BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, April 4, 1999
''I do not think that you can write anything of value or
understanding about the present. You can only write about life
if it is far enough in the past. The present is too much mixed
up with superficial values; you can't know which thing is
important and which is not.''
Eugene O'Neill, as ''The Iceman Cometh'' was about to open on
Broadway in 1946, commenting on why he wrote a play about a
long-forgotten time and place.
In the spring of 1912, Eugene O'Neill, soul-scarred and weary
with searching at 24, made a failed, half-hearted attempt at
suicide by swallowing Veronal (a barbituate available at the
time without prescription). Later that same year, he contracted
tuberculosis and, having recovered, he concluded that he was
destined to live. It was then that he determined to become a
Clearly, it is no coincidence that he set the two greatest of
his 49 plays -- ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' and ''The
Iceman Cometh'' -- in 1912, proclaiming for posterity the
significance of that year in his life.
There is ample evidence that the plays were linked in his
mind, for he noted the idea for each in his work diary on the
same day in 1939, when he was steeped in memories of his tragic
youth. Although all of his plays had dwelled in some degree on
the past, he had, since the early 1930's, been completely
submerged in it.
While the two plays, on the surface, seem utterly disparate,
they are thematically similar, both of them fueled by O'Neill's
preoccupation with illusion and destiny. What is more, they
follow the chronology of his youthful years, with ''Iceman''
(written first) set in ''summer, 1912,'' and ''Long Day's
Journey'' (its sequel) on ''a day in August, 1912.''
Both plays bare the state of O'Neill's mind at the time,
although it is more difficult to penetrate the autobiographical
references in ''Iceman''; unlike the realistic revelations of
''Long Day's Journey,'' the references to his own life in
''Iceman'' are swathed in symbolism. The revival of ''The Iceman
Cometh,'' opening on Thursday at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on
Broadway and starring Kevin Spacey, provides an opportunity to
see how O'Neill concealed the truth while revealing it at the
In ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' for example, Edmund
Tyrone, who realistically represents O'Neill, discloses the fact
of his recent suicide attempt. In ''The Iceman Cometh,''
however, O'Neill's suicide attempt is depicted in code. Here, he
attributes the deed to a young turncoat anarchist, Don Parritt
(portrayed by Robert Sean Leonard), who, instead of trying to
overdose on Veronal (as O'Neill did in real life), jumps from a
window to his death.
The most broadly personal aspect of ''The Iceman Cometh'' is
its discourse on political radicalism. It pervades the play's
dialogue and forms its subplot, which revolves around Parritt
and Larry Slade (Tim Pigott-Smith), a ''one-time
Syndicalist-Anarchist,'' who regards himself as having retired
The year 1912 was a time of blossoming for the socialist idea
in America. Rebels of all stripes were suiting their actions to
their convictions -- from aging philosophical anarchists like
Terry Carlin, who strongly influenced O'Neill's thinking and on
whom he based Larry Slade, to bomb-throwers like Alexander
Berkman, who had spent 14 years in jail for trying to
assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick.
While a freshman at Princeton, O'Neill became a habitue of
the Unique Book Shop on Sixth Avenue near 30th Street, a
cluttered establishment owned by an icon of the intellectual
anarchist movement named Benjamin R. Tucker. It was there that
O'Neill discovered Emma Goldman, who had recently begun
publishing her anarchist monthly, Mother Earth. O'Neill, for a
time an avid subscriber to the magazine, partly modeled the
offstage character of Rosa Parritt, Don's mother, on Goldman.
At Tucker's shop O'Neill's radical consciousness was fully
awakened. Always an eclectic reader, he had already devoured
large doses of Schopenhauer, Emerson, Zola and Tolstoy; now he
discovered the French social theorist Pierre Joseph Proudhon,
the philosopher Max Stirner and -- to his lasting joy --
He had long been seeking a substitute belief for the Roman
Catholicism he had abandoned at 14, when he discovered his
mother's morphine addiction. After a wasted, drunken year at
Princeton, a forced marriage at 20 to a young woman he did not
love, and several years of seafaring and dereliction, he settled
somewhat uneasily into a job as a newspaper reporter in New
London, Conn., where his parents had a summer home.
There, in August 1912, he began to express his radical ideas
in satiric poetry. And he predictably espoused the Presidential
candidacy of the Socialist Party's Eugene V. Debs -- undeterred
that Debs had received a paltry 96,000 votes in his first try,
This was the background against which O'Neill ranged the
passive, pipe-dreaming drunks of Harry Hope's, to whom Hickey
(Mr. Spacey), the manic salesman of death, peddles his deluded
notion of salvation.
Like most of O'Neill's works, ''The Iceman Cometh'' was drawn
from many sources and written on several levels, all of them so
skillfully blended by the indefinable catalyst of his genius,
that even he at times was unaware of where one level merged with
His description of the setting for Parritt's suicide applies
almost literally to the seedy waterfront saloon on Fulton Street
called Jimmy the Priest's where, in his down-and-out days,
O'Neill had tried to do away with himself. In ''Iceman,'' he
disguised the name of the saloon, calling it Harry Hope's and
characterizing it with deadly accuracy as ''a cheap gin mill of
the five-cent whisky, last-resort variety.''
