Sidney Lumet, the great film director who died recently at the age of 86, was one of the most famous of the generation of film directors who came from live TV (and livened up the stodgy U.S. cinema with the techniques they’ve learned in the live TV medium). He returned to TV periodically; in his 70s he created and directed the drama series 100 Centre Street. And one of his last contributions to the genre of the TV play — the form that was the most respected and revered part of the so-called “golden age” of live television — was a production of The Iceman Cometh for the syndicated series Play of the Week. (The NTA Film Network, which aired Play of the Week, was sort of a proto-PBS, since its main New York station became a PBS station.) These plays, taped in New York studios, attempted to bring important U.S. plays or actors to a wider audience, preserving the type of ambitious TV play that had already started to disappear from the broadcast networks; it ended in 1961, the year Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech observed that the old hopes for TV, of “public interest” programming that would entertain while educating a broad audience about other things outside TV (music, theatre, social issues), had been vanquished by L.A.-based genre programming.
While I don’t believe in golden ages of TV, different eras are strong in different areas, and one thing the TV play was able to do was preserve (or at least broadcast) theatrical performances in a more authentic way than film probably can. Lumet’s Iceman Cometh production is historically important for preserving the lead performance of Jason Robards, whose performances as Hickey in the ’50s turned O’Neill’s play from a problem play into a classic. Robards was associated with many O’Neill plays, and worked with Lumet again in a feature film version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but he didn’t get to do Iceman as a feature film. But while seeing him on videotape in Iceman Cometh, doing the play in a studio, isn’t the same as seeing him in the theatre, it may be a closer approximation of the theatre experience than a film would have been. It’s just the actors and a set, and a director who knows where the cameras should go and how to capture the illusion of a live experience (even when it’s not actually live, and this was not). This has not been a major part of television, public or private, for quite a while. The rise of HD theatre broadcasts may eventually lead to more important theatre performances being preserved in that form, though, so there is hope.
Robards’ climactic monologue has been uploaded to YouTube in three parts. Some of the syndicated broadcasts were apparently preceded by an introduction from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who warned viewers about O’Neill’s language in the play (all of which, it goes without saying, would pass muster on any network broadcast today).