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Thursday, March 5, 2015

“I knew ‘em all": Eugene O'Neill and the Iceman

By Elliot B. Quick

Visual artist Charles Demuth and Eugene O'Neill in
Provincetown, MA, 1916. 

Photo: Provincetown Playhouse.
A superficial glance at Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, playing the BAM Harvey Theatre through March 15, can leave a modern reader with glazed eyes. I’ll cop to reeling back from terms like “French Syndicalism” and “The Boer War,” which have the vague ring of something I once learned for a high school history test. Hearing old white men talk of Wobblies in the thick accents and archaic speech patterns that O’Neill meticulously records in his dialogue, it’s tempting to class The Iceman Cometh as a historical case study in old men dreaming of old things. Who remembers what an iceman is, anyway?

But if we can penetrate the surfaces of O’Neill’s language and peer outside the grimy windows of Harry Hope’s stale-aired barroom, the summer of 1912 trembles with modern resonance: a turbulent American economy; a contentious presidential election bogged down by party rivalry; glad-handing politicians juggling allegiances between Wall Street and the worker; inflated grassroots leaders shouting inflammatory rhetoric; a rumbling working class striving to articulate the ways they are held off from the American Dream.

Iceman was a period piece from the start. O’Neill wrote the play in 1939, but left it untouched during the “damned world debacle” of World War II. When it finally premiered in 1946, it had been 13 years since America had seen a new work by O’Neill, and its production was anticipated with celebration of the great American dramatist’s return to the stage. At last, the Eugene O’Neill was back on Broadway.

Looking backward through two world wars and a depression, many saw Iceman as evidence of O’Neill’s determined focus on universals of the human experience hermetically sealed off from the outside world. Brooks Atkinson’s review notes that Iceman “returns us to a line of pure speculation that was broken when the war blew the world apart.” More despondently, Samuel Grafton speculated that since his last premiere O’Neill had “waited patiently in the wings for our little period of joy and hope to spend itself; now he comes out as one reminding us, almost with a leer, that life is a formless mess to be tempered, if at all, with alcohol and illusion."

Broadway's first Iceman cameth in 1946. Photo: NYPL Digital Library.

With O’Neill, it is always temping to look for entry into the tight-knit communities of his dramas through the backdoor of his biography. O’Neill himself is partly to blame: “I knew ‘em all,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1946. “I’ve known ‘em all for years. All these people I have written about I once knew.” So many of his settings are drawn from the sensational chapter of his life between 1909, when he left his pregnant wife in NYC to go gold prospecting in Honduras (and then sailed to Buenos Aires), and 1912, when he moved from his parents home in New London to the tuberculosis sanatorium where he began his first play.

In the summer of 1912, a 24-year-old O’Neill was rooming in the saloon-cum-flophouse of Jimmy-the-Priest Condon on the West Side of Manhattan. Harry Hope and his motley crew of drunken pipe-dreamers find their sources in O’Neill’s fastidious memory of his time there. Whatever details of their circumstance that faded in their 24-year journey to the lights of Broadway (and their 102-year journey to BAM today), O’Neill asks us to look backwards through time to get beneath the particular surfaces that might repel us. “You can only write about life if it is far enough in the past,” O’Neill said to the same Times reporter. “The present is too much mixed up with superficial values; you can’t know which thing is important and which is not.”

Elliot B. Quick is a dramaturg, creative producer, teacher, and founding member of Piehole, whose latest work, Old Paper Houses, will run at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene through March 14.

The Iceman Cometh continues its run at the BAM Harvey Theater through March 15.

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