With Eugene O'Neill
To Eugene O'Neill
With Jason Robards
Production on DVD
By Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (1888-1953)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010.©
The Iceman Cometh is stage play in the form of a four-act tragedy focusing on the psychological and emotional problems of derelicts who sustain themselves with baseless hopes for a better tomorrow.
Eugene O'Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh in 1939 and copyrighted it in 1940. It debuted at the Martin Beck Theater in New York City on October 9, 1946.
of Irish stock who wears dirty clothes and scratches
from time to time
to relieve the itching of lice. He is a onetime
anarchist and syndicalist
(one who advocates labor strikes that enable trade
unions to take control
of the production and distribution of manufactured
products) who in 1901
gave up on the anarchist movement to which he
belonged because he considered
it a pipe dream. That was the same year his romance
with Rosa Parritt,
a member of the movement, ended. At Harry Hope’s
saloon and hotel, he has
assumed the role of resident philosopher and cynic.
He believes he is the
only person at Hope's who has the courage and wisdom
to acknowledge the
futility of pipe dreams while accepting the
inevitability of death. However,
like his fellow derelicts, he fears both life and
death and clings to the
moment, using alcohol to anesthetize himself against
Offstage or Deceased Characters
of Don Parritt and onetime lover of Larry Slade. She
is an anarchist on
the west coast. Her son turns her in out of hatred
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
It is the summer of 1912 in New York City. In the back room of Harry Hope’s shabby saloon and hotel on Manhattan's lower west side, down-and-outers sit at tables—most of them dozing—in the early morning hours. Empty glasses and bottles stand as evidence that they spent the night drinking and dreaming—dreaming of the day when they will rise from failure and regain respectability and a sense of self-worth.
The trouble is, though, they never act on their dreams. When the next day comes, they drink and make plans all over again. And so it goes, day after day and year after year. There is always tomorrow.
However, one of the men claims he is enough of a realist to accept life as it is; he knows he is going nowhere except, in time, to his grave. His name is Larry Slade, a sixty-year-old of Irish stock who wears dirty clothes and scratches from time to time to relieve the itching of lice. He is a onetime anarchist and syndicalist (one who advocates labor strikes that enable trade unions to take control of the production and distribution of manufactured products) who in 1901 gave up on the anarchist movement to which he belonged because he considered it a pipe dream. At Hope’s he has assumed the role of resident philosopher and cynic. Unlike his fellow roomers, he is awake at his table, and he receives the boon of a free drink from the night bartender, Rocky Pioggi, who tells him to down it fast before Hope notices. Larry says:
Normally, the denizens of Hope’s five-story hotel and saloon would be upstairs sleeping off yesterday’s booze instead of slumping at the tables in the back room, which is separated from the main barroom by a drawn curtain. But they are too excited to be in bed on this morning, for they are anticipating a major event: the annual visit of Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman, a fast-talking hardware salesman who pampers the egos of his customers with predictions that a bright future awaits them. His visit to the saloon always coincides with Harry Hope’s birthday. This year, Harry turns sixty, and Hickey is sure to be buying round after round of drinks for everyone—as he has always done on Harry’s birthday. And, of course, there will be Hickey’s usual amusing stories when he gets tanked up, and there will be renewed hope for everyone’s future. For Hickey has that effect on people. He makes them feel good about themselves; all things are possible. The saloon becomes a kind of oasis in a desert of despair.
The conversation of the men at the tables focuses often on Hickey’s coming visit. Besides Larry Slade, they include the following:
Hugo Kalmar, a small man in his late fifties who wears black clothes and has a walrus mustache. At one time, he was an editor of anarchist publications.
James Cameron, another small man in his late fifties. He is clean and has gentlemanly manners. The men call him “Jimmy Tomorrow.” Cameron was once a journalist who covered the Boer War. Now he looks forward to a day when he returns to the newsroom.
