred for himself, for his wife, and for these fugitives who have successfully removed themselves from the Conventional Life to accept the relief of the Self-indulgent Life.
Hickey stands, of course, in obvious contrast to Larry Slade, who, like the others, has withdrawn from the Conventional Life, and whose significance has many ramifications both within the play and beyond it. The character is based on Terry Carlin, who lived with O'Neill at various times and was an influence on the young playwright's outlook. A gifted, capable man of business who chose instead to live with a prostitute and do nothing, Carlin was once lured back into the Conventional Life, and was so successful that he was offered a large salary after discovering a defective process in a tanning factory. However, he rejected the Conventional Life, was cheated of his salary, and withdrew entirely into the process of drinking himself to death. (Since he lived to the age of 79, partially supported by O'Neill, this seems to have been a slow process.)
Of greatest importance here is the fact that Carlin was a great Ibsen enthusiast who wrote articles on the Norwegian for the Anarchist papers before giving up on mankind entirely. He is also said to have given O'Neill the idea for Iceman by (1) telling him about the informer (Judas) in the McNamara Anarchist bombings "out on the coast," and (2) providing the idea for the Larry/Parritt/Rosa segment of the plot. In short, O'Neill created a character (Larry) based on his friend and mentor in a play that reflects Carlin's love of Ibsen and dedication to the Anarchist cause. Although Larry Slade seems successfully withdrawn from the Conventional Life--sitting objectively, he claims, in the grandstand and waiting only for death--he learns through Hickey's visit that he still feels the pull toward--not the Conventional Life, but a participation within the framework of the Conventional Life in order to demolish it, and replace it with something better.
A major component of the Conventional Life is marriage, and while O'Neill is usually likened to Strindberg in the jaundiced views on marriage expressed in his plays, there is at least as strong a similarity to the views of Ibsen. The Wild Duck features a number of marriages, for instance, and the attitude they project is hardly hopeful. Besides the central marriage of Hjalmar and Gina, which is based on and maintained by deception, there are such marriages from the past as Mrs. Sørby's union with a doctor who drank and beat her, and the marriage of Old Werle and Gregers' mother, which sounds like Hickey's marriage, in that the husband was continually aware of his "sins" and could not speak openly to his spouse. Throughout the play runs the idea that what Gregers posits, a "true marriage," does not and can not exist.
Parallels are both obvious and abundant in The Iceman Cometh: Hickey's marriage to the ever-forgiving Evelyn, Hope's marriage to the nagging bitch Bessie, Jimmy Tomorrow's to the unfaithful Marjory, and the preposterously unrealistic plan for marriage between Chuck and Cora. Although not a legal marriage, Larry's failed relationship with Rosa Parritt should also be noted. In short, Ibsen and O'Neill share a view of marriage as one of the major alienating factors in the Conventional Life. It poisons the existence of both partners.
Closely related to the subject of marriage in the Conventional Life is the question of children. Illegitimacy figured in the backgrounds of both Ibsen and O'Neill, and it figures in several of their plays. In The Wild Duck the uncertainty of Hedvig's parentage leads to her death, as a result of the suggestion by Gregers, who may be her half-brother, that she sacrifice her wild duck by shooting it. In The Iceman Cometh, Parritt, having sent his mother to jail, alternately seeks forgiveness and punishment from the man who may be his father, Larry. Like Gregers, but more directly, Larry pushes a possible blood relative toward suicide. The key to the relationships in both plays is ambiguity. Is Hjalmar Hedvig's father? Is Larry Parritt's father? The playwrights never say. Lack of certainty about paternity is one of the many thorns in domestic life. O'Neill summed up his attitude to domestic life--to what we have here called the Conventional Life--very vividly in a letter to his colleague Kenneth Macgowan:
A third similarity between the two plays--one which has not been widely noted but may be at least as significant as the others--is their use of comedy. It is a commonplace of theatre criticism that neither Ibsen nor O'Neill had a sense of humor. Yet a closer examination reveals that both often spoke about comedy in their plays. Here, for instance, is O'Neill describing Marco Millions: "It's going V be humorous as the devil if the way it makes me guffaw as I write is any criterion."6 Ibsen, too, was known to chuckle at his creations, and anyone who has seen sensitive productions of Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, Ah, Wilderness! or A Moon for the Misbegotten is aware of the intense comic effects in both writers' plays. Yet the myths of the grim Norwegian and the somber American continue.
