Moments of Truth
by Pauline Kael
The Iceman Cometh is a great, heavy, simplistic, mechanical, beautiful play. It is not the Eugene O’Neill masterpiece that Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the finest work of the American theater, is, but it is masterpiece enough — perhaps the greatest thesis play of the American theater — and it has been given a straightforward, faithful production in handsome dark-toned color in the subscription series called the American Film Theatre. A filmed play like this doesn’t offer the sensual excitement that movies can offer, but you don’t go to it for that. You go to it for O’Neill’s crude, prosaic virtuosity, which is also pure American poetry, and, as with most filmed dramas, if you miss the “presence” of the actors, you gain from seeing it performed by the sort of cast that rarely gathers in a theater. John Frankenheimer directed fluently and unobtrusively, without destroying the conventions of the play. The dialogue is like a ball being passed from one actor to the next; whenever possible (when the speakers are not too far apart), the camera pans smoothly from one to another. We lose some of the ensemble work we’d get from a live performance, but we gain a closeup view that allows us to see and grasp each detail. The play here is less broad than it would be on the stage, and Frankenheimer wisely doesn’t aim for laughs at the characters’ expense (even those that O’Neill may have intended), because the people are so close to us. The actors become close to us in another way. Actors who have been starved for a good part get a chance to stretch and renew themselves. In some cases, we’ve been seeing them for years doing the little thing that passes for acting on TV and in bad movies, and their performances here are a revelation; in a sense, the actors who go straight for the occasion give the lie to the play’s demonstration that bums who live on guilt for what they don’t do can’t go back and do it.
Set in 1912 in a waterfront saloon, much like the one in which O’Neill had attempted suicide that year, the play was written in the late thirties and was first produced in 1946, on Broadway, under his supervision, but it achieved its present eminence from the Circle in the Square revival in 1956, starring Jason Robards, who then appeared in the celebrated television version of 1960, directed by Sidney Lumet. The characters are drunken bums and whores who have found sanctuary in Harry Hope’s flophouse saloon; each has a “pipe dream” that sustains him until Hickey the salesman, the “iceman,” who attempts to free them all by stripping them of their lies and guilt, takes the life out of them. It is both a pre-Freudian play and a post-Freudian one, and that may be the source of the trouble people have “placing” it; you can’t call this play dated, and you can’t quite call it modern, either. The thesis is implicitly anti-Freudian: the play says that the truth destroys people — that it wipes them out. Like most thesis plays, this one rigs the situation to make its points. There are no planned surprises in O’Neill’s world — no freak characters who go out and make good. The people forced by Hickey to rid themselves of illusions are such ruins that they can live only on false hopes; without illusions they have nothing. O’Neill has rather cruelly — and comically (which is the most cruel, I think, though others may say the most human) — designed the play to demonstrate that they’re better off as lying, cadging bums. With his stageproof craft, O’Neill sets in motion a giant game of ten little Indians. Each of the many characters has his lie, and each in turn has it removed and must face his truth, and we look to see who’s next. It’s as if illusion were a veil, and under it lay truth. This simplistic view of illusion and reality is the limiting thesis device of the play, and O’Neill’s demonstration that mankind is too weak to live without the protective veil is — well, maudlin. But O’Neill was too powerful and too instinctual a dramatist to stay locked within the thesis structure. Not quite all of mankind is reconciled to wearing the veil that protects the weak, and that’s where the ambiguities burst through the mechanics of The Iceman Cometh.
The play is essentially an argument between Larry, an aging anarchist (Robert Ryan), and Hickey (Lee Marvin); they speak to each other as equals, and everything else is orchestrated around them. Larry speaks for pity and the necessity of illusions, Hickey for the curative power of truth. They’re the two poles of consciousness that O’Neill himself is split between. Larry, a self-hating alcoholic, is a weak man and a windbag, but Robert Ryan brings so much understanding to Larry’s weakness that the play achieves new dimensions. In the most difficult role he ever played on the screen, Ryan is superb. Larry’s dirty “truth” is hidden under a pile of philosophizing, and the actor is stuck with delivering that philosophizing, which rings like the fakery it’s meant to be but which we know O’Neill half believes. Ryan becomes O’Neill for us, I think. George Jean Nathan said that O’Neill carefully selected the photographs of himself that were to be published, and “always made sure that the photographs were not lacking in that impressive look of tragic handsomeness which was his.” Ryan has that tragic handsomeness here and O’Neill’s broken-man jowls, too, and at the end, when Larry is permanently “iced” — that is, stripped of illusion — we can see that this is the author’s fantasy of himself: he alone is above the illusions that the others fall back on; he is tragic, while the others, with their restored illusions, have become comic. Yes, it’s sophomoric to see yourself ai the one who is doomed to live without illusions, but then so is the idea of the play sophomoric, and yet what O’Neill does with that sophomoric idea is masterly. And Ryan gets right to the boozy, gnarled soul of it. According to his associates, Ryan did not know he was dying until after the picture was finished, but he brought to this role the craft that he had perfected in his fifty-nine years and that he certainly knew he might never be able to exercise to its fullest again. The man who had tested himself against such uncompromisingly difficult roles on the stage as Coriolanus and the father in Long Day’s Journey and on the screen as the depraved Claggart of Billy Budd got a last chance to show his stature, and he was ready. Ryan is so subtle he seems to have penetrated to the mystery of O’Neill’s gaunt grandeur— to the artist’s egotism and that Catholic Cassandra’s pride in tragedy which goes along with the fond pity for the foolish clowns lapping up their booze.
