Menu Bar

Prior   The Door and the Mirror: The Iceman Cometh   Next

In other plays, on the other side of the door in the mind, O’Neill explored such lost men, men for the most part without women. In the cycle, the ability and the need to dream were the consequences of man’s having in him a touch of the poet. As he wrote, however, O’Neill came to see the need to dream as a universal one, shared by all men, a human drive, possibly man’s most basic urge. Any dream sustains, whether it gives hope or hopeless hope or acts like hope, a “dope-dream.” The dream alone gives life. Nina Leeds called life “a long drawn out lie with a sniffling sigh at the end,” (40) and the pun has relevance to the lie of the pipe dreams to which
the derelicts in Harry Hope’s saloon cling.

O’Neill wrote the first draft of The Iceman Cometh between June 8 and November 26, 1939. In this year, the world fell apart as Poland was invaded and Britain and France declared war on Germany. Throughout the end of the Depression, O’Neill had worked on the cycle, finishing drafts of And Give Me Death, The Greed of the Meek and More Stately Mansions. Work on The Calms of Capricorn had begun, but the world crisis made it impossible for him to continue his account of the decline and fall of the United States. In the midst of Armageddon, one does not bother to prophesy. O’Neill’s reaction to war was predictable. At Tao House, he retreated further into himself than he had ever gone before, as if the only understanding that could come in a world gone mad was the understanding of one’s self. The following year he wrote Hughie and the scenarios and some draft versions of its companion works in the cycle of one-act plays called By Way of Obit. In 1941, he wrote his last completed work, A Moon for the Misbegotten. Although he picked at the cycle, making revisions on A Touch of the Poet as late as 1942, the work was at a stalemate. Whatever truths it contained for O’Neill had finally to be explored in another past, his own, and in another way than he had in the cycle. The last four plays form a network of introspection whose effect is perhaps best expressed in O’Neill’s words about The Iceman Cometh contained in a letter to Lawrence Langner dated August 11, 1940:

. . . 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. Those moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said.

Compassion produced by a full understanding of man’s circumstances and man’s essential nature, a compassion which beggars analysis, is O’Neill’s final achievement in theatre. The action of each of the four last plays rests in a tale to be told, a tale that is essentially a confession made in hope of absolution. Although the confessional tale is often plotless, often nothing more than a dream, it is a way of reaching out in the dark, of finding pity long denied to old sorrow.

The introspective qualities of the last plays account for their essential lyricism. When The Iceman Cometh was first produced in 1946, under the somewhat ponderously reverential conditions that O’Neill’s “return” to the New York theatre necessarily occasioned, it brought with it, from producers and reviewers, charges that O’Neill was indulging himself by refusing to cut the work. Langner tells of a time during rehearsals when he timidly reminded O’Neill that the same point had been made eighteen times. O’Neill told him “in a particularly quiet voice, ‘I intended it to be repeated eighteen times!”10 Although it was obviously not a matter of calculated intention, O’Neill did not indulge in such repetition without full awareness of its theatrical consequences. Like many of his earlier efforts, the repetition not only in The Iceman Cometh but in A Long Day’s Journey into Night is essential to the lyric mode of the work, for in these plays O’Neill became the poet he had earlier so often lamented he could not be.

Perhaps the nearest theatrical analogue to The Iceman Cometh is Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. Both are “plays for voices,” and the voices are those of the dead, reiterating their stories endlessly in an eternity of silence. Under the circumstances of the play the period slang takes on the special qualities of lyric speech.* The movement is musical; the repetition of what is said, often almost without significant development, must be followed as if it were music, as patterned abstraction, implemented through contrapuntal repetitions. It is a kind of “sound effect,” but here blended so completely with the action that it becomes the action. There are not many moments in theatre comparable to the canonical weaving of the narratives of betrayal, Hickey’s and Parritt’s, toward the end of the play. Hickey’s long monologue is interspersed by short echoing comments from Parritt telling Larry Slade of his own act of betrayal. Parritt and Hickey do not, really, listen to the words that are said. That is to say they do not understand one another and from that understanding receive direction. Rather, they move toward the same end without conscious inter-awareness, impelled by purely verbal concatenations, each developing the theme of betrayal as a sound in the air. The Iceman Cometh does not need music, yet it should be heard as music is heard with an understanding that it progresses in patterns of sound, as much as in patterns of narrative action.

To argue that a play should not be justified by comparison to a musical form has validity. It is, after all, only an analogy, but O’Neill’s predilection for Nietzsche would cause him to know that Nietzsche claimed tragedy to have been born from “The Spirit of Music.” The lyric movement of the chorus in an Aeschylean or Sophoclean tragedy, The Coephorii or Antigone, for example, is the source of the play’s energy, turning as a massive wheel at the center of the narrative, spinning off the tortured action, and giving it life and form. Similarly, The Iceman Cometh has a strong choric thrust, developed in lyric repetitions.

