A long train journey recently saw me packing a copy of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh for some not-very-light reading. My copy of the play is the size of a short novel so it’s no wonder that productions frequently last nearly five hours when performed un-cut. Iceman is set in a lower Manhattan dive, circa 1912, and concerns a group of dead-end drunks who have their feeble illusions stripped away by a glad- handing travelling salesman. O’Neill wrote it in the 1940s and I am told that it owes a lot to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, although it also draws on O’Neill’s experiences of Greenwich Village just before the Great War. A prime slab of American High Earnestness, its merits are undermined by O’Neill’s overt striving for profundity and his relentlessly emphatic, frequently preposterous, dialogue. And it has a lot of dialogue: O’Neill countered charges of repetition and verbosity by saying that bums in their cups repeat themselves over and over again. (He’s dead right there, I know that I do.) But the big speeches offer plenty of room for actors to show off, and big stars are attracted to the play by virtue of its scenery-chewing potential. The part of the salesman, Hickey, has been played in recent years by Denzel Washington, Nathan Lane, and, once upon-a- time, in London and on Broadway, by Kevin Spacey, in that long-lost period when he was the saviour of the Old Vic rather than a monster of Me Too. With a good cast and a good production, the play can appear better than it really is. But in spite of the interesting themes and setting, O’Neill is too overwrought for my taste. So if Iceman isn’t the definitive play about drinking that it thinks it is, where else should we look?
The other book I had with me on the train was a Faber edition of plays by Simon Gray. Gray the playwright seems a bit neglected these days. His elegant and entertaining stage works do not fit the current trend for theatre as a form of social outreach. Like O’Neill, Gray wrote autobiographical plays that replayed certain themes: family, childhood trauma replayed in adulthood, marital infidelity, cognitive decline, and alcoholism. Usually the setting is a backwater of academic or literary life. Perhaps his best-known play is Butley, which sees Ben Butley – a chaotic English professor at a London university – conjuring displays of self-destructive bravado, his drinking fuelling his overall disintegration. It is a great part for an actor and the character has certain similarities to Hickey in Iceman; in fact, the afore-mentioned Nathan Lane also scored a hit with Butley on Broadway in 2006. But Gray is witty and urbane rather than ponderous and sweaty, and Butley wears its nihilism lightly, managing to be very funny within a scenario that isn’t funny at all. Likewise, Close Of Play, whilst more stylised, contains one of the bleakest descriptions of alcoholic decline you can find anywhere, punctuated by moments of perfectly-timed comic business. (My favourite is the moment when a self-confessed alcoholic’s short and shaky bid for sobriety is terminated by his stepmother giving him a bottle of Scotch.) The drinking in Otherwise Engaged is less central, but structurally important; moments of epiphany are marked by characters throwing tumblers of whiskey in each other’s faces. Gray’s writing is very autobiographical; and as performances of his plays dwindled, he gained a considerable reputation as a memoirist, with works like The Smoking Diaries reaching a public that knew little of his writing for the stage. He was candid about the life that fed the drama, about the failure of his first marriage, the death of his brother from alcohol, and his own drinking. Here is an extract from an introduction he wrote to that Faber edition of plays, discussing the production history of The Holy Terror:
A year later … it opened at the Promenade Theatre in New York, in a production that you would have described as eccentric if you hadn’t know that the director drank quite a bit before each day’s rehearsals and quite a bit after them, and more than a bit during them, while never losing the conviction, however many times he stumbled down the aisle and tumbled over the seats, often with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and another, also lighted, in the hand that wasn’t holding a champagne bottle, that he was in full command of his faculties, and that his genius for cutting through to the centre of things had never burned more fiercely – so, when he had trouble moving the actors around the furniture, he cut the furniture; and thus, when he had trouble deciding between different lighting effects, he cut the lighting. So and thus, on the press night the audience found themselves confronted by unnerved actors performing in house lights on a mainly empty set, and the actors could see not only the individual faces of the audience, but also the tops of the heads of the critics as they bent over the pads on their knees. The director himself, by the way, frightened, triumphant and drunk, was also highly visible and all over the place, now at the back of the stalls, now at the top of an aisle, now in the dress circle – if I’d been one of the actors I’d have stepped off the stage in the middle of my scene and murdered him, right there, under the house-lights, in full view of the critics: the report in the next morning’s New York Times might at least have marginalised the review.
Gray’s observations lead us into another area, something of a taboo in theatrical circles: genuine, on-stage drunkenness, whether deliberate or accidental. I have heard, anecdotally, that the great Irish actor Patrick Magee, Samuel Beckett’s favourite advocate of his own work, had a policy of drinking before going on stage, and it seems that this was not uncommon. [NB: See comments section.] A bit like 19th century French train drivers grabbing a calvados before their first shift, or Aeroflot pilots drinking vodka before a flight. I suppose, like everything else, that you have to know how to judge your capacity; and in any case, being pissed on-stage is now a sackable offence. Back in the 1970s, I heard a story concerning an actor who was found passed out in his dressing room during a prestigious Shakespeare production in one of the big venues. His colleagues managed to rouse him just in time for his entrance, and he staggered and extemporised through his part in idiosyncratic fashion. From the blankness of his mind he conjured his own, unique, form of blank verse; one example was: ‘Forsooth! He hath flaunt his SHUM!’
Incidentally … The Iceman Cometh was first performed in 1946 and caught the attention of Raymond Chandler, who subsequently wrote to his publisher to point out that the play used the title of his 1939 novel The Big Sleep as a synonym for death. Chandler was convinced that O’Neill took the expression from him in the belief that it was authentic underworld slang, whereas Chandler insisted that he invented the phrase. Chandler noted: ‘The whole tenor of his writing in the play shows that he knows very little about his subject.‘ This might be a bit unfair but it invites a comparison between the styles of the two writers, how Chandler’s dialogue sings and how O’Neill’s lines land with a dull thud. But you can make up your own mind about Iceman by watching the vintage TV version in the above link: directed by the great Sydney Lumet, and starring Jason Robards as Hickey (a star-making turn for him), it makes a good a case as any for the play and keeps it relatively brisk at three hours and twenty minutes. This production also features a very young Robert Redford, in a rare appearance as an unsympathetic character.