The best present Jim (my husband,) gave me for Christmas was tickets to the brilliant, unforgettable, superbly acted revival of Eugene O’Neill’s play, The Iceman Cometh. And this particular production, directed by Robert Fall and staring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy – is nothing short of as good as it gets. We saw it last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I can’t stop thinking about it.
As you might remember, the play’s about, as the New York Times critic, Charles Isherwood put it in his review, “…suffering men and women seeking comfort in the bottom of a bottle in Harry Hope’s saloon.” And about the lies we tell ourselves – or “pipe dreams” as the lead character, “Hickey,” puts it – (played by Nathan Lane) to stay alive. Although “alive” doesn’t seem an accurate description of the perennially dead-drunk state of oblivion of Harry’s patrons. They drift without purpose in an alcoholic fog from day to day, promising themselves that they’ll do things like be “reinstated in my old law firm… when the right moment comes” or “get my old job back…someday” or as Harry says, “take a walk around the block…on my birthday.” (He hasn’t left the bar since his wife died twenty years earlier.)
It’s the prospect of Harry’s birthday party – along with their “pipe dreams” – and the impending arrival of the charismatic, optimistic, dream-feeding traveling salesman, Hickey, that keeps them going (and drinking) through the first act.
And Hickey finally bursts on the scene like a ”merry tornado,” as Isherwood puts it. But it’s not the “old” Hickey. It’s the “new” Hickey. Oh, he’s still the glib, back-slapping blend of misguided motivational speaker, preacher man and comic but his spiel has changed…dramatically. He’s gone from “dream-feeder” to “dream-buster.” He insists to his bewildered, booze-muddled audience with as much charisma as ever that he sees life clearly now – as never before – because he is sober. And then with an almost maniacal fervor he goes about his mission of exhorting his old pals to get off the sauce and cast away their delusions – their “pipe dreams” – of how “good” life will be “someday” and embrace the absolute hopelessness of their fates. His “sobered” if not “sober” audience tries to rouse itself as Hickey urges, and slay their demons. But depression spreads like poison among them and in the final act they stagger back into the comfort of the bar, looking like tombstones – and even the booze has lost its kick.
It doesn’t end well for Hickey either. In a riveting, final monologue, he tells his pals that he’d lied when he said that his wife, Evelyn, had died (and later that she had been murdered,) and that he had, in fact, murdered her… “out of love” for her. In retelling the murder he catches himself laughing and telling Evelyn, “…well, you know what you can do with that pipe dream now, don’t you??” Then he breaks down completely. He realizes that he’s gone insane…and that people need their “pipe dreams” in order to keep going. But it’s too late. The cops come, called by Hickey himself, and take him away.
Pretty bleak, right? Yes, but as Isherwood wrote, “…the greatness in “The Iceman Cometh” resides in the piercing clarity of O’Neill’s vision of how, the human will being what it is, even unendurable life can be endured.” Isherwood goes on to say that “If that sounds like an oxymoron,” maybe a few shots of whiskey could help us figure it out…
But Hickey was right at the bitter end: We need our dreams. Not “pipe dreams” – real dreams. We need to ask and answer the question, “If absolutely anything were possible, what would I love to make happen? In my work? In my life? What would thrill me? And fulfill me…? And by when will I make it happen?” I ask everyone I work with to answer that question, so I’m asking you, too. But unlike the patrons of Harry Hope’s Bar (an ironic last name, isn’t it?), the “someday” answer to “by when?” doesn’t cut it. It’s got to include a month, a day and a year. I wrote a book a few years back called, In My Wildest Dreams, Living the Life You Long For. It struck a chord with Oprah who built an entire show around it. We are nothing without our dreams. But we have to feed them – not our nightmares, our dreams – for them to live. And act on them. Now. Not sometime in a muddle of endless tomorrows.
Göethe got it right: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now.”
Oh, and here’s an old song sung by Bing Crosby (circa 1931) that popped on my Pandora station just as I finished writing…