October 1973: O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh

American Film Theatre. Academy of Music, Northamton.

This is the first of a series of films to be shown over the course of this year, once a month, mainly to subscription audiences. A piece in this past Sunday Times drama section suggested that this would be institutionalized culture, addressing itself to affluent audi­ences who want to see safe classics, not to another, allegedly more vital and disparate audience, a more democratic audience, which (the author argues) ought to be sought. Whether this will prove true for the series as a whole remains to be seen; certainly the audience of what seemed to be mainly university and college faculty and spouses and associated persons last night bore out the justice of the writer’s accusation.

But possibly only such an audience could have been willing to endure such an ordeal. This film gets the series off to a ponderous and heavy (as my students use the word) start. O’Neill wrote the play as a sort of marathon playgoing bout, and this uncut film version keeps every word, remaining true as well to the single setting, the back and front rooms of Harry Hope’s saloon in lower Manhattan, and apparently to every pause and modulation in the action of the play as well. I found myself taking a goodly number of random notes, most of which can be set down here seriatim.

The color of the film was nicely done, rendering a fine, “old­ fashioned” effect as if this were a sort of sepia in color. Lots of heavy shadow, under-lighted subjects, and combinations of light and dark images in deep focus gave decent variety, visually. There were numerous deep focus shots, many of them medium or long shots involving a composition of three or four actors, each carefully positioned and postured so that no one was sitting or facing or standing in exactly the same direction or at the same angle. There was so much of this, in fact, that close shots were a noticeable rarity, and had a good emphatic effect when used. There were lots of low angle shots; these and other horizontal shots often framed a subject in medium or far distance by introducing at the side the profile of a second person. As the showing went on, I gradually became aware that these shots, especially long shots with a character in profile in the near distance, served (if hesitantly) some sort of truth: something like the cinematic equivalent of O’Neill’s overall sense of human society — namely, that human beings find, or fail to find, the truths of their existence by having been forced or led into conjunction with one another — but that these truths are finally grasped only in some sort of ultimate spiritual isolation.

Perhaps this is what O’Neill meant when he said, somewhere, that his greatest interest was not man in relation to other men, but in relation to God.

One notices very quickly a sense that O’Neill is a playwright of and for the theatre. His work does not sit well, I think, with the cinematic aesthetic. I was first aware of this in hearing Larry Slade’s early speeches (and Jimmy Tomorrow’s also). They are elaborately literary, a sort of Swinburne-and-soda (one thinks of how quotable Swinburne was for Jaimie and Edmund in LDJ), and they throw the ineluctably realistic, not to say natural­istic, idiom of the film into unpleasantly conscious relief. One also recalls the meticulous care for visual things within the constant frame of the proscenium arch that characterizes O’Neill’s stage direc­tions. The highly selective nature of the film means that we are never able to see the whole group of characters at once, as we do often in the four long acts of the play itself; what we get are, at most, shots of three or four persons, except for the birthday party scene and a few shots of the sequence when the captain and others try going out into the outside world. The director John Frankenheimer has apparently been sufficiently aware of this quality of grouping in O’Neill to try for a cinematic equivalent in the deep-focus shots previously described. He succeeds probably as well as anyone could, granted the nature of the medium itself.

Still (perhaps, however, because I know the play) the basic rhythm of the O’Neill drama came pounding through. That rhythm, it seems to me, consists of a complex unit in which, first, the character makes a sort of last-ditch, no-holds-barred assertion of the naked truth about another individual — revealing in the process the truth about his own attitude toward that individual; but hardly is this truth out before the character compul­sively retracts, refusing to acknowledge the validity of his assertion. At this point we hear versions of the same apology: “I didn’t mean to say that”; “Jeez, I’m only kiddin’”; or a similar formula. The basic irony of this rhythm is that, while allowing momentarily the existence of an understanding of things as they are, it finally asserts the need for an agreed fiction. Because his characters do this, follow this rhythm, one after another — the play is made up of sequences that climax in this rhythmic unit. The overall sense is of a large­ scale conspiracy of human beings against reality. They prefer, in the language of this play, their “pipe-dream.” And so Hickey, at the end, even though he has supposedly seen the need for the truth, blurts out his words uttered over the dead body of his wife: “I’m glad you’re dead, you damn bitch.”  But then he immediately retracts: No, I didn’t say that, I couldn’t have said that, I loved her too much. Meanwhile, the play as a whole runs at an ultimate purpose that counters these individual withdrawals into fantasy or illusion, since its thrust is toward an ultimate, illusion-less reality where all the truths are out. And so we see Larry Slade, who figures this ending, sitting, silent, alone, at the end, having recognized in himself his desire to kill Don Parritt by getting Parritt to commit suicide, a form of vicarious death for Larry himself, since Larry’s sell-out parallels Parritt’s.

