The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: The Iceman Cometh

Lee Marvin as Hickey and Hildy Brooks as Margie in John Frankenheimer’s adaptation of The Iceman Cometh

In 1936, Eugene O’Neill would become the first (and only) American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, “for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy” (Nobel Prize committee). Usually, when authors win the Nobel Prize, they’ve already written their best works. Rarely do people so honored have their best work ahead of them, but in O’Neill case, his two greatest plays came after his win.

The final, and greatest, period of O’Neill’s career returned to the realistic plays that he’d been writing at the beginning – plays like Beyond the Horizon and Anna Christie. This time, however, the person writing them was a more mature and better playwright, and his last plays are more drama than melodrama. The Iceman Cometh is possibly his darkest play. Though written in 1939, it wasn’t published or performed until 1946. Of his major plays, it’s one of the longest, running around 4 hours uncut.

Two movie versions exist at Scarecrow, both with impeccable credentials. Both are directed by great directors (Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer), both contain fantastic casts (the great Jason Robards and Myron McCormick in Lumet’s version, the great Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan in Frankenheimer’s), and while Lumet’s was made for television (as the Play of the Week for Telefilm Associates) and Frankenheimer’s for the big screen (for American Film Theatre), they both contain the essence of O’Neill’s genius.

Lumet’s version was broadcast in 1960 and suffers from picture-windowed framing, poor source material (tape vs 35mm), and microphones that don’t always pick up what everyone is saying. At one point during Act III, the lighting levels even flickered. No matter. The acting is strong from top to bottom, with the highest honors going to McCormick as Larry and Robards as Hickey, with some great supporting work from a young Robert Redford. As a bonus, Tom Pedi, who plays the bartender Rocky, played the same role in the original Broadway production. And while some of the dialog was cut, what was left wasn’t censored for television. (

As part of the Broadway Theater Archive, this version continues the tradition of great televised versions of O’Neill’s plays, but unlike other ones in the series, all the action takes place in one location – Harry Hope’s bar. Still, the camera cuts to other rooms and moves among the participants, though this version feels more like a play than even the other adaptations did (which is not a bad thing).

But first, we get an introduction from Executive Producer Worthington Manor, who introduces both Part I (Acts I and II) and Part 2 (Acts III and IV). The bulk of the introduction, however, is given over to longtime theatre critic, Mr. Brooks Atkinson, who is obviously reading something off-camera, and says similar things both times.

The play opens with the usual customers, drunk in the back room before the bar opens, including its owner. A stranger named Don Parritt comes in (Redford), claiming to know Larry. His story will, in some ways, parallel Hickey’s. Hickey is mentioned, but he won’t appear until Act I, Scene III, in a close-up to Robards’s big, smiling face, his hat filled with dollar bills. The other characters soon realize he’s sober and isn’t drinking. He tells them he’s given it up, and wants to help them give up their pipe dreams. Act II is Harry Hope’s birthday, which ends with Hickey mentioning that his wife is dead.

In Act III, each of the characters says they’re leaving to pursue their pipe dreams and leave their key with the bartender. Most of them need some encouragement from Hickey, particularly Harry, who is the first to come back and seems a dead man. Larry mistakenly thinks that Hickey’s wife committed suicide. He mentions that she didn’t, and then, ending in a close up of his face looking up, he says he killed her.

In Act IV, all of the regulars have found their way back to the bar, their pipe dreams destroyed. Hickey appears before long, and after the cops arrive (whom he called), he gives a long monologue as to why he killed his wife, who he loved more than anyone.

Christ, can you imagine what a guilty skunk she made me feel! If she’d only admitted once she didn’t believe any more in her pipe dream that some day I’d behave!…If she only hadn’t been so damned good — if she’d been the same kind of wife I was a husband.

-Hickey, The Iceman Cometh, Act IV (O’Neill 200)

And as the time got nearer to when I was due to come here for my drunk around Harry’s birthday, I got nearly crazy. I kept swearing to her every night that this time I really wouldn’t, until I’d made it a real final test to myself — and to her…And finally I knew I’d have to come. And I knew if I came this time, it was the finish. I’d never have the guts to go back and be forgiven again, and that would break Evelyn’s heart because to her it would mean I didn’t love her any more.

…I went in the bedroom. I was going to tell her it was the end. But I couldn’t do that to her. She was sound asleep. I thought, God, if she’d only never wake up, she’d never know! And then it came to me — the only possible way out, for her sake.

Hickey, The Iceman Cometh, Act IV (O’Neill 202)

Everyone at the bar says they’ll vouch for him so he doesn’t get the chair, saying that he went crazy, even though Hickey wants to die. Don then realizes that his only escape from his guilt over getting his mother arrested is death – off the fire escape, which Larry never had the courage to do. Ironically, this is at the same time when everyone else decides to embrace their pipe dreams once again.

