...
.
Conversations
With Eugene O'Neill
Inexpensive
Paperback
Cambridge Companion
To Eugene O'Neill
Eugene O'Neill's
America
DVD Production
With Jason Robards
Four-Star Film
Production on DVD
The Iceman Cometh
By Eugene Gladstone O'Neill (1888-1953)
A Study Guide
cummings@cummingsstudyguides.net
Cummings Guides Home
.
Type of Work
First Performance
Setting
Characters
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Universality of the Play
Irony/Paradox
Symbols
Author's Background
Meaning of the Title
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Index Page
Another O'Neill Play
.
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2005
Revised in 2010.

Type of Work

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. 

Dates of Composition, First Performance

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. 

Setting

The time is the summer of 1912. The place is the back room of a shabby bar on the first floor of a five-story building in New York City. The upper floors of the building consist of hotel rooms in which the play's characters live. The owner of the building, Harry Hope, operates the bar and maintains the rooms.

Characters

Protagonist Larry Slade
Antagonist Theodore Hickman ("Hickey")

Larry Slade: 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. 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 his fears. 
Theodore Hickman ("Hickey"): Stout, balding man of fifty attired in crisp clothes. Harry is a fast-talking hardware salesman who succeeds in his occupation through back-slapping nurturing of the vain hopes of his clients. Once a year, he visits Harry Hope's saloon and hotel to celebrate Harry's birthday and treat all the derelicts living there to unlimited rounds of drinks, all the while flattering them for the dreams they entertain for a better tomorrow. The play opens on the day Hickey is expected to arrive for his annual visit, and all the roomers at Hope's eagerly anticipate his arrival. However, after he walks through the door, they discover that he is a changed man. He has given up drink. What is more, he tries to persuade the roomers to stop dreaming and start living in the real world, getting jobs and achieving respectability. His presence disturbs the men and creates deep conflict. 
Don Parritt: Eighteen-year-old who is not one of the regulars at Hope's establishment. He has just arrived from the west coast to see Slade. During his days as an anarchist, Slade 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 Slade that he has been on the run since the bombing, fearing that he too would be arrested. He sought out Slade, 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." 
Harry Hope: Owner and operator of the saloon and hotel in which derelicts drink and live. Although his wife has been dead for twenty years, he still mourns her, saying he lost all ambition in life when she died. He hasn't even left his building in two decades. However, subconsciously he may be glad to be rid of his wife, for Larry Slade discloses that she was an insufferable nag. Hope, consequently, may be deluding himself with the notion that he loved his wife. His refusal to set foot outside his building appears to be a symptom of agoraphobia, a morbid fear of public places. 
Joe Mott: Black man of about fifty who wears a tattered suit. He has a a scar on the left side of his face, running from cheek to jaw. Mott once owned a gambling establishment, and now he dreams of running one again.
Hugo Kalmar: 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 (1899-1902), in which Britain defeated South African Boers from Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Now Cameron  looks forward to a day when he returns to the newsroom.
Cecil Lewis: 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: 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: 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: 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.
Rocky Pioggi: Nighttime bartender at Hope's. He calls two prostitutes who work for him "pigs," but he refuses to allow anyone to refer to him as a pimp. He likes to think of himself as a respectable businessman. 
Pearl, Margie: Prostitutes who work for Rocky. They live on the third floor of the hotel.
Chuck Morello: Daytime bartender at Rocky's. He hopes someday to marry his girlfriend, Cora, a prostitute.
Cora: Prostitute and girlfriend of Chuck Morello.
Moran, Lieb: Policemen who arrest Hickey.

Offstage or Deceased Characters

Rosa Parritt: Mother 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 for her.
Bessie Hope: Deceased wife of Harry Hope. Her death in 1892 deeply affected Harry, causing him to spend the next 20 years inside his saloon and hotel without ever stepping outside even once.
Evelyn Hickman: Deceased wife of Hickey. Her willingness to tolerate all his faults makes him feel so guilty, he says, that he had no choice but to murder her. .
.

.
Plot Summary
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 tablesmost of them dozingin the early morning hours. Empty glasses and bottles stand as evidence that they spent the night drinking and dreamingdreaming 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:

    I'll be glad to pay uptomorrow, and I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They've all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows. It'll be a great day for them, tomorrowthe Feast of All Fools, with brass bands playing! Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!
Actually, because Slade and his fellow failures get only a few dollars a month from relatives on condition that they never come home, Harry allows them to run up tabs, ad infinitum, although he occasionally announces that everyone must pay up, “beginning tomorrow.”  They never do, and Harry never gets his money. He's too easygoing to demand it. Besides, he gets a decent profit from patrons working at nearby businesses. 

