By Scott Ross
If, as I believe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the great American play, his The Iceman Cometh vies with very few fellow contenders (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, Angels in America) for a most respectable second place.
Fifth of July is an odd contestant, I admit, in that is it far less well known than the others — although Lawrence Kasden obviously knew Wilson’s play well enough to rip it off, along with John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven, for his infinitely more superficial (and less plangent) movie The Big Chill — and is very much a personal choice. Nearly all American playwrights of any standing used to cite Chekhov as among their greatest influences, if not their first. (Today, when a professor of playwriting such as Suzan-Lori Parks only “discovers” Shakespeare well into her career as a dramatist, Thespis Thespis alone knows who the influences are. Television series?) Wilson was almost alone, however, in emulating the good doctor in his plays and, Fifth of July, it seems to me, is the most Chekhovian of his works, filtered through an unmistakably American prism.
Time may well be the best judge of whether Tony Kushner’s epic two-part “Gay Fantasia on American Themes” belongs on the list, but at the moment it’s difficult to think of an American play that attempts more, and so frequently achieves it. The Albee and Williams plays cited above are probably safe, and if I were to add Summer and Smoke and Night of the Iguana or even Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes as third-tier candidates I don’t imagine I would be attacked too vociferously. Nor am I unaware that, while no titles by women, or black, playwrights has (as yet) seriously threatened this short-list — the extravagant and, I believe, unsupported claims made for August Wilson and Wendy Wasserstein notwithstanding — it is just possibly over-balanced by gay writers. Indeed, while Williams, Albee and Wilson all wrote convincingly heterosexual characters, O’Neill is the only non-homosexual writer on the slate. Which is not to confer on him an honor unattainable by the others. But if family is the great subject of 20th century American dramatists, there is no family play that can touch Long Day’s Journey in its merciless yet pitying dissection of the means by which our immediate relations shape, and misshape, us, and the unshakable, death-grip hold they exert on us: How, even when we comprehend, and confront, the psychic murders parents and children visit on one another, we are unable to fully forgive, let alone, forget, them.
While the nuclear unit is not the dramatic center of The Iceman Cometh, family is never very far from the surface. The denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon form an uneasy, shifting, kind of family, made up largely of disaffected brothers and eccentric uncles, with Harry himself the predictably mercurial pater familias. And for many of these men, some sort of familial uncoupling forms the basis of his current state of dipsomania. Larry Slade, the “old foolosopher,” a one-time Anarchist, claims he’s long finished with the movement, yet it was his ultimately untenable involvement with young Don Parritt’s mother that soured him on his youthful pipe-dream of political upheaval. Parritt himself, who looks to Larry as a possible father-figure, has betrayed the movement to the police for a mess of pottage, ostensibly for money but really to get back at his indifferent mom, that self-same paragon of the movement who so effectively killed Larry’s activism. The one-time “brilliant” law student Willie was undone by the arrest and imprisonment of his bucket-shop proprietor father. Jimmy Tomorrow pretends the cause of his bibulousness was his wife’s infidelity when it is far more likely that the reverse was true. Even “The General” and “The Captain,” old Boer War antagonists now inseparable companions in dipsomania, have been disowned by their families at home. Harry deludes himself that he has withdrawn from life outside by his great love for his (conveniently) dead wife Bessie, a nagging termagant. And Hickey, whose arrival is so widely anticipated (and whose sudden reversal of persona is just as avidly despaired of) has finally reached the limit of his capacity to torture, and be tormented by, his endlessly forgiving wife Evelyn.
O’Neill generally (and Iceman most specifically) can feel like taking strong medicine, even to his admirers. For Arthur Miller, himself no slouch in the practice of heavy-handedness, O’Neill “is a very insensitive writer. There’s no finesse at all: he’s the Dreiser of the stage. He writes with heavy pencils.” Pauline Kael classified Iceman as “the greatest thesis play in the American theatre.” And Kenneth Tynan was absolutely correct when he noted of it, “Paul Valery once defined a true snob as a man who was afraid to admit that he was bored when he was bored; and he would be a king of snobs indeed who failed to admit to a mauvais quart d’heure about halfway through The Iceman Cometh.”
I myself avoided both reading and seeing Iceman for decades, for precisely the reasons explicated above. Well, that and its 4-hour length. But no one who considers himself a playwright, or a critic, has any business avoiding O’Neill, or this play, indefinitely. Despite its obviousness, its insensitivity, its longueurs, its lack of poetry and its undeniable position as a thesis play, The Iceman Cometh is, somehow, indispensable. It says little, and at great length and volubility, and one can argue endlessly about whether O’Neill is averring that human beings need their pipe-dreams in order to live (Kael) or that the specificity of a barroom/flophouse filled with alcoholic bums invalidates its universality (Tynan.) I would say that O’Neill is not necessarily claiming anything for everyone but that, if he was, it is that pipe-dreams are less what allow us to face the impossibilities of life as they are the inevitable run-off of personal guilt and the fantasies allowing those who feel themselves failures to believe in some sort of hope, however tenuous or unattainable, for the future.