While acknowledging in letters to friends that Harry Hope's
saloon, with its upstairs sleeping cubicles, ''physically
resembled'' Jimmy the Priest's, O'Neill said its atmosphere was
actually a composite. ''The dump in the play,'' he explained,
''is no one place but a combination of three in which I once
The other two were a saloon in Greenwich Village called the
Golden Swan and a somewhat more upscale if raffish bar in the
Garden Hotel, across 27th Street from the old Madison Square
It was at the Golden Swan, nicknamed the Hell Hole by its
clientele, that O'Neill met most of the assorted gamblers,
gangsters, ex-cops, former Tammany politicians, failed
journalists and streetwalkers with whom he peopled Harry Hope's
saloon. And it was the Hell Hole's proprietor, Tom Wallace, on
whom O'Neill modeled Harry Hope himself (played by James
Hazeldine in the current revival).
An ex-prizefighter, Wallace never left his establishment, but
emerged every evening from his upstairs quarters to join his
regular customers in the bar, all of them, like O'Neill himself,
awash in whisky.
''All of the characters [in ''Iceman''] are drawn from life,
more or less, although not one of them is an exact portrait of
an actual person,'' O'Neill told the critic George Jean Nathan.
Don Parritt is among the more complex characters O'Neill
drew. He is based partly on a 24-year-old man who figured in a
sensational newspaper story of the period -- treacherous Donald
Vose, son of Gertie Vose, who was a member of the anarchist Home
Colony near Tacoma, Wash., which advocated the violent overthrow
of capitalism and all governmental restriction of individual
The story of Vose's villainy, which O'Neill had followed,
began in 1910 -- the result of a continuing enmity between the
Structural Iron Workers Union of America and the employers'
coalition known as the National Erectors Association.
The iron workers had been planting
bombs on the West Coast in retaliation for the employers'
anti-union tactics, such as fierce opposition to the closed shop
and the dismissal of union sympathizers. The outcome was a
bitter class struggle, with The Los Angeles Times relentlessly
attacking the union in its editorials.
On Oct. 1, 1910, at 1:07 A.M., a suitcase containing 16
sticks of dynamite exploded in a narrow space, known as Ink
Alley, behind The Los Angeles Times building; it started a fire
that trapped 21 machinists and other workers, who died of
suffocation. The Times accused members of the iron workers union
of having set the charge.
The city of Los Angeles hired the private detective William
J. Burns to hunt down two union agitators, brothers named James
B. and John J. McNamara. During a trial in which they were
defended by Clarence Darrow, the McNamaras pleaded guilty, as
part of a bargain to avoid the gallows, and were sent to San
Quentin -- James for life and his younger brother for 15 years.
Detective Burns believed that two other men -- Matthew A.
Schmidt and David Caplan -- were as culpable as the McNamaras.
For three years he hunted them, but they eluded him.
Among his surveillance targets was the anarchist colony in
Tacoma, where he marked Gertie Vose's son, Donald, as weak and
disaffected, and offered him $2,500 to turn spy. Donald accepted
the bribe and, on Burns's instructions, asked his mother to
write to her old friend Emma Goldman, saying she was sending him
to work for the movement in New York.
Burns and Goldman had long been sworn enemies. She had
disparaged him in her magazine as ''a sneak'' who ''could not
apprehend a flea.'' Burns, in turn, had denounced Mother Earth
as ''the central power station'' of the anarchist movement. He
would have liked nothing better than to trap Goldman -- along
with Schmidt and Caplan.
Goldman mistrusted Donald Vose on sight, later recalling (in
Mother Earth) her dislike of his ''high-pitched, thin voice and
shifting eyes.'' Echoing her words, O'Neill described Don
Parritt in ''The Iceman Cometh'' as having an ''unpleasant''
personality, due to ''a shifting defiance and ingratiation in
his light blue eyes.''
Emma stifled her aversion, however, because ''he was Gertie's
son, out of work, wretchedly clad, unhealthy in appearance,''
and she offered him shelter.
Schmidt finally turned up and Vose led him into the trap
prepared by Burns. He was arrested, as was Caplan, a few days
''At once we realized that Donald Vose was the Judas
Iscariot,'' wrote Goldman. ''It was Donald Vose who
cold-bloodedly, deliberately betrayed the two men.'' Goldman was
especially incensed, she wrote, ''because of the mother of that
cur; terrible because he had grown up in a radical atmosphere.''
O'Neill, imaginatively carrying the Vose story beyond the
facts, created in Don Parritt a man who has betrayed his mother
(rather than her comrades) to ''the Burns dicks,'' as he
describes them in ''Iceman.''
Something in Vose's circumstances and personality happened to
resonate with O'Neill's own background, and it is not difficult
to find emblematic traces of O'Neill's younger self in the
In the play, Parritt turns up at Harry Hope's, apparently
seeking absolution from his mother's former lover, Larry Slade.
He finally confesses that he betrayed his mother out of a
long-suppressed rancor toward her, a rancor not unlike the
submerged hostility O'Neill bore his own withdrawn and
neglectful mother -- and upon which he dwelt in ''Long Day's
Journey Into Night.''
There is a discernible parallel between Parritt's betrayal
(to the law) of his mother's radical activity, and O'Neill's
betrayal (to the public) of his mother's secret drug addiction.
''She used to spoil me and make a pet of me,'' Parritt whines
in the play. ''Once in a great while, I mean. When she
remembered me.'' This was the sort of self-pitying remark that
accurately expressed O'Neill's feelings about his own mother.
the end, it is Parritt's remorse over his treachery that impels
him to commit suicide, an act that O'Neill himself -- forever
unable to escape his Catholic conscience -- could only attempt