Hailed by many critics as Eugene O’Neill’s finest work, The Iceman Cometh opens at the Martin Beck Theater on this day in 1956. The play, about desperate tavern bums clinging to illusion as a remedy for despair, was the last O’Neill play to be produced on Broadway before the author’s death in 1953.
Like many of his other works, the play drew on O’Neill’s firsthand experiences with all-night dive bars and desperate characters. Although his actor father sent him to top prep schools and to Princeton, O’Neill dropped out of college after a year. He went to sea, searched for gold in South America, haunted the waterfront bars in Buenos Aires, Liverpool, and New York, and married briefly. He drank heavily. In 1912, when O’Neill was nearly 30, he came down with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium in Connecticut. While recovering, he wrote his first play and decided to devote himself to drama. He began churning out gritty, realistic plays about lives on the margins of society. He wrote nine plays from 1913 to 1914, six from 1916 to 1917, and four in 1918. In 1917, a Greenwich Village theater group, the Provincetown Players, performed his one-act play Thirst. The group became closely associated with O’Neill’s future work. In 1920, his first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was produced on Broadway.
Between 1920 and 1943, O’Neill wrote 20 long plays and several short ones. His work was groundbreaking in its use of slangy, everyday dialogue, its dingy, run-down settings, and his experimental use of light, sound, and casting to set an emotional tone.
O’Neill’s family life had been very unhappy. His father became rich playing just one theater role, the Count of Monte Cristo, for many years and never succeeded in becoming a more serious actor. His mother used morphine, and his beloved older brother became an alcoholic. All three died between 1920 and 1923. O’Neill wrote several autobiographical plays about his family after they died, including A Moon for the Misbegotten (produced in 1957) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (produced in 1956). Other major works include The Hairy Ape (1923) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Although O’Neill was an outgoing host with an active social life during his second marriage, he became reclusive during his third. In the 1940s, he developed a degenerative nervous disease, and he died in Boston in 1953. Many critics call O’Neill America’s first major playwright.