The Iceman Cometh, and The Fifth of July

DVD of a stage play:The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O’Neill. Taped by the American Film Theater Institute at 20th Century Fox studios in 1973.
DVD distributed by Kino International (a German film company), Starring Lee Marvin (as Hickey), Jeff Bridges, Frederic March, Robert Ryan.>

The first Friday night in October 2001 some wet snow flurries blew through the air in Minneapolis and, after watching a discussion of 9/11 on Nightline, I walked into the Boom, a favorite gay bar on the East Side of the River. I talked, or perhaps prattled, about the existential implications of the Nightline broadcast to a graduate student that I have befriended. A few minutes later, as I was standing around, an African American woman named Lorraine approached me and asked, 'What is your birth day.' 'July 10, 1943,' I said, taking the question literally. 'Which birthday?' 'The last one was 58.' 'You like Scott,' she challenged. 'Well, yes, I met him at the U.' 'His boyfriend thinks you like Scott, and that presents a problem. Please keep your distance.

So I was the creep here. A guy, in life’s endgame (having 'traded queens') walks into a bar. No, I didn’t give a three hour lecture, more like five minutes. I had no confession to reveal. The police never came. But someone was asking me to leave. My behavior was, to some people, boorish. There seems to be a basic parallel. Lee Marvin, so well known for being mean in many other movies of his day, walks into a bar, 'the Last Chance Saloon,' and begins to challenge the idea of the other patrons that they expect anything. We gradually, over three hours, learn why he is at the end of his own road. There is that kind of despair you sometimes find in expressionistic classical music of the time. (The soundtrack contains honky tonk music - maybe Scott Joplin - on an out-of-tune upright piano that reminds one of a similar effect in Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck). The youngest patron in the bar, Don Parrit (Jeff Bridges), resents Hickey’s “staring” at him – often an issue in bars. It’s interesting that O’Neill could construct a four hour play on this simple problem of being welcome. It turns out that Parrit has more to learn from Hickey than the other patrons. The play does bring up other issues of the pre World War I period (anarchists), in ways that could parallel some of our own issues. And the 'movie' DVD, all 239 minutes, recaptures the visual atmosphere of a speakeasy in the first decade of the last century, when there was so much to look forward to and no one had a clue as to the shell shock that was about to come.

Extra comments from :

The Iceman Cometh (1973, Kino / Cinevision / American Film Theater, dir. John Frankenheimer, play by Eugene O’Neil, PG, 239 min, USA/Germany) is the other mega-play by this famous writer. A man, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (a well-dressed Lee Marvin, not as mean as in some other roles) walks into a bar “the Last Chance Saloon” in New York in 1912, and (100% sober) essentially tells be patrons, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Or “I don’t give a damn.” (Remember Rhett?) Okay, the other patrons of the bar have meaningless lives and can be lectured to. He says, 'You're in the grandstand; you’re through with life.' He also calls himself a 'good salesman' who can size up anyone. A younger patron Don Parritt (Jeff Bridges) will balk that Hickey is staring at him (this kind of interchange does happen in bars) but eventually want to listen to what he has to say. Larry Slade (Robert Ryan) says something about all of this “family respect stuff” being nothing more than 'property rights crap.' But then the patrons challenge the mystery visitor to reveal who he is.

It’s interesting that an IBM mainframe computer sort product is called 'Iceman', maybe because of this play. In the later acts, the mysterious visitor gradually reveals that he has his own confession, of what his own marriage came to and what he had to do to end it. He must face his own demons. The police come; there is catastrophe, and then a drunken, fully soused celebration of nothing.

I recall that my last year in New York City in 1978, I went to some plays with a good friend, one of them being Lanford Wilson 's post Vietnam "The Fifth of July." I saw this in May 1978 in an off-off Broadway stage in Greenwich Village. (My friend made a comment that a disco-like orb above the stage looked like a 'UFO'. That was the rage at the time.) It was a bit heavy, as it deals with a midwestern gay veteran (Ken Talley) who lost both legs to gunfire in Vietnam. He has a devoted lover, and they have friends over during the summer holiday. There is an undertone of the idea that sexual attractiveness can be lost because of involuntary disfigurement in war. Today, the play would have some context in relation to the debate over gays in the military. Afterwords, I would have a curious confrontation (over French cinnamon ice cream in the Riviera Cafe) with the friend in a restaurant, and it's easy to imagine a play about that. I think that O'Neill's Iceman play may have been around then, but too long to see.Here's a link for a 1990 performance directed by Kate Hammet-Leader.