Despite some fluid camerawork and excellent framing from Lumet, the main reason to see this version is Robards, one of the great O’Neill actors showing how he earned that reputation. As Hickey, his face and body are never still, though he knows when to slow down and speed up his movements, when to raise his voice and when to lower it. His Hickey seems a bit mad from the get-go, and a bit malicious, which makes the audience as distrustful of his motives as his friends in Harry’s bar are.

Frankenheimer’s version starts with a jangly, old-sounding piano tune over the opening credits. It’s different from Harry Hope’s favorite song (played in Act II) and both tunes are different from the one played during the closing credits. Act I is introduced by a title card that says, “New York 1912 Summer.” The first scene pans down to beer being poured into a glass, and then we see Rocky change the spigot on the barrel. Act II begins with “The same day toward midnight,” Act III “The middle of the morning,” and Act IV with “1:30 A.M. – the following morning.” There are intermissions after Acts I and III.

Frankenheimer has stated that he was disappointed that other versions of the play seemed to make Hickey out to be mad ( Lee Marvin, by contrast, is sober (in more ways than one) and sane. Gone is the manic energy of Robards, replaced by winking and pointing. Even his entrance is a contrast: rather than a close-up of Hickey’s smiling face, we see him enter the bar in long shot, doing a little dance as he comes to middle-ground. Unlike Lumet, Frankenheimer doesn’t switch to close-ups for dramatic effect. He uses wideshots more and loves using his signature shot, which is objects in the extreme foregrond while focusing on something happening in the background. Widescreen also means his frames have a bit more room on the edges, and the direction is handled in a more film-like manner. He also shot on a superior format (35mm), though the stock used makes it look more like 16mm. Plus, while he removes the character of Ed Mosher and makes a few changes from the published text, Frankenheimer’s director’s cut is more complete than Lumet’s is. (

Here are the timings for both versions of the play (excluded is Frankenheimer’s theatrical cut, since the director’s cut includes more dialog.) These timings exclude opening and closing credits and all introductory material:

ActLumetFrankenheimer (director’s cut)
I~1 hour, 2 minutes ~1 hour, 13 minutes
II~36 minutes~50 minutes
III~48 minutes ~52 minutes
IV~53 minutes~1 hour
Total3 hours, 19 minutes 3 hours, 55 minutes
Robert Ryan as Larry Slade

Unlike Lumet’s version, where Robards is clearly the focus as Hickey, here the focus shifts to Ryan’s Larry. As good as McCormick is in Lumet’s version, he is overshadowed by Ryan’s work here. I also preferred Jeff Bridges’s more hard-edged Don to Redford’s slightly wishy-washy portrayal. Bridges looks like a caged animal most of the time, and his outbursts seem more believable. The other actors seem to be less high-strung than in Lumet’s version. Here that manic energy is replaced with space, which might be another reason, besides the added dialog, why the director’s cut runs over 40 minutes longer than Lumet’s made-for-TV version. It also looks like two different sources of the film were used for the director’s cut (one for the official three-hour release and another for the excised parts), which means that parts of the film looked washed-out, though the picture-quality is still a vast improvement over Lumet’s version. The audio is also better, and along with having seen Lumet’s version first, allowed me to pick up more from the plot.

A few other characters deserve mention: Frankenheimer, like Lumet, cast Tom Pedi as Rocky, Sorrell Booke as Hugo (who is Larry’s drinking partner and spent time in prison as a Wobbly), and Hildy Brooks as Margie (whose pipe dream is to marry her lover). In addition, he cast the great Fredric March as Harry Hope in what would be his final film role (same for Ryan, who would die before the movie was released). March and Ryan are better than their counterparts in the Lumet version, while the supporting cast is as good. Booke acts pretty much the same in both versions, while Pedi and Brooks are bit less high energy than they are in the Lumet version – possibly due to age and to the different approaches the directors have to the material.

One of the great things about this play is how it seems to be against pipe dreams at the start, before O’Neill shows that sometimes our pipe dreams are the only reason we keep on living. Without them, we either kill others (Hickey) or ourselves (Parritt). And yet this interpretation is too simplistic a take for so complex a work.

On balance, Frankenheimer’s version would seem to be the preferred adaptation, as it’s a more complete and more technically robust one than Lumet’s. And yet, Lumet has Robards. Marvin is great at playing Hickey (and that deep voice of his is wonderful to listen to), but Robards is Hickey, particularly when it comes to Hickey’s long Act IV monologue. On the other hand, Frankenheimer has Ryan (and Ebert was right – he should’ve been nominated for a posthumous Oscar. The fact that he wasn’t is as egregious as Rosalind Russell not winning for Mourning Becomes Electra). Both these actors reveal the greatness of these roles, and both versions reveal the greatness of this play.

Works Cited

O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.