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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Iceman Cometh
YouTube   Summer 2020

Here is some real gold from YouTube's vaults a long-thought-lost 1960 American television production of The Iceman Cometh, arguably Eugene O'Neill's second greatest (after Long Day's Journey Into Night) play, and thus one of the finest plays in the American repertoire.

The late 1950s saw an O'Neill revival, triggered by an Off-Broadway revival of Iceman starring Jason Robards Jr. Robards repeats his performance in this TV version directed by Sidney Lumet and also featuring Myron McCormick and (in one of his first roles) Robert Redford.

It is three and a half hours long (originally broadcast in two sections a week apart) and, being by O'Neill, sometimes heavy going. But, being by O'Neill, it more than rewards your dedication in sticking with it.

O'Neill's subject is self-protective fantasy what he calls 'pipe dreams' and how humans need them so desperately that if they're removed we will reconstruct them in spite of the evidence or leap to new fantasies rather than face reality directly.

The play is set in a Skid Row bar whose denizens are the absolute dregs of humanity crooked ex-cop, a disgraced soldier, a failed lawyer and the like. They keep themselves in a permanent state of intoxication, coming to the surface occasionally only long enough to assert their dedication to what one calls the Tomorrow Movement tomorrow I'll clear my name or get my old job back or (in one case) set foot out of this building for the first time in twenty years.

They are awaiting the arrival of Hickey, the one member of the gang who actually functions and holds down a job, as a salesman, except for his occasional weeks-long benders. But when Hickey arrives he shocks them by announcing that he's going to make them all go out and actually do what they've been promising to do tomorrow.

At this point the play begins a series of twists, surprises and reversals, and I'm going to have to give a couple of them away. To nobody's surprise, they all fail at their assigned tasks, not even trying what they now admit couldn't be done. To our surprise Hickey is not surprised.

He explains that he wanted them to fail, because he believes those promises to be better tomorrow carried the guilty burden of not being better today. Freed of the fantasy of changing their lives, they can settle happily into being failures without guilt.

That almost makes sense, especially as Hickey explains it, so he and we are both surprised when the guys do not become relieved and happy. This leads Hickey to cajole, explain and defend his position with mounting desperation, finally driven to tell his own story of how giving up on his pipe dreams brought him peace.

And here O'Neill brilliantly employs a device he would also use in Long Day's Journey get a character talking enough and eventually he's going to say something he didn't intend. What really happened to Hickey and what is really happening to the guys is not just explained to us but acted out before our eyes in the last act of the play, making O'Neill's point about the inevitableness of fantasies.

Jason Robard's metier as an actor later in his career was a solid almost Lincolnesque presence, so it is a delight to see him being vital and active here. His Hickey is so driven by at first the excitement of preaching his gospel and later the desperation of sustaining his illusion that he can't stand still.

He roams the bar room, touching seated people on the shoulders, pounding on tables, sitting down to affirm an old-pals connection with one or another and then jumping up again so as to not lose the others. Director Lumet's rationed and subtle use of close-ups lets us catch the occasional flash of panic in Hickey's eyes even as his mouth is affirming happiness.

Iceman is not a one-character play. Each of the other bar denizens is individualised effectively, though they do tend to function largely as a chorus. Two stand out. Myron McCormick plays Larry, a former activist whose pipe dream is that he doesn't care about anyone or anything any more and is just waiting to die, even though he repeatedly demonstrates he can't resist caring or pitying.

Larry is both the commentator on and the moral and emotional centre of much of the play, but McCormick does not steal the spotlight, allowing the camera to find him when the play wants us to.

He gives a character actor's performance, fully developed and fleshed-out but understated, resisting any temptation to heavily underline important speeches but letting us realise, a beat or so behind him, that something significant has just been said.

A very young-looking (He was 24) Robert Redford plays Parritt, a guilt-ridden visitor from Larry's past who becomes the trigger forcing the older man's commitment to caring and getting involved. Redford telegraphs some of Parritt's secrets a little too early, but he grows into the role so that our building emotional involvement with his character parallels our growing understanding of Hickey.

The black-and-white kinescope is grainy and the sound uneven, and the bulky cameras of the period limit director Lumet's ability to move around the room. But he knows where he wants us to look (which may be at a listener rather than a speaker) at every moment.

Perhaps not for the casual viewer, this is a real find for admirers of O'Neill, Robards, Lumet or simply the best of American drama.

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Review of  1960 TV The Iceman Cometh 2020