Antaeus Diary: Director Michael Murray on THE ICEMAN COMETH

Antaeus Diaries provide unique perspectives on Classical Theater from the Antaean point of view as veterans and newbies alike detail their experiences in their own voices. In this installment, director Michael Murray shares his passion for THE ICEMAN COMETH. Murray is the project initiator for the ICEMAN potluck reading at Antaeus on April 27th.

This is written after the second day of a 3-day rehearsal for a reading of THE ICEMAN COMETH at Antaeus: It is a “staged” reading, and we now actually have most of the first three acts (out of four) on its feet on stage, a tribute to hard, quick work—and courage—from the Antaeus actors and guest artists who have thrown caution to the winds to tackle this American classic. We have all had second thoughts about getting it done so fast , given the monumental nature of the work, but O’Neill’s plays come to life only on stage rather than in reading, and the theatricality of the play pulls us along.

My own opinion is that ICEMAN is the greatest play by America’s greatest playwright. This is partly because the play has been in my life for a very long time, going back to my beginning days in the theater when I was a directing student at Boston Universtity. Jose Quintero, then a young director and a founder of the Circle in the Square in New York, came to the school to direct a play. I was assigned to be his stage manager, a great opportunity because at that time Jose and his theater were putting “Off-Broadway” on the map. They had already presented several productions that attracted attention uptown, including the first revival of Williams’ SUMMER AND SMOKE featuring an unknown Geraldine Page. A year later, when I myself arrived in New York, Jose asked me to stage manage his next Circle in the Square show–which turned out to be the landmark production of THE ICEMAN COMETH that changed theater history.

ICEMAN was written in the late 30’s and had its premiere on Broadway in the late 40’s. The reception was respectful but not enthusiastic. Many critics felt that O’Neill’s day was done, and that his reputation was seriously over-inflated in the first place. The revival of ICEMAN at the Circle in the Square, however, featuring another unknown actor named Jason Robards, changed all that. It was an immense success, running for nearly three years, and the play was recognized for the masterpiece it is. New biographies of O’Neill began coming out, Life magazine photographed the show, Off-Broadway itself took on a new luster. As a result, the Circle was given the rights to do the first production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, on Broadway, that same year. With that, Robards and Quintero were soon swept into celebrated careers, and the reputation–and the legend–of Eugene O’Neill were firmly established.

I stayed with THE ICEMAN COMETH for the first year of its run, an extraordinary year for me. As Jose was off doing LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, it was my job to keep ICEMAN going, casting and rehearsing numerous replacements in the show –not bad work for a kid in his first professional job, being able to work creatively within a framework set by a brilliant mentor, and in the midst of the hoopla of a big New York hit. I’ve directed a few O’Neill plays myself in the decades since then, and they’ve all been influenced—everything I’ve done has been influenced—by that intense year at the Circle.

I’ve had casual conversations about O’Neill and ICEMAN with Antaeus actors for a year or more. The play is rarely seen, and there are numerous great roles, so actors were interested. For myself, I wanted to revisit a play that had so much resonance for me. Last November a group of us gathered around a table in the library to read the whole play, just for ourselves. After that, we wanted to move the project forward, to stage a reading for an audience—and here we are. A typical Antaeus process.

–Michael Murray

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