How two seedy old bars inspired a Broadway classic

How two seedy old bars inspired a Broadway classic

Probably the most miserable place in American drama could be Harry Hope’s Saloon, the place “The Iceman Cometh,” Eugene O’Neill’s descent into dipsomania, takes place.

“It’s the No Probability Saloon,” one character says of this decrease Manhattan dive. “It’s Bedrock Bar, the Finish of the Line Café . . . the final harbor. Nobody right here has to fret about the place they’re going subsequent, as a result of there is no such thing as a farther they’ll go.”

Harry’s is populated with varied drunks. From time to time, they catch a glimpse of what they as soon as have been on the backside of a whiskey glass. They wince, then refill their glasses.

Harry’s is again in enterprise on the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, the place a revival of “The Iceman Cometh,” starring Denzel Washington, is in previews. The manufacturing, directed by George C. Wolfe, opens April 26.

Washington performs Theodore Hickman — “Hickey” — a slick, charming salesman who swings by Harry’s every time he’s on the town. However this time one thing’s completely different. Hickey is on the wagon. He’s additionally murdered his spouse.

O’Neill wrote “Iceman” in 5 months in 1939. He dug deep into his previous — “locking myself in with my reminiscences,” he stated — to create Harry’s and its barflies.

The play is ready in 1912, which, as O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb write, “was the 12 months he hit all-time low.”

Jimmy the Priest’s at 252 Fulton Road, a waterfront bar the place O’Neill tried suicide.Courtesy of the Linda Lear Middle for Particular Collections and Archives, Connecticut CollegeO’Neill, then 24, had fled his overbearing father, a well-known actor, and his morphine-addicted mom. (She began taking the drug to ease the ache of O’Neill’s start, one thing that tormented him all through his life.) He’d gone to Argentina as a sailor on a cargo ship and had been homeless in Buenos Aires. He returned to New York with nothing to do however drink within the saloons that lined the Hudson River waterfront.

His dive of alternative was Jimmy-the-Priest’s at 252 Fulton St. Jimmy wasn’t a priest. He was a barkeep named James J. Condon. He was powerful and imply, however had a comfortable spot for anybody down on their luck.

Condon opened at midday, served good soup, low cost whiskey and cheaper schooners of beer to regulars, a lot of whom, just like the characters in “Iceman,” lived above the bar. O’Neill was a tenant, too, paying three a month for his room. His ingesting buddies, he would later say, have been “one of the best associates I ever had,” including: “I discovered at Jimmy-the-Priest’s to not sit in judgment on individuals.”

Eugene O’NeillGetty ImagesThe saloon wasn’t all doom and gloom, and neither is “Iceman.” Drunks could be humorous. O’Neill might have picked up the title of his play from an outdated joke:

A person calls upstairs to his spouse, “Has the iceman come but?”

“No,” she replies, “however he’s respiratory arduous.”

Even so, the jokes couldn’t maintain O’Neill’s despair at bay. Within the spring of 1912, he tried to kill himself in his room above Jimmy’s by taking Veronal with whiskey.

James Findlater Byth, a Broadway press agent and common on the bar, discovered O’Neill handed out in his room and revived him. O’Neill modeled the drunken ex-journalist James (“Jimmy Tomorrow”) Cameron in “Iceman” on him.

Byth saved O’Neill’s life, however he couldn’t save himself. In 1913, Byth jumped to his demise from the roof of Jimmy-the-Priest’s.

The tenement constructing that housed the bar survived till 1965, when it was torn right down to make means for the North Tower of the World Commerce Middle.

After his suicide try, O’Neill moved to New London, Conn., and bought a job at a newspaper. He practically died once more, this time from tuberculosis. When he recovered, he determined to make one thing of his life and commenced writing performs. The Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village produced two of them, and in 1915 O’Neill was again in New York haunting ­one other saloon that might additionally function a mannequin for Harry Hope’s.

Golden Swan Cafe, at West 4th and sixth Avenue, an alleged hangout of Eugene O’Neill.Getty ImagesThe Golden Swan Café was at Sixth Avenue and West Fourth Road. A golden swan hung over the doorway, however few individuals known as it that: The locals named it the Hell Gap, and it, too, was a spot the place damaged males got here to drink and die.

An ex-boxer named Thomas Wallace owned the saloon and was the inspiration for Harry Hope. Like Hope, Wallace seldom left the bar. He quarreled together with his clients however with affection. Life introduced him a raft of losers and he sorted them as greatest he might.

Each time O’Neill might sneak away from rehearsals for his earlier performs, he’d head to the Hell Gap, get smashed and recite the poem “The Hound of Heaven” to writers, sailors, truck drivers, gangsters and prostitutes, a few of whom turned characters in “Iceman.” Generally he’d go out from ingesting. When he failed to show up for rehearsals, the decision went out, “Somebody’s bought to go and rake Gene out of the Hell Gap!”

The Golden Swan was demolished in 1928, simply earlier than development started on the Sixth Avenue subway. The place the bar as soon as stood is now a pocket-size park known as the Golden Swan Backyard.

The park is an oasis of peace, one thing that eluded O’Neill and the troubled souls of “The Iceman Cometh.”

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