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1 Lecture Notes on Eugene ONeills The Iceman Cometh By Nicholas Birns The first act of the play is a slow

crescendo, a gradual warming-up of the emotions and coalescence of the themes until they begin to take shape in Act II with the arrival of the play's central figure--it may be too much to say tragic hero--Hickey. Two aspects, I think, strike us immediately about the first act: the sheer number of characters, and the use of the bar as setting. With regard to the first--I mentioned in the opening lecture the idea of the piece bien fait, or well-made play...this was largely a domestic drama which took place in one family and perhaps at most had two or three ''outsiders'...indeed, most plays, If you think about it, have no more than a few significant characters...this is certainly true of Greek drama--and even in Shakespeare there is, for the most part a clear division between the main characters and the supporting cast. O'Neill's technique here is far more heterogeneous. there are a number of the characters who are more important get more stage time than the others __Harry Hope, Larry Slade, Parritt, and, when he arrives, Hickey--but everyone in the bar, when he speaks is treated as at least potentially important, they are not there to 'swell a scene, start a progress or two." At least nine or ten of these characters are potentially major ones--and that is why the blog assignment we are going to do has the basis that it does, everybody will not have to talk about Hickey for it to be meaningful. Interestingly, we begin not even with the main bartender, Harry Hope, but with Rocky, the night bartender, talking to Larry Slade, 'the Old Philosopher'. the character who of all of then will emerge as the unobtrusive moral center of the play, though hardly a 'hero' or even a 'protagonist' in the conventional sense. Their conversation gives us a sense of the entire scene--this saloon is a place where people in desperate circumstances come, people barely keeping afloat, but people who have a sense of pride and even, as the main bartender's surname latently suggests, of hope. Rocky's determination not to be taken for a pimp reveals a sense of striving, a desire not to be put down by life. That Rocky precedes Harry, the auxiliary bartender precedes the main is a characterological expression of the nuance O'Neill displays in letting the plot slowly unfold.. there is of course the risk of tedium, the risk of the viewer losing interest, also the risk of anticlimax when Hickey arrives (placing a burden on the actor playing Hickey, who is usually the 'star' anyway). O'Neill takes a risk as most dramatists would want to get out of the starting gate quickly, get the viewer absorbed...yes Shakespeare does have the ominous, brooding opening scene of Hamlet with two characters who do not feature thereafter but the scene is short and we quickly get Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius, O'Neill stays with the buildup for much longer and as a technique it is , again, not without risk of losing the audience.... We should understand certain things about the bar. O'Neill is clearly using it

2 allegorically, at least to a degree. As interested as he is an alcoholism as a psychological syndrome as intimately bound as he was in his personal and family life, he also employs the bar motif as the bar is a way to bring together a collection of heterogeneous individuals, not related by blood, together in modern society in a way that will provoke interesting reactions--the same principle is present in comedies such as Cheers. There is also the utility of the bar as a vehicle for revelation, a place where people can bare their souls unfettered by any sense of social inhibition--in a way the bar is a solution for the fact that on of the main interments of Aristotelian tragedy, the sudden reversals and revelations, are hard to unfold in bourgeois society because it would be so impolite to do so, these things simply are not said, and so on...in a bar we can find out the truth, culminating in 'the' truths about Hickey And Parritt, hat we could not in a drawing-room... The fact that the bar has no detemrinate name, only a series of epithets,: No Chance Saloon, The End of the Line Cafe, the bottom of the Sea Rathskeller, heightens the sense of the metaphorical ..this is now a very common device, using the bar as a portal between the worlds, as Louis Begley does in his novel Shipwreck, but in a way it is this play that made it a 'stock; device...this happens so often in literary history, motifs are clichd or expected precisely because they have originally bene featured in a successful (eventually) and influential work, The bar also is a place where subterranean currents in society can go...psychological unrest, anger but also political discontent. Early on, en involved in 'the Movement'-a radical political organization that seems to be either socialist or anarchistic in orientation, and is devote dot overthrowing the established order. The anguish and alienation of the characters in the saloon is not just private, but has to do with social discontent, and also a sense of frustration at the people IN the Movement with the Movements own inefficacy and compromise.....really the most important context in which we hear of the Movement is the betrayal of Parritt's mother--a figure clearly modeled on Emma Goldman, whose picture I will post to Resources--and this we see the Movement not as providing any solution to the problems of society but as itself being part of, or prey at least. Them as wellstill, the play to leave us with no doubt that there are genuine social problems that are understandably exciting resistance. Alcohol itself has an element of sedition--remember, ONeill was writing this in the late 1930s about 1912, so separating these two dates was the entire era of prohibition--in 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the consumption of alcohol, which had to be consumed superstitiously and illegally in 'speakeasies"...Prohibition was overturned in 1933 (partially to alleviate the economic downturn) and drinking for the next thirty years ago had an air of sophistication and glamour, witness all the martinis in the old Hollywood movies and so on...so there is a sense that the very act of dirking is not just an outlet for recreation or desperation but something dissident, illicit... The characters, much like e.g. the crew and passengers on a ship (in nautical allegories such as Moby Dick, Ship of Fools, and so on) represent a cross section of American society--there is the black character in Joe Mott, the disillusioned