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 everyoneas 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:
    Joe Mott, a black man of about fifty who wears a tattered suit. He has a a scar on the left side of his face, running from cheek to jaw. Mott once owned a gambling establishment, and now he dreams of running one again.
    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." 
Although Harry Hope has money, he's a lot like the other men in that he appears to be going nowhere. Since the time that he buried his wife, Bessie, twenty years before, he he has never set foot outside his building. 

"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 forPearl and Margie, both in their early twentiescome 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 dreamthe pipe dream of respectability.


The day bartender, Chuck Morello, comes in with his girlfriend, Cora, a hooker that he plans to marry somedaya 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,
    They're the things that really poison and ruin a guy's life and keep him from finding any peace. If you knew how free and contented I feel now. I'm like a new man. And the cure for them [pipe dreams] is so damned simple, once you have the nerve. Just the old dope of honesty is the best policyhonesty with yourself, I mean. Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows.
The mood goes sour. Hickey sounds almost like a preacher, as his father was. He assures them, though, that he’s not trying to persuade them to get religion. He just wants them to get gumption and reclaim their lives. There’s still time. 

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 tablecreated from four tables pushed togetherare 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 Hickeyin his effort to reform the menhasn’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 drunkbut 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, 
    Oh, I know how you resent the way I have to show you up to yourself. I don't blame you. I know from my own experience it's bitter medicine, facing yourself in the mirror with the old false whiskers off. But you forget that, once you're cured. You'll be grateful to me when all at once you find you're able to admit, without feeling ashamed, that all the grandstand foolosopher bunk and the waiting for the Big Sleep stuff is a pipe dream. You'll say to yourself, I'm just an old man who is scared of life, but even more scared of dying. So I'm keeping drunk and hanging on to life at any price, and what of it? Then you'll know what real peace means, Larry, because you won't be scared of either life or death any more. You simply won't give a damn! Any more than I do!
Later, Larry asks Hickey what it was that changed him. Did he discover that his wife was sick of him? Harry Hope, now present for the party, says, “You've hit it, Larry! I've noticed he hasn't shown her picture around this time!”Mosher says, “He hasn't got it! The iceman took it away from him!”

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 youyou 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 worlddressed up, hopeful of turning their lives aroundbut 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 assembledthe men and the womenin 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 thattalk. 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 policehe hated her. Unable to forgive himself for what he did, he simply ends his lifeagain, in imitation of Hickey, who, by confessing murder, accepted a death sentence. 


Then life goes onmerrily, drunkenlyat 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.

.
.

.
Themes
.
Self-Delusion
.
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 employersonly 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 dreama 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. 

Love/Hate Relationships With Women
.
After Hickey discloses that he murdered his wife, he says again and again that he loved her. It was his guilt, he tells the assemblage at Hope’s, that caused him to murder Evelyn. Every time he wronged her by sleeping with another woman, every time he came home drunk, she forgave him. Her saintliness made him feel guilty. How could she be so kind and forgiving when he was such a worthless lout? 

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 wifeand in so doing liberated himself. After he arrives at Harry Hope’s, he reveals his hatred of the pipe dreams of all the hotel roomersand does his best to kill these dreams. Ironically, though, Hickey continues to nurture the biggest pipe dream of allthat 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. 

The Destructive Power of Alcoholism

Almost all of the denizens of Hope's saloon and hotel are addicted to alcohol. It is destroying them even though they believe it is sustaining them. They regard free drinks as the best medicine for what ails themand end up spending much of their life in a stupor.
.

Climax

The 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 development enables the roomers at Hope's to resolve the conflict started by Hickey when he attempted to kill their pipe dreams.




Universality of the Play

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.

Irony/Paradox

It 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 to nowhere.
.

Symbols
.
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 drinkseverything. 
.
Author's Background
.
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 parentsJames 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 playwrightssuch as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Millerto 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. 

Meaning of the Title

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 icemanHickey. 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 comethmcreates 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 seasonJob 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).
..
Study Questions and Essay Topics

1. Who is the least admirable character in the play? Explain your answer.
2. One of the themes of the play is self-delusion. Write an essay about how self-delusion has affected you, a member of your family, or a friend. 
3. Under what circumstances in a person's life does a dream (of wealth, fame, etc.) begin to become a destructive force?
4. To what extent is the "Ice Man Cometh" based on Eugene O'Neill's own life? Write an essay that provides your answer. Use Internet and library research.

privacy policy