BY Barbara Gelb
FROM The New York Times, September 29, 1985
When Eugene O'Neill, at 50, began work on ''The Iceman Cometh,''
he was hurtling toward premature old age, tasting the imminent
and bitter end of a writing career born 26 years earlier. His
visionary outlook had long since revolutionized the American
theater, and the cumulative force of such innovative and daring
plays as ''The Emperor Jones,'' ''Desire Under the Elms,''
''Anna Christie,'' ''Strange Interlude'' and ''Mourning Becomes
electra'' had won him the Nobel Prize, an honor never before or
since bestowed on an American playwright.
Now, sensing the end, he felt a particular compulsion to
write about his beginnings, about the shaping of his destiny.
And so he fought fiercely to circumvent his increasingly
debilitating illness. The chief symptom, a tremor in his hands,
was attributed to Parkinson's disease (although it turned out
much later to be not Parkinson's, but an unspecified
degenerative nervous disorder). The trembling made it difficult
for him to hold a pencil at times, and that was the only way he
could write. He could not think creatively while dictating or
typing. O'Neill blamed his nervous disorder on the
self-destructive life of alcoholism and derelict wandering he
had lived as a youth.
The production of ''The Iceman Cometh'' that opens today at
the Lunt-Fontanne is New York's third major revival in 39 years.
(It has also been made into a movie starring Lee Marvin and
Robert Ryan and it was televised in 1960 with an unknown actor
named Robert Redford playing the role of the treacherous and
doomed Don Parritt.) While ''The Iceman Cometh'' might not, on a
first reading, appear to be autobiographical in the sense that
''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' is, the play, nonetheless, is
deeply rooted in O'Neill's life, with symbolism often obscuring
the naked facts. Significantly, O'Neill was making notes for the
more personally revealing ''Long Day's Journey'' at the same
time he was writing ''Iceman.''
During that spring of 1939, O'Neill retreated deeper and
deeper into his past, into a time when he spent countless hours
and endless days drinking in a saloon and rooming house on
Fulton Street called Jimmy-the-Priest's, sharing his
fellow-derelicts' pipe dreams, their ''hopeless hope'' of a
better tomorrow that never came.
O'Neill set ''The Iceman Cometh'' (and ''Long Day's
Journey'') in 1912 becuse it was the most significant year
-apart from his birth in 1888 - of his life. It was the year he
hit bottom. He had been to sea on a square-rigger and slept on
park benches in Buenos Aires, shipped out again on a steamship,
and was now back in New York, haunting the waterfront. He was
deeply depressed over his mother's drug addiction - brought on,
she had let him know, by the pain of his birth. He quarreled
bitterly with his famous actor-father, whom he blamed for
perpetuating his mother's unhappiness.
He had recently gone through a sordid divorce from his
hastily-married first wife, the mother of his unacknowledged
son. And, perhaps most painful of all, he had become
disillusioned with the cynical, wastrel older brother whom he
had once idolized. James O'Neill Jr. - the Jamie Tyrone of
''Long Day's Journey'' and its sequel, ''A Moon for the
Misbegotten'' - was a self-deluded, fast-talking, womaniz > ing,
boozing con artist, who provided much of the character of Hickey
in ''Iceman'' - Hickey, the fast-talking salesman of death.
It was also the year O'Neill attempted suicide, only to be
humiliatingly rescued by some of his fellow-derelicts at
Jimmy-the-Priest's, which was to serve as part-model for Harry
Hope's saloon in ''The Iceman Cometh.'' And in a final, macabre
fillip, later that same year, O'Neill contracted tuberculosis, a
disease considered in those days to be tantamount to a death
warrant. On the brink of death for the second time, he
miraculously recovered. And with recovery he found his vocation
as a writer, his ''rebirth,'' as he characterized it. At 24, he
was given his second chance for life.
It was not surprising that O'Neill, ill and aging, should
return in his mind to the period that spawned the creative
genius he had become.
