How dark is too dark? This winter, I debated that question with fellow audience members after seeing the Goodman Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Eugene O’Neill’s grimmest play chronicles the deadly fallout from the arrival of a traveling salesman named Hickey at Harry Hope’s Greenwich Village hotel-saloon in the summer of 1912. The building’s down-and-out regulars usually look forward to Hickey’s periodic drunken sprees, which break up the monotony of reminiscing about their largely fictitious happier days and indulging in pipe dreams about how they will someday pick themselves up and change their lives. But this time Hickey is sober and intent on forcing his erstwhile drinking buddies to face the lies they tell themselves and each other. Disaster, unsurprisingly, ensues.
Obviously, no one expects an evening of good cheer at a performance of this bleak masterpiece, but the Goodman production was particularly savage. It emphasized the hatred O’Neill’s barflies now feel for the changed Hickey. Larry, the disenchanted anarchist often played as an easygoing counterpoint to Hickey’s demonic truth-teller, was contemptuous rather than sardonically fond of his self-deceiving companions. Gone was the camaraderie of mutually tolerated fantasies that can warm up the first act; this Iceman was icy from the start. By the finale, staged as a Walpurgisnacht-like celebration after Hickey is arrested for killing his wife, horror and fear were the only emotions possible. Feeling sorry for these devastated souls would have been what O’Neill calls the wrong kind of pity, the sort that allows you to feel superior to them.
One of my fellow theater-goers argued that this approach denied O’Neill’s characters the shakily maintained dignity his script grants them, and indeed the hard-edged performances didn’t make it easy to feel sympathy for the saloon’s derelict habitués. But easy is an insult in O’Neill’s vocabulary, and sympathy is beside the point. Iceman challenges us to recognize our kinship with those at the very bottom of society without the crutches of sentimentality or pathos. When the play is misunderstood, as it mostly was in the respectful reviews of its 1946 premiere, it’s seen as a realistic study of some “rags and tags of the human race” (as The New York Times put it) who have nothing to do with the rest of us. Over time, we have caught up with O’Neill and become more willing to acknowledge that the characters’ whisky-soaked dreams are “an extreme form of the delusions that let everyone get from day to day” (The New York Times again, this time in 1999). The Goodman’s flinty interpretation, which became increasingly stylized as the play progressed, illustrated that commonality through a revelatory conjunction of movement, scenery, and lighting in Act III. Upstage stood a doorway dividing the real world from the barroom. As the characters, goaded by Hickey to make good on their dreams, one by one threw open the door and stepped outside, they were silhouetted against brilliant white light before disappearing. The human journeys from the womb into life and from life into death were both evoked; we were invited to contemplate the way all of us huddle in our carefully constructed safe spaces, aware on some level that they can never be more than temporary refuges.
Anyone who thinks such stylization inappropriate for O’Neill doesn’t know The Emperor Jones or The Hairy Ape. O’Neill spent more than a decade in restless experimentation before simplifying his technique for his late plays, yet he is often mistakenly patronized as a clumsy naturalist. Iceman’s famous declaration, “the lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us,” is cited as a prime example of O’Neill’s penchant for crudely making obvious points: Larry says it in the first act, it’s reiterated endlessly, and once the barroom denizens have brushed off Hickey’s unwelcome insights as the ravings of a murderous madman, everyone except Larry happily re-embraces their pipe dreams at the end of Act IV.
If that’s the way it’s played, audience members can congratulate themselves on appreciating an irony that is lost on the characters. Watching the frantic, cacophonous festivities that concluded the Goodman production, I understood what I believe O’Neill always intended us to understand: these people haven’t forgotten what Hickey made them admit about themselves. They have gone back to pretending, but they know the truth. They have always known, and that’s what makes The Iceman Cometh so scarifying.
When Larry angrily reproaches Hickey for taking away the solace of people’s pipe dreams, asking, “Have you no decency or pity?” Hickey replies, “It isn’t the kind that lets itself off easy by encouraging some poor guy to go on kidding himself with a lie—the kind that leaves the poor slob worse off because it makes him feel guiltier than ever.” Hickey is right: self-delusion doesn’t extinguish self-awareness; it just makes it a source of shame. But eliminating the delusion doesn’t eliminate the shame. The people who stumble back into the saloon, each one having failed to make their fantasies real, hate themselves even more. We can’t live without our illusions, but we can’t really live with them either, Iceman bitterly concludes.
O’Neill’s deadbeat drunks are extreme cases, but extremity clarifies. From the beginning of his playwriting career, he matter-of-factly portrayed rough-edged proletarians (the Glencairn cycle), prostitutes (Anna Christie), and African Americans (All God’s Chillun Got Wings) as engaged in the same quest for meaning and longing for peace as the middle-class characters whose repressions and evasions he anatomized in Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra. From Beyond the Horizon through A Touch of the Poet, he lectured complacent, conformist America about the dire consequences of being false to your true self and betraying your dreams for material success. These themes still echo, within the context of O’Neill’s tragic family history in his most perfect play, Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Iceman voices a more radically pessimistic vision. Dreams are essential and destructive. You may despise your true self. We lie to ourselves every day, we know it, and we can’t do anything about it. We get along with other people by humoring their delusions. When we don’t, they hate us, and we are alone. The darkness of this, O’Neill’s final philosophical statement, runs deeper and wider than in anything else he ever wrote. Is this the whole truth about life? Thank goodness, no. But sometimes you need to stand shivering in the freezing blast of O’Neill’s ferocious contempt for everything comfortable and reassuring. Any production of The Iceman Cometh that scants the desolation at its core shirks the play’s central task: making darkness visible.
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