Friday, May 04, 2012


As someone who mostly writes about Jewish related theatre I saw many parallels to plays of Jewish content in Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh which opened last night at the The Goodman in Chicago. Perhaps due to that, I saw a play that depicted the story of people in exile. 

Though it has stars - Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane who were excellent -- it was O'Neill, his epic play (4 hrs and 45 minutes incl. three intermissions) and the ensemble cast who were the stars. This group of ne'er do wells in Harry Hope's flophouse are rootless, stateless and living under the bottle -- longing for their next drink and waiting for Hickey, their saviour.

But when Hickey arrives, the salvation he offers is to come clean, to leave the world of pipe dreams, to come back to reality and see the world as it truly is -- not under the haze and anesthesia of drink. This seems reasonable and not unlike abolitionists of the day. Since Hickey is a charismatic figure that they look up to they do try to tear away the charades they play. They work to clean up and in amusing ways like a group of schlemiels, they try to drop their pretend lives that are dreams, but are so much a part of their identity. They try to live in a reality that has oppressed them in the past and to do the things that they say they really want to accomplish.

But this freedom that he offers has a price. And when they do join the world, they see why they lived in fantasy. Separated from their dreams they become like their oppressors -- petty, angry, greedy, misogynist, physical abusers, and racist. They become the things that they have been trying to escape from. Life fills them with terror. Before, they saw the world as in a dream and they were the storytellers of that dream, living for a tomorrow that may never come, but yearning for it just as an exile longs for the homeland.

Bolshevism and revolution are the backdrop. Radical leaders are being turned in and arrested by an intransigent (and corrupt) legal system, that upholds inequality and believes that cultural and racial differences are insidious and un-American. Similarly, Jewish-American were leaders in the unions and radical movements at that time, enduring jail to promote their ideals. Anti-Semitism was rampant in 1939 when the play was written and Germany was seen, even in America (witness leaders like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh), as a bastion of progress with a false superman -- Hitler, to rid them of their radicals and their Jews.

The characters (and they are interesting and playful characters performed by a wonderful cast) in Harry Hope's Saloon come to reality and it stinks. They yearn to go back to their dreams and their lies. But Hickey has worked a miracle and changed the booze so it no longer creates an alcoholic stupor. Like a magician he has made the elixir of dreams into liquid impotence and all that is left to them is emptiness. 

The characters in Harry Hope's Saloon are from the heartland of America, they are Irish-Americans, Black, Jewish, immigrants (legals and not), people who are emotionally unstable, intellectuals, women selling their bodies -- all searching for a home and a society that accepts them and their difference. They yearn for a day of equality and change. They yearn for a future that brings hope. And unlike other times when Hickey visits, even if they didn't have that, they had their dreams.

But Hickey has changed. He takes their dreams away as he takes away their drink and gives them the harsh reality of an America that only cares about power and is self-serving. Similarly to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Hickey is a salesman who sells dreams. But both embody rootlessness and self-loathing that is both imposed from within and from outside. They live in a dream that becomes a nightmare of deep, deep existential loss.

Where does this loss come from? I believe it is from exile, the exile of people from their communities, their cultural roots, and their identities. The pipe dreams of Harry Hope's Saloon that they express through stories, jokes and song are their lifeblood, helping them to live with a taste of a better tomorrow, that they all long for, but can only realize through booze. 

And Hickey, their leader, is also the ultimate wanderer who can never settle down. Like Willy Loman he is always on the go. And as much as they chase the next sale, they are in both in exile. Both of them live in an world that values commercialism, capitalism and power. They are just cogs in the system -- the everyman, the "low-man," the "hick-man" -- and attention will definitely not be paid.

These plays speak so much to our times, where power and greed are what are given voice in America and the world today. Not only has the revolution not taken place but corporations are now  "people" under the law as the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case. No longer are individual human rights respected, as the Arizona law against immigrants makes clear -- they need not apply, even though they add value economically and as cultural capitol. And as the NRA lobby continues to guide legislation, states like Florida allow people to legally use guns and kill when they feel threatened by people they deem to be "the other."

I could go on and on about the relevance of The Iceman Cometh and Death of a Salesman. Suffice it to say that the loss of everything we should hold dear is in this play. Come see it to dream, to laugh, to cry, to mourn and to feel the loss that comes from an exilic world. From this telling of the tale, maybe there is hope.

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