As if to prove my problems with Death of a Salesman have nothing to do with being forced to hang out with an unappealing character for hours, the recent Goodman Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh left me absolutely floored.

I’m sorry I didn’t write about it when it was still open, particularly since it looks less-likely than it once did that it will come to New York (Broadway audiences have less sitzfleisch than folks in Chicago, I guess, though maybe they should just do it at the Public where really long shows seem to thrive). And I wish I had comments that live up to the profundity of the work. But the main thing I want to do is just give you a view from the floor where the play laid me down.

The play takes place in Harry’s bar, a last-chance saloon of the early 20th century, where the regular crowd who live upstairs and drink in the back and never seem to leave (Harry literally has not left since his wife’s death twenty years ago) await the arrival of Hickey, the salesman, the good-time guy, for his birthday, which promises to be a grand bender that will facilitate their forgetting their troubles for a while. But when Hickey arrives, he’s changed. He’s still jolly, still throws around the cash, still stands everyone drink after drink. But he’s gotten some kind of religion, and he will evangelize every one in the bar in turn. He has, he says, given up his “pipe dreams” and this has brought him a kind of happiness that booze never could. And he wants all of them to give up their own dreams, and join him.

The denizens of the bar at first get the feeling that he’s trying to goad them into action, into making something of themselves, and, insulted, set out to do just that. But that’s not Hickey’s aim. He knows they’ll fail. He wants them to fail. So they’ll give up. So they’ll learn to accept failure.

The thing about the play is that, although the inhabitants of Harry’s bar appear to be the rock-bottom boys, no longer fit for life of any kind, drowning their last days in drink at the ditchiest of last-ditch dives, O’Neill has been careful to people the bar with a wide variety of types: gamblers and toughs, carnies and whores, but also political activists, journalists, war veterans – people who aimed at and to an extent actually achieved something in the outside world. They have all come to a place – with a sense of inevitability about that arrival – where they realize that achievement is of no consequence. Not because there are other things that are more important – family, say, or community, or a relationship with God. But because nothing is of consequence. There isn’t anything to be achieved – not in the world of affairs nor in any other world. All the men in the bar realize that (and the pair of whores do, too), and that is why they are there. But they don’t face that fact squarely. They act as if there is still a tomorrow, as if there is something they are failing to do that they ought to be doing. They think they are failures, a term which implies a category of success. This is the last hope that Hickey comes to disabuse them of.

As we learn in the last act, Hickey has been through a hell of an experience. He was in love, with a woman who loved him more than anything, and forgave him anything he did. And he did plenty – drank, ran around, spent her money; treated her, in general, appallingly. And she, because she knew he loved her, would always forgive him, knowing he would repent, and never do it again. And he always did it again.

So, (spoiler alert) he killed her. His last illusion was that he did this out of pity of her, but really he did it out of hatred. He couldn’t bear the pressure, the knowledge of how badly he was failing her. Pressure that was only made worse because she never actually applied it. He wanted to fail in peace.

Nihilism is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but this is the real deal. Hickey’s experience is an inversion of the traditional Christian narrative. His wife, Christ-like, forgave every trespass, and delivered him from evil. And he couldn’t bear the guilt of knowing that. Christianity asserts that we are all born sinners, and can only be saved by an act of grace. We killed the man who came to save us, which proves just how depraved we are – but that very crime redeems us, because God intended the victim to be a sacrifice, an atonement for us. How can we believe this after experiencing Hickey? It is grace itself, he seems to be saying, that is most unforgivable, that most prompts us to murder those who would save us. It’s the Augustinian anthropology but with no possibility of salvation – more, it’s proof that the Augustinian anthropology implies the impossibility of salvation.

It sounds kind of over-the-top when I articulate it. But it works, because O’Neill is serious. There’s none of the condescension that I identify in Miller. None of the sense that he knows these characters better than they know themselves. These characters are him. He lives in that bar, and he’s been Hickey to himself.

I’ve never seen Iceman before, and I’m pretty sure I read it for the first time in preparation for this production (I went through an O’Neill kick in college, but somehow managed to miss the play that some consider his greatest achievement – though, personally, I’d prefer Long Day’s Journey). So I didn’t go in with a strong preconception of what Hickey was supposed to be like. But I found Nathan Lane completely persuasive in the role. Lane has a deep vein of rage buried in him, and it’s Pagliacci’s rage – the rage of a man forced to clown. Two highlights of his stage career involved playing roles originated and made famous by Zero Mostel, and I understand why directors chose him for those roles, because they both have an inner rage, but they are of very different character. Mostel’s rage was from hunger. Lane’s is colder, more misanthropic. It’s a rage that suits well with O’Neill, and with Hickey; it makes you realize, from the first, that for all that he blames his wife for all of his problems, it isn’t her. He’d have wound up in hell one way or another even if he’d never met a girl like her. He was clowning at the edge of the pit from the first.

Speaking of which, Hickey’s not alone in fixing the blame elsewhere. It’s striking how thoroughly the (almost all male) characters in O’Neill’s play blame their problems on the women in their lives. It hardly mitigates things that their problems, as the play presents them, amount to being forced to overcome their own inertial drive toward failure. Harry Hope, Jimmy Tomorrow: all they ever wanted was to fail, and the women in their lives demanded that they not give up, that they keep trying, make something of themselves. And so they did, for a while, until the old lady died, or gave up on him and ran off with another man, at which point they could fail happily. It’s not exactly a misogynistic truth being revealed here, and not exactly a misandric one either, but an ugly truth about the hopelessness of relations between men and women.

While Hickey’s is the star turn, it isn’t really his play. Most of the play is an ensemble effort – Hickey against the community of man (and a couple of whores). But the real protagonist of the play is Larry Slade. An old IWW man, who once was in love with a woman who cheated on him, and who starts the play not believing in anything much or anybody – the least-illusioned of the bunch – Slade has the hardest fall of all, is the only one who Hickey ultimately converts to the cause of self-destruction. You see, Don Parritt, son of the woman he once loved, has come to him seeking advice, and possibly absolution, for having snitched on her to the police. Slade knows what he wants, and for the whole play he won’t give it to him, until very near the end when he tells him, in so many words, to go kill himself. Which Parritt does.

Why do I say that Slade is the protagonist? Because he’s the one who makes a decision (to tell Parritt to kill himself). Because he’s the one who still believes something at the end (his love for Parritt’s mother) – and that belief, which he was convinced had died in him when he gave up all the rest of his beliefs, turns out also to mean nothing but death (for Parritt). He’s the one who understands, from the first, that Hickey has committed some horrible crime, and all he’s trying to do the whole play is avoid committing a crime himself, to die without guilt. And he can’t. Slade is played hauntingly by Brian Dennehy, a master of O’Neill who played Hickey to great acclaim years before, and that history with the play only deepens the sense that Slade has seen this, even the deep darkness that Hickey brings, all before.

The rest of the cast was uniformly excellent, but I have to call out Stephen Ouimette’s Harry Hope and John Douglas Thompson’s Joe Mott for especial mention. It’s almost inconceivable how strong a cast this was. I only hope the producers find some way of deluding themselves into thinking it would make a profit in New York.