The Return of Eugene O'Neill

by ERIC BENTLEY

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EUROPE’S loss, in the past decade, has very often been our gain, and in the new post-war era New York could become the center of artistic theater in the Western world. Whether it will become so depends on the talent it discovers, native and foreign, and the encouragement it gives to the discoveries.

Of our native talents in playwriting the most remarkable so far is that of Eugene O’Neill. I suggest 1915 as the birthday of American drama because in that year the Provincetown Theatre, Mr. O’Neill’s first professional home, was founded. Between the First World War and 1934, Mr. O’Neill had many plays produced. They won him the Nobel Prize (not to mention Pulitzers) and established him as the best American playwright. Then the stream stopped. Not for a dozen years has a new O’Neill play been released. Hence one’s pressing curiosity about The Iceman Cometh, which will be on Broadway by the time this article appears. I ask the forbearance of those readers who have seen it; what follows is an impression of the script.

Mr. O’Neill has two stories to tell — or two situations to reveal — and I had better give some notion of both. The first story is about a “hardware drummer” nicknamed Hickey who periodically goes on a spree and afterwards is always forgiven by his wife even though after one of his jaunts he gives her syphilis. The forgiveness and the wife’s pipe dream that he will reform get on Hickey’s nerves. At last, before going on the spree that is held annually on his friend Harry’s birthday, Hickey decides to get his wife off his conscience by killing her. To the corpse he says: “Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!”

The second story is about a woman named Parritt who believes in freedom and becomes a leading Anarchist on the West Coast. Her little son grows up to hate her because he objects to the fact that “she just had to keep on having lovers to prove to herself how free she was.” He also notes that although she is devoted to the idea of freedom she is herself a tyrant. Resentment grows in him to the point where he gives away his mother and the Anarchist gang to the police, though he knows his mother can’t last long in jail. Thinking of her fate he says to himself: “You know what you can do with your freedom pipe dream, don’t you, you damned old whore?”

What does O’Neill make of this material? The first act opens soon after Hickey’s murder and young Parritt’s betrayal. The fourth and last act closes with Parritt’s suicide and Hickey’s giving himself up to the police. Throughout the play the scene is laid in a New York backroom and bar in 1912. In this setting Mr. O’Neill assembles a group of down-and-outs who for the most part have abandoned their various callings for drink and dreams. The bar is symbolic: —

It’s Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Café, the Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller, the Last Harbor! No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows.

These pipe dreams are the subject of the play. If you were to ask why the inmates of Harry’s bar don’t shoot themselves, the answer is that each of them is fooling himself with a comforting illusion about his past and future. There are two scarred relics of the Boer War who dream of going back to England and Africa respectively. An ex-policeman, discharged for graft, dreams of returning to the “force.” One character is actually nicknamed Jimmy Tomorrow. The landlord is called Harry Hope. His hope is to return to Tammany; but he has not left the Last Harbor for twenty years.

Human wrecks, then, kept afloat only by pipe dreams, form a kind of choral setting for the story of Hickey and Parritt. And there is a third main character — the man whom Parritt’s mother would presumably have married, had not marriage been against her principles, Larry Slade, another wreck, a spectator “in the grandstand” of life. Having washed his hands of the Anarchist Movement, Larry regards himself as the one man without a pipe dream.

He remains alive because he is afraid of the alternative.

O’Neill tells his story in the manner made famous by Ibsen: the crucial events having taken place before the curtain rises, he lets them leak out so slowly that we are still discovering some of them in the last act. Up to the end of Act II the audience knows nothing against Hickey. It sees in him a reformed drunk who seems to have got religion. He spends his time asking everyone to share the peace in his heart, which, he says, they can do by giving up their pipe dreams and being true to themselves. But the Ibsenite “leakage” occurs with equal regularity. Act II ends with the announcement that Hickey’s wife is dead; Act III that she was killed; Act IV that Hickey himself is the murderer.

During the first three quarters of the play we seem to be witnessing a call to a change of heart, with Hickey as the preacher and repentant sinner. His preaching, moreover, has some effect. The lost souls of Harry’s bar start shaking off their illusions and trying to live again. They make their arrangements to leave and take up their lives where they left off. Harry himself actually struggles out into the street to prove that he can face the outer world. But before we can tell how far Hickey’s evangelical campaign might go, the collapse comes. Hickey’s remarks about his wife’s death have aroused suspicion, and he is compelled to tell the whole story.