O'Neill paid $3 a month at Jimmy-the-Priest's, named for its
proprietor, who looked more like an ascetic than a saloon
keeper. O'Neill described the general sense of resignation at
Jimmy's when he had one of the characters in ''Iceman'' remark,
early in the play: ''It's the No Chance Saloon. It's Bedrock
Bar, the End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller!
. . . it's the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where
they're going next, because there is no farther they can go.''
The habitues of Jimmy's, O'Neill once said, ''were a hard
lot, at first glance, every type - sailors on shore leave or
stranded; longshoremen, waterfront riffraff, gangsters,
down-and-outers, drifters from the ends of the earth.'' O'Neill,
just turned 23, was younger than most of them but he
''I lived with them, got to know them,'' he said. ''In some
queer way they carried on. I learned at Jimmy-the-Priest's not
to sit in judgment on people.''
Several of these characters turned up in ''Iceman,'' but most
of the denizens of Harry Hope's saloon were transposed by
O'Neill from another favorite drinking place, discovered a few
years later. It was on lower Sixth Avenue, formally called the
Golden Swan, but nicknamed by its patrons the Hell Hole. By then
- 1915 -O'Neill had written several plays and even had two of
them produced by the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village.
At the Hell Hole his drinking companions included his
fellow-writers, but they were outnumbered by truck drivers,
gamblers and petty gangsters. The proprietor, like Jimmy-the
Priest, rented rooms above the saloon. His name was Tom Wallace,
he was an ex-prizefighter, and he became Harry Hope in
''Iceman.'' (The name, aside from the symbolism conveyed by the
word ''hope,'' is deliberately suggestive of Hell Hole.) As he
often did, O'Neill wrote an aspect of himself into the play - in
the guise of Willie Oban - although the character is not the
self-portrait that Edmund Tyrone is in ''Long Day's Journey.''
Oban is given to blurting, from the depths of an alcoholic
dream, ''Papa! Papa!,'' which was what O'Neill called his
father. And Oban has the same resentful emotional dependence on
his father and the same sense of being overshadowed by him that
plagued O'Neill at that stage of his life.
While O'Neill, in his maturity, could sometimes view all
these men (including himself) with ironic detachment, he could
also surrender to them and to their potent effect on him, as any
truly creative writer must surrender to the characters he is
creating. And the crushing memories thus invoked, while
enriching the stuff of his plays, took their toll on O'Neill's
progressively fragile health.
He was also increasingly concerned over the situation in
Europe - ''the Hitler jitters,'' he called it. Three months into
the writing of ''The Iceman Cometh,'' France and Great Britain
declared war on Germany, throwing O'Neill into an ever-deepening
state of gloom. He wanted to do something for the war effort,
but could not bring himself, as many of his fellow writers were
doing, to write propaganda.
''When an artist starts saving the world,'' O'Neill wrote to
the critic, George Jean Nathan, ''he starts losing himself. The
one reform worth cheering for is the Second Flood, and the
interesting thing about people is the obvious fact that they
don't really want to be saved - the tragic idiotic ambition for
self-destruction in them.''
He was expressing the philosophy of ''hopeless hope'' that
permeated ''The Iceman Cometh.'' The derelicts of Harry Hope's
saloon, who drank themselves insensible every night, became the
symbol of O'Neill's own unattainable dreams, dreams whose bitter
frustration he need, perhaps, never have known, had he succeeded
in killing himself with whisky and veronal in 1912.
The play's surface story concerns the traveling salesman,
Theodore Hickman (Hickey), who murders the long-suffering wife
to whom he has been consistently unfaithful, in the belief that
he is thus giving her peace. The play, however, has subsurfaces
and sub-subsurfaces, and is perhaps the most intricately and
symbolically coded of all O'Neill's plays; it is also probably
his greatest. The play has been lengthily analyzed from the
psychiatric, the religious and the metaphysical viewpoint - let
alone the literary - and it may ultimately accumulate as large a
body of scholarly discourse as ''Hamlet.''
The play's religious symbolism, for instance, seemed
perfectly clear to the scholar, Cyrus Day, who published his
findings in ''Modern Drama,'' pointing out the ''tantalizing
resemblances'' to the New Testament.
