"The Iceman Cometh" was revived
in London and brought to Broadway last season, with Kevin Spacey
as Hickey. "Iceman" may seem to run a lifetime, but
then it does encompass life and death In Harry Hope's
bar earlier this century, the seedy inhabitants have only their
illusions, or "pipe dreams," to keep them alive.
With the help of liquor and companionship, each recalls
a meaningful past and resolves upon action -- but
in the future. In the present, however, they wait.
As the play opens, they await the arrival of salesman Hickey offering
stale jokes (including the one about the wife and the iceman)
and free drinks.
Interviewed before the play's
initial opening in 1946, O'Neill described the first act as a
"hilarious comedy....a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay
funny very long...the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on."
He attempted to explain his approach to Theater Guild producer
Laurence Langner: "There are moments in it that
suddenly strip the soul . . . stark naked, not in cruelty or moral
superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him
as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. These
moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that
can possibly be said."
Hickey's visit is less and more than the denizens
of the saloon expected. This time he is selling them salvation
by destroying their illusions as he has destroyed his own about
his wife. Hickey has killed his wife, he reveals, to destroy
her pipe dream that he was a good man, worthy of her forgiveness.
His pipe dream is that he loved his wife, until he confesses that
as he killed her he told her, "You know what you can do with
your pipe dream now, you damned bitch." Immediately,
Hickey retracts this slip: "I couldn't have said that.
I loved Evelyn." He departs with the police,
still holding onto the pipe dream of loving his wife.
Goaded by Hickey, the men and
women in the bar accept their hopelessness, and are plunged into
the despair they have kept at bay -- the liquor has no "kick"
and the bar seems "a morgue." Each goes
forth to face reality -- with disastrous results -- and each returns
to the sanctuary of the saloon to offer a "face-saving version
of his experience when he went out to confront his pipe dreams."
With the help of liquor, they recover their illusions .
All but Larry in a memorable performance by Tim Piggott-Smith.
Larry, who knows that "the lie of a pipe dream is what gives
life to the whole misbegotten lot of us," has clung to the
illusion that he is uninvolved, detached. But by the end,
he has sent Don Parritt to his death. Facing the truth about
himself, a truth that means death, Larry acknowledges that
he is "the only convert to death Hickey made here."
In a remarkably skillful performance, Kevin
Spacey intelligently built the character of salesman Hickey from
the anticipated joviality to the evangelical sales pitch
for the biggest sale of his life: selling the group
on reality. Their conversion spells destruction for the
fragile inhabitants of "the No Chance Saloon
. . . Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe. . . the last harbor."
(Larry's description) Spacey avoided the temptation to make
Hickey likable; even his first speeches had a sinister motif
that finally became the major theme. With great attention
to detail, British director Howard Davies achieved the necessary
ensemble effect for the inhabitants of the bar; this is a play
which demands focus on both the group as a whole and the individuals,
an effect Davies brought off to perfection. What a pity
O'Neill could not live to see this "Iceman." He
often complained about the productions of his plays, including
the l946 "Iceman," with Eddie Dowling directing and
James Barton miscast as Hickey. Of the final scene in this
production, O'Neill remarked, "If our American acting and
direction cannot hold this scene up without skimping it, then
to hell with our theater."