Wednesday, January 06, 2010


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."


pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh. boy I remember that with Lee Marvin too. A doozy. Was that part of a special series that used to film plays like Salesman and Long Days Journey or am I confusing it?

Ted said...

Memories for me, too. Sitting for four hours in a theater in Brockton, Mass., on a Monday or Tuesday night in the fall of 1973. Yes, Ryan was the spine and heart of this production; his own mortality contributed to the impact but it was an extraordinary performance.

Mention should also be made of Fredric March's valedictory performace as Harry Hope. Both actors went out at the top of their game. At the time, I was surprised neither was nominated for an Oscar but that may have been due in part to the peculiar situation of the American Film Theatre.

To answer Patti's question, Iceman was presented as part of the AFT, an effort by producer Ely Landau to film great 20th century plays and present them in a limited road show format. Each filmed play ran for two nights, once a month, usually Monday or Tuesday nights, in select theaters. You had to subscribe for the season, as you would for a stage company. Plays included Albee's A Delicate Balance (Paul Scofield, Katharine Hepburn, Lee Remick, Joseph Cotten and a world class performance by Kate Reid), Ionesco's Rhinoceros (Zero Mostel), Lost in the Stars (Brock Peters), Man in the Glass Booth (Maximilian Schell)and Brecht's Galileo (Topol). The quality varied - I remember walking out of Genet's The Maids - but the effort was commendable. Someone should try this again.

Ed Gorman said...

Yes, Patti, I should've mentioned Lee Marvin, Frederic March and very young Jeff Bridges, among others. Tremendous performances by everybody. Though I still think the core of the play belonged to Ryan.

Charlieopera said...

I'll have to check this out, Ed. I saw Jason Robards in the play about 20 years ago now (I'm guessing). Wonderful stuff.

Thanks for the tip.

Todd Mason said...

Caedmon Records, which had been issuing audio recordings of major plays over the previous decade or so (HarperAudio only has rereleased a few of them since buying Cademon out), also issued the American Film Theater productions on vinyl...where not only the inconsistent production quality but the fact that they were not recorded for audio-only format came into play, but I did enjoy their RHINOCEROS that way, and that's how I experience that version of THE ICEMAN COMETH.

The Caedmon-generated AH, WILDERNESS! and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT were slightly better-suited to audio only...MOURNING BECOMES ELEKTRA, not being as good a play, suffered mostly from that fact.