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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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