3 privileged guy in Willie Oban, the regular guy in Larry Slade...what is weird is the trio of people who have some relation to the Boer War...Cecil Lewis, James Cameron, and Piet Viljoen,..the British, the Dutchman (Boer), and the American journalistthis is set in 1912, twelve or so years after the Boer War was over The Boer War was a war between the British and two Dutch (Afrikaans-speaking) colonies in South Africa; despite being in Africa, it was a war between whites. basically. The Boer War had little to do with the US; we were involved at that time in our own colonial war in the Philippines, an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War It would have made more sense, in strictly American terms, for O'Neill to use this contemporaneous war in which the US was actually involved. Remember, though, the play was first written in 1939/40 and revised for production in 1946...what I think ONeill was doing here was talking about topical' issues but in an indirect way. the Afrikaans spoke a language related to German, so that brings up German involvement in the two World Wars....the Afrikaans (white Dutchmen) premised their rule of the colonies on the suppression of black Africans, so that brings up the race issue in the US. so ONeill refers to the two biggest issues in the US of his time, the war and the race issue, indirectly...the Boer War also allows him to have a British character, Cecil and to point out the difference between British and American attitudes--in a way ONeill shows how distinct the down-to-earth, direct culture of modern America is from Cecils British inhibition. On the other hand, the entire Boer motif shows internationalism and foreign conflicts hitting American shores; in the twentieth century, America cannot keep herself isolated from foreign influences. So there are lots of currents and ideas in the play--Arthur Miller's All My Sons won the Pulitzer Prize for 1946 partially because it was seen as more topical, but there is much 'relevance' in ONeills play, albeit slightly disguised. But all this notwithstanding, the tensions, the gathering psychological storm in the first act, has to do with personal issues and legacies of individual action in the past. Even before Hickey comes, there is Parritt. Parritt is so young, just 18, but people talk about him not only as if he was one of the habitus of the bar but as someone who has lot all hope, lost all spring in his step--his life in effect seems to have ended even before it has begun. The climactic revelation at the end of Act II is that Hickeys wife, Evelyn, is dead. This shocks the bars clientele, but it certainly explains his change of mood, whether ones construction of this change is that Evelyns death has sobered him upon or simply driven him crazy. T is in the context of Evelyn that the anecdote that yields the plays title comes to the fore the other people in the bar have ribbed Hickey about his not mentioning his wife, saying jocularly that she must have run off with the iceman (this in the days when perishable goods needed ice, et cetera). . As the truth emerges, the iceman becomes not just a joke about adulterous romance but a metaphor for death. As the latter, it may appear portentous and overly symbolic, such as the entire setting in a bar mgiht beand I would be interested in hearing your views about thisbut when we remember its origin in a joke it does kind of

