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O'Neill's 'Iceman' Sprang From
the Ashes of His Youth

 
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 ''belonged.''

''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 saloon.''

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 is.''

''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 derelicts.

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.
 

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