Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200

Although The Iceman Cometh is now considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century drama, when the play first appeared on Broadway in 1946, its critical reception was mixed. By the time of the play's production, O'Neill was a well-established playwright, a recipient of the Nobel Prize, and The Iceman Cometh marked the end of his twelve-year absence from Broadway. Rosamond Gilder, whose review for Theatre Arts is reprinted in O'Neill and his Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, noted "O'Neill's return has done more than give the new season a fillip of interest; it has restored to the theatre something of its intrinsic stature." Of the play itself, Gilder wrote, "The Iceman Cometh is made of good theatre substance—meaty material for actors, racy dialogue, variety of character, suspense and passion." In his book Eugene O'Neill, Normand Berlin quoted George Jean Nathan, who remarked in his review of this production that The Iceman Cometh made other American plays seem "like so much damp tissue paper."

Yet the play was not free from negative commentary. As Berlin noted, "Those who faulted the play mentioned its prosaic language, its schematic arrangements and, most often, its excessive length." It is the latter criticism that has continued to haunt the play even as it has received greater and greater acclaim in the decades since its debut. Repeatedly, critics have complained that a full production of The Iceman Cometh, which takes nearly five hours, is simply too long.

Gilder noted in her review that the play "could readily be compressed into a more reasonable running time." A shorter version, she wrote, "would have brought into sharper focus the conflicting and merging elements of the three chief figures of the fable. The subsidiary characters are not sufficiently important or rounded to demand the time and attention they absorb." Critic Brooks Atkinson, whose review of the 1956 revival is also reprinted in Cargill's book, disagreed. Atkinson allowed that the play "could be cut and compressed without destroying anything essential." "But," he continued, "as a creative work by a powerful writer, it is entitled to its excesses, which, in fact, may account for the monumental feeling of doom that it pulls down over the heads of the audience.''

As director of the German-language premiere, Eric Bentley, whose writing on the matter also appears in Cargill's book, clarified his own position on the matter of length. By cutting O'Neill's dialogue, Bentley managed to shave one hour off the length of his production. "Not wishing to cut out whole characters," he wrote, "we mutilated some till they had, I'm afraid, no effective existence." The result, Bentley claimed, was a "shortened, crisper version." In his book O'Neill's Scenic Images, however, Timo Tiusanen wrote that Bentley in his production "apparently cut away part of the spontaneity of the play." Tiusanen suggested that "It is conceivable that the criterion of those most eager to shorten O'Neill has been a play with a tightly knit plot. The Iceman Cometh is a play of another kind."

Berlin agreed that extensive cutting does a disservice to the play. In O'Neill's Shakespeare, he wrote of O'Neill's roomers, "We live with them for four hours; a long time—a time that is necessary because O'Neill wants us to feel the sheer survival quality of these creatures who have come to the 'last harbor.'" The play is long, according to Berlin and many other critics, because it needs to be long. Its length is intrinsic to O'Neill's purpose.

Another important issue that arises in the play's criticism is the question of which character in the play is O'Neill's protagonist. Bentley argued that "Larry is ... the center of the play.'' But that is so because the stories of Parritt and Hickey "are brought together through Larry Slade whose destiny ... is to extract the secret of both protagonists." In other words, Larry is central only because he serves the purpose of drawing together the primary characters. Berlin remarked in O'Neill's Shakespeare that he saw Larry as "the play's central character, certainly the most haunting character."

Though he is central, however, for Berlin, Larry functions as the Fool, a traditional character, particularly in Renaissance comedy and tragedy, described by Berlin as "seemingly set apart, looking at the others in the play, commenting on them, allowing us to see the world through his eyes, which are clear and awake and contain a gleam of sardonic humor." For Berlin, Larry, like the Fool in William Shakespeare's King Lear, provides a crucial commentary on what happens onstage but is not really a part of the play's action. In The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O 'Neill, Edwin A. Engel described Larry as the protagonist but noted that Larry serves "a choral function as he comments upon the action and interprets the motives of the numerous other characters." Although Engel compared Larry to the chorus of ancient Greek drama, rather than the Fool, he too saw Larry's centrality as related to his commentary, not his participation in the action.

Tiusanen also believed that The Iceman Cometh functions with what is essentially a Greek chorus, but for him, that chorus was not Larry but the roomers at Hope's saloon. For Tiusanen, Larry was "a pivotal character," but the play's protagonist is Hickey. Tiusanen quoted Tom F. Driver, who wrote that "The play might be diagrammed with three concentric circles.'' For Driver, the outermost circle is occupied by Harry and the roomers, the second by Larry and Parritt. Hickey, however, "occupies the play's innermost circle.'' The story Hickey tells "is virtually a play within the play and ... the core of the entire business."

A more uncommon view of the protagonist's identity was expressed by Rolf Scheibler in his book The Late Plays of Eugene O'Neill. For Scheibler, Harry Hope "is the centre of this little world, and if we are to speak of a protagonist at all, it is he who is the main character." It is Hope who "enables the outcasts to lead the kind of life they want.'' He gives them "food, drink, and rooms, and thus grants them the shelter they need." Hope's name is also significant for Scheibler. "The only hope for man to gain his soul lies in adopting the tolerant attitude of the saloon owner."

For Scheibler, the "simple message" of The Iceman Cometh is that "if we are tolerant, we shall not lose our spirituality even if we are subject to the laws of nature. And then, by doing what is possible today, perhaps there will be a better tomorrow." Because Hope embodies this attitude, Scheibler saw him as the play's protagonist. It should be noted, however, that Scheibler remains in the minority in this view. Most critics see either Larry or Hickey as the play's central figure.

The question of the identity of the play's protagonist, or whether the play even has a real protagonist, will doubtless remain a subject of disagreement among critics. In spite of differences of interpretation, however, and consideration of possible flaws, such as the play's length, most critics now agree on one point: The Iceman Cometh is a play of major importance among O'Neill's work as well as in the history of twentieth-century American drama.

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