Yeah that's right. Failure. I flew to Chicago last week to see The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill at The Goodman Theatre. I have never been to Chicago before. I LOVED IT. But what got me there was failure. Ah Failure.
I often think that the reason I have stayed in the theatre has everything to do with failure. And of course I am trying to figure out why, or how, this is so. One of the plays that spoke to me in whispers as to what my life might be was: Long Days Journey Into Night (Also by O'Neill). This play revealed to me the character of men and women and turned the lights on brightly inside Failure's room.
There are certain moments when I am reminded that noone actually knows anything. And it is my contention that great feats of art or wisdom or compassion are required to make this very simple point clear. Noone actually knows anything. But most of the time I live with the delusion that there are those among you who actually know. And this is profoundly troubling and at times a debilitating affectation. Because none of us know anything and it is only our collective agreements that lead us to believe that "we" do or that if "we don't" then "they do". And the big gift of this week was Robert Falls production of The Iceman Cometh because it reminded me again of this: that noone knows anything. And it turned the lights on bright in Failure's room again. And damned if this O'Neill won't end up being another stopping point along the path of why I continue to roil around in theatre.
856 sold out seats. 17 actors. 5 hours. 4 acts. 3 intermissions.
Oh Canada can you imagine? (But this is beside the point)
The point is failure and how O'Neill understood - far better than I - what it is and how it can be valued. Not just as a cautionary tale, nor as a terrific teacher, nor as a place from which to flee...Nope. O'Neill understands it as the place where we live. We live in failure.
I did not go to see this piece because of my interest in failure. I went because of my interest in the writer, the production, the actors and the city. And yet, writing this now, I see that while I might not have recognized failure as the thing that drew me there it was the only thing that could have.
Chicago of today was born of extraordinary events toward the end of the 19th century. In 1871 a song was being written that I can still sing every word of today: "late last night while we were all in bed, Old Mother Leary lit a lantern in the shed and when the cow kicked it over she winked her eye and said there'll be a hot time in the old town tonight fire FiRe FIRE!" This was taught to me at summer camp on the shores of Eagle Lake, north of Kingston, Ontario. It was a super fun song to sing because of the build in the fire FiRe FIRE! So exciting! And then to find out last week that there actually was a Mrs. Leary who actually was blamed for seting Chicago alight in 1871. Pretty hard to blame one person when even the roads of Chicago were made out of wood! But Mrs. Leary took the rap and we got the song and Chicago got a future! So take a few letters out of FAILURE and you can end up with a raging FIRE. And this is what happened. And this is also why Chicago has become the extraordinary wind (and fire) resistant city that it has. Does this make it failure resistant now too? I doubt it. But not just because nothing can resist failure - especially if it is where we actually live - but even more impressively precarious... is that Chicago itself is built on stilts! There isn't even any real solid ground to support what appears to be this absolute vision of solididty and strength. So this city knows about failure. It is built on it. Chicago knows where it lives and it loves it. And by Gum, so do I!
So I take apart the word and I see "fire" living within in it. And I see too that it contains "lure". So like the "flea" - that it also contains - I see that the word itself has lured me - yet again - to its fire. Ah Failure!
The Iceman Cometh. 10 men and 3 women living a life of possibility found at the bottom of Manhattan at the bottom of a glass. That's 13, and an unlucky number. Poor sods. But for the grace of god. Nowhere for them to go except into their reveries. And then there are 2 men, both filled with quivers of truth, ready to take aim with the clarity of their vision. Well dressed, "better thans". Better than anyone of those poor sods. People on the way up and out. People that we look to for the answers. People who obviously know something that "we don't". In this case murderers. In many cases so...And then there are 2 cops. Because there are always cops. That is how we know for sure that we live in failure.
Cutting to the chase, and make it whiskey as cheap as you've got, the iceman always cometh and when he gets there you will recognize him for the shadow of the thing that flitted out of sight as you brushed your teeth this morning, or as you flip open that next self-help book that is promising the thing that everyone knows cannot be provided. BUT WHO CARES. It is the feeling of home, of possibility, of "maybe someday" that sustains us. And as we get older it is also the feeling of all that shone so boldly on that sunny day when everything was just perfect in the world. But for now? Well for now we know that the Iceman will always show up. Because he never left. And there is as much to disturb me as there is to comfort me in this.
I have never travelled so far just to see a show before. It was beyond worth it. I am indebted to Robert Falls for making this happen. And to Eugene O'Neill for understanding something I work very hard not to get. Even though I purport to want to know as much about it as I am able.