Encountering Eugene O’Neill’s compassion and scope of understanding for the down and out in The Iceman Cometh was a revelation to me growing up in an Irish Catholic household. It seemed to me he could be talking about my own family, of their emotional repression and substance abuse with all its attendant ills of denial, anger, anxiety, and burden of inferiority. In fact, this play seemed to be built on a deep understanding of the American Irish condition, one threaded through with, not only substance abuse, but deep-seated shame, and ultimately woven into one fabric called The Church. O’Neill’s genius for psychological observation came at a time in my life when confirmation of my own observations was critical. His ambivalence toward Hickey, the Iceman (and what an astounding metaphor!), eerily reflected what was played out not only in my home, but in many American Irish homes and bars of the ’60s as well as the ’10s (when the play takes place), I’m sure. Hickey was both Bringer of Truth and Destroyer of Life, and O’Neill knew that behind the cliché “the truth shall set you free” lay a bitter reality: Despair. I avidly read the other O’Neill plays (never, unfortunately, seeing them performed on stage) with great pleasure and admiration, but it was this play that enabled me to claim my own young perceptions as true and even inspired me to try writing plays myself.
In my poem “Easter,” this theme of denial and truth-telling plays out around the dinner table of an Irish Catholic family, ending with the ambiguity and necessity of resurrection—of life, and of hope.
We convene here, listen to Uncle B
in his backward-pointing baseball cap
lit with stories, muttering of loss…
a low and meaningless animal sound
we take for talk.
We have put it all behind us
and, spoon-fed with the whipped
milk of childhood, we revel in what’s gone:
the rock of the undiscussed.
Mother’s cataract and Father’s altered
look give us nothing to say is wrong.
We lean into it, here
where the rock was struck
and the air inside stopped,
where unhinged stems root
because that which was unknown
is not, and that which cannot
must rise and walk.
[The Mending Worm, New Issues Poetry and Prose, Copyright © 2006 by Joan Houlihan]