New York co-editors Molly Grogan and Richard Patterson, along with critic Patrick Maley, recently reviewed Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, directed by Robert Falls. Below is their group review.
Richard Patterson: To kick things off, I’d be curious to know what each of you brought into your viewing of The Iceman Cometh. Had either of you read or seen the play before?
Patrick Maley: I’ve taught Iceman and other O’Neill plays in college classrooms, and I’ve published writing about O’Neill both as an academic and critic. That said, my theatrical experience with his work is more limited: I’ve only seen Desire Under the Elms and Beyond the Horizon prior to this Iceman. So not having seen another Iceman, I have nothing to which I can compare this production.
Molly Grogan: I had never seen or read the play but know much else of O’Neill. I would have to say I have tried to like his work more than I have truly enjoyed it and that I feel more resistant to his work the more I see it. Maybe that’s an issue with productions of his work, although this one from the Goodman Theater is particularly well executed.
Richard Patterson: I’d never seen or read it before. I’ve seen a handful of other O’Neill plays over the years – Desire Under the Elms, A Moon For the Misbegotten, The Emperor Jones, and Mourning Becomes Electra – and although I’d had a cursory awareness of Iceman, it’s not done very often so I hadn’t had an opportunity to see it live until now. I have to say that, while I’m not a big fan of O’Neill’s work overall, it’s up there with Misbegotten as among the best O’Neill I’ve seen. To my mind, O’Neill’s work is still too full of buzzwords (which we could kindly deem “leitmotifs” but which grow wearying quickly) and often features too much telling and not enough doing. Still, wasn’t this an incredible ensemble?
Patrick Maley: This was an incredible ensemble. I thought every single drunk appeared as a fully realized and compelling character. Considering the limitations of O’Neill’s writing, much of the credit for that must go to the performers, who were excellent. I thought Nathan Lane was especially great.
I’m really curious to hear what you two thought of Dennehy.
Richard Patterson: I thought Dennehy was fantastic. I’d seen him in a few other things before, but this was the best I’d ever seen him. I love the duality between Slade and Hickey in the play. Slade is the craggy observer, and Hickey is the loud-mouthed doer. Exactly what he’s done doesn’t get revealed toward the end of the play, but Hickey’s arrival on the scene really sets up the powder keg element of the play that builds across the play’s four acts.
I think Lane, like a lot of comedians, has a depth of feeling that we as audience members are only now getting to experience now that he’s delving into more dramatic roles. He was absolutely fantastic in The Nance the season before last as a closeted burlesque performer, a role that bridged the gap between his musical-comedy persona and the dramatic side that’s on display in full force here in Iceman. Still, there’s an element of the Nathan Lane here that we all love – the jovial wisecracker – that endears us to him and to his character off the bat.
I’ve been thinking a lot about O’Neill’s repetition throughout the play, and it occurred to me that there is one motif running through the play that I love, which is ending each of the first three acts with the word “happy” spoken by Hickey. It’s not a hit-you-over-the-head example of repetition; you really have to think about the play to realize it’s even happening. In Act I, we hear him say “all I want is to see you happy.” In Act II, we get to hear a little bit of his back story, ending with “all that Evelyn wanted out of life was to make me happy.” In Act III, we get “It’s time you began to feel happy.” It’s clear that happiness is the pinnacle for Hickey, and that “pipe dreams” and unrealistic expectations are the enemy, and I think all of us as audience members can relate to those themes. That, ultimately is why the play and this production of it have the impact they do.
Molly Grogan: I think everyone will agree that the success of this Iceman lies especially with the quality of its cast and casting. Lane’s polished showman seems a natural in the role of the messianic Hickey and 77-year-old Dennehy, a grizzled actor even in his youth, is equally at home playing Larry as a sardonic wiseman. The rest of the ensemble excels at eliciting sympathy, even affection, for O’Neill’s hard-to-love characters in this play, notable for its large cast of “losers” of all rank and file. The obvious exception is Patrick Andrews who possibly turns in the most intense and disturbing performance as Don Parritt, who never once reminded me of the fatherless teenager O’Neill imagined, but something closer to a stalker.
I wonder also about the success of this production as a response to O’Neill’s theme of resolving ourselves to our flawed natures and finding “salvation” in being reconciled to our innate failings – and how this frees the individual from the guilt of doing wrong. The production seems to be hitting a subliminal nerve with audiences who relate to Lane’s charismatic Hickey: does he manage to get us to believe with him that he’s not really guilty of murdering his wife because he did it for love of her and that he’s heroically lucid for understanding this?