O’Neill himself staged the 1946 Iceman, in a production starring James Barton that was roundly unappreciated and puzzled over, and which ran only briefly. It took 10 years for the play to be rediscovered, in the popular Circle Rep re-staging by Jose Quintero. And while there is as yet no “definitive,” complete video rendering of this unwieldy, occasionally stupefying but undeniably powerful dramatic cantata, two exceptional, if slightly abridged, editions were, thankfully, preserved for posterity. The first, Sidney Lumet’s 1960 video production, produced by the nascent public broadcasting entity National Educational Television (NET) would be notable if only for its capturing of Jason Robards’ universally acclaimed characterization of Hickey but is, despite its visual limitations, so much more than merely a showcase for a great actor’s defining performance. The second, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 movie for the short-lived subscription series American Film Theatre, may lack Robards but its visual palette is far richer and it gives us as well, in a superb cast, the final performances of two great American actors.
Since the play is at base a contest between Larry and Hickey, the casting of the two roles is crucial. About Hickey, more anon. But in its Larry, the AFT production has the decided edge in Robert Ryan. Then 59 — and, although he did not know it during the filming, dying — this greatest of unheralded American actors gives the performance of a lifetime. The movie camera helps, of course, but what is written on Ryan’s craggy, lived-in face is unique to him. As a lifelong leftist, the role of a former anarchist drowning in his bitterness must have held great appeal, but Ryan also brought to the movie the experience of his previous role as James Tyrone opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in a Long Day’s Journey, revival, so his O’Neill bona fides are secure. He brings a gentleness, and a grace, to Larry that is absent in Myron McCormick’s effective but more obvious 1960 reading; in Ryan, the warring impulses of instinctive pity and a desperate desire to an indifference he cannot feel are as absolute, and as heartrending, as his conflicting hope for, and fear of, “the big sleep” of death.
Crucial too to the 1973 edition too is the Harry Hope of Frederic March. One of the most important actors of his time, March was a popular matinee idol (A Star is Born), twice an Academy Award winner (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Best Years of Our Lives) and, latterly, the creator of James Tyrone in the 1956 premiere, following O’Neill’s death, of Long Day’s Journey. At 76, March plays the 60 year-old Harry with rare gusto, his malleable face stretching from the slackness of both bottomless self-pity and irritable garrulity to the infectious grin of devilish (and innately sadistic) merriment that make it instantly clear why, aside from his largesse with liquor, the denizens of what Larry calls “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller” adore him and put up with his periodic grousing. I don’t mean to slight Ferrell Pelly, who played the role in 1956 and again in 1960. If March’s performance did not exist, Pelly’s would seem sublime. But March’s does.
The Parritts of the Lumet and the Frankenheimer are, by contrast, a virtual draw. The 1960 Parritt, Robert Redford, is so staggeringly good you can only lament how seldom he has been given (or allowed himself to take) a role that gave him so much latitude, once he became a star. It isn’t that the self-hating young man is a great role, or even a terribly good one. It’s more a device, and an occasionally irritating one, but that merely makes Redford’s achievement all the more remarkable. There’s nothing guarded here, as there so often is with Redford’s later appearances. The moods are sudden and startling, the outbursts at once annoying and deeply moving. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done.
Jeff Bridges had been giving fine performances for some time before the 1973 Iceman, so his appearance here may have seemed less spectacular than Redford’s at the time. And, as with Ryan, he’s helped by the Eastmancolor camera; there are moments when you watch, filled with wonder at the beauty of his open young face. For all the schematicism of the role, Bridges brings to it the heartbreaking ardor, confusion, guilt and cruelty of youth, and more. The sound he makes when he feels Larry has given him permission to enact the very escape his hoped-for father substitute cannot undertake for himself — something between a sobbing whimper of relief and a sigh very close to the post-orgasmic — is unforgettable.
In the smaller roles, most of the 1960 cast are the equal of those in 1973. Two exceptions are the Willie of Bradford Dillman and the Joe Mott of Moses Gunn. James Broderick’s 1960 Willie is very fine, but Dillman’s is revelatory. We’d seen him in a profusion of thankless, largely forgettable, movie and television roles for years in the ’60s and ’70s, and he’d always seemed one of those actors, not beautiful enough to star, always reliable in support, who never quite get the chance to grasp the brass ring. Drunk, Dillman’s Willie simmers in self-disgust, and his delirium tremens is so terrifyingly right that he becomes a genuinely tragic figure, too young to be so lost, yet too long in the sauce to ever amount to anything. Moses Gunn, one of our best, and least well known, character actors, looks both like a sport and a hopeless drunk, and the way he bestirs himself to righteous anger at the others, and at himself, for their genial racism and his own complicity in it, are searing. In 1960, Maxwell Glanville was rather too robust physically to quite get the wreck Joe has become. And while his characterization is, like Broderick’s Willie, a good accounting, Gunn’s is non pariel.
