Tag Archives: The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O’Neill, in 41 points.

28 Jan

(Reading and writing and reading and writing and not doing enough for the blog. But I’m pushing ahead on other things and I’m submitting as much as possible. Here’s a quickie on Eugene O’Neill. Why not? He’s only been dead for 60 plus years. You can always rely on me to be timely.)


  1. Eugene O’Neill. One of my heroes.
  2. Hero isn’t the right word here. One of my favorite writers?
  3. That isn’t quite right, either. Somewhere between hero and writer. Anyway.
  4. His life, Jesus.
  5. Born in a hotel. Alcoholic father. Alcoholic brother. Drug-addicted mother.
  6. His father was a struggling actor who died from intestinal cancer in 1920. His father’s last words: “Life is . . . rotten.”
  7. His mother died less than two years later from a stroke, and his brother, Jamie, had to travel with the body, on a train, across the U.S. Jamie drank and drank during the five-day journey, and he was eventually robbed by a prostitute.
  8. (O’Neill wrote a play about this, his last:A Moon for the Misbegotten.)
  9. Jamie didn’t last much longer. In 1923, after a life of whoring and boozing, the life of a vagabond and rake, Jamie drank himself to death.
  10. His entire family eradicated. In just three years.
  11. Think on that, when you’re having a rough week.
  12. The grim parade isn’t over. His oldest son, Eugene, 27 years later, drank a bottle of whiskey, sliced open his veins in a drunken stupor and then wandered around the house, bleeding to death. His suicide note: “Never let it be said of O’Neill that he failed to empty a bottle.”
  13. His younger son, Shane, after 58 years of abject failure, jumped out of a window.
  14. And his daughter, Oona, married Charles Chaplin when she was just eighteen (he was 54), and O’Neill disowned her. They didn’t speak again.
  15. (So, not one of my heroes then.)
  16. O’Neill spent just a few weeks each writing his early plays, includingThe Hairy Apeand The Great God Brown.
  17. His early work: American settings, Greek themes. Infanticide, patricide, matricide, murder, revenge, fate, suffering.
  18. His early work: patches of brilliance with moments of leaden dialogue.
  19. His early work: rich, complex roles for black actors! O’Neill helped start the career of Paul Robeson.
  20. O’Neill loved drinking, and knocked around the bowery and basement bars of the lower east side. He cavorted with hustlers, card sharks, drunks, hoboes, shitbirds and losers. Even after he had children, he would disappear on benders for weeks at a time.
  21. When he drank, he raged, punching out his wives and smashing furniture, threatening his friends and shrieking at the moon.
  22. He suffered from an undiagnosed degenerative condition that caused his hands to shake. He thought it was DTs, and combated the shakes with more drink. His first drink in the morning required a couple of towels to keep him from spilling whiskey all over his shirt. He went through this routine every morning. Imagine.
  23. He and his brother, Jamie—before he died—would embark on epic drinking bouts, one time spendingone entire weekin a hotel room, guzzling liquors, arguing, talking about when they were going to leave. There’s a play in there, somewhere.
  24. He was friends with Hart Crane, another boozer extraordinaire. Imagine their nights out together. (Malcolm Cowley often accompanied them.) There’s a great play in there, somewhere, too.
  25. Those early plays. Many of them aren’t produced anymore. Many of them are forgotten. Who performs “Marco Millions” anymore? Who remembers “The Dreamy Kid”?
  26. After a horrifying bender in Singapore, where he almost lost his fiancé, O’Neill got on the wagon and stopped drinking. He stayed sober.
  27. Sobriety suited him. It is his late work, undertaken after close to 20 years of non-drinking, that regale. He spent years on a cycle of plays on a fictional family. Near the end, he destroyed almost all of them.
  28. Now that’s gangster. Or insane. Or something.
  29. He wrote “The Iceman Cometh” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night”at the same time. Two of the greatest plays ever written.
  30. “Iceman” follows a group of bottomed out rummies in a dive bar, the kind of characters he caroused with in his youth: losers, hustlers, gamblers, addicts. The play begins with drunks scattered about a bar, slowly regaining consciousness and beginning the hard drinking once again. They’re waiting for their friend and life of the party, Hickey. The language is ribald, furious, poetic, self-lacerating, repetitive, and explosive, mimicking the cadences of the down and out drunk. The characters are self-loathing, self-sabotaging hypocrites, each hauling around—and finding meaning in—delusions and excuses. Their delusions are what keep them going.
  31. There’s nothing like it. It’s a goddamn four-hour miracle.
  32. Hickey appears and begins puncturing the delusions, berating and destroying his former friends. Why he does this is part of the play’s magic. But the last third is a punishing odyssey, a series of bleak epiphanies, grimness and the void. It remains one of the most powerful plays I’ve ever seen. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen movie versions.)
  33. “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is the better play, O’Neill’s autobiography. The dad is a retired actor and boozer; the brother is a weak-willed rummy (named Jamie) with terminal tuberculosis; the other brother, Edmund, is a booze-addled rake; and the mother, Mary, is a drug fiend, sneaking off throughout the play for her fix. The play is set in a single day, where the family’s ghosts, demons, failures, recriminations and regrets douse each character in a torrential flood. As the day turns to night, the outbursts grow more and more violent, and the tension increases.
  34. It’s an astonishing work, personal, mythic, poetic, dirty, timeless and heart-breaking. O’Neill didn’t want it published or performed until25 years!after his death, and made accommodations to that effect. (His wife interceded.)
  35. About the wife, Carlotta, the same fiancé he almost lost in Singapore. She saved O’Neill from his drinking, that’s indisputable. But they both eventually became addicted to sleeping pills and painkillers, and their relationship suffered, turned vicious and sour. One time he fell outside in the snow, breaking his leg. She mocked him from the front door and left him there to die. (He was saved by a random passerby.)
  36. Of course, during the boozy years, he slapped her at least once in front of a large party of people, and punched her at another. There’s that hero thing again.
  37. Here’s O’Neill on the characters in “Long Day’s Journey”: “At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.”
  38. Doomed never to be able to forget. The perfect mantra for the doomed man.
  39. O’Neill’s life the stuff of enormous tragedy: spiraling addictions, abuse, suicide, disease and death. And a discernible pattern, a kind of dramatist’s flair for plot, irony and just desserts.
  40. His final days were spent in a hotel room. He knew he was dying. His last words: “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a goddamn hotel and dying in a hotel room!”
  41. A dramatist ’til the end.

