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Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Oscar Winner Scott Rudin Is a Risk-Taker. Why He -- or Some Other Producer -- Needs to Take a Risk on This American Masterwork. And That's No Pipe Dream. Plus, One of the Greatest Performances Ever. And What Happened in 1946?

Chuck Ross Posted June 21, 2012 at 2:09 AM

Not often produced by major theaters, a new production of “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill -- a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature -- ended its extended run last weekend at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. As this is being written on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, the entrepreneur who has the option of bringing the show to Broadway, producer Scott Rudin, has declined to do so, reports say. The reports have added that other producers are likely negotiating with Rudin for the rights to take the show to New York.

Let’s hope that’s true. Or that Mr. Rudin, who has never been risk-averse -- he produced “First Wives Club," which no one thought would be a hit, as well as scores of other movies and plays -- will change his mind and bring the play to New York himself.

I saw "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman on Tuesday, May 8, 2012, near the beginning of its run. The production haunts me to this day. The performances were all excellent, save one. And one other performance was so dazzlingly spot on, so emotionally right and complete, that it is one of the two most brilliant performances I have ever seen on stage. (The other one was Joe Mantegna in his Tony-winning role as Ricky Roma in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” almost 30 years ago.) And I see a fair amount of theater.

But up until last month, I had never seen “The Iceman Cometh” performed live, on stage. I was surprised to read, in some material about the show that I picked up at the Goodman, that when the play was first produced -- on Broadway in 1946 -- the production ran just 136 performances, closing five months after it opened.

I think the optimism felt by most Americans -- including Broadway theater goers -- coming off the victory of the World War might have been too much in conflict with a play they found too chilling, both emotionally and intellectually. Indeed, dramas of any sort were not big on Broadway in 1946. I could not find a single major Broadway hit that opened between January and October -- October is when ‘Iceman” opened -- that was not a comedy or a musical. Hit shows that opened in 1946 included “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Born Yesterday” and “Showboat.” And a warm, lighthearted play called “Harvey” was in the middle of its original five-year run of 1,775 performances.

I decided to do a little research into that 1946 premiere run of “The Iceman Cometh.”

My primary sources were newspaper accounts -- including reviews -- that I found at the New York public library. I also learned a lot from the late Louis Sheaffer’s 1973 book “O’Neill, Son and Artist.” It’s the second part of his two-volume authoritative biography of O’Neill, the first of which, “O’Neill, Son and Playwright,” was published in 1968. The two books are based on extensive original research and interviews done by Sheaffer over a period of 15 years or so, and I recommend them highly for anyone interested in O’Neill or theater or the arts in general. The two books are lively and good reads. “O’Neill, Son and Artist” won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

O’Neill wrote “The Iceman Cometh” in six months; he started writing the play in June 1939, finishing it that November. He was 51 years old and already a Nobel Laureate. He did revisions through the first few months of 1940, and then set the final draft of the play aside.

The action that takes place during “The Iceman Cometh” can be easily explained. It’s about 16 characters, misfits all and many of them alcoholics as well. Most of them live at a particular rooming house and hang out at its first-floor bar. The rooming house is located on the lower west side of Manhattan. The time is the summer of 1912. Much of the dialogue has the characters talking about what they want and intend to do in the future -- their pipe dreams. At the beginning of the play they are waiting for a 17th character, Hickey, a traveling salesman who they all say knows how to party hearty. But when Hickey finally arrives, he has a surprise in store for everyone.

Though the play itself is set in 1912, O’Neill, did not want it published or performed when he completed the final draft in 1940. According to “O’Neill, Son and Artist,” “Aside from his feeling that the times were wrong for the play, that audiences in wartime would be unreceptive to a drama as nihilistic as ‘The Iceman,’ Eugene feared he might ‘crack up’ again, as in 1937, under the ‘nerve strain’ of New York and rehearsals. Unwilling to risk such a possibility even if ‘guaranteed a great success,’ his sole desire was to remain well enough to continue writing -- ‘the only thing that still interests me about my profession.’ ”

Five years later, in August 1945, World War II ended, and in October O’Neill took the train from the West Coast to New York. O’Neill and the Theatre Guild -- his longtime choice of producer for his plays -- planned on a Broadway debut of “The Iceman Cometh” for the fall of 1946.