Lee Marvin’s Hickey is another matter. The characters have been waiting for Hickey, as for Godot, and his entrance is preceded by a whore who acts as herald; it’s an unparalleled opportunity for an actor, as Jason Robards demonstrated so memorably in the TV version. I remember that during his long, scarily self-lacerating monologue I felt as if I couldn’t breathe until it was finished. Suddenly, you knew that Hickey had been punishing the others for what he had been trying to live with, and that he was totally indifferent to them as people, and the play rose to heights you hadn’t anticipated. But Hickey, with his edgy, untrustworthy affability, is a part for a certain kind of actor, and Lee Marvin isn’t it. Marvin has a jokester’s flair for vocal tricks and flip gestures; he can project the tough guy’s impassive strength that is needed for the films he’s generally in, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a bad performance in an action film. Here it’s a matter not just of his not being up to it but of his being all wrong for it. We need to see the man under the salesman’s exterior, and instead we realize how little interior life Marvin’s action-film characters have had and how few expressive resources he has had besides a gleam in the eye. With his snub nose and long upper lip, he has a great camera face, but he’s been acting for a long time now on star presence, and though that may be what you attract backers with, it’s not what you play O’Neill with. What Marvin does is all on one level. At first, he’s like a pudgy, complacent actor having a go at Mr. Scratch in The Devil and Daniel Webster, and then he just seems to coast. Hickey needs an element of irony and an awareness of horror; Marvin’s Hickey exudes hostile, stupid arrogance — the impatience of the prosperous, well-fed, insensitive man with the sick. Marvin is so poorly equipped for the kind of acting required for Hickey that as the monologue approached I began to dread it. As it turns out, the monologue goes by without really being experienced by the viewer. Marvin’s best recourse is to shout, because when he doesn’t shout there’s nothing going on. We don’t seem to see this Hickey’s eyes; Marvin offers us a blank face. He’s thick, somehow, and irrelevantly vigorous. Marvin doesn’t appear to have found anything in himself to draw on for the role. The film isn’t destroyed by this performance, but it’s certainly marred; yet who knows whether we will ever get a definitive version on film? We’re lucky to get as much as we get here, even though the film never rises to the intensity that O’Neill put into the play. Fran- kenheimer has directed tactfully but not very probingly.
O’Neill is such an orderly madman: he neatly constructs a massive play around a weird conceit — the sexual wordplay on “come” in the title, which refers to Hickey’s murderous explosion when he kills his wife. What we don’t get, because of Marvin’s one-level performance, are the terrifying intimations in this Strindbergian monologue that O’Neill is talking about himself and his wife — that he is giving Hickey the kind of raging emotion that is in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the kind that transcended O’Neill’s ideas, yet that in this play he used to fuel his thesis. The intensity of the monologue should blow the play sky-high. Maybe O’Neill’s conscious plan had become too easy to fulfill, and, as sometimes happened in Ibsen’s greatest thesis plays, what was underneath the choice of subject suddenly boiled up. How, one may wonder, did Carlotta O’Neill take it as Hickey talked about the peace he found after he killed his wife? The play has a subtext that fuses with the thesis at this point, and the subtext is the hell and horror of marriage. Every character in the saloon who has talked about marriage has given us a variation on Hickey’s murderous solution, and his monologue awakens Harry Hope (Fredric March) to expose his own loathing of the dead wife he’s been sentimentalizing about for twenty years. O’Neill twists this male-female hatred in and out of his they-need-their-illusions thesis. It is he as dramatist who furiously, yet icily, tears away the sentimental illusions; that’s what gives his kind of playwriting its power. It’s not polite entertainment — not a show — but an exploration; he digs down as far as he can go. That he is the worst sentimentalist — the man who needs his illusions the most — is what makes him, like Tennessee Williams, so greatly to be felt for, and respected.