''Hickey as saviour has 12 disciples,'' Day wrote. ''They
drink wine at Hope's supper party, and their grouping on the
stage, according to O'Neill's directions, is reminiscent of
Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper. Hickey leaves
the party, as Christ does, aware that he is about to be executed
. . .
''One of the derelicts, Parritt, resembles Judas Iscariot in
several ways. He is the 12th in the list of the dramatis
personae; Judas is 12th in the New Testament of the Disciples.
He has betrayed his anarchist mother for a paltry $200; Judas
betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. He is from the far-away
Pacific Coast; Judas was from far-away Judea. Hickey reads his
mind and motives; Christ reads Judas's . . . these resemblances
can hardly be coincidental . . . but they are consistent with
the main theme of the play, and they account for some of its
otherwise unaccountable features; for example, the emphasis on
midnight (see Matthew 25:5-6) as the hour appointed for Hope's
party, and the unnecessarily large number of derelicts in Hope's
Equally striking is the highly perceptive and illuminating
analysis of the play by the writer, Dudley Nichols. O'Neill had
discussed ''The Iceman Cometh'' in intimate detail with Nichols
during the time he was writing it. (Nichols was working on the
screenplay of O'Neill's ''Long Voyage Home,'' which was released
in the fall of 1940 and became the most successful of all the
movie adaptations of O'Neill's plays.) ''The iceman of the title
is, of course, death,'' Nichols observed. ''I don't think
O'Neill ever explained, publicly, what he meant by the use of
the archaic word, 'cometh,' but he told me at the time he was
writing the play that he meant a combination of the poetic and
biblical 'Death cometh' - that is, cometh to all living - and
the old bawdy story, a typical Hickey [and Jamie O'Neill] story,
of the man who calls upstairs, 'Has the iceman come yet?'' and
his wife calls back, 'No, but he's breathin' hard.'
''Even the bawdy story is transformed by the poetic intention
of the title, for it is really Death which Hickey's wife,
Evelyn, has taken to her breast when she marries Hickey, and her
insistence on her great love for Hickey and his undying love for
her and her deathlike grip on his conscience - her insistence
that he can change and not get drunk and sleep with whores - is
making Death breathe hard on her breast as he approaches ever
nearer - as he is about 'to come' in the vernacular sense. It is
a strange and poetic intermingling of the exalted and the
vulgar, that title.''
Nichols did not see the play as ''pessimistic.''
''It's surely not a gloomy play,'' he said. ''O'Neill himself
delighted in its laughter. He'd chuckle over the tarts and the
others - he loved them all. He didn't feel that the fact that we
live largely by illusion is sad. The important thing is to see
that we do. The quality of a man is merely the quality of his
illusions. We like illusioned people. No happy person lives on
good terms with reality. No one has even penetrated what reality
''The Iceman Cometh'' was completed a month after O'Neill's
51st birthday, but it was not to be produced until nearly seven
years later, the last of his plays to be staged in his lifetime.
He spent the next two years writing the profoundly painful
''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' followed by the long one-act
play, ''Hughie.'' And in 1943 he wrote his final play - a sequel
to ''Journey,'' tracing his older brother's decline and death -
''A Moon for the Misbegotten.''
Both ''Journey'' and ''Moon'' dealt with the devastatingly
destructive relationships among O'Neill's parents, his brother
and himself, and the writing of these two plays used up
O'Neill's last ounces of creative juice. By the time he finished
them, he knew himself to be a dying man. He celebrated his 56th
birthday by visiting what he called ''a really swell
columbarium.'' He decribed it in a letter to a friend:
''California, as is well known, leads the world in the
swellness of its columbariums designed, apparently, to keep the
dead lively, cheerful and constantly amused.'' He had intended,
he said, ''to price a few snappy urns,'' just by way of
safeguarding his future; but neither the ''curator of the dump''
nor he could make themselves heard above ''the roaring of ten
thousand savage canary birds and horrid gush of fancy
fountains,'' so it all came to nothing. He had left the place,
he said, swearing he would live forever ''to spite those damned
canaries'' and vowing that his next pet bird would be a buzzard.
