Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Aimless Reading: The O's, Part 7 (Eugene O'Neill)

The Iceman Cometh by Michael_Kelleher
The Iceman Cometh, a photo by Michael_Kelleher on Flickr.
O'Neill, Eugene
The Iceman Cometh

Purchased at the Fordham University Book Store for an undergraduate course in American theater.

My father was not what you would call "artsy." He was a businessman. He owned a small rental car company in Washington, DC. Before that he had worked for a number of years in the leasing department of Ford, and before that at several large car rental chains, including Hertz. I don't know if he ever had his own artistic inclinations. If he did, he kept them to himself. He did, however, enjoy theater and movies. They two of his great passions. Basketball was the third.

He went to college at St. John's University in Queens in the mid-fifties. One of his jobs during this period was on Wall Street -- I am not really sure what he did there. He spent a lot of time in Manhattan, though, and I know he used to go to the theater often. This was at the height of dramatic theater's popularity in New York, when you could, on a given night, see a play by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill.

Eugene O'Neill was my father's favorite playwright. I think in O'Neill's tortured souls he found some kinship both with his own alcoholic demons and with those of his Irish immigrant family. His father was a nasty, violent drunk, a longshoreman who left home before my father could remember. My father himself battled alcoholism until he was in his late-thirties or early forties and then spent the rest of his life in AA. Both of his brothers had drinking problems and died before they were sixty.

My father took me to my first play at the Arena Stage in Washington when I was about ten. It was "Ah, Wilderness," by Eugene O'Neill. He took me to a play or two every year after that. We saw the stage version of "You Can't Take It With You," on two separate occasions, once starring Robert Prosky in the Lionel Barrymore role, once starring Jason Robard.

Jason Robards was himself an alcoholic. He struggled with the disease for many years before finally sobering up. He managed to carve out a pretty impressive acting career along the way. As you can well imagine, he was my father's favorite actor. His favorite performance? You guessed it -- as the recovering alcoholic in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh." My father used to tell me stories about going to see Robards in the role on Broadway. As far as he was concerned, it was the greatest performance in the history of the stage, bar none.

Late in my high school career, when I was struggling with my own drinking problem and trying to get sober (the first of several attempts before it finally took), my father told me that they had brought a revival of "The Iceman Cometh" to the stage in DC, starring none other than Jason Robards in the role of Hickey. I think it was at the National Theater in Washington, but I am not sure.

Anyhow, I went with my father and a friend of his that was also a recovering alcoholic. I remember at some point during the play his friend leaned over and whispered in my ear, "What do you think about that? Three recovering alcoholics going to see a play about a recovering alcoholic who is played by a recovering alcoholic! There's a story in there somewhere."

from The Iceman Cometh

HICKEY. [suddenly bursts out] I’ve got to tell you! Your being the way you are now gets my goat! It’s all wrong! It puts things in my mind — about myself. It makes me think, if I got balled up about you, how do I know I wasn’t balled up about myself? And that’s plain damned foolishness. When you know the story of me and Evelyn, you’ll see there wasn’t any other possible way out of it, for her sake. Only I’ve got to start way back at the beginning or you won’t understand. [He starts his story, his tone again becomes musingly reminiscent.] You see, even as a kid I was always restless. I had to keep on the go. You’ve heard the old saying, “Ministers’ sons are sons of guns.” Well, that was me, and then some. Home was like a jail. I didn’t fall for the religious bunk. Listening to my old man whooping up hell fire and scaring those Hoosier suckers into shelling out their dough only handed me a laugh, although I had to hand it to him, the way he sold them nothing for something. I guess I take after him, and that’s what makes me a good salesman. Well, anyway, as I said, home was like jail, and so was school, and so was that damned hick town. The only place I liked was the pool rooms, where I could smoke Sweet Corporals, and mop up a couple of beers, thinking I was a hell-on-wheels sport. We had one hooker shop in town, and, of course, I liked that, too. Not that I hardly ever had entrance money. My old man was a tight old bastard. But I liked to sit around in the parlor and joke with the girls, and they liked me because I could kid ‘em along and make ‘em laugh. Well, you know what a small town is. Everyone got wise to me. They all said I was a no-good tramp. I didn’t give a damn what they said. I hated everybody in the place. That is, except Evelyn. I loved Evelyn. Even as a kid. And Evelyn loved me.

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