Tom Pedi had the distinction of playing Rocky, the saloon’s weather-vane of a bartender who deludes himself that being a procurer does not make him a pimp, in 1946, 1960 and 1973, and is both the same, and different, in the television edition and the AFT movie. The same, in that his characterization is roughly identical in each, yet different if only for having aged into it. He’s at once keenly perceptive and eye-rollingly capricious, first cozying up to then deflating the bums in Harry’s bar with the breathtaking suddenness of a born sadist. (Like owner, like barkeep…) He’s also more than slightly terrifying. Sorrell Booke, too, is in both the Lumet and the Frankeheimer. As Hugo, perpetually sozzled, waking from his stupors just long enough to express his loathing for the proletariat he believes he loves, Booke is both comic and (to use a word that, in context, sounds like a pun but isn’t) sobering. The Jimmy Tomorrows of 1960 and 1973 also constitute a near draw, with the knife-edge going to latter. Harrison Dowd’s Jimmy, while eschewing any sort of noticeable accent, is moving enough. But John McLiam, whose voice carries more than “the ghost of a Scotch rhythm,” has sad, limpid eyes, helped along by the color camera, and his tremulousness is no less heartbreaking than his occasional, doomed stabs at a regained dignity.
The women are more problematic. Not the actresses themselves (Hilda Brawner, Julie Bovasso and Joan Copeland in ’60 and Hildy Brooks, Juno Dawson and the preposterously named Evans Evans in ’73) but the characters. Billy Wilder once allegedly — and notoriously — said of the women in his movies, “If she isn’t a whore, she’s a bore.” Well, the whores in Iceman are all bores, devices through which O’Neill gets at his theses. The women in both casts do what they can, and Evans (married at the time to the director) rises above the material occasionally. But only barely.
Which brings us, finally, to Hickey, and the great divergence. I wonder whether Lee Marvin’s performance might have been granted more honor in 1973 had Robards’ not been broadcast thirteen years earlier. (Although Kael, who discerned too much shouting in Marvin’s long, climactic aria, may have been relying on a faulty memory; Robards also bellows.) For my part, both actors are equally fine, if in different ways. Robards may be more jocular, raising that patented sheepish chuckle of his after revealing more than he means to, and the fact that the vocal gesture is one he used in other, later roles, does not diminish its effectiveness. Marvin’s persona was never that of the glad-hander, and there is a certain tightness behind his initial bon homie that hints at the coldness with which Hickey operates; he’s spent a lifetime sizing up his marks, calculating the unstated yearnings of those he’s selling before moving in for the kill. (Not that anyone with a halfway decent mind would have much trouble figuring out this bunch.) To grouse about Marvin not being Robards is to deprive one’s self of the pleasure of watching an actor stretch himself, and in a role whose richness he must have known would likely never come his way again.
As directors, both Lumet and Frankenheimer serve O’Neill, and their actors, never getting in the way of either. Both editions cut the text a bit, and the ATF Iceman omits the (admittedly minor) character of Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s circus con-man brother-in-law, perhaps because due to budget — the series producer, Ely Landau, of necessity restricted her filmmakers to one million dollars — but more likely because it was felt that one parasitic hanger-on (the corrupt former cop Pat McGloin) in Harry’s apartment was sufficient. The NET production, aired over two evenings, appears to have been live; lines are flubbed slightly now and then, and the actors begin to perspire noticeably around the mid-point of each segment. If so, it makes what Robards & Co. accomplish that much more impressive. That Lumet was trained in live television, and a past master at it, in no way dulls the luster of his achievement.
The major differences between the two versions is one less of scale than of opportunity. (Although the television edition is more like a filmed stage-play, owing as much to the space in which it takes place as to anything else.) Lumet, working within the severe limitations of early video, is unable to get a visual balance, or to light his actors suggestively. The starkness of the image washes out contrast, and what I assume must have been very hot lights presumably negated any possibility for subtly or nuance in the visuals. Frankenheimer, working with the color cinematographer Ralph Woolsey — and film — and able to avail himself of Raphael Bretton’s realistically solid and beautifully tatty sets, had greater opportunity to make his Iceman Cometh much more cinematic, although he is never showy. The textures of the settings, rich and shadowed and lived-in, and the ability to use far more technically advanced, and supple, film stock than the flat black-and-white video available to Lumet allowed Frankenheimer a looser, more realistic palette. It’s notable that the two, although radically different, got their start as directors during the era of live television drama, and had, perhaps as a result, deep respect for actors and text, crucial here. In their respective versions of this essential American drama, both men came through with honor bright. And honor, as Aristotle suggested (and as I suspect Eugene O’Neill would have agreed) is the second greatest quality of the mind, eclipsed only by courage. All three men, to one degree or another, certainly had that.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross