Even though I do not write plays, I have learned a great deal about moral vision and artistic craft from The Iceman Cometh, particularly from reading, over and over again, Act IV. Near the end, Harry Hope notes, “Bejees, it does queer things to you, having to listen day and night to a lunatic’s pipe dreams—pretending you believe them, to kid him along and doing any crazy thing he wants to humor him,” a statement that helped me begin to understand, as a young man, my country and the various pipe dreams that sustained it. The blinds had been opened to a clearer world.
In Act IV of The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill achieves the perfect balance between parts that is an aspect of all great writing in all genres. At times, the characters are brought together as a wide chorus (“The hell with it!” “Who cares?”) while, at other times, the focus is narrower and more private. The play preaches the importance of listening and the key roles played by form and structure in writing.
Of course, the Irish elements present in the play’s setting struck me from the start. And, like Synge’s and O’Casey’s plays, The Iceman Cometh, because it featured poor people who had little more to offer than what came from their mouths, was driven by language. Of more importance to me, though, was The Iceman Cometh’s American setting and how such a location could entertain an extraordinary wealth of diversity. From O’Neill, I learned to appreciate rather than dismiss the minutiae of my own place. Over time, O’Neill led me onward to James T. Farrell and to the work of other Irish American authors. Of course, that day in the library overlooking the lake, I had no way of knowing that down the road I too would become an Irish American and a writer.