Reading: Durant, O’Neill, Mitchell.

29 Jul


I’ve been dipping into Will and Ariel Durant’s Interpretations of Life, Will’s take on 20th century fiction writers he admires. It’s great. He’s a very fine writer and researcher, engaged in the kind of grand synthesizing history that few of our contemporary historians attempt. (The couple’s History of Civilization, compulsively readable and erudite runs to two or so bookshelves. The only other writers I can think of who worked on this scale are John Gunther, Theodore White, Edward Gibbon, and, perhaps, Jared Diamond.) He wrote, Ariel edited, and together they formed an unparalleled publishing dynamo. Lessons Learned From History, a tiny little book, should be required high school reading.

Will and Ariel Durant, the great husband and wife writing team.

Durant’s take on literature is humble, insightful, rigorous and conservative. His insights can be at times kind of silly. He criticizes some writers for course language while praising their realistic depiction of real people, he has strange standards for style, and he favors the canonical. For instance, he passes over Dos Passos for Faulkner and Hemingway, Graham Greene for Steinbeck. He has this to say Of Human Bondage, one of the great novels of the 20th century: “The book is not high literature; it does not hold attention through depth of thought, nobility of feeling, or excellence of style; it is, however, a faithful and unpretentious record of a soul’s development.” All of which is (strange) nonsense; Durant is exactly wrong. Bondage describes with precise, moving language the story of a young orphan becoming a man, through his perceptions and thoughts and feelings. The boy grapples with art, religion, love, hardship, society, success, and failure, coming to a hard-won, secular morality. His struggles are depicted with such a big-hearted humanity—even if Maugham in his personal life was a rapacious ass–if it doesn’t possess nobility of spirit, I don’t know what does. The style of the novel is a perfect example of the old adage: easy reading often masks damn hard writing.

Anyway, his essay on Eugene O’Neill is the best in the book. He loves O’Neill, and gives an exemplary account of his life and works. Here Durant describes O’Neill’s time in the bowery: “His favorite resort was a tavern popularly known as the Hell Hole . . . . He liked the inebriated philosophers who meditated there, and who in their cups revealed the secrets of their lives; these men, he said later, were the best friends he had ever had.”

Eugene O’Neill: Portrait of an unhappy man.

O’Neill used these railbirds and hustlers, castaways and drunks, prostitutes and pimps, rogues and rapscallions as the basis for the cast of his second best play, The Iceman Cometh. (I wrote about the film version here.) Iceman is a powerful, if at times punishing experience, but the denizens of the bowery dive come to life. You can feel the lives of these desperate people.


I love when my reading dovetails. Here Durant, O’Neil and Joseph Mitchell sort of fit together like a puzzle. I just finished my second pass through Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell’s writing.

Joseph Mitchell was a staff writer for The New Yorker for some 30 years, filing story after story about the rough and tumble eccentrics and drunks who occupied the Bowery area of mid-century New York. He loved drunks, saloonkeepers, weirdos, visionaries, hustlers, the stinking homeless, the destitute, the outcasts, the outlaws—the same characters O’Neil writes about in Iceman. No one has tried, but there’s probably some overlap in the people they wrote about. Mitchell visited the same places, just 20 years later.

Mitchell is an unparalleled stylist, a journalist-poet with one foot in the gutter. His profiles of bar people rank among the best of America’s writing, witty, humane, elegant, insightful—a view into a disappeared world. He makes journalism, and writing, look easy. Here he is describing a regular named Eddie Guest in his collection, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon: “Eddie Guest is a gloomy, defeated, ex-Greenwich Village poet who has been around the Bowery off and on for eight or nine years. He mutters poetry to himself constantly and is taken to Bellevue for observation once a year. He carries all his possessions in a greasy beach bag and sleeps in flophouses, never staying in one two nights in succession, because, he says, he doesn’t want his enemies to know where he is.” He loved ramblers, gamblers, working class heroes and inebriated philosophers. He is the factual mirror for Iceman. You can smell the breath of his profiles; you can hear their hearts beating. Everyone who reads him falls in love. He was a goddamn superb writer, a true one of a kind.

Joseph Mitchell, the great reporter of the downtrodden and depraved.

He spent his time with the denizens of America’s underbelly, mined it for poetry, and it exacted a price. In 1964, he filed his last story for The New Yorker. And for the following 32 years, he came into work, typed in his office, but never turned in a single sentence for publication. Then he died.

His longest work is Joe Gould’s Secret, where he revisits the lies and manipulations of a grand raconteur who he had profiled as a younger man. (The profile is called “Professor Sea Gull.”) Through the course of this exquisite, and heartbreaking, long essay, Mitchell reveals the dark side of Gould’s deceptions, while delineating his precipitous mental and physical decline. It’s clear that Mitchell felt he had betrayed Gould in his essay, and the consensus is that after Gould’s death, he somehow lost his voice, couldn’t write anymore, didn’t see the value of it. And then he eked through thirty more years of typing. Was he faking? Did he destroy all the work? Did he lose his mind?

Joe Gould, the drunken raconteur.

It is one of literature’s mysteries, although Mitchell isn’t alone. Edward Anderson, a superb author, wrote just two novels: Hungry Men, my vote for the best depression era novel, and Thieves Like Us, one of the finest crime novels of the 1930s. And then nothing. Or John Williams, one of our country’s finest novelists, author of the incredible Stoner, who wrote just four novels over the course of some fifty years. And then nothing.