4 bring a chill up your spine, that some metaphor seemingly trivial and just said in causal conversation suddenly becomes transformed into something serious and appalling. Something Hickey overlooks in his Act II declamations is that not all the bars denizens are on the same level of delusion. Both Rocky and Harry Hope have enough perspective at least to be able to run the bars; they are in a way the wardens of the prison who are also in prison themselves, but they do have the wherewithal to make the simple but necessary operational decisions involved in running the bar. Larry Slade also seems on a different level. The great love of his life is Parritts mother the Emma Goldman figure, and as bereft as he is by his loss of her and by the inability to ideologically support the Movement that precipitated it. But he retains integrity in his very grief, he holds on to the ideals and the dreams of happiness that he knows he can never have. This makes him the object of envy on the part of Hickey and Parritt. In a sense, Larry Slade does not need an ideology; he has instead a sense that his life has been as he has lived it, for the good and the bad, and he is comfortable with himself if necessarily not with his life situation. Hickey and Parritt, though, are not being wholly disingenuous; they see Slade as a loser, as somebody who does not try to exploit life for all its opportunities as they do, and who wallows in self-pity to somehow pick up his own sprits (I guess in terms of both morale and alcoholic spirits).. Larry may have in fact lost all honor, as other say, he may be a fake, as others say, but he at least knows he is such, and that level of insight into his own abandonment at least gives him something. It is in fact the very people who delight in puncturing others ideals, Parritt and Hickey, who are revealed as illusionedParritt had claimed that he sold out his mother in Act II out of Emersonian, Jeffersonian, American ideals (interesting in light of what Harold Bloom says in his introduction to our edition about ONeills discontinuity with this American tradition)in Act III it comes out that he had done it for money, to spend money on a womanthe thirty pieces of silver' of Judasand Hickey..lets just say that he too says things he knows in his heart are not true, that he is not being honest. Interestingly Rocky in turn thinks Slade is a soft old sap for merely disregarding Parritt after he spouts his disillusionment rather than just kicking him in the face. Part of Slade's complexity is that he is open to forgiveness even of those that have wronged him up to a certain point. But it must be said that Hickey, Rocky, and Parritt are right about Slade in that he is dramatically ineffectual; he cannot halt the tragedy; he is not going to fight a last-ditch battle for the forces of good and prevail. In a sense, he gave up any hope of this when things fell apart with the Movement and with Parritts mother. Now that our discussions is moving towards the end of Act III, I want to pause a bit, since the revelations at the end of the play are so shocking. I want to know where you think, at the end of Act II the play is going, what you think will happen with the characters? Also at this point it might be time for a review of the play..in the simplest terms do you like it? Do you find the characters compelling? Is it too

5 depressing? Too ponderous? Are they too many characters you have to keep straight? Or does ONeill need this huge cast to assert the grandeur of his despairing tableau? At t the end of Act IV, we know the stunning truth: that Hickey is not just a busybody or a malevolent shredder of other peoples illusions, but a cold-blooded murderer, and that he has in effect killed his wife because he is unwilling to do just what he accuses others of not being able to do: be honest with themselves. Why do we need both Hickey and Parritt exposed? There have been hints of some connection between then, and (I wonder if any of you thought this) the reader might think the connection is literal, that Hickey is to be revealed as Parrotts father, or that the two plots are somehow linked. In fact, they are linked not only thematically but structurally: both have in effect killed the main person in their lives. (Parritt says his crime is even worse as his mother is experiencing life as a living hell in prison; do you agree or is this Parritts final attempt to gain self-pity through selfdramatization?) and both have also operated out of a spurious gospel of paddle your own canoe and renunciation of any need to care for others. In a crude sense, ONeill is sending up nineteenth century American individualism, to which Parritt lays claim to in Act II, and suggesting a new, more collective mode of relation is needed; in this sense the playset in 1912, as we recallcould very much be seen as "why twentieth century America needed the New Deal or, alternately remembering the play was written in 1939-40:how can America turn away from heartless individualism without becoming a Fascist or Communist state? (and, remember, the Movement is in the play for a reason, and Hugo, I suspect, gets so much stage time at the end, as buffoonish as he is, for a similar reason. Can there be a middle ground of democracy between pitiless individualism anddoctrinaire collectivism? The jury is still out, and this is whyONeills play still speaks to us. I just want to mention again how young Parritt is, and that his suicide at the end is a very dark portent for the future of the plays world. But why do we need both Parritt and Hickey to suffer, be exposed? So it is not just a matter of one rogue psychotic, one bad apple? The people in the bar tend to lapse back into this at the end, we even see some residual echoes of the old "great guy, good time Charlie Hickey" although on the other hand, the way the collective bar ensemble remembers the good things about Hickey even in his ruination is very moving: it is charitable, caring in just the way Hickey would never have been about them, and it is to their credit that they are like this. But if the issues of the play are tied to Hickey alone, they run the danger of being characterized as a one-off fluke--is this why there is the doubling with Parritt? Why in both cases are the victims womenin fact in both cases the victims are middle-aged or older women? One thinks of the old lady killed by Raskolnikov, gratuitously, in DostoyevskysCrime and Punishment. In a way this play is not unlike Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie, a play by a younger playwright but written and produced in roughly the same era, in which Laura Wingfield dreams of a "Gentleman Caller" but is rudely awoken from her illusion and left with the impression that "life" will never let her be a normal person. As much as the revelation of Hickey's murder of Evelyn appalls us because of the