Now apparently he wouldn’t have minded revealing the facts very much, for he has called the police and is fully prepared for his fate, except for the fact that more truth comes blurting out of his mouth than he had intended — more, indeed, than he knew to be there. Hickey has been fooling himself all this time that he killed his wife for her own sake and out of pure love. He now finds himself saying that he resented her pipe dream and that he killed her for his own sake and out of pure hatred. Agonized, he tries to disclaim the thought. If he really had said, “You know what you can do with your pipe dream now,” must he not have been mad? He appeals to Harry and the gang, who gladly accept the notion that Hickey has been mad all along. Hickey sees how utterly his attempt to redeem the gang has failed. “It was a waste of time coming here.” He is led off— to the chair or, more likely, to the madhouse. The gang gives up its plans for reformation and goes back to the bottle.

The story of young Parritt is laid side by side with that of Hickey, for his crime is the same and yet different: the same in being motivated by hatred, different in that Parritt could not pretend he acted out of either love or insanity, different too in that his mother was not peacefully dead but enduring a living death; there was nothing Parritt could give himself up to the police for.

Mr. O’Neill brings his main characters together and preserves the unities of time and place by having Parritt, driven by guilt, seek out his mother’s former lover, Larry Slade. The “leakage” of Larry’s story is as symmetrical as that of Hickey’s. In Act I we learn that a stool pigeon has landed Parritt’s mother in jail. In Act II we discover that the stool pigeon is Parritt himself, but we are given the false reason that he acted from patriotic motives. In Act III another false reason is provided: that Parritt wanted the money offered as reward. In Act IV when Hickey reaches the end of his narrative with the words “So I killed her,” Parritt “suddenly gives up and relaxes limply,” saying: —

I may as well confess, Larry. There’s no use lying any more. You know, anyway. I didn’t give a damn about the money. It was because I hated her.

Throughout the play Larry has feigned indifference to Parritt and his story, but it becomes more and more obvious that he has never lost his affection for the mother. Hickey wears down the resistance of both Larry and Parritt, and when, at Hickey’s downfall, Larry at last tells Parritt to kill himself, the latter, who has been hankering for punishment all along, throws himself down from the fire escape.

Thus two of the main characters are disposed of. Larry, the third, remains. How long he will remain is doubtful, since he is the one person who is fundamentally changed by all that has happened. Although he still does not want to live, he is no longer afraid to die. “By God, I’m the only real convert Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward’s heart I mean that now!” The final stage direction reads: “Larry stares in front of him, oblivious to all their racket.”

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WHAT does the play mean? When the audience gets up at the end of Act II it may well think it is in for another Days Without End. (This last play of O’Neill’s ended with religious salvation.) But O’Neill has been pulling the wool over our eyes. His preacher is a murderer. This foe of pipe dreams is the victim of the most terrible pipe dream revealed in the whole play: the dream that he killed in a spirit of love. And so his gospel turns to ashes in the mouth. Larry, the man without a pipe dream, is no savior either. To be true to himself means in his case turning from cynicism to — death. The Iceman is death, of course. Hickey always used to say in jest that his wife was in the hay with the iceman. And in the end he made sure that she was. The Iceman assuredly earns his place in the title of the play.

It has been said that O’Neill’s plays do not “mean anything,” that they simply present a picture of life. Certainly the most striking thing in The Iceman Cometh is the strange light that is thrown on human nature by Hickey’s evangelical episode. The upshot is bad (some critics will call the play pessimistic), yet it is not what Hickey preached that is questioned but his right to preach it. Hickey himself sees this at the end when he advises Harry not to believe that he has been mad all along, for this belief will turn into another pipe dream, another excuse for relapsing into inactivity.

Pessimistic or not, the play involves a system of thought, the same one, in fact, that has underlain all O’Neill’s plays. O’Neill’s formula (for perhaps it is less a system than a formula) is: all good forces are those of love and life, all bad forces are those of hate and death. Like Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh portrays only the forces of hate and death. But the Hickey episode shows in a weird way that the opposite forces lie slumbering beneath the surface. Could they be quickened into motion by someone with no pipe dream like Hickey’s and no death wish like Larry’s? Mr. O’Neill does not pose this question. But obviously his play does “ mean something. " It means several things. And those who have followed O’Neill’s account of human aspirations and attachments, horizons and roots, from his earliest plays on will have no difficulty in finding the principal meanings. Those who come newly to the dramatist I advise to listen to Hickey, for, whatever his behavior and his motive, his gospel of love and life is O’Neill’s own.