Writes Sheaffer in “Son and Artist": “Since ‘The Iceman Cometh’ was another of [O’Neill’s] outsize dramas, with a running time of over four hours, there were again differences between him and the Guild over the question of length. O’Neill tried to cut three-quarters of an hour from the four-act drama, but found that he could trim it no more than fifteen minutes without diminishing the play’s impact. Trying to persuade him to cut further, [Guild co-founder Lawrence] Langner had an assistant check the script for the number of times it declares [anything about] “the lie of a pipe dream” [which is a recurring concept talked about in the play], and found that the thought was expressed eighteen times. When Langner pointed this out, the playwright replied in a quiet but emphatic voice, ‘I intended it to be repeated eighteen times!’ ”

So with a four-hour, four-act play set to debut in October 1946, the question that arose next was how to present it. In the New York Herald Tribune of Wednesday, Oct. 9, 1946, Bert McCord wrote in his “News of the Theater” column that “‘The Iceman Cometh’ is of unusual length and will have an early curtain, with an intermission for dinner. After tonight’s opening, the curtain will rise at 5:30 and the intermission will be from 6:45 to 8. Tonight, in order to give the critics more time to write their reviews, the curtain will rise at 4:30. There will be performances every night but Sunday, but, of course, no matinees.”

The decision to have a dinner intermission was O’Neill’s, Sheaffer writes in his biography, and it turned out it contributed to the play’s relatively poor initial reception.

According to interviews Sheaffer later conducted with a number of original cast members, “‘The Iceman Cometh’ ended its final rehearsal at 3 p.m. on Oct. 9, 1946, only an hour and a half before the premiere performance was to begin. The actors felt both tired and keyed up.”

Legendary New York Post writer Earl Wilson wrote in his “It Happened Last Night” column that O’Neill himself participated in rehearsals but on opening night he only came by the Martin Beck Theater to “shake hands with the cast. Then he was given a look at a waiting line of customers -- which to a playwright is prettier than a sunset. ‘I’m going home,’ he said, ‘before the ax man swingeth the ax.’”

And with that, an assistant hailed a cab for O’Neill, who left the theater before the curtain rose on opening night.

According to a report in the New York Daily News, the first actual audience member to arrive to see “The Iceman Cometh” was “movie actress” Jane Wyatt. Of course Wyatt would later become most famous for playing the mother in TV’s “Father Knows Best.”

(Speaking of TV, if you didn’t attend the opening of “The Iceman Cometh” that night, but went by your favorite Manhattan pub instead that had a new device called a TV set, you likely would have seen the second episode of “Faraway Hill” on Channel 5, WABD. It was TV’s first soap opera. According to the New York Herald Tribune, “Faraway Hill” was on several hours after Channel 5’s two-hour block of “news, music and test pattern.”)

The most colorful description of first nighters at “The Iceman Cometh” comes from Earl Wilson’s column: “I’m now a First Afternooner. I mean, Eugene O’Neill made it unchic to be merely a First Nighter. To get to the 4:30 p.m. opening of his new play, 'The Ice Man Cometh,' (sic) I had to start dressing right after lunch. I came into a theater filled with people who should have been at their offices, or at least at a cocktail party.”

Besides Jane Wyatt, other celebrities in attendance, according to Wilson, were Babe Ruth, actresses Dorothy and Lillian Gish, radio superstar Fred Allen and entertainer/actor Danny Kaye.

Columnist Wilson continued: “So even before the cocktail hour had set in, we sat in the theatre lost in the first act. At least I was lost. The play opened with almost all the actors asleep on the stage. In about a half hour the actors woke up but some of the audience was asleep.

“Around 6 we bolted to ... dinner. We went to Sardi’s restaurant. There were 8 columnists there and 4 news items. They served us chicken or turkey and we ate rapidly among the clatter. Eugene O’Neill, the genius, was home, having a quiet dinner, laughing up his long sleeve about people who go to openings of Eugene O’Neill plays.”

Writes O’Neill biographer Sheaffer, the opening night audience “as a whole gave the play strained attention from start to finish. At the close of the hour-long first act, there was a 75 minute intermission for dinner, and the performance, after near disaster in the final act, ended at ten. James Barton (who played the part of the most pivotal character in the play, that of travelling salesman Hickey) instead of resting during the long dinner break and conserving his voice for Hickey’s [last speech], one of the longest speeches in modern drama, played host to a line of well-wishers in his dressing room. As a result, in a scene where Barton should have been most forceful, most impassioned, he was almost inaudible at times; moreover, he ‘blew up’ once or twice.”

That means he forgot his lines, and had to be prompted by assistants off-stage as to what his lines were. “The prompters could be heard from the first rows,” Sheaffer writes.

Sheaffer continues: “Considering the damage to the evening from Barton’s inadequate portrayal, the reviews, though several were sharply critical and others only lukewarm, were somewhat better than might be expected. Almost without exception the critics, including those favorably impressed, found the play repetitious and decidedly too long.”

Indeed, even The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, a huge O’Neill fan, wrote: “Writing it for a performance that lasts more than four hours is a sin that rests between Mr. O’Neill and his Maker. ... But if that is the way Mr. O’Neill wants to afflict harmless playgoers, let us accept our fate with nothing more than a polite demurer. For the only thing that matters is that he has plunged again into the black quagmire of man’s illusions and composed a rigadoon of death as strange and elemental as his first works.”

Despite what Sheaffer says about Barton’s performance, especially after the intermission, Atkinson gives Barton and the other actors high praise in his review. Except for his criticism of the length of the play, Atkinson’s review is a rave. “Mr. O’Neill has written one of his best plays,” Atkinson writes.

In a very odd pairing of reviews just five pages apart in the New York Post, the play was both panned and praised in no uncertain terms.

First, on page 35 came Post book critic Sterling North’s scathing review of “The Iceman Cometh.” O’Neill had not only kept the performance of the play under wraps from 1939 until 1946, he did not let it be published either. Random House finally got approval to publish the play concurrently with its performance debut. So North ended up reviewing the published script of the play, not the performance of the play. The play as published ran 260 pages.

Under the headline “Eugene O’Neill’s Turkey,” here’s what North writes in his review: “It is almost impossible to believe that America’s greatest living tragedian could have written such a shockingly amateurish play, that the Theatre Guild would produce it in its present form, or that it would be published for general sale. ... More than 100 pages could easily be cut from this boring and repetitious script. Judging entirely from the printed version of the play I am tempted to say of ‘The Iceman Cometh’ that the action drageth, the dialogue reeketh and the play stinketh.”

Five pages later in the same edition of the New York Post was theater critic Richard Watts Jr.’s review of opening night. Under the headline “Eugene O’Neill’s New Play Is Powerful and Moving,” Watts wrote: “‘The Iceman Cometh’ is a superb drama of splendid and imposing stature, which is at once powerful, moving, beautiful, eloquent and compassionate.” Watts concludes that the play “goes about its story-telling too slowly and at too great length. ... But it is a drama that gives the entire American theatre dignity and importance.”

And so back and forth the reviews went in 1946, when, seemingly, the number of newspapers in New York City matched the number of new skyscrapers going up.

Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that “the play has a savage undertow and moments of bleak and tragic majesty. That it remains essentially earthbound and monotonous is a flaw inherent in the work. ... What [O’Neill] has failed to do, as Dostoyevsky did, is to shape [the characters'] personal tragedies to an upheaval which might illuminate their existence. The dramatic catharsis in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ is mystical and mystifying.”

Countered John Chapman in the New York Daily News, “Eugene O’Neill’s ‘The Iceman Cometh’ is a magnificent drama -- magnificent in plan, in size, in scope, in depth. It is a frightening play, too -- terrifying and shocking; and its performance by an inspired company is superb. ... I had a feeling yesterday afternoon and last evening that some of my neighbors at the Theatre Guild’s premiere were so busy looking for symbolism, so intent upon finding hidden meanings, so afraid that they might miss the master’s message and risk being considered obtuse that they had little time left for doing the very simple thing and the only thing an audience is supposed to do -- to sit in a comfortable chair and take in a play.”

Here’s what O’Neill himself had to say about why he wrote the play at the length he did, according to Sheaffer’s biography: O’Neill “tried to write a drama ‘where,’ O’Neill said, ‘at the end you feel you know the souls of the seventeen men and women who appear -- and the women who don’t appear -- as well as if you’d read a play about each of them. I couldn’t condense much without taking a lot of life from some of these people and reducing them to lay figures. You would find if I did not build up the complete picture of the group … in the first part -- the atmosphere of the place, the humor and friendship and warmth and deep inner contentment of the bottom -- you would not be so interested in these people and you would find the impact of what follows a lot less profoundly disturbing. You wouldn’t feel the same sympathy and understanding for them, or be so moved by what Hickey does to them.’”

I think that’s exactly right.

Incidentally, “Iceman” had been running at the Martin Beck Theater for about a month when the Guild realized that about 10 percent of the audience never returned to the theater after the dinner intermission, Sheaffer reports. So the Guild received permission from O’Neill to eliminate the dinner. The play then started at 7:30 p.m. and let out at 11:20 p.m. In doing so, fifteen minutes were cut from the original running time by “quickening the pace” of the play, Sheaffer says.

