I watched the 1973 John Frankenheimer production of The Iceman Cometh last night and thought once again that the two great American plays for me are Iceman and Death of Salesman with the A Streetcar Named Desire close behind.
The times I've seen Iceman on stage I've always watched to see how the character Larry Slade was played. He's the only one who doesn't live on "pipe dreams." Former Anarchist and fallen Catholic, he lives in the saloon listening to the drunken pipe dreams of his fellows. I suspect he's Eugene O'Neill, the man who, when told about the atomic bomb said, "Maybe this is what we deserve." No pipe dreams for him.
Nobody comes close to Robert Ryan's portrayl of Larry Slade. He turns O'Neill's highly stylized dialogue into brutal poetry. His speech near the end (which you can check out on Youtube) is among the saddest and most savage speeches in American theater. You sense that Slade wishes he could go back to his own pipe dreams, his own religion but he's seen too much cruelty, too much deceit and too much crushed hope to believe in anything. He waits for his death.
Ryan was one of the great American actors. He appeared in this Iceman version not long after his wife died of cancer and when he was near the end of his own life from cancer. It is not easy to look at his ravaged face and body. But it makes his performance all the more powerful.
Newsweek critic Paul Zimmerman, who was to die young himself, said of Ryan's performance: "It is Robert Ryan, his face a wreck of smashed dreams, who provides the tragic dimension that makes this Iceman a moving, unforgettable experience. Ryan played his part in the shadow of his own death. He died this year, leaving behind a lifetime of roles too small for his talent."