Lee Marvin as Hickey is his own man. But unfortunately what this means is that he plays Lee Marvin, or at most Lee Marvin playing Hickey. This is the rock-jawed, matter-of-fact truth-teller in bold outline — or, bold in the sense of simple. He is not, to my sense anyway, O’Neill’s self-dramatizing character. He is too much like my image of a modern corporate executive, a steel or chemical man, a big business man, passionless, efficient, exuding a slightly awkward, angular masculinity, and not enough like what one might think of as the early twentieth-century self-made man that Hickey describes himself as being, the smile-and-a-shoeshine phenomenon, a Willy Loman who made good, the self-dramatizing romanticist door-to-door winger who never misses a sale. Marvin could sell soybeans to the Russians, but no ice-boxes to Eskimos. Nor is Marvin (if my response is fair and accurate) really comfortable with the role. As an actor he is winging it, if not as a salesman, using his own formidable cinematic presence to carry him through while he tries to like O’Neill. It’s just possible to think of this char­acter as the sort who goes on “periodicals,” as they call them — annual binges. But his coolness is that of what I take to be the standard Lee Marvin shoot-‘em-up character, always on top of the situation, with never a chink in his psychic armor. It is not a resolution that appears at the other side of despair, not the last irony that O’Neill contrives to place at the climactic apex of the play. The cinematic method of shooting in bits and pieces has, in this case, somehow allowed us to miss the real cumulative power of this character, and of this play to which he is so central. Marvin’s character is a cinematic character, not a theatrical one. He can’t sustain the impression of holding something back, neither making us wait for what’s worth waiting for or selling us something we need.

Other individual performances are in all cases adequate, even quite compe­tent, and in some cases superb. Frederick March is especially fine as a broad-brogued Harry Hope, Jeff Bridges nicely intensive and cumulative in his sense of an O’Neill role (as Marvin is not) as Don Parrit. Perhaps the best of all, or at least on a par with March, is Robert Ryan as Larry Slade. Bradford Dillman, a veteran of O’Neill (the first Edmund in LDJ) goes to the very limits of validity as the tormented D.T.’d sot Willie Oban; he is extremely good but just slightly too ripe, and the directorial decision to black out a front tooth gives the character a distracting farcical dimension. The three hookers are nicely contrasted. Evans Evans’s makeup as Cora is, I think, remarkably well done; she comes across (the result of her good acting, fundamentally) as both a beautiful woman and a coarse tart, just at the bleak threshold of what will obviously be a precipitate, disastrous physical decline into red­ rouged tawdriness. Tom Pedi as Rocky Pioggi brings some real authority to a role that might have been relegated entirely to stereotypical acting. In fact, some actors have a difficult time trying to get O’Neill’s stereotypes right, since they verge so dangerously on caricature. The most glaring example of this is Hugo, the impossibly authentic mittel-European anarchist, played with consummate bravado but ultimately too much panache by Sorrell Booke. It’s probably just too hard to come through the layered joke that this character is; or if he is more than that, Booke opted for the caricature. Still, it is hard to say “Don’t be a fool; buy me a drink” five different ways and all con­vincing.

Finally, one emerges from this four-hour talkathon thinking mixed thoughts about the present enterprise. Although there are some really splendid perform­ances, the play as a whole doesn’t finally cohere, it doesn’t accumulate and become (as I think it should) almost unbearably depressing. I was not bored at any time, but I was only intermittently enthralled. It may be that any film treatment of this play is doomed to mixed notices because of the esthetic dis­junctiveness involved. Faithfulness to O’Neill’s setting and text is an act of pious homage (or else a mendacious appeal to snobbery), but it leaves the cinematic form at loose ends. People got up and left, on the average, about one or two every fifteen minutes after an hour had gone by. There were two intermis­sions, so further breaking up the rhythms of O’Neill’s carefully balanced four-act structure. What can one do? Here is the quintessential American play (or one of them: the family drama being another): the barroom melodrama. The convention is transported undisturbed to O’Neill’s stage, where he proceeds to infuse it with a new vitality, so that individual lives spring out from behind the gross oversimplifications of character that are the stock in trade of this genre. At the same time, he conducts a large-scale expansion from within, so that the four hours in the theatre becomes analogous to the endurance contest of life itself.

The most obvious implication of the form, and the setting, is that we are presented with a population of representative types, suggesting a human society (fragmentedly male) in little. Each person has to blend with the group, to belong, yet add his own aspect to the variety. And, the largest necessity: each character has to be given his “moment.” A slow, carefully orchestrated process of individual revel­ation takes place. In the old convention it was a standardized alternation, with no particular subtlety, which served the function of solidifying the social identity of the role and the moral values unequivocally attached to it. Here, O’Neill adapts this function to the paradigm of his rhythm of ironic revelation-and-denial of the truth.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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