The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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