- The Iceman Cometh: “An unique dramatic Achievement” (Tennessee Williams, Letter to Eugene O’neill, November 6, 1946)
Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York on October 9, 1946. A day later the play was published by Random House.1 Down in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the rising star Tennessee Williams acquired a copy, read it, and typed and sent a letter to O’Neill, then living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in which he praised the Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s latest work. O’Neill evidently responded, thanking Williams for lifting his spirits.
Scholars and others have known of this storied exchange since 1960, when Arthur and Barbara Gelb published their first biography of O’Neill.2 The letters have been referenced since then, but neither of them has surfaced.3 Until now. The letter from O’Neill to Williams remains lost, but the letter from Williams to O’Neill has been found. In 2019 I discovered it, among other gems, at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. It is published here for the first time.4
In one of the greatest diversions in literary history, in the summer of 1939 at Tao House in Danville, California, Eugene O’Neill set aside his colossal “Cycle” in order to begin two new plays that, as he recounted in his Work [End Page 1] Diary on June 6, 1939, “seem [to] appeal most”: Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.5 He began work on Iceman on June 7 and completed his first draft on August 25, calling it “long but grand!” (WD 2:357). Work continued throughout that heart-rending year, as World War II began and quickly escalated. O’Neill finished a third and final draft on December 20, 1939, when he declared Iceman “one of [the] best plays I’ve ever written” (WD 2:367). Other than some “trimming” in early January of 1940, the play was finished (WD 2:368). A month later he submitted the text to the US Copyright Office.6
O’Neill did not want the play produced during the war. As Louis Sheaffer notes, O’Neill felt that “audiences in wartime would be unreceptive to a drama as nihilistic as The Iceman”; initially, he showed the script only to Bennett Cerf and George Jean Nathan (503).7 Soon, however, he shared it with a small coterie of friends, including Kenneth Macgowan, Robert Edmond Jones, Armina and Lawrence Langner, and Sophus and Ilene Winther, all of whom he asked to keep its existence secret. They all responded with praise for the play, and their correspondence is included in the newly discovered documents at Yale. Nathan questioned the repetitious nature of the play, while Macgowan advised the playwright to substantially cut the work.8
On December 20, 1940, Macgowan, who had been working in Hollywood, typed a letter to O’Neill on Twentieth Century‒Fox Film Corporation letterhead. After two paragraphs praising the play’s “gargantuan” breadth, the depth of its characters (“the men and women are so entirely complete; there isn’t a touch of the rubber stamp anywhere”), and the “immense” nature of Hickey, Macgowan turned to what he called “destructive criticism.” Because he “want[ed] to see this play master its audience,” he wrote, “I think you ought to cut it and cut it pretty hard.” In a letter that I will examine more closely below, O’Neill justified the play’s length and asserted, “I’m sure I won’t agree with you on the advisability of any drastic condensation.”9
Calls for paring the five-hour work resurfaced in the autumn of 1946, as the play was being readied for rehearsals. Lawrence Langner, co-director of the Theatre Guild, was the most pressing advocate for a shortened Iceman. This was an understandable reaction to a play that would require a curtain rise at 4:30 p.m., a dinner intermission, and a late evening final bow. The Gelbs quote Langner and O’Neill in their comments on the matter:
“I could not help remarking to Gene, that, in my opinion...