THE ICEMAN COMETH, EUGENE O'NEILL, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, NEW HAVEN, 2006
The dreams (and illusions) of the very wretched of the earth are different from those of you and I. Or are they? This is the true subject matter of Eugene O’Neill fine play. Very little action, lots of drinking, lots of dreaming, lots philosophizing by the bedraggled cast of characters in a low down gin mill do not sound like the makings of a great American play. But they are. The narrowly focused story line turns into a microcosm of the underside of American society in the early part of the 20th century. These are not the ‘robber barons’ of historic fame but the jetsam of the early stages of industrial society. These are the ones that cannot cope, for one reason or another, with the new ways and seek solace and comfort in the back streets of urban society. For lack of a better word these are what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat. Not Jean Genet’s hardened rough and ready sailors, pimps and male prostitutes but on the margins nevertheless. In neither case will they make the revolution. But they have their dreams too and O’Neill is there to chronicle them.
Between shots of whiskey the denizens of this small world exhibit all the emotions, contradictions, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of life that the rest of us ‘normals’ have to face. Except, for dramatic effect, these flophouse devotees get their noses rubbed in it by one Harry Hickey- traveling salesman and sport- formerly chief denizen of the ‘resort’ who now has gotten ‘religion’ and wants to spread his newfound ‘glad tidings’. Spare us from the Hickeys of the world-a little dreaminess and a couple of illusions never hurt anyone. Did they? Although in O’Neill’s hands the dialogue is a little stilted and the characters are a little stereotyped and wooden(the seemingly obligatory house philosopher, renegade anarchist, token immigrant, day workers, runaway with a hidden past, Irish cop and floosies) the point he is trying to make gets across just fine. This is a must read on your American drama list.