Despite the excellent acting all around, which in Kevin Depinet’s cavernous, verdigris sets is given room to expand and impose individual touches of color, I felt a certain level of frustration at O’Neill’s treatment of women. For at least two of the main characters ( Hickey and Parritt) and possibly also the lonely Slade, a woman is the source of their failings and frustrations, whether she is an ideal-driven mother, a devoted wife, or even a one night stand. Hickey’s closing monologue is a narcissistic rant revealing a codependent love-hate relationship, while Parritt’s betrayal of his mother is a symbolic matricide. The three prostitutes are the stereotypical good-hearted whores whose ambitions to be more than that are off-handedly, and, in the case of Cora, cruelly squelched. When it comes to women it seems, all cliches are good ones for O’Neill if they help develop his egotistical heroes.
Patrick Maley: There is even less defending O’Neill against the charge of misogyny than there is against criticism of his stilted prose. Tony Kushner has recently called O’Neill’s language “the native eloquence of fog,” arguing for a sense of beauty in the strained, quotidian language, but I know of no critic who has endeavored to deny O’Neill’s misogyny. I have myself argued elsewhere that the primary catalyst of Long Day’s Journey‘s tragedy is the Tyrone men unfairly foisting all their expectations for family salvation onto their frail matriarch. Some complex women exist littered throughout O’Neill’s oeuvre (Ella Downy, Lavinia Mannon, and Nora Melody among them), but these are more of an exception than a pattern. In Iceman we’ve got three prostitutes and several offstage women who are too good for the men to accept: the play quite literally and rigidly establishes the Madonna-whore binary.
Nonetheless, I disagree that women are the source of man’s failings and frustrations here. On the one hand, women have next to nothing to do with the story lines of Mosher, McGloin, Oban, Mott, Wetjoen, Lewis, Cameron, or Kalmar. We could argue that these exceptions are less important because these are secondary characters, but I think the play strives to suggest that the ruinous dreams fueling the Tomorrow Movement are equally destructive in whatever form they take. Secondly, although the more important characters like Hope and Hickey definitely place women at the core of their troubles, the play drastically undercuts their efforts to blame women for their own troubles. Finally, and I think most importantly, Slade’s character is far more complex than terms like misogynist, anarchist, or drunk can capture. He does not blame Parritt’s mother for his troubles like Hickey blames Evelyn, and we hear little about other problems that drove him into this bar other than disillusionment with his comrades in the Movement. I find this to be Slade’s play most of all.
To be clear, I am absolutely not offering some strained defense against O’Neill’s misogyny nor suggesting that the play’s treatment of women as characters both on and off stage is anything but that. I am instead suggesting that the clearly misogynist strain of the play is only one of a myriad of factors haunting these men, and that the play’s primary concern is demonstrating how all of its drunks’ excuses and blame-laying fall short of finding the root cause of the characters’ troubles, which seems to be a lack – or fear – of honest self-assessment.
Ultimately, the play is cyclical, and I think that structure demonstrates how much it condemns its characters. The characters get the party they were hoping for in act one at the play’s conclusion–only they get it through the exit of Hickey rather than his entrance. Richard earlier pointed out the repetition of the word happy at the close of the first three acts: well, the fourth act closes with happiness for most of most characters. But that happiness comes out of willful and cultivated oblivion, something which Slade would love to be able to embrace, but cannot. If the play asks us to embrace the plight of anybody, it is Slade, who is doomed to “looking with pity at the two sides of everything” until the day he dies. That I think is the challenge the plays leaves us with, while underscoring how undesirable doing so often is.
Richard Patterson: I love that Molly’s brought up the idea of gender within the play in general. Whether because of my male perspective or my tendency to be generous as regards plays that are already part of the canon, I hadn’t really given due consideration to the role gender plays within Iceman. I agree that the actresses who are charged with playing the three “whores” (of course they’d reject that label) bring dimension to characters that might otherwise be throwaway parts. I think the three of us as critics have enough perspective to know that the sheer fact of having written a play where the characters’ perspective skew toward the misogynistic doesn’t necessarily in and of itself make the playwright himself a misogynist (he could be trying to focus his playwright’s perspective on a group of misogynists by attempting to portray them in a realistic light), but of course – that could be an overly optimistic assertion on my part. O’Neill certainly doesn’t give his female characters the depth that Tennessee Williams, who seems to prefer his female characters to the men he writes, would. It’s certainly not a feminist play; I think that much we could agree on.
I agree that Slade seemed, to me, to be the focal character of the play. Though he’s more likely to hang back than Hickey and, as a character, he could easily fade into the background, this production and Dennehy’s performance help keep him a distinct presence throughout. The final scenes of the play especially cement that – given Parritt’s tragic ending, Larry’s reaction to it, and the gaiety that then ensues in Harry Hope’s saloon shortly thereafter. It’s an ending that brings to mind, for me, the ending of A Streetcar Named Desire – when Blanche is carted away by the hospital attendants, leaving Stanley and his buddies continuing their cycle of ordinariness (“The game is seven-card stud”). Though I prefer Streetcar and Tennessee Williams’s approach to language to O’Neill’s, my impression at the end of Iceman wasn’t entirely dissimilar.