Despite his uncertain health, O'Neill had agreed to let the
Theater Guild stage ''The Iceman Cometh,'' once the war in
Europe ended, and in the spring of 1945 he and his third wife,
Carolotta, made plans to come east by train.
In New York, where O'Neill had not lived for many years, and
where he had not had a play produced since 1934, he seemed to
undergo a sudden and mysterious remission of his various
ailments. Somehow, he found the strength to get through all the
arduous work of a Broadway production. During those months in
1946 the remote, anguished, profoundly introverted dramatist
turned into a sociable, communicative New York celebrity. From
some arcane source, O'Neill seemed to summon the energy to dance
a dazzling jig into the arms of the iceman of death.
He began seeing old friends and going out on the town - to
hockey games and bicycle races, to clubs where jazz was played,
to the race track. Carlotta, who was accustomed to the roles of
both nurse and guardian of O'Neill's privacy, began to fret.
With reason, she feared that O'Neill was straining his health.
And - not so reasonably- she feared the lessening of his
dependence on her. There was constant friction between them,
which O'Neill, in his new role, tried to shrug off. He was
thoroughly enjoying himself.
One day during the dress-rehearsal period, the director,
Eddie Dowling, arranged for O'Neill, himself and the whole cast
of 19 to have lunch at Gilhuly's, a well-known Eighth Avenue
saloon. They began walking from the theater, the actors still in
the ''Iceman'' costumes and makeup that made them look like
bums. On the way along Eighth Avenue they picked up half a dozen
real bums, who followed the actors, thinking they were fellow
When they arrived at Gilhuly's, the owner started throwing
the bums out - including some of the actors. O'Neill asked
Gilhuly to let them all stay. The real bums lunched there, along
with the actors, as O'Neill's guests.
On Sept. 2, the day of the opening, O'Neill held a press
interview. As always, he was outspoken, taking little cognizance
of whatever may have been the fashionable attitudes of the
times. In an era of postwar optimism, and a surge of elation
over his country's victorious emergence as the leading world
power, O'Neill calmly expressed his view that the victory was a
hollow one and America was a flop.
''I'm going on the theory that the United States, instead of
being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest
failure. It's the greatest failure because it was given
everything, more than any other country. Through moving as
rapidly as it has, it hasn't acquired any real roots. Its main
idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul
by the possession of something outside it, thereby losing your
own soul and the thing outside of it, too.
''America is the prime example of this because it happened so
quickly and with such immense resources. This was really said in
the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of 'For what
shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose
his own soul?' We had so much and could have gone either way.
''If the human race is so damned stupid that in two thousand
years it hasn't had brains enough to appreciate that the secret
of happiness is contained in that one simple sentence, which
you'd think any grammar school kid could understand and apply,
then it's time we dumped it down the nearest drain and let the
ants take over.''
''The Iceman Cometh'' received mixed reviews. Like many great
works of art, it was ahead of its time. It also suffered from a
much-flawed production. (It was not until 10 years later, in an
Off Broadway revival, that the play came into its own and was
widely acknowledged, at last, as the masterpiece it is. That
production featured the same director and leading man as the
present Broadway revival: Jose Quintero and Jason Robards. And
its success led to Quintero's direction later that same year
(1956) of ''Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' which, in turn,
caused a reevaluation of O'Neill's status and an ever-increasing
demand for revivals of his plays.) O'Neill's health and spirits
crumbled soon after the premiere of ''Iceman,'' and Carlotta
swept him back into protective custody, this time isolating him
in a house chained to rocks, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, in
Marblehead, Mass. There he brooded over the ghosts of his past,
bitterly lamented his inability to write or even to grasp a
pencil, so bad had the tremor in his hands become. Having no
other occupation, he abused and was abused by Carlotta.
Desperately, he joined the Euthanasia Society and willed himself
to die, a wish finally granted on Nov. 27, 1953, a month after
his 65th birthday.