After the original Broadway production of “The Iceman Cometh” closed on March 15, 1947, relatively little was heard about the play for the next decade.

Then, in 1956, a new production of “The Iceman Cometh” came to New York in a Circle-in-the-Square production. Most of the original objections many of the critics had about the play faded away in the light of the new production. Sheaffer writes: “The revival had three distinct advantages over the Theatre Guild presentation: sympathetic direction by Jose Quintero, an unforgettable, indeed thrilling, portrayal of Hickey by Jason Robards Jr., which brought him stardom, and arena staging in a onetime nightclub that proved ideal for the saloon story.”

I was only 4 years old in 1956, so I missed that production. But thanks to the miracle of videotape, I have seen Robards in his signature role as Hickey. In 1960 a version of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Robards, was taped for TV, directed by Sidney Lumet. You can see it on your TV or computer right now because it’s available to rent or buy on Amazon.com. Robards is indeed extraordinary in the role.

I have also seen the 1973 American Film Theatre version of “The Iceman Cometh” starring Lee Marvin as Hickey. Marvin is OK in the role but didn't have any of the flim-flam charm Hickey must exhibit in his opening scenes. (That flim-flam charm was the best part of what Nathan Lane brought to the role in the recent Goodman production.)  The best acting in the 1973 film version of "Iceman" is by Robert Ryan, who plays the second most important part in “The Iceman Cometh,” the role of Larry Slade, who is called a “grandstand foolosopher” in the play.

Which brings us up to last month and my seeing the play for the first time live, on-stage in Chicago. The play was directed by Robert Falls, the Goodman Theatre’s artistic director. He’s a huge O’Neill enthusiast, and directed a 1990 version of “Iceman” starring Brian Dennehy as Hickey. In this production Dennehy was back, this time as Larry Slade.

Falls' deep-felt connection to O’Neill resulted in a production that was stunning on all levels. If the devil’s in the details, Falls’ “Iceman” is Satan’s delight. The sets, the lighting, the costumes are all just right. Outside of Patrick Andrews, who played young Don Parritt, I thought the performances were outstanding. I felt Andrews’ acting cried out contemporary 2012, instead of inhabiting a character in 1912.

That performance that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that I thought was one of the two best I’ve ever seen was that of Stephen Ouimette, who played Harry Hope, the proprietor of the bar and rooming house where all the action takes place. He more than acted the part -- he inhabited the character. Somehow Ouimette was able to take his life experiences and, with each breath he inhaled and exhaled on the Goodman stage, with each step he took and with each word he uttered, he became Harry Hope. He was so convincing that toward the end of the play, when Hickey has nearly broken Hope’s spirit, I was almost tempted to take out my cell phone to call paramedics to come to the theater to attend to Hope.

John Douglas Thompson, as Joe Mott, was also extraordinary and his performance continues to preoccupy me.

I’ve long been a fan of Nathan Lane. As Hickey, in his opening scenes he was extraordinary. Where I felt Lane was less good was in the crucial last act. I know Lane has become a student of O’Neill and took the part very seriously. My suggestion if the show gets moved to New York is to let Mike Nichols, who has directed Lane before, work with Lane on the last act. My guess is that he’ll be able to coach him into greatness there.

Another reason I want this production to move to New York is purely a selfish one. I want to see it again.

“The Iceman Cometh” is a great play. Part of what makes it great is that, like most works of art, it works on a number of levels. For example, there is clearly a lot of “Last Supper” symbolism going on in the play.

But first and foremost, it works because there is a reality, a realness about it. One might say it’s real because a lot of the play is autobiographical and based on O’Neill when he was a young man and the people he knew then. And all of that is true. But it’s more than that.

O’Neill himself says this best. Again, this O’Neill quote is from Sheaffer’s biography: “It’s hard to explain exactly my intuitions about this play. Perhaps I can put it best by saying ‘The Iceman Cometh’ is something I want to make life reveal about itself, fully and deeply and roundly -- that it takes place for me in life, not in a theater -- that the fact it is a play which can be produced with actors is secondary and incidental to me -- and even quite unimportant -- and so it would be a loss to me to sacrifice anything of the complete life for the sake of stage and audience.”

[Update, July 2, 2012, 9:09 a.m. PT: The Goodman Theatre in Chicago announced on Friday, June 29, 2012 that its acclaimed production of "The Iceman Cometh" will not be transferring to Broadway during the upcoming theater season.]