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The Iceman Cometh | Context

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Modernization of the American Stage

O'Neill characterized with contempt the theater he grew up with as "the old, ranting, artificial, romantic stage stuff." "[S]eeing the Irish Players," he later said, "gave me a glimpse of my opportunity." He was completely taken with the "restrained acting style and production values" of the players during the Abbey Theater's first U.S. tour. He also admired the playwrights who wrote for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, most notably the great Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) and Yeats's mentor, the playwright and folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory (1852–1932). They created modern plays from Irish folklore and legend. The third member of the group and the most significant influence on O'Neill's writing was John Millington Synge (1871–1909). Synge focused on the difficult lives of the rural Irish.

As a national company, the Abbey played for Irish people everywhere. Moreover, it was a theater of ideas, which performed not for mere profit, but with cultural—even political—agendas in mind. The Abbey's plays were about oppression, prejudice, capitalism, immigration, and family survival. These themes would also find a home in American alternative theater. The Iceman Cometh provides a good example of O'Neill's interest in the suffering of ordinary people with no way out of their desperate circumstances.

O'Neill put into practice during his tenure with the Provincetown Players (1915–1929) everything he had learned from the Abbey productions. In 1916 he joined a group of amateurs who had been performing their own plays since 1915 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The group was led by

  • classicist and socialist George Cram (Jig) Cook (1873–1924);
  • Cook's wife, American playwright, novelist, and short fiction writer Susan Glaspell (1876–1948); and
  • pioneering set designer Robert Edmond Jones (1887–1954).

Cook and American journalist and activist John Reed (1887–1920) convinced the group to move to New York's Greenwich Village. There, they launched their season of mostly one-act plays on November 3, 1916. O'Neill and Glaspell were the group's resident writers.

The Provincetown Players has been called by critics "the most significant and the most influential American theater group of the early twentieth century." The group gathered contributing artists interested in questioning conventional representation. This theater of ideas incorporated the techniques of realism (an unadorned depiction of life) and naturalism (the realistic depiction of life without editing or moral judgment) as inspired by the great family dramas of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906) and Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849–1912). They also reflected the representational experiments of the modernist artists who were interested in new ways of expressing themes such as disillusionment and alienation. The lessons of suffragettes (those fighting for a woman's right to vote) and socialists (those who believe in the public ownership of property for the purpose of shared resources) were also pertinent. Their plays were seeded with

  • politics—including socialism and anarchism (absence of the rule of law);
  • art—in a range of styles from the gritty realism of the New York City Ashcan School of painters to modernist abstraction; and
  • poetry that was both lyrical and abstract.

The world premieres of Glaspell's Trifles and O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff, both produced in Provincetown in 1916, strongly hinted at a move beyond realism toward symbolic, nonrepresentational theater. For instance, the company would experiment with the use of masks in O'Neill's plays to satirize social conformity, and they adapted themes from classical Greek tragedy, such as incest and matricide, to O'Neill's American tragedies.

Cook and Glaspell took a sabbatical in 1922, which was to become permanent. O'Neill joined Robert Edmond Jones and critic Kenneth Macgowan (1888–1963) to take the company's reins. They temporarily rechristened the group the Experimental Theater, Inc. (also known as the Experimental Theater Company). Under the leadership of director James Light (1894–1964), it soon became the Provincetown Players again. Throughout these name changes, the company continued its experimental bent. Taking great chances with innovative work, its linguistically radical choices included the play him (1927) by the poet E.E. Cummings (1894–1962) and three avant-garde plays by author and playwright Djuna Barnes (1892–1982). The group scandalized New York society when it produced O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924; shares its title with an African American spiritual), in which the famous African American actor and singer Paul Robeson (1898–1976) was kissed on the hand by his white costar Mary Blair. The stock market crash of 1929 brought an end to many of the small theaters in America, the Provincetown Players included. Their legacy of experimentation, however, has continued.

O'Neill and Anarchism

O'Neill's interest in anarchism and social reform began in his undergraduate days at Princeton and played a part in his early plays such as The Personal Equation (1915) and The Hairy Ape (1922). Yet, his biographers have noted that it was not until he wrote The Iceman Cometh "that he succeeded in humanizing the abstract anarchist philosophy."

One of O'Neill's early mentors was the philosophical anarchist and proprietor of the Unique Book-Shop, Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939). For over 50 years, Tucker was arguably the single most important anarchist and source of subversive ideas in America. He defined the basic tenets of anarchism: the sovereignty of the individual, the evils of the state, and the importance of liberty and justice. To Tucker, anarchist violence was repugnant. Tucker focused O'Neill on German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–85), the philosophical novel that famously announces the death of God. The playwright claimed Zarathustra had influenced him more "than any book" he had ever read.

A good part of O'Neill's achievement in Iceman is his creation of a peaceful, natural social order inside Harry Hope's saloon. The rules are dictated by the prevailing conditions of the regulars' lives, and liberty and justice prevail without the evils of the state. Those evils, however—rules that constrict individualistic freedom—briefly intrude with the entrance of the false messiah, Hickey. The laws of the state, designed to maintain conventional order, are not merely irrelevant in the life of the saloon, however; they are dangerous to each individual. Brief flares of violence in Act 3 present clear warnings of this danger. With Hickey's departure, order is restored; that is, an individualistic order returns. Thus, anarchy begins in free will, producing an ideal free society based on the needs of consenting individuals.

Lapsed Catholicism

From birth until age 7, Eugene lived on the road with his parents. The first phase of the "rootless early life" ended when Eugene was enrolled at St. Aloysius boarding school in Riverdale, New York. Later, he boarded at De LaSalle Institute, where he continued his religious education and studies in the humanities. In 1900 he took his first communion (the practice of taking bread and wine as symbols of Jesus's body and blood in remembrance of Jesus's last supper). In 1903 he learned of his mother's drug addiction. In the year that followed, Eugene stopped going to mass (the Catholic ceremony of worship) with his father and, finally, he renounced religion. Eugene brooded over his inability to enlist God's help in saving his mother. His rejection of religion, according to his biographers, "never ceased to hound him."

In The Iceman Cometh, religious symbolism and blasphemous diction activate Hickey's arrival in time for Harry Hope's birthday bash.

The play makes use of allusions to key events in Christianity, including

  • the arrival of Jesus to meet his disciples for the Last Supper,
  • the ultimate betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, and
  • Judas's suicide.

These biblical events, however, are trivialized by the alcoholic participants, who complain about their dislike of the feast, the flowers, and the improperly iced champagne. Meanwhile, the actual events, such as Parritt's suicide, gain significance. There is no way, however, to reconcile Hickey's murderous rationalizing with any Christian opportunities for salvation (deliverance from sin and death). Although the symbolic entities are present—the group of disciples and the arrangement of the tables—the lesson is nonsensical. It is the sneering work of those who are finished with the Church—or who wish to be.

Several Catholic sacraments and symbols figure in the play's actions. With Harry's party serving as a mass, the attendees are served a communion of cake and wine, courtesy of Hickey, the false messiah (redeemer). Hickey himself confesses to the group, while Parritt whispers a confession to Larry, who grants him penance (release from the guilt of sin).

Ultimately, free will triumphs, and the drinkers go back to doing what they do best—drinking and taking God's name in vain. Their diction carries their regrets in sentences that repetitively invoke old habits for just what they are: meaningless old habits. "For the love of God," says Larry. "Good God," says Lewis. "Jees" ("Jesus"), says Margie; "Bejees" ("by Jesus"), says Larry; and "Bejees," says Hope. By the final act, Harry Hope prefaces most statements he makes with "Bejees."

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