In a letter discussing a production of The Wild Duck, Ibsen described the precise comic quality that Hjalmar must have, and spoke also of a new method of playwriting in the play which might inspire young dramatists to explore new territories.7 He may have been indicating that the increased use of comedy, forming a strong pattern woven throughout the increasingly tragic events, was a new approach for him. In any event, the play does not merely have a few comic effects: it is constructed in waves of comedy alternating with and joining with the tragic elements, as is the case in Iceman. And in Hjalmar, Ibsen has created a classic comic figure--a "self-deceiver," to use Plato's term--and O'Neill correspondingly constructed his play with many self-deceivers, and another classic comic type--the parasite. Throughout both plays the intense tragic effect is matched by an intense comic effect.
As Timo Tiusanen says of Iceman, "Comedy is used to build up tragedy," the overall result being a "tragedy with comic overtones."8 One example from each play will perhaps suffice. Concerned about the possible loss of Hope's money, Mosher and McGloin have the following exchange:
In The Wild Duck there is
constant humor in Hjalmar's attitude about food and his claims
Describing this sort of effect, O'Neill said:
This is the effect, and O'Neill establishes comic lines, pieces of business and circumstances early in the play which, to use a phrase he liked, are "laying doggo" throughout the darker passages, only to emerge with a comic intensity that matches the tragic intensity. The success of both plays in production lies in large part in the appreciation of the comedy and its relationship to the plays' structure. The failure of many critics to respond positively to either work lies in their ox-like refusal to admit that there is any intentional comedy which is part and parcel of them.
Ibsen and O'Neill each wrote plays dealing with illusion and the need for pipe dreams and hope. Gregers Werle wants to destroy illusions and "life lies" in his quest for the ideal; Hickey, who previously encouraged the pipe dreams of his customers to make sales, now wants to destroy all pipe dreams. But both Gregers and Hickey are offering advice which flies in the face of human nature. People do find comfort in illusions or pipe dreams. As Relling remarks, "Fake hair will take you through life as good as any" (173). O'Neill said he wrote his play to show that there is always one more pipe dream at the bottom of the bottle.10 Each of the plays ends with a renewed pipe dream for the central figure. Hjalmar will play the part of the mourning father, and Relling predicts that he will "souse himself in conceit and self-pity" (216). Hickey, who has attempted to destroy all pipe dreams, must restore the pipe dreams of the others in order to corroborate his own: that he was insane to say what he did to Evelyn after killing her.
To infer that O'Neill was influenced by Ibsen is not to denigrate his accomplishment in any way. He was undoubtedly impressed by the rich symbolism of The Wild Duck and its unusual mixture of comedy and tragedy. And while the audience does not move into Ibsen's shadowy back room, that anachronistic attic, O'Neill takes us into the back room and lingers on "the night side of existence." Both plays examine the opposition of truth and illusion, and of the Conventional Life and the Self-indulgent Life, in a theatrically effective manner, using comedy juxtaposed with tragedy and conveyed semiotically through the settings. Although some critics mistakenly label O'Neill's 1939 play dated and boring, it is unquestionably a great modern tragedy. An appreciative comment by O'Neill about Ibsen's plays could just as appropriately be applied to The Iceman Cometh:
-- Yvonne Shafer
1Quoted in Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 122.
2Sverre Arested, "The Iceman Cometh and The Wild Duck," Scandinavian Studies, 20 (February 1948), 1-11; Egil Tornqvist, "Ibsen and O'Neill: A Study in Influence," Scandinavian Studies, 37 (August 1965), 211-235.
3Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh (New York: Random House, 1946), p. 3. Future citations refer to this edition and will be included in the text in parentheses.
4Henrik Ibsen, The Wild Duck, in Four Major Plays, transl. Rolf Fjelde (New York: Signet Books, 1965), p. 151. Future citations refer to this edition and will be included in the text in parentheses.
5"The Theatre We Worked For": The Letters of Eugene O'Neill to Kenneth Macgowan, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 53.
6"The Theatre ...," p. 51.
7See Michael Meyer, Ibsen (New York: Doubleday, 1971), pp. 530 and 538.
8Timo Tiusanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 272, 283.
9Quoted in Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), pp. 577-578.
10Ibid., p. 579.
11Egil Törnqvist, A Drama of Souls: Studies in O'Neill's Super-naturalistic Technique (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), p. 30.
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