Cecil Lewis, a former English infantry officer, called “The Captain,” who stole from his regiment. He is nearing sixty. He is naked to the waist, with his coat, shirt, and undershirt balled up on the table. He dreams of returning to England.
Piet Wetjoen, a Boer in his fifties who wears an old suit with food stains. Known as “the General,” he once led an army unit in the Boer War but was shamed for committing an act of cowardice. He dreams of returning to South Africa.
Pat McGloin, a slovenly ex-policeman with a big stomach. He was fired from his job for graft but hopes someday to return to the force.
Ed Mosher, Harry's brother-in-law, an old con man and petty swindler who once worked in a circus on a ticket wagon. Almost sixty, he is amusing and essentially harmless. He plans to rejoin the circus.
Willie Oban, a graduate of Harvard law school who is just under forty. He needs a haircut and wears clothes too big for him. He laces one of his shoes with twine and the other with wire. His dream is to work in the district attorney's office.
Don Parritt, an eighteen-year-old who is not one of the regulars at the establishment. He has just arrived from the west coast to see Slate. During his days as an anarchist, Slate was the lover of Parritt's mother, Rosa, also an anarchist, while he and Rosa were pursuing their political goals. Recently, Rosa and other members of her anarchist movement were arrested after carrying out a bombing that killed a bystander. Apparently, someone in the movement turned her and the others in, and it appears from all accounts that she will be sentenced to life in prison. Parritt tells Slate that he has been on the run since the bombing, fearing that he too would be arrested. He sought out Slate, he says, because "You were the only friend of Mother's who ever paid attention to me, or knew I was alive. All the others were too busy with the Movement. Even Mother. And I had no Old Man. You used to take me on your knee and tell me stories and crack jokes and make me laugh. You'd ask me questions and take what I said seriously."
"Didn't have the heart," he tells the men when Bessie becomes a topic of conversation. "Once she'd gone, I didn't give a damn for anything. I lost all my ambition. Without her, nothing seemed worth the trouble."
He even abandoned his plan to run for alderman of his ward even though he could have won the election easily. While Harry talks about how much he misses his wife, Slate whispers to Parritt, "Isn't a pipe dream of yesterday a touching thing? By all accounts, Bessie nagged the hell out of him."
Slate tells Parritt that he quit the anarchist movement 11 years before, when Parritt was seven, because he lost faith in it. Parritt says, "Anyone who loses faith in it is more than dead to her; he's a Judas who ought to be boiled in oil. Yet she seemed to forgive you." Parritt also tells Slate he had a fight with his mother just before the bombing incident. She had scolded him for seeing prostitutes. He in turn lashed out at her for her own promiscuity; she was forever bringing men home. Rosa then told him it was not the prostitutes per se that she minded; it was the fact that they were distracting him from his activities in "the movement."
As gray morning light begins to filter through the windows, Rocky switches off the outside lights. Shortly thereafter, two hookers he pimps for—Pearl and Margie, both in their early twenties—come in after another night of soliciting. Harry does not mind having them at the hotel. After all, unlike the men, they regularly pay their rent. What’s more, they never take clients to their rooms. Rocky refers to them as "his pigs," but he is resentful when anyone calls him a pimp. He tells Larry, "A pimp don't hold no job. I'm a bartender. Dem tarts, Margie and Poil [Pearl], dey're [they're] just a side line to pick up some extra dough. Strictly business, like dey was fighters and I was deir [their] manager, see? I fix the cops for dem so's dey can hustle widout gettin' pinched." So it is that Rocky, too, lives on a pipe dream—the pipe dream of respectability.
The day bartender, Chuck Morello, comes in with his girlfriend, Cora, a hooker that he plans to marry someday—a someday which, like the tomorrow of the pipe dreamers, never comes. One reason for the postponement of their plans is Chuck's drinking: "I don't wanta be married to no soak," she says. Chuck claims he has sworn off booze, then adds: "She beefs we won't be married a month before I'll trow [throw] it in her face she was a tart." Cora mentions that Hickey will be arriving momentarily, explaining that she and Chuck saw and spoke with him a little while before.
Sure enough, moments later Hickey arrives. Standing at the door, he greets everyone in his jovial manner: “Hello, Gang!” He is a stout, balding man of 50 attired in crisp clothes. Smiling broadly, he sings: “It’s always fair weather, when good fellows get together! And another little drink won’t do us any harm!” All the men laugh, and Hickey orders drinks: “Do your duty, Brother Rocky. Bring on the rat poison!”
There are loud cheers. After Harry welcomes him, Hickey goes around and greets the men individually. Rocky brings him the key to his room and whiskey with a chaser. When Harry raises a toast to him, all the men drink. But Hickey drinks only his chaser. He says, “You’ll have to excuse me, boys and girls, but I’m off the stuff. For keeps.”
They think he’s kidding. Hickey pulls out a bill and orders another round of drinks for everybody and tells Rocky to keep the booze coming. Now, they’re sure he’s kidding. But Hickey still doesn’t drink. He really has sworn off the stuff, he says. What is more, he announces that he plans to help all the men get over their pipe dreams about tomorrow. He says,
Tired after a hard day, Hickey falls alseep in a chair. Hope still thinks Hickey was kidding quitting drinking. Jimmy agrees. Parritt feels uneasy. He thinks Hickey sees into him, knows what makes him tick, and says, “I’m going to steer clear of him.” Moments later, Jimmy begins to believe what Hickey said about pipe dreams: “It is time I got my job back,” he says. And Harry says it’s time he left the saloon and walked around the neighborhood to see his old political pals. However, Harry also says Hickey will be a “wet blanket” at his birthday party and wishes he had stayed away. Mosher thinks Hickey is overworked and will soon be back to his old self. The men then forget about Hickey and go back to drinking and talking. However, Hickey hasn’t forgotten about them and, over the next several hours, he goes to work trying to get them to renounce their pipe dreams.
Late in the evening, Cora, Chuck, Hugo, Larry, Margie, Pearl, and Rocky are in the back room preparing for the birthday party, set to begin at midnight. On a long table—created from four tables pushed together—are wrapped gifts, a birthday cake, bottles of whiskey provided by Hickey, plates, and so on. No one else is present except Larry Slate, who is sitting by himself with a glass of whiskey in front of him. When the talk turns to the pall Hickey has cast over the festivities, Larry says Hickey should mind his own business. Cora observes that Hickey—in his effort to reform the men—hasn’t even pulled the “iceman gag”—(in which Hickey claims that he caught his wife in bed with the iceman). Then she wonders whether he really did catch her cheating. Rocky says that if he had caught her cheating, he would be drunk—but of course is not. Joe Mott comes in and pours himself a drink, saying he will have a drink on Hickey but not with him.
When Hickey comes in with bottles of champagne, Larry lashes out at him. Hickey then sits down next to him and says,
Hickey then reveals that his wife, Evelyn, is dead. His listeners are stunned; some feel ashamed for their remarks about her. But Hickey says the festivities should go on. After all, he says, “I've got to feel glad, for her sake. Because she's at peace. She's rid of me at last. Hell, I don't have to tell you—you all know what I was like. You can imagine what she went through, married to a no-good cheater and drunk like I was.”
The party turns out to be a flop because of Hickey’s preaching. The next morning, Rocky notes that Hickey went from room to room all night long with his message of reform. When Larry says Hickey was afraid to come to his room, Rocky says it was the other way around, because Larry is scared of Hickey. Parritt supports Rocky’s observation:" Don't let him kid you, Rocky. He had his door locked. I couldn't get in, either.”
Meanwhile, most of the men Hickey talked with do go out into the world—dressed up, hopeful of turning their lives around—but they all fail to make any progress. When they return, they are in deep despair. Even the booze doesn't taste right. Before, they at least had their dreams. Now they don't even have them.
Later, when everyone is assembled—the men and the women—in the back room as usual, Hickey makes a further revelation: His wife didn’t just die; he killed her. He also reveals that he has called the police so he can give himself up. The cops arrive just as Hickey begins a long, passionate speech about all the times he cheated on his wife and all the times he came home drunk. What did his wife do? She forgave him again and again. No matter what he did, she forgave him and went on loving him. Because he loved her too, he says, his guilt gnawed at him. He was a no-good devil and she a saint. He thought of leaving her so that she could be rid of him. But he ruled that option out, he says, because he knew she would only pine for him and waste away from loneliness. Consequently, he says, he did the only thing he could do: He put a bullet through her head. He just went crazy.
After the police take him into custody, the men go back to their drinking, back to their old ways. They claim Hickey must have been temporarily insane; they say they will even testify to his apparent insanity in court. Of course, claiming Hickey is insane has taken them off the hook because it means that all of his talk about reform was just that—talk. However, one the men, Parritt, does the unexpected. He commits suicide by jumping off a fire escape. Hickey’s confession of murder set an example for Parritt to confess the real reason why he turned in his own mother to the police—he hated her. Unable to forgive himself for what he did, he simply ends his life—again, in imitation of Hickey, who, by confessing murder, accepted a death sentence.
Then life goes on—merrily, drunkenly—at Harry Hope’s saloon and hotel as the down-and-outers once again nurture dreams for a tomorrow that never comes. Larry, though, who once said he was bravely waiting for death, now realizes that he fears death. His pipe dream has been killed. Because he also fears life, he exists in a hopeless limbo.
The drinking companions in Harry Hope’s saloon and hotel get from one day to the next on pipe dreams about returning to the world to achieve respectability and purpose. Day after day, year after year, they delude themselves with a belief that one day they will do what is necessary to rise from their nether world of booze and lice and demons from the past. However, they continually postpone acting on their dreams until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, they dream on, again postponing action.
After Hickey coaxes them to at least try to remake their lives, many of them dress up and go out to offer themselves to employers—only to fail miserably. They return in deep despair. When Hickey tells them he murdered his wife, they pronounce him insane. In doing so, they discredit Hickey's argument about the need for them to reform and, thereby, stamp an imprimatur on the principle which has guided them for so many years: Survival in the world requires maintenance of a dream—a dream that is always there but is never fulfilled. One must have a chimera, an illusion, that invigorates the spirit and enables a smelly, lice-ridden body drained of youth and ambition to wake up, puts its shoes on, and face another day.
Leaving her would not solve the problem, for that would subject her to loneliness and self-recrimination. Consequently, he says, he did the only thing he could do: he killed her. Out of love, he put her out of the misery he caused her. She had a pipe dream that he was the best of men even though he was the worst of men. So Hickey says. In reality, Hickey killed his wife because he hated her (even though he deludes himself into believing that he loved her). He hated her because she did not fight back; she was too perfect. What he wanted was a wife who really did go to bed with the iceman, a wife who had flaws of her own. If he had had such a wife, he would not have suffered gnawing guilt. He could have accepted himself and her. But, no, he had a pipe-dreaming wife who believed he was faultless. Thus, out of hatred, he murdered his wife—and in so doing liberated himself. After he arrives at Harry Hope’s, he reveals his hatred of the pipe dreams of all the hotel roomers—and does his best to kill these dreams. Ironically, though, Hickey continues to nurture the biggest pipe dream of all—that he loved his wife.
Young Dan Parritt also seethes with hatred for a woman, his mother. At the beginning of the play, the audience learns that someone reported her to the police for her activities as an anarchist. Later, Parritt reveals that it was he who betrayed her. He tries to justify his action to Larry Slade, his mother’s former lover, claiming that he turned her in because it was his duty to do so as a patriotic citizen. But over time, the audience learns that his real motive for betraying her was that he simply hated her. He hated her because she brought strange men home and went to bed with them. He hated her because she ignored and mistreated him. But Parritt retains a trace of love for his mother. She gave birth to him; she brought him up. At the end of the play, Parritt, unable to bear up under the crushing burden of guilt for betraying his mother, commits suicide. He becomes a Judas figure.
climax of a play or another narrative work, such
as a short story or a
novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at
which the conflict begins
to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2)
the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. According to both
definitions, the climax
of The Iceman Cometh occurs in the final
act when Hickey reveals that he
murdered his wife and explains why he did so. This
the roomers at Hope's to resolve the conflict
started by Hickey when he
attempted to kill their pipe dreams.
One of the hallmarks of good literature is universality—that is, its themes and meaning apply to all of humanity, not just to a specific group. The Ice Man Cometh achieves universality through the theme that all human beings have a tendency to entertain vain hopes—or, as the characters in the play call them, “pipe dreams.” A baseball player may dream of becoming the next Babe Ruth even though he lacks the needed athletic ability. An opera singer may dream of becoming the next Caruso even though his voice lacks required timbre and range. A writer may dream of writing a critically acclaimed novel even though he lacks the necessary creative and technical skills.
The play also achieves universality through variety in the abilities and backgrounds of the characters. Larry Slade speaks in educated, well constructed sentences that sometimes quote great thinkers of the past. Rocky Pioggi speaks in street English full of mispronunciations and vulgarisms. The down-and-outers are both young and old, male and female, American and foreign. The back room of the bar thus becomes a microcosm which could represent any gathering place in any country.
is self-delusion rather than self-knowledge that
sustains the down-and-outers
at Harry Hope's. To them, success means staying
alive with the nurture
of alcohol and false hopes. Thus, they succeed by
failing. Their pipe dreams,
and the numbing effects of alcohol, keep them
trundling along on the road
Harry Hope: As his name suggests, Harry Hope is a symbol of the vain hopes of all the down-and-outers who room and drink at his saloon and hotel.
Hickey: He is a messianic figure who preaches reform and accepts the fate awaiting him, public execution.
Don Parritt: He is a Judas figure. Like the Judas of the Bible, Parritt commits suicide after suffering severe guilt for his act of betrayal.
Iceman: See Meaning of the Title.
The Back Room: The derelicts living at Hope's establishment all convene and drink in "the back room," which is separated from the main bar by a black curtain. This room symbolizes their outcast status; it is the lowest circle of an earthly hell in which they mark time and seek solace in booze, dreams, and the companionship of their fellow failures.
The Birthday Party: This occasion represents the inexorable approach of death. The roomers at Harry Hope's become another year older and another year closer to the end of dreams, free drinks—everything.
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born in a hotel room in New York City on October 16, 1888, and died in a hotel room in Boston on November 27, 1953. He was the second child of Irish Catholic parents—James O’Neill, a prominent actor who was a heavy drinker, and Mary O’Neill, who became addicted to morphine while giving birth to Eugene.
Because his father’s acting troupe was constantly on tour, O’Neill spent much of his childhood in hotels and on trains with his mother looking after him. He attended boarding schools and studied at Princeton University but was expelled after a year for getting drunk and smashing a window. In 1909, he married Kathleen Jenkins, who bore him a son, Eugene, Jr., in 1910.
Meanwhile, O'Neill worked as a secretary for a New York mail-order company, then went to Honduras to prospect for gold. However, the only thing he brought back with him was malaria. He next worked as a theatrical manager but soon abandoned that job to work as a sailor on a Norwegian ship. During his travels, he lived for a time in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, he worked for Westinghouse Electric, Swift Packing Company, and Singer Sewing Machine Company before resuming the life of a sailor on the trans-Atlantic American Line. Then he returned to the U.S. to act in vaudeville. During this period of his life (1910-1912), O'Neill drank heavily and often lived as a derelict. While occupying the back room of a seedy bar in New York City, he took an overdose of the sleeping pill Veronal (diethyl barbituric acid), which nearly killed him. It is believed that he may have been attempting to commit suicide.
