The Iceman Cometh

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Early in Eugene O’Neill’s play “The Iceman Cometh,” Larry Slade (David Morse) cynically quotes Heinrich Heine, the German poet: Lo, sleep is good, better is death – in sooth / The best of all were never to be born. If any voice that encapsulates this great American Tragedy*, it is this couplet. The four-act, almost four-hour drama takes place in a rundown New York saloon where a bunch of disillusioned, despondent and dire derelicts drown their sorrows in alcohol. Mire in self-pity, they are waiting to die or drink themselves to death. Between stupors, these “bottom dogs” cope with their present by revising their past and deceiving themselves with pipedreams for their future.

Enters Theodore Hickman “Hickey” (Denzel Washington), a traveling salesman, whose annual visit is a welcomed highlight to their darkness. But this time, Hickey is neither fun nor riotous. In fact, he has stopped drinking. He announces that he has found an everlasting peace by facing up to the truth about himself. And he offers them the same salvation if they “just stop lying about yourself and kidding about your tomorrows.” One by one, they mutter sentiments to his probity as they slouch toward the night. By next day, one by one, in reprehensible self, crawls back into each’s dark space. Hugo syncopates their collective delusions, “So ve get drunk, and ve laugh like hell, and den ve die, and the pipedreams vanish.”

Hickey intuitively realizes that his gang of misfits is incorrigible. In a long soliloquy, he confesses truth about his lies, failures and sins: “I even caught myself hating her (his wife, Evelyn) for making me hate myself so much.”  No matter what transgression he had against her, she always managed to forgive and loved him even more. He had to kill her to unfetter his guilty shame. Larry, who usually stands to the stage’s far side, observes all in abject philosophical detachment. But secretly, he too is heavy with guilt, especially when young Don Parritt, the son of his former lover, confesses his heinous betrayal of his mother. Detached no more, Larry blurts out, “Go, get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you.”

Eugene O’Neill composed “The Iceman Cometh” in 1939, after he had written “Days Without End” several years before. Critics note that the earlier play was written in happier time. Raised nominal Catholic, in time O’Neill repudiated his faith. In “Days Without End,” the protagonist, wrestles with doubts in God. Then in the final scene, he returns to church, prostrates himself before the crucifix and makes peace with God, and himself. Some suggest that “Days Without End” was his confession of returning to faith. But not. For in “The Iceman Cometh,” there is an explicit absence of God. Others offer that it may be his recantation of the previous work. There is certainly an anti-religion, if not anti-Christian, undertone throughout. Although there are many religious references, including the archaic cometh in the title, much of the Biblical allusion is bilious. O’Neill let on that the play is a rebuke of Western Civilization’s moral collapse and religious hegemony.

Here is the irony – intentionally or viscerally, “The Iceman Cometh” is analogous of human existence without God. It is Larry who admits that “truth is terrible!” Truth has a way of making all lies obdurate. Without God there is no hope; without hope there is no future; and without a future, all that remains are senseless pipedreams. In that darken saloon, in God’s apparent absence, the pipe-dreamers, whose lives are but shadows of yesterday’s dim light, swallow cheap whiskey, take long snoozes, yak non-sense and wait for the iceman – death – cometh.

*This revival will be on Broadway until July 1, 2018