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The Iceman Cometh: Broadway Theatre Archive (1960)

Raise a pint to Broadway Theatre Archive, where five decades' worth of great stage performances and some of television's hallowed events are finally being preserved on modern video. And raise another to Image Entertainment, distributor of the Archive's DVD editions. And before we fall face-forward to the scarred hardwood tabletop, raise one more to the Golden Age of televised dramatic works, which in 1960 brought us a powerful adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, from the seminal New York Circle in the Square stage production that made Jason Robards a star.

Robards' virtuoso performance as the glad-handing, doom-ridden Hickey is the role's gold standard, one Kevin Spacey aspired to reach in an acclaimed 1999 revival of Eugene O'Neill's towering masterpiece (first staged in 1939). Set in 1912 New York, The Iceman Cometh spotlights the failed lives, empty hopes, and perpetual pipedreams of the stewbums, anarchists, and hookers of Harry Hope's seedy saloon. Most gave up on their lives long ago, and the only guarantee they can look forward to is the arrival of their old friend Hickey, a charismatic traveling salesman and everyone's life-of-the-party drinking companion. But when Hickey shows up for his semi-annual bender, this time he's a changed man. He has sworn off liquor, yet instead of crusading temperance he is on a higher mission — to convince these booze-soaked burnouts that guilt-cleansing "truth" is the only deliverance from "the lie of the pipedream." On the other side of the argument is aging anarchist Larry, who counters that it's raw truth that beats down men, whose happiness hangs on their desperate need for illusions and pipedreams. Naturally, Hickey's presence affects everyone. Long-held guilts are aired and secrets unlocked, and not everyone is left alive by the closing credits. (Death is the overshadowing "iceman" here.) Hickey's truth is the most revealing of all, and his 30-minute confessional final soliloquy is one of the greatest declamations in modern theater.

The Iceman Cometh is heady stuff, alright, dissecting wasted lives and failed dreams. Like the dive in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, Harry's shabby saloon is the world in a bottle, its inhabitants' dreams summing up the various forms humanity's illusions take — political, racial, domestic, sexual, intellectual, and religious. But as delivered here it's also funny and wise, compassionate and ruthless. In a word, it's riveting. There are more guts and humanity here than in an entire year's worth of Hollywood blockbusters. If nothing else, there's great pleasure in just witnessing extraordinary actors at the top of their craft bringing life to one of the great American plays. Robards is astonishing in his history-making performance, and he is considered the authoritative interpreter of O'Neill's evangelical salesman.

The Iceman Cometh's superior ensemble also showcases other familiar faces as O'Neill's consciously colorful characters — Myron McCormick, Tom Pedi, James Broderick, and boyish 23-year-old Robert Redford in his first major performance. Plus it was ably and sensitively directed by Sidney Lumet (Fail-Safe, Network). As Variety wrote, this production was "a landmark for the video medium, a reference point for greatness in TV drama."

Even at three-and-a-half hours spread across two discs, this lovingly preserved production reminds us of how good theater faithfully restaged for television can be. Lumet fully employed his simple but effective two-camera setup, floating within long continuous takes that cut only for O'Neill's scene breaks. The long takes are even more impressive nowadays. Where else can as we observe actors on a screen, big or small, displaying their art and craft to this extent?

*          *          *

This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD preserves as closely as possible the original audio and visual components. However, because now it's digitally remastered the high resolution also preserves the limitations of 1960 technology — expect some video blooming and black-and-white imagery that's contrasty and not nearly as sharp as modern technology allows. Nonetheless, it all looks remarkably good given its years of inattention, and the audio comes through strong in center-channel mono. It's presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio.

DVD extras include Robards' theater and film credits, liner notes on O'Neill, and almost an hour's worth of previews for 13 Broadway Theatre Archive titles. One might also include the solemn introduction by legendary New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who, looking a bit uncomfortable, tells us that a "mature, sensitive" audience might be prepared for this raw depiction of "the dregs of society" and their "vulgarities." As a recording of an event, this production makes for one of the most welcome DVD releases and Broadway Theatre Archive's most in-demand title. Dual-DVD keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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