Forget King Lear; This Is Bleaker & Nastier

David Yezzi looks into a recent staging of The Iceman Cometh and finds “nothing” there

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm  (1851) by William Dyce.

King Lear and the Fool in the Storm (1851) by William Dyce.

KING LEAR IS the most complete statement of negation we have in English. It’s such a sweeping statement that it can’t possibly be true, and yet it just might be. For obvious reasons—not wanting to seem more pompous than I am, for example—I try to avoid blanket statements, but I can’t resist this one. I like to throw it out on occasion to see how it lands; I blurt it out, then wait for pushback. But the pushback doesn’t usually come—perhaps because no one’s listening or the question isn’t that interesting. But, there it is, I’ve just blurted it again. Can any play in English unseat King Lear for sheer bleakness? 

Betrayal, murder, madness, maiming—Lear’s hard to beat. Just run through some of its mounting negatives in your head: “Nothing will come of Nothing”; “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never”; “They could not, would not do ’t”; “No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison”; and “No, no; no life?” The articulation of “what is not” is breathtaking. 

But Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh (1939) is worse. 

Part of Iceman’s effect comes from its sheer length, as anyone who has sat through its four acts and five hours can avouch. It’s punishing—physically!—and unrelenting. The problem with the recent production I saw at The Brooklyn Academy of Music was that the cast was so good and the writing so assured that I couldn’t bring myself to skip out at intermission. After a while, I took pride in my stamina—not that I could sit for so long but that I could stand up to the play’s view of life. By the time I started to flag, around the second intermission, I felt that if I didn’t hang in and take the pain I might never see the play all the way through. (There only seems to be one major production of the play per generation.) The Goodman Theatre production at BAM, directed by Robert Falls and starring Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, and John Douglas Thompson, generated such excitement that there was some hope of a Broadway run. But the possibility fell apart over scheduling.

But it’s not length that makes Iceman hard to take. Lear is also long (if not quite as long). It’s the quality of “nothing” that is different. This extended passage from the opening of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” begins to get at the contrast between nothing and worse-than-nothing, until the sum equals a number less than zero:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

“The feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible”—there’s the rub. O’Neill’s vision is beautifully wrought and poetic in its coarse, dialect-driven music. But its poetry doesn’t elevate the way that Lear’s does. Iceman doesn’t aspire to sublimity. Unlike Wilde’s Lord Darlington who suggests that we are all in the gutter, though some of us are looking at the stars, O’Neill’s characters (much like O’Neill himself, one imagines) are lying facedown in the mud.

As Marc Robinson recounts, in a recent review for the TLS, O’Neill resembled his characters more than a little. While in Buenos Aires as a young man, he “often slept on public benches or sought a warmer welcome in brothels. Back in New York, he gravitated to a squalid saloon known as Jimmy the Priest’s.... (He sometimes spent days on end half-conscious in the back room).” That would make Iceman nearly as autobiographical as Long Day’s Journey. Talk about unaccommodated man: “By 1915, [after attempting suicide], he was living in the so-called ‘Garbage Flat’ in New York, using old newspapers as bed-sheets and crates as chairs, carpeting the floor with cigarette butts.” His favorite bar during that period was called the Hell Hole.

The first character we meet in Iceman is Larry, a disillusioned former idealist and radical in the Movement. Larry welcomes a new arrival, Parritt, to Harry Hope’s (!) bar and rooming house: “What is it? It’s the No Chance Saloon, It’s Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! Don’t you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere? That’s because it’s the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they are going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up appearances of life with a few harmless pipedreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows. . . .” In case we’ve missed the point, he repeats it a few minutes later: “Don’t waste your pity. They wouldn’t thank you for it. They manage to get drunk by hook or crook, and that’s all they ask of life. I’ve never known more contented men. It isn’t often that men attain the true goal of their heart’s desire.” 

The entire play is a steady, almost systematic, crushing of hopes and dreams, and, in fact, of the possibility of entertaining such “pipe dreams.” In the last minutes of the play, Larry, in effect, orders that young wreck of a radical, Parritt (who first parrots his mother’s anarchism, then betrays her to the cops), up to the roof to kill himself. As the others go back to enjoying their booze and oblivion, relieved to be free of their would-be savior Hickey (the Iceman)—who, it turns out, has murdered his wife—Larry says to the audience or to himself, in a whisper of, as O’Neill has it, horrified pity:

Poor devil! (A long-forgotten faith returns to him for a moment and he mumbles) God rest his soul in peace. (He opens his eyes—with a bitter derision) Ah, the damned pity—the wrong kind as Hickey said! Be God, there’s no hope. I’ll never be a success in the grandstand—or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die. (With an intense bitter sincerity) May that day come soon! (He pauses startledly, surprised at himself—then with a sardonic grin) Be God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward’s heart I mean that now!

By contrast, Lear is far more rosy and redeemed—redeemed by the beauty of Shakespeare’s expression, by the characters’ struggles against adversity, by the triumph of Edgar, by the desire for life. Lear is the greater play, but Iceman beats it for heart-wrenching nastiness. Lear is high tragedy; Icemen, low. To O’Neill’s credit he has expressed something uniquely squalid and loveless in the human soul. If there is redemption in O’Neill’s theater, it’s the catharsis of exposing his characters’ degraded, seamy souls—a state that Edgar expresses best: “The worst is not / So long as we can say this is the worst.”  


DAVID YEZZI's latest book of poems is Birds of the Air (2013). His writing has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere.