Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Personally I love it [The Iceman Cometh]! And I’m sure my affection is not wholly inspired by nostalgia for the dear dead days “on the bottom of the sea,” either. I have a confident hunch that this play, as drama, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. In some ways, perhaps the best. What I mean is, there are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret soul of a man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. These moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said.

—Eugene O’Neill, Letter to Lawrence Langner, August 11, 1940

If Long Day’s Journey into Night is Eugene O’Neill’s greatest personal and dramatic achievement in exorcizing and universalizing his family demons, The Iceman Cometh is his most profound play, contending not with a family’s tragedy but humanity’s. Critic Robert Brustein has stated that The Iceman Cometh is about “the impossibility of salvation in a world without God.” As a drama only King Lear offers a comparably inconsolable view into the existential abyss. In American literature the play’s only rival in questioning ultimates is Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. In a sense The Iceman Cometh is O’Neill’s version of both Death of a Salesman and Waiting for Godot. Hickey, the salesman of life without illusion, is eagerly awaited to enliven the denizens of Harry Hope’s Lower Manhattan dive. As in Beckett’s play, O’Neill poses the fundamental modern question, What can be believed in the impossibility of any belief? But unlike Godot, Hickey arrives. Like Willy Loman, Hickey is deceived about himself and the lesson he brings and, again like Willy, is ultimately aligned with death and the necessity of illusions. O’Neill’s dark parable of nothingness is one of the starkest and most unrelenting of modern dramas. According to critic Normand Berlin, The Iceman Cometh “occupies a very important place in O’Neill’s career, but its value as a work of dramatic art goes far beyond any considerations based on development or reputation. The Iceman Cometh joins Long Day’s Journey as a masterpiece. It allows the name O’Neill to be mentioned along with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw, and perhaps one or two others, as the giants of modern drama.”


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The last new play to appear on Broadway during the playwright’s lifetime, The Iceman Cometh serves as O’Neill’s summary philosophical statement after a lifelong quest for spiritual answers. A culminating work, it is also a significant new departure, the first in a remarkable series of four plays, along with Hughie, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, that crowned O’Neill’s extraordinary dramatic career. In 1934 Days without End, a dark, spiritual meditation in which its central protagonist, wracked with religious doubts, ultimately finds peace in his Catholic faith, proved both a critical and popular failure, prompting O’Neill’s withdrawal from play production, though not from playwriting. For the next five years O’Neill labored on a massive cycle of plays—“A Tale of Possessors Self-dispossessed”—a family saga tracing the decline and fall of America from the Revolutionary War through the 1930s. Although acknowledged as America’s greatest dramatist with the Nobel Prize in 1936, O’Neill was widely considered a spent force, with his public silence interpreted as his having found his religious faith but lost his artistic powers. Neither was the case. In 1939, stalled in his multi-play labors, in increasing declining health from a nerve condition that would prevent his writing at all during the last decade of his life, O’Neill grew even more despairing with the war news and retreated into his past. “To tell the truth,” he wrote to a friend, “like anyone else with any imagination, I have been absolutely sunk by this damned world debacle. The Cycle is on the shelf, and God knows if I can ever take it up again because I cannot foresee in this country or anywhere else to which it could spiritually belong.” In desolation O’Neill told a reporter that humankind ought to be dumped down the nearest drain with the world given over to the ants. Whatever interest he could muster in the human condition was increasingly located in his own past as O’Neill began to outline two plays he “wanted to write for a long time,” based on seminal events in his life. One became Long Day’s Journey into Night; the other, the “Jimmy-the-Priest’s, Hell-Hole idea,” would become The Iceman Cometh. Both concern events in 1912. In this decisive year in O’Neill’s life he narrowly survived a six-month-long bender in New York dives and a suicide attempt before being treated for tuberculosis in a sanitarium where he would rebound and commit himself to his vocation as a playwright. Having landed in October 1911 in New York City after a year and a half living as a seaman, O’Neill took up residence in cheap saloons such as Jimmy-the-Priest’s and the Hell-Hole, drinking heavily, while absorbing the stories of those he recalled as “sailors on shore leave or stranded; longshoremen, waterfront riffraff, gangsters, down-and-outers, drifters from the ends of the earth” who would serve as models for the characters in The Iceman Cometh. There he learned that one of his closest shipmates had committed suicide by jumping overboard in mid-ocean before his roommate committed suicide by jumping from a bedroom window (much like Don Parritt in The Iceman). Subsequently, O’Neill tried to kill himself by swallowing an overdose of veronal tablets. Taken to a hospital and revived, O’Neill returned to his family’s New London summer home. Working as a reporter on the local paper O’Neill would experience both the happy relation-ships that he would later describe in his comedy Ah, Wilderness! as well as the family traumas he would expose in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

Female Characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

Probing the meanings and significance of 1912 on his life and his under-standing of the human condition, O’Neill turned first to the family of drunks and outcasts he had formed in New York’s saloons and flophouses before tack-ling his own family. “In writing The Iceman Cometh,” O’Neill recalled, “I felt I had locked myself in with my memories.” O’Neill intended the play “as a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays,” something “I want to make life reveal about itself, fully and deeply and roundly.” Treating both his past and its import, O’Neill joined a realistic with a symbolic method that universalizes a graphic depiction of life at the bottom with the allegorical and representative. Set at Harry Hope’s saloon, the play assembles a large, diverse cast of different nationalities, statuses, and former ways of life—an American melting pot democratized by their common defeat, alcohol, and their “hope-less hope.” Their terminal, in the words of cynic Larry Slade to the newcomer Parritt, is

the No Chance Saloon. It’s Bedrock Bar. The End of the Line Café, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller! Don’t you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere? That’s because it’s the last harbor. No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows, as you’ll see for yourself if you’re here long.

Larry introduces the key concept of the play in the pipe dream, a version of Henrik Ibsen’s life-lie, the illusion that alone makes life supportable. The play will concern the ways in which human beings generate meaning in a meaningless world.

Echoing both the setting and collective protagonist method of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, as well as the concept of the life-sustaining illusion in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, The Iceman Cometh exceeds both plays in its depth of characterization, the daring reach of its existential vision, and its symphonic structure. As one of O’Neill’s fi nest interpreters, director José Quintero, has argued, The Iceman Cometh “was not built as an orthodox play. It resembles a complex musical form, with themes repeating themselves with slight variations, as melodies do in a symphony. It is a valid device, though O’Neill has often been criticized for it by those who do not see the strength and depth of meaning the repetition achieves.” Taking the form of a sequence of monologues cycling back again and again to the same core theme of the pipe dream, as well as resembling a Greek drama with chorus and three central characters—Hickey, Slade, and Parritt—The Iceman Cometh achieves its impressive force through its reiteration and counterpoint. In rehearsal, when an assistant director pointed out to him that he had repeated the pipe dream idea 18 separate times, O’Neill famously responded: “I intended it to be repeated eighteen times!” Equally intentional was the first act’s thorough introduction of the bar’s denizens before the entrance of Hickey at its conclusion. Adamant in resisting cuts, O’Neill wanted to build “up the complete picture of the group as it now is in the first part—the atmosphere of the place, the humor and friendship and human warmth and deep inner contentment at the bottom.” Without this “you wouldn’t feel the same sympathy and under-standing for them, or be so moved by what Hickey does to them.”

Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Opening in the back room of the bar, the regulars await the imminent arrival of the hardware salesman Theodore Hickman (Hickey) for his annual bender celebrating Harry Hope’s birthday. They include “Jimmy Tomorrow,” a former journalist; Willie Oban, a Harvard Law School graduate; Joe Mott, the onetime proprietor of a black gambling house; the “General” and the “Captain,” Boer and British former adversaries; Ed Mosher, an ex–circus grifter; Pat McGloin, an ex–police lieutenant; and Hugo Kalmar, once the editor of revolutionary periodicals. They, along with Larry Slade, a disillusioned former anarchist, and Don Parritt, the son of a prominent leader of the movement, are, along with Harry, the dive’s lodgers, and the 12 disciples for Hickey’s reenactment of a nihilistic Last Supper. Others include three prostitutes—Pearl, Margie, and Cora—who prefer the designation “tarts”; the night bartender, their pimp, Rocky Pioggi, who prefers to be called their “manager”; and the day bartender, Chuck Morello. Most are stirred from their alcoholic stupor to reveal their present disappointments that have landed them here and the redemptive dream of tomorrow that sustains them. Until that day, as Willie declares, “Would that Hickey or Death would come!” Hickey at least promises endless free rounds and good jokes, but when he finally arrives they learn that he is on the wagon, no longer needing booze because “I finally had the guts to face myself and throw overboard the damned lying pipe dream that’d been making me miserable.” Instead of the oblivion or distraction they crave Hickey brings the reality principle, which he intends to use to save them as he has been saved. “All I want,” he says as the act ends, “is to see you happy.”

Act 2 opens with the preparations for the midnight birthday party. Rather than the peace and contentment Hickey has promised everyone, his message of salvation through giving up pipe dreams and their attendant guilt and misery brings only dissatisfaction and dissension. Under the assault of Hickey’s sobering message the regulars have retreated into their rooms and only reluctantly emerge for the celebration. Their former support of one anothers’ pipe dreams is shown breaking down into enmity and accusations from the perspective Hickey has given them. As the celebration, considerably dampened by Hickey’s badgering and challenges to their illusions, gets under way, Larry, referring to Hickey’s old joke about his wife and the iceman, asks whether Hickey’s conversion is due to his actual discovery of his wife’s infidelity. Hickey responds by telling them that “my dearly beloved wife is dead.” The act closes with Hickey deflecting their sympathy by asserting that “she is at peace like she always longed to be. . . . Why, all that Evelyn ever wanted out of life was to make me happy.”

Act 3 begins the next morning on the fateful tomorrow in which every-one’s pipe dream is to be actualized. A halting procession of the regulars makes their way downstairs, freshly attired to face the outside world, while handing in their keys and vowing never to return. Chuck and Cora are going to be married before settling on a New Jersey farm; Joe is to reopen his gambling house; Willie, Jimmy, Mosher, and McGloin are heading out for new or old jobs; the Captain and the General are bound for home. Harry Hope, the former Tammany politician who has not left his bar for the last 20 years, intends to take his long-threatened walk about the old ward. Each must force himself through the bar’s swinging doors, reluctant to leave and dreading what awaits outside. Harry is the last to exit, but when Rocky predicts that he will turn back, Hickey agrees, “Of course, he’s coming back. So are all the others. By tonight they’ll all be back. You dumbbell, that’s the whole point.” Hickey reveals that he has not been helping his friends realize their dreams but their delusions with the guilt-free relief that he is certain will come from no more hopes. When Harry returns feeling “like a corpse,” Larry says Hickey has brought instead the “peace of death” and demands to know how Evelyn died. Hickey reveals that she was murdered as the act ends with him trying to coerce Harry into the happiness he was sure would follow after facing the truth about himself.