In 1912, when he was twenty-four, he became a reporter for the New London (Connecticut) Telegraph, a job that lasted just four months. Later in the same year, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a sanitarium in Wallingford, Connecticut. During his treatment, he began to write plays and read works by the great authors, notably the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. From that time forward, he devoted himself entirely to writing and over the next three decades rose to prominence as the greatest and most influential American dramatist of his time. Stark realism is the hallmark of many of his plays, and he set a standard for other American playwrights—such as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller—to follow.
Ironically, it was his dysfunctional family and turbulent upbringing that provided the subject matter and themes for many of his greatest plays. In all, he wrote more than sixty plays, winning four Pulitizer Prizes and a Nobel Prize. In the last years of his life, O'Neill developed a degenerative brain disease (misdiagnosed as Parkinson's disease) that slowly robbed him of physical functions without affecting his intellectual abilities. Consequently, he suffered the indignity and torture of bedridden physical incapacity while still mentally acute. He was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery outside of Boston.
In American culture, many bawdy jokes focus on wives who commit adultery with a mailman, milkman, plumber, traveling salesman, or any other man who knocks on the front door while the husband is away. In 1912, the year in which The Iceman Cometh is set, one of the deliverymen who stopped frequently at homes was the iceman. He delivered blocks of ice used to refrigerate food. Like milkmen and traveling salesmen, icemen became characters in these bawdy jokes.
In the play, Theodore (“Hickey”) Hickman is known for joking that his wife has cheated on him with the iceman. Rocky, the nighttime bartender, refers to Hickey’s stories when he says, “Remember how he woiks up dat gag about his wife, when he's cockeyed, cryin' over her picture and den springin' it on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman?” Chuck, the daytime bartender, later tells his girlfriend, Cora, “don't do no cheatin' wid de iceman. . . .“ After Hickey arrives at the saloon, he announces that he has quit drinking and attempts to get the men to abandon their “pipe dreams.” Larry speculates that Hickey’s changed behavior developed because his wife was unfaithful, saying: “Your iceman joke finally came home to roost, did it?”
Larry is wrong, of course, about Hickey’s wife. But there is an iceman—Hickey. He is an iceman in the sense that he kills, as a frost kills vegetable and citrus crops and, in popular slang, as a gangster “ices” an enemy. As the Iceman of the title, Hickey killed his wife. He also attempted to kill the pipe dreams of the occupants of Harry Hope’s hotel and succeeded in killing Larry Slade’s pipe dream. In addition, he incited Don Parritt’s suicide. Finally, as a murderer who reported himself to the police, he pronounced a death sentence upon himself. The word cometh serves two purposes: First, it gives the title an appealing cadence inasmuch as it contains two syllables to balance the two syllables of iceman. A title such as The Iceman Comes lacks this cadence. Second, the consonant beginning the second syllable of iceman and cometh—m—creates alliteration, further enhancing the aural effect of the title. Third, the archaic suffix of cometh invests the title with biblical or Shakespearean gravity. There are many passages in the Bible that use cometh in an ominous sense, including the following: Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season—Job 5: 26. "Contour in Time" says the title was based on a New Testament verse
The title, drawn from the story of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:6, parodies, the description of the coming of the Savior: “But at midnight there was a cry made, Behold the bridegroom cometh.” The savior who comes to Harry Hope’s saloon is a strange messiah. The image of the iceman, suggestive of the chill of the morgue, and of a variety of off-color stories and songs featuring the iceman as a casual seducer, is interpreted by Willie Oban as meaning death: “Would that Hickey or Death would come.” (596) Hickey is a messiah of death, but his message, judged by its effect on its hearers, is closely parallel to that of O’Neill’s other messiah, Lazarus of Bethany. (eOneill.com)..
1. Who is
the least admirable
character in the play? Explain your answer.