Eugene O’Neill is arguably America’s greatest playwright, yet the great Irish American’s works are rarely ever performed in Ireland. This oversight may be explained by the era in which O’Neill’s plays first came to prominence – they’d have been considered too racy in their theme, and treatment for the militantly Catholic Republic that we had become in the years after the Civil War.
You’ll have the opportunity to judge this idea for yourself when Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, two of America’s finest Irish American stage actors, appear in O’Neill’s most famous play The Iceman Cometh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from February 5 to March 15.
O’Neill, a Nobel Prize winner, was the son of the famous Irish immigrant actor James O’Neill and Mary Ellen Quinlan. He was literally born on Broadway at 43rd Street in Times Square (the site is now a Starbucks with a commemorative plaque posted on the outside wall).
O’Neill had a classic Irish American upbringing, attending St. Aloysius Academy for Boys, a Catholic boarding school in the Bronx, where he hid from the grim daily life by escaping into books. Since his father was a successful actor, the family spent their summers at their home in New London, Connecticut.
The wild streak in him, the contempt for authority, marks O’Neill out as one of our own. He attended Princeton University for one year, and accounts vary as to why he left.
He may have been dropped for skipping out on too many classes; he may have been suspended for unspecified “conduct code violations,” or according to a more likely account, because he threw “a beer bottle into the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson,” the future president of the United States.
To say that trouble followed O’Neill around would be an understatement. There was a doom that haunted the edges of his greatest plays and his own life. Often it was the result of a remarkable obstinence (even his characters insist that in order to be happy what happens in life must conform to their wishes, an impossible request).
In The Iceman Cometh we meet a host of damaged and damaging bar flies, whom life has at some point left shell shocked, as they pass the time in a shady Greenwich Village dive. Some appear to be waiting for their own demise; others want to see how things shake out for their friends.
What’s Irish about this play, apart from the author, the characters and the scenario, is the sense in which something life altering and unspeakable has happened in the past. Something that cannot be expressed or gotten over. The play is set in 1912 but the disastrous legacy of the 19th century Irish is seen on every page of the drama.
What animates each character and each line of O’Neill’s play is how much they depend on their dreams to get them through their hard realities. So the meatpacking bar isn’t a social center so much as a therapist’s hall, and once there they medicate themselves with booze and escapism until they can no longer.
Perhaps it was this that made O’Neill such a hard sell to the Irish theater. By holding up a mirror to the most hidden aspects of the Irish experience (and the universal ones) he may have discomfited the theocratically minded Irish producers. O’Neill’s world is without God or religion, and it offers a challenge to the religiosity that kept him off our stages.
Written in 1939, when the world was on the brink of the greatest act of insanity in its history, O’Neill can be forgiven for the play’s melancholia. What resonates for the Irish now is the fear of failure (and hidden behind that the fear of success) that keeps the play’s characters from ever acting on their dreams.
Hickey, the salesman who knows how to appeal to the hopes and dreams of the people he comes into contact with, is one of O’Neill’s great inventions. Hickey knows how important dreams are, and when his own have departed he also knows that his road has run out.
The booze, the dive bar, the big talkers and the dreamers, even the slim thread of hope that keeps you hanging on, they’re all delusions found at the bottom of a whiskey glass says Hickey, finally showing the light of day to the assembled bar flies. But when the choice is between reality or fiction, the Irish, the playwright and his creations prefer to latch onto to their dreams.
For tickets to The Iceman Cometh call 718-962-0953 or visit www.bam.org.