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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

April 3, 2018: Theater in America: The Iceman Cometh

[On April 6th, 1947, the first Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theatre—or the Tony Awards for short—were given in New York City. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of texts and moments in American theater—share your dramatic responses and thoughts for a crowd-sourced weekend post sure to get a standing O!]
On a dark and compelling portrait of hollow dreams, and where it comes up short.
The late 1940s saw the first productions of an incredible trio of American dramatic works, each among its talented author’s, as well as the century’s and the nation’s, finest: Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (written in 1939 but first performed in 1946); Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947); and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). I wrote a bit about Miller’s portrayal of identity, family, and the American Dream in this post; I hope to do the same for Williams’ play, and the equally compelling and groundbreaking 1951 film version, at some point down the road. But today I wanted to focus specifically on the coldest of the trio, in every sense: O’Neill’s funny and dynamic but ultimately bleak and cynical Iceman.
Examined in relationship to O’Neill’s general métier, the kinds of extreme, psychological family melodramas exemplified by Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) and Desire Under the Elms (1924), Iceman is positively comic by comparison. The dreamers and schemers who populate the play’s barroom setting are as drunken and deluded as O’Neill’s characters tend to be, but they’re also a lively and witty bunch, one-upping each other’s stories and attempted cons as they await the titular character and their collective icon, legendary salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman. To my mind, those diverse tones make Iceman O’Neill’s most successful work, not only at keeping an audience engaged throughout but also at capturing both the dreams and the nightmares, the myths and the realities, that so often comprise American identities, individual and communal. When Hickey’s story and identity collapse in the play’s final act, that is, the contrast between the ideal and the real is emphasized—for the other characters and for us—far more potently and effectively than would otherwise be the case.
Yet Iceman is not without its shortcomings, and in many ways they’re as telling as its strengths. For one thing, the play’s depiction of women is even more limited than Death of a Salesman’s (as I discussed in that aforementioned post); Iceman’s prostitutes are quite literally cyphers on whom the much more complex male characters simply project their needs and myths, and that’s even more true of the absent female character (Hickey’s murdered wife) on whom much of the play’s climax hinges. But even if we take the play on its own terms, focus on those complex characters at its heart, I would argue that in their distinct but ultimately parallel stories O’Neill’s cynical coldness becomes self-fulfilling and thus self-defeating. That is, if every image is false, every story a myth, every dream a delusion, it becomes far less possible to invest in the significance of any one such story and hope—if they’re all “pipe dreams,” to use the play’s constant refrain, then no particular one of them, nor by extension any of ours, matters at all. That level of consistent cynicism is more than just unappealing to a critical optimist such as this AmericanStudier—it becomes more of a reflex than an analytical or thoughtful take on identity or America.
The drama continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other dramatic works or moments you’d highlight?

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