The truth of it is that Mitchell was probably exhausted from his decades-long infatuation with the rank poverty of dilapidated New York, exhausted in his spirit and in his bones, and seeing Joe Gould perish so stupidly and alone, fractured the core belief that his writing mattered.

Lee Marvin and the Iceman

30 May

(I/we have finished a first draft of the play, but more on that in a later post.)

I’ve spent the last few days watching John Frankenheimer’s version of The Iceman Cometh, one of the great plays by Eugene O’Neill. (The whole film is available on youtube.) It’s a massive, towering film from the 1970s, and largely forgotten. Which is strange, because the movie is bewitching and strong, and it’s the last film of both Frederic March and Robert Ryan. Ryan gives what is probably the performance of his storied career. March plays an Irish man and mostly gets away with it. 


The play follows a group of drunks, hustlers, whores, pimps and busted out railbirds, as they argue, fight, and pester each other through two days in a sawdust bar called Harry Hope’s Saloon. Their hero is Hickey, a hard-drinking, good-time salesman coming into town for a party. Hickey is fun; Hickey is light-hearted; Hickey is generous; Hickey is content to be a drunk. But when he arrives, they discover he’s fallen into a strange, punishing philosophy of sobriety. He’s smart and insightful, but without booze his intelligence bends itself to talky analysis. Hickey spends the bulk of the play attempting to heal his old friends, forcing them to confront their inner demons. He wants them all sober. His cure is worse than the disease, though; his attempts to help lead to desperate ruin.

Iceman is considered O’Neill’s best play, sort of tied with Long Day’s Journey into Night. Both are bleak, brooding, emotional roller coasters with tons of alcohol and plenty of screaming. Iceman, however, has just a touch of dark magic—a metaphysical undercurrent. Hickey’s speech-making seems to magically remove the alcohol’s ability to numb their sadness, and like Bunuel’s The Avenging Angel, the characters can’t seem to leave. Something compels them to stay. 

Even trimmed the film is almost three hours. (The play often tops out at four.) Frankenheimer keeps the camera moving, and his technical skill is so high the movie doesn’t really feel like a play. It feels, strangely enough, like a well-shot, high-brow distant cousin of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with the grotesque physical decline of the drunks and the deathly pallor of their faces. At times it feels like a procession of the tubercular and the deranged. The corners of the film are smudged with perversity. (Frankenheimer did a similar thing with Seconds, his bizarre little foray into cult moviemaking, following an old man transforming into Rock Hudson through an obscure medical procedure.)


Lee Marvin plays Hickey, and he’s superb, revelatory, playing the role in a laid back, relaxed fashion. He sometimes plays the pushy salesman, sometimes the doomed preacher. Marvin always had an amazing face—oblong and pointy, strangely fleshy with a skull beneath his skin that seemed to harden even as his face became doughy with age. He made some bad films, but he was always reliable. Like John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and Robert Mitchum, he was a pro who bent his lines inward, towards his own personality. He came to the fore (often over-) playing villainous cowboys. Anyone unsure of his acting chops should check out Point Blank, where he plays a murderous, implacable idiot too stupid to take advantage of the chaos he’s created. It’s a brilliant performance, underplayed and deadpan, a study in near-total bewilderment.

Sidney Lumet directed an earlier version of Iceman for TV. I watched this, too. Jason Robards, another fine actor, plays Hickey for Lumet. Robards delivers his lines in the rat-a-tat stage style that so many theater actors use: histrionic, elongated, full of facial tics, and on film, pretty wretched. His words, his thoughts, his memories, they move faster than most people think, and the result is that stagey quality I’m sure most playwrights despise. Marvin is tougher, more natural, subtler, a building tension in his lines. (Jeff Bridges plays the Robert Redford part, and he’s light years better at the role. Redford is all childish vulnerability; Bridges plays it angrier, inches away from murder.) With Robards the lines seem like, well, lines. With Marvin you sense the dissolution of his own identity.

He is Hickey. And he is damned.