6 characters heartlessness and evil (does anyone buy his argument that it was really a sort of mercy killing?), I wonder if its effect is not as much metaphorical as literal. What Hickey has spoken against again and again is tomorrow; he loathes the future; he is the incarnation of the here and now, the clear light of day, and only the here and now and the clear light of day. The truncation of lifes pleasure and resonance that this entails is another kind of murder, a stripping-down of life to a febrile unvarnished state. Something, though, I wonder about here is, if this is so, why the name Happy Hope? Such an obviously allegorical name begs a lot of questionsand certainly, if he represents hope, one probably has to conclude, with Kafka, that there is hope, no end of hope, but not for us. But does ONeill mean to say that merely getting through, persisting in misery is all the hope we have? And is this meant to mock the very idea of hope, to suggest, as Bloom nearly does in the introduction, that Hickey is perversely right about life? Or is muddling on helping people get sloshed, in is mute persistence, all the hope there is? Help me out here, guys.. The last scene, the very last scene, with all the remaining actors each singing a song while Slade muses in reverie, is fascinating. First, theatrically, it can be very challenging, especially since these songs are no longer popular ones and the actor must be trained to sing them. Second, it takes up a lot of time, potentially, in an already long play, and arrests or extends what Aristotle would call the cathartic state of the audience stunned and moved by Hickeys revelation, potentially to the point of diluting it. Third, it raises a very important point about Slade and how ONeill wishes to represent him. Slade is probably the character who most closely represents ONeills own stance in the play; he is the point-of-view character or what the French would call the raisonneur, the character who speaks for the author and presents his 'reason. Slade is not quite this, he is too wounded and desolate and apologetic for this, but he is close to it. It might be tempting to see the final scene as the other barflies just getting lost in their own sadness singing ditties, having learned nothing from the humiliation and immolation of Hickey, while Slade with more insight, reflects on his own inner pain. But this would be mistake because it would make the same sort of differentiation between Slade and the rest that Hickey was trying to make between himself and the rest: the one with the more insight, the one who has the real skinny of the situation. Slade is responding to the tragedies of Hickey and of Parritts mother in one way, in thought and reflection; the others are responding another way in song and in collective self-affirmation of what very little they have. In a way, the singing of the different songs is just the kind of tomorrow Hickey was trying to murderand in a sense what survives Hickey, and what ONeill affirms against his philosophy and his evil deeds, is not so much any discrete character, even Slade, but the life of the theater itself the life of art, as something that is precisely often lodged in a dream world, that, as with the plurality of songs, often walls people off from each other instead of bringing them into collective harmony. I think understanding the counterpoint of Slade and the multiple singers is perhaps a way Slade can be considered more than the failure that Bloom, in the introduction, rightly conclude he is, if we privilege him above the others. The Hickey revelation was gradualfirst his wife revealed as dead, then murdered, than his revealed as her murderer. Would it have been more effective had these

7 revelations come in one fell swoop? Or is there a method behind this sort of gradual, structural increment?

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