In terms of what helps keep Larry in the forefront here, I think praise is due for Natasha Katz’s lighting design – the light in the play, beginning with the dark back room in Act I, through to the increasing openness and the white-lit door upstage in Act III, through to the swelling patches of dark and light in the final act – is almost a character in and of itself. Katz also designed the exquisite lighting for the most recent revival of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, which Patrick and I both saw; she’s incredible at adding that shading and texture to a production that underscores the director’s intentions.
Molly Grogan: I think the Goodman production does a laudable job of creating women characters who can hold their own with the men. Only Cora seemed to be in the same predicament as the other men (stuck on a “pipe dream”). I liked how the other two came back from Coney Island with their balloons and stuffed animal, having won at the fair. They would be the only ones to have succeeded at something that day, however insignificant. And though it doesn’t get them out of their predicament, maybe it foreshadows a change for them.
However despite my raising it right off the bat, the gender issue is not the main one here. I’m more bothered by the “pipe dream” itself. What is O’Neill’s intention really and what are we to make of it today? Is it better to live happy under an illusion or unhappy in full knowledge of one’s failings and powerlessness to correct them? This is O’Neill inside and out.
Richard Patterson: I think you’re right to bring the conversation back to one about theme of “pipe dreams” that the play repeatedly comes back to time and time again. That duality of happiness under an illusion and happiness with full knowledge is the crux of the play, but I don’t think O’Neill gives us an easy answer. By the end of the play, a good number of the characters have found comfort again in their delusions, but it seems to me that Larry, after witnessing the downfall of Parritt, in sitting apart from the crowd and feeling the weight of that moment, seems to be acknowledging that his own decision earlier in his life to renounce the anarchist movement that he and Parritt’s mother were a part of was a sound one (ultimately the movement was Parritt’s downfall), and that turning away from his pipe dreams was the best choice he could have made, even though he harbors his own small pipe dreams still.
On the other hand, it took murder for Hickey to relinquish his pipe dreams, but in a way he’s only come up with another set of delusions in their place. I think Lane’s inherent appeal is at the heart of why this production works as well as it does; we want to love him — and for a good portion of the play we love him mainly for livening up the stage action, even if he is a bit of a smarmy, preachy, repetitive guy – and, ultimately, we learn that our adulation for him (via Lane’s performance) was based on, essentially, incomplete information. Once the truth comes out, we’re horrified, and Hickey’s delusions swell and supplant what common sense he has left. Our golden boy/snake charmer Hickey, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, and we’re just as disappointed as the rest of Hope’s gang, who, after spreading their own wings a bit (even if just for show) are back at Hope’s again, having returned to their original pipe dreams.
Patrick Maley: I don’t think O’Neill has a message or a moral here, and I certainly do not think we should treat Hickey as a voice of his playwright. Hickey is preachy throughout the play, but all of that preachiness is undercut by his failure to save the other drunks and most importantly himself. I agree with Richard that the play does not give us – nor attempt to give us – an easy answer to the notion of happiness. Slade’s torture is the fact that he recognizes the complexity of happiness and the instinctual nature of its pursuit. “Pipe dream” does not equal “happiness” here. More apt is to say “pipe dream” equals “self-crafted fantasy of what happiness would be.”
Slade would love nothing more than to drown himself in rotgut whiskey and passively await the onset of death, but that particular pipe dream is hampered by a mind doomed to see both sides of the coin, which in this case means to recognize that pipe dreams might bring a sense of happiness, but also that they are hastily constructed ideals which will likely crumble. Yes, that is garbled, murky, unclear, and ill-defined, as it will always be. Like Slade’s, O’Neill’s was a mind doomed with complexity – he would have never felt qualified to define happiness for us or anybody else, least of all himself – and late in his career with plays like Iceman, Long Day’s Journey, and Hughie he was constantly wrestling with that complexity, indecision, and lack of clarity. As Richard points out, Hickey lets go of his pipe dream of a self-crafted world only momentarily (although I think that moment is not the murder, but when he hears himself say that he called his wife “bitch”), and it is a very brief and terrifying moment where he floats in some sort of poorly defined abyss before he grasps onto the grounding force of an being “a raving rotten lunatic.” Slade is stuck in that abyss because he recognizes the hollowness of such pipe dreams. It makes his life miserable, but it also makes him the most fully realized character in the play.
I thought Dennehy was excellent in this regard. His brooding is most often out of the spotlight, tucked away in a corner of the stage, but that brooding must be active, not simply a passivity of waiting around for his next line. I thought the force of his brooding dominated the stage without being forced. The fact that he is a big-time actor with name recognition helps this (“We should probably pay attention to Dennehy, even though he hasn’t spoken for awhile”), but he still needs to reward that attention, and I think Dennehy does. He makes it clear that Slade is never once at rest – his mind is constantly racing, despite his deepest desires to shut it down.