By the fourth act, when the full revelations about Hickey come, it is clear how deft O’Neill has been in generating suspense in a play in which very little happens, while ironically shifting the audience’s sympathy from Hickey to his congregation. As the enigmatic Hickey is revealed to be the murderer of his beloved wife, the pipe dreams that initially seemed the source of the dilemmas for the habitués of Harry Hope’s are revealed to be their only viable response for the deadening realization of nothingness when illusions die. The action returns to the back room of the first act, late the following day. All the regulars have returned, their hopes shattered, like Harry’s, “in a numb stupor which is impervious to stimulation.” Hickey has failed to deliver his promised relief, and, as Larry asserts, “He’s lost his confi dence that the peace he’s sold us is the real McCoy, and it’s made him uneasy about his own.” To disprove Larry’s accusation and to offer his own story as an example for the others, Hickey begins an extraordinary monologue, the longest in O’Neill’s works, confessing his past transgressions and what really happened to Evelyn. Increasingly guilty over his failure as a husband and his broken promises to reform in the face of his wife’s sympathy and forgiveness, Hickey admits that “I hated myself more and more, thinking of all the wrong I’d done to the sweetest woman in the world who loved me so much. . . . So I killed her.” Hickey’s admission of shooting Evelyn in her sleep is followed by an even more devastating revelation:

And then I saw I’d always known that was the only possible way to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving me. I saw it meant peace for me, too, knowing she was at peace. I felt as though a ton of guilt was lifted off my mind. I remember I stood by the bed and suddenly I had to laugh. I couldn’t help it, and I knew Evelyn would forgive me. I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it was something I’d always wanted to say: “Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!” . . . No! That’s a lie! I never said—! Good God, I couldn’t have said that! If I did, I’d gone insane! Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life! You’ve known old Hickey for years! You know I’d never—You’ve known me longer than anyone, Harry. You know I must have been insane, don’t you Governor?

The full truth is that Hickey killed his wife not out of love but from hate, that all along he has relied on the pipe dream that he loved his wife, while his curse exposes the lie. The only way to retain the illusion that he did love Evelyn is to plead insanity. The others readily seize on Hickey’s defense to protect their own dreams. As Harry explains to the detectives who have come for Hickey, “Every one of us noticed he was nutty the minute he showed up here! Bejees, if you’d heard all the crazy bull he was pulling about bringing us peace—like a bughouse preacher escaped from an asylum! If you’d seen all the damned-fool things he made us do! We only did them because—[He hesitates—then defiantly] Because we hoped he’d come out of it if we kidded him along and humored him.” All readily agree. As he is led out Hickey tells the detective: “Do you suppose I give a damn about life now? Why, you bonehead, I haven’t got a single damned lying hope or pipe dream left!” But he persists with the illusion: “Why, Evelyn was the only thing on God’s earth I ever loved! I’d have killed myself before I’d ever have hurt her!”

Hickey’s confession stimulates Parritt to confess to Larry the real motive for betraying his wanted mother to the police: Not out of patriotism as previously asserted but “It was because I hated her.” The absolution Parritt seeks is delivered by Larry who orders him to “Get the hell out of life.” When Parritt complies by throwing himself out of an upstairs’ window, Larry sits apart from the fellowship that has returned to Harry Hope’s, fueled by the restored, life-supporting pipe dreams of each of the company:

Larry: [In a whisper of horrified pity] Poor devil! [A long-forgotten faith returns to him for a moment and he mumbles] God rest his soul in peace. [He opens his eyes—with a bitter self-derision] Ah, the damned pity—the wrong kind, as Hickey said! Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstand—or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! [With an intense bitter sincerity] May that day come soon! [He pauses startedly, surprised at himself—then with a sardonic grin] Be God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward’s heart I mean that now!

If Larry is finally aligned to death, and to Hickey, the Iceman, who kills what his friends need to live, the others choose life, sustained by their dreams and one another. As O’Neill wrote in a letter, people must live in the “pipe dream—or die. . . . Love remains (once in a while); friendship remains (and that is rare, too). The rest is ashes in the wind!” Larry’s vision, the two sides he is condemned to see—life’s lacerating meaninglessness and the significance we manufacture in the dreams that forever elude us yet connect us to life and love rather than death—is finally shared by the audience through O’Neill’s remarkable parable of the human condition played out in a cheap Manhattan saloon.

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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