How good a play is The Iceman? As an experience in the theater it is likely to be less “terrific” than the Interlude or Electra; yet I find it a more interesting play. To everyone except O’Neill-worshipers the two earlier colossi seemed contrived, labored, overloaded, and at times false. It was not that there was too much Freud but that there was too much ham melodrama. Though such roles as Nina and Lavinia have a sound and fury that must impress every actress and every theatergoer, the new play is the cooler, the steadier, and on the whole the better, for their absence. The two women whose lives have much to do with The Iceman are dead before the first act opens. All the chief roles are male. This fact, the low-life setting, and the slangy vernacular of the dialogue give us an atmosphere quite unlike that of O’Neill’s other “big” plays, though not so unlike that of his earlier pieces in which, as here, a remarkable working union was effected between naturalism and symbolism.

New and old also is his use of Ibsen’s analytic exposition — Emperor Jones was an early exploitation of it. New and old is the political-social motif. As in The Hairy Ape, Mr. O’Neill’s approach to society and politics is neither sociological nor political. Politics provide a background for a “timeless” theme, thus annoying the Marxists who look in vain through O’Neill’s works for a social message. Nevertheless, the political disillusionment of Larry Slade and young Parritt, not to mention one of the minor characters who is a hostile portrait of a power-mad radical, will mean something to a generation that knows Arthur Koestler and George Orwell.

The Iceman Cometh, for all its length, is not an “experimental” play. The masks of The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed, the double appearance of John Loving in Days Without End, the allusions to Greek myth in Electra, the asides of the Interlude — all these seem to have been experimental not in the true sense of being part of a process of discovery and development but in the cheap sense of being freakishly unorthodox. None of these devices is used in the new play. Yet one thing about The Iceman is of technical interest.

I allude to the effect of the Ibsen technic, to the concealment from the audience of the play’s starting point — the fact that Hickey has killed his wife and the fact that he too has his pipe dream. Of course the modern audience, inured to the thriller, is used to histrionic concealment. And, as a thriller, the value of The Iceman is not impaired by mystery so long undispelled. On the melodramatic level, this play, like all of O’Neill’s, is grandly successful.

But what of its interpretation of life? Is the theme as impressive as it is simple? Is it perfectly presented? Many theorists of the drama have questioned the advisability, in a matter of dramatic irony, of keeping the audience as well as the characters in the dark. Their objection seems germane here. What is gained by keeping us in the dark except an added mysteriousness of atmosphere? Mr. O’Neill might claim that his intention was to let a wrong view settle gradually in the mind and then to drive it out with a sudden dramatic shock. But, in the first place, the shock is so sudden and laconic, the preparation so slow and loquacious, that an audience might well be bewildered rather than enlightened. In the second place, very much is lost by the delay. Not knowing what Hickey really is, we are in no position to appreciate the irony of his evangelical efforts while they are in progress. Possibly Mr. O’Neill has damaged his drama to save his melodrama.

Over twenty years ago the poet-playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal complained that there was something labored, ponderous, and crude about Mr. O’Neill’s plays. He found the dramatic repetitions so numerous that they canceled each other out — a point not without relevance to The Iceman, which is hampered with too many exact symmetries — character balanced against character, plot against plot, Act against Act. Since most of the characters are rather wooden and diagrammatic — the whores are stage whores, and so on — since the raciness of the speeches is the raciness of Broadway convention rather than that of great realistic dialogue, we have the impression less of fine dramatic form — which is, so to say, organic — than of a skeleton’s rigidity. Of course there is much emotion in the play. But you cannot pass off a skeleton as a man merely by enveloping it in a cloud of emotion.

These are rough words. I should make it clear also that I am judging Mr. O’Neill, as he deserves to be judged, by standards far above those of Broadway. If we were to follow the critics’ formula: “ The Iceman Cometh is the best American play since x,” then x could only be some earlier play of Mr. O’Neill’s. The present season will show how he holds his own against such European playwrights as Sartre, Camus, and Brecht.