What this play seems to say, in the end, is that O’Neill the man of pity is the illusion, and that the only man he respects is the man without illusions. (I think one could say that it is just the opposite for Williams — that he abandons the man without illusions.) It’s Larry, the man too full of self-loathing even to get drunk — Larry the man of pity — who refuses to offer the eighteen-year-old Parritt (Jeff Bridges) any comfort or hope, who judges hint pitilessly and sends him to his death. Parritt has come to see Larry, the one person who was ever kind to him, asking to be-helped. And Larry, the kindly spokesman for the necessity of illusion, doesn’t want to help Parritt lie to himself; he wants him dead. It’s a cruel, ambiguous kicker in the neat-looking finish. Larry’s compassion, it seems, extends only to those he’s not emotionally involved with. O’Neill makes Larry a hard man, finally, and desolate and unyielding, like himself. And though the bums are restored to their illusions, it’s a fools’ paradise regained; there’s a streak of contempt in O’Neill’s final view of them. O’Neill gives the lie to his own thesis: the bums need illusions not in order to be fully human (as would be the case in Tennessee Williams) but because they’re weak. Those who find life without illusions insupportable are poor slobs — not strong enough to face truth and be broken by it. Hickey deceived himself about why he killed his wife; Larry, the self-hater, the only man Hickey succeeded in stripping of illusions, is, at the end, the iceman. He’s stone sober, like the O’Neill of the photographs. How could anyone look at O’Neill’s face and believe that he’s telling people to be happy with their illusions? Sure, O’Neill is destroyed by “the truth,” but he thinks he lives with “truth”; that’s the secret in that haunted, sunken-jawed, angry face. And if he didn’t linger on the implications of Larry’s position at the end, maybe it’s because he didn’t dare to examine the false glory in it. It’s hubris if ever there was hubris in an American play; it’s also a common delusion of the mad.
It was only when, in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill abandoned the mechanistic dualisms (such as illusion and truth here) which he used as the underpinnings of his plays — and which make them look dated yet give them structural clarity and easy-to-take-home “serious” themes — that he could see people whole. But though the characters in Iceman are devised for a thesis, and we never lose our consciousness of that, they are nevertheless marvellously playable. Fredric March, like Ryan, can let the muscles in his face sag to hell to show a character falling apart. He interprets Harry Hope (who could be a dismal bore) with so much quiet tenderness and skill that when Harry regains his illusions and we see March’s muscles tone up we don’t know whether to smile for the character or for the actor. March is such an honorable actor; he’s had a long and distinguished career. On the stage since 1920, in movies since 1929, and at seventy-six he goes on taking difficult roles; he’s not out doing TV commercials or grabbing a series. At a press conference just before the 1946 opening of The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill said that the secret of happiness was contained in one simple sentence: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gam the whole world and lose his own soul?” I think that once again he was being simplistic (O’Neill didn’t sell his own soul, and I seriously doubt he was a happy man), but what he said has a basic truth in terms of the life of theater people. Taking on a role in The Iceman Cometh is a moment of truth for an actor. One of the pleasures is the way Bradford Dillman (a hole in the screen in The Way We Were) passes the test here. As Willie, singing his Harvard drinking song and shaking from the DTs, Dillman is funny and lively — like a Rip Torn without pent-up aggression. It’s a small but flawless performance; you can almost taste the actor’s joy in the role — in working again. Jeff Bridges has been working all along; he’s one of the lucky ones in Hollywood — so fresh and talented that just about every movie director with a good role wants him for it. But he has been cast as a country boy (The Last Picture Show, Fat City, Bad Company, The Last American Hero) and used for his “natural” ease on the screen — used, that is, for almost the opposite of what a stage actor needs. What he does here as the kid Parritt (it’s the role that Robert Redford played in the TV version) is a complete change from the improvisational style he has developed, and initially it is a thankless role, a pain, really — one of those hideously-obvious-guilty-secret roles that you wish weren’t in the play. Every line Parritt utters tells of his guilt. But, of course, O’Neill knew what he was doing; the obviousness turns out to be necessary, and when it pays off in Parritt’s big scenes with Larry, Bridges, looking as young as the role requires, and so powerfully built that his misery has physical force, comes through. He is convincing-looking as a boy of that period, and he makes an almost impossibly schematic role believable. Toward the end, there is an instant while he’s looking at Larry when his face is childishly soft and vulnerable; it’s this instant that reminds us to be grateful for what a camera can add to the experience of a play.
We may think we could do without the irritating repetition of the term “pipe dream,” and I know that at times I felt I could do without the three painted whores and maybe without the captain and the general who are still fighting the Boer War (though not without the actors who play them — Martyn Green and George Voskovec). But in O’Neill the laborious and the mysterious are peculiarly inextricable, and, with actors like Sorrell Booke as Hugo (which he played in the i960 TV version), and Moses Gunn as Joe, and Tom Pedi as Rocky (which he played on Broadway in 1946 and again on TV in i960), and John McLiam as a lyrically sad Jimmy Tomorrow, the four hours less a minute have a special grace. It was O’Neill’s genius to discover what no other dramatist has — that banality in depth can let loose our common demons.
The New Yorker, November 5, 1973