The Iceman Cometh is perhaps the most “Greek” of O’Neill’s work, built around a central chorus, complete with choregos in Harry Hope, and the three principal actors, Hickey, Slade and Parritt. In creating his chorus, O’Neill turned to his memories of time spent in the saloons of lower New York—Jimmy the Priest’s, The Golden Swan, nicknamed “The Hell-Hole”—and of their inhabitants. Most of the characters are modeled after acquaintances or friends he had observed and whom he placed on stage with special fidelity.** Yet, while he is concerned to specify their individuality with affectionate concern, he is also seeking, somewhat in the manner of the Elizabethan “Character” writers, to see in the individual a type. The word “type” occurs frequently in his descriptive stage directions of Hope’s roomers: Hugo Kalmar bears “a strong resemblance to the type of Anarchist as portrayed . . . in newspaper cartoons”; Joe Mott’s face is “mildly negroid in type”; Piet Wetjoen is “A Dutch farmer type.” Where the word is not mentioned, the idea remains; James Cameron has “a quality about him of a prim, Victorian old maid.” Cecil Lewis “is as obviously English as Yorkshire pudding and just as obviously the former army officer.” McGloin has “the occupation of policeman stamped all over him.” Ed Mosher “looks like an enlarged, elderly, bald edition of the village fat boy.” (574-77) While the typicality of Willie Oban and of the bartender Rocky is not stressed (although Rocky is summarized as a “Neapolitan-American”), they are not essentially different from the other members of the chorus. The same is true of the three women: Pearl and Margie are called “typical dollar streetwalkers,” (611) and Chuck Morello, the daytime bartender, like his nighttime counterpart, is seen as an “Italian-American.” (615) Harry Hope, the chorus leader, is not viewed as typical in the same way. He maintains a certain individuality partly because it is through him that the liaison is made between the actions of the chorus and the principals. These—Larry Slade, Don Parritt and Theodore Hickman—are individuals, less by their appearance than by the complexity of their emotional problems.

The tableau thus formed, although externally static, has a powerful inner movement. The unity of the chorus is achieved by a remarkable theatrical tour de force. Each of the derelicts has, in the Stanislavskian sense, the same essential action: to foster himself in his dream. The actions create the unity of the microcosm O’Neill has woven. Against its fabric, the protagonists stand sharply drawn. Parritt, Slade and Hickey are seen, perhaps, as aspects of the same man. They overlap at least, in their acts of betrayal, their despairing desire to be rid of pity, their refusal to enter the world of the dreaming chorus. Yet, although they resemble one another, they stand opposed as antagonists as well, forming a hostile triangle against the unity of the background.

The physical picture awakens echoes of other works. O’Neill has evidently had his eye on Gorky’s The Lower Depths, a play which he appreciated as “the great proletarian revolutionary play,” saying that “it is really more wonderful propaganda for the submerged than any other play ever written, simply because it contains no propaganda, but simply shows humanity as it is—truth in terms of human life.”11 The relation between the two works bears analysis.12 as does the relationship between O’Neill’s play and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which like The Iceman Cometh explores the fatal effects of the “life-lie.” In configuration and dramatis personae, Harry Hope’s birthday party bears a strong resemblance to the traditional images of “The Last Supper.”*** Such parallels are just and important and in part serve to explain why The Iceman Cometh now ranks among the most ambiguous of O’Neill’s plays and has received the most extensive critical attention. In its original production, which marked the end of O’Neill’s absence from the theatre, and in its 1956 revival in New York, a production that began the resurgence of interest in O’Neill’s dramas, it has held a special position in the canon.

Yet viewed in its place in the progress of O’Neill’s playwriting career it is not an ambiguous work. In part, it stands as an ironic comment on much that had preceded. Reverting to his earlier manner, spinning an all-but-plotless play filled with portraits of the down-and-out characters he has known as a young man, he recapitulates many of his early themes, particularly that of the “hopeless hope,” but removes the romantic coloration with which he clothed the concept in The Straw, seeing it now as he was to show it again in Hughie, as the only lifeline man could find.

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.

O’Neill’s two choric dramas, both with titles derived from the New Testament, are at once remarkably alike and startlingly different from one another. In both The Iceman Cometh and Lazarus Laughed, a messianic figure appears preaching salvation to a world represented in microcosm by type characters. In each play, the recipients of the message prove resistant to it, and when it is forced upon them, prove incapable of acting in accord with it. In each, the messiah is set free to follow his own path to martyrdom by the murder of his wife. That path leads to burning—at the stake and in the electric chair. Such parallels are meaningless except as they relate to the central matter: the messages both messiahs preach, however different in effect and intention, are in essence the same. Of Lazarus Laughed O’Neill wrote “Death is the Father, Fear the Holy Spirit, Pain the Son.”13 To this trinity man pays his homage. Lazarus’s message to rid men of fear and pain is that they should see life as illusory, give over the dreams that haunt them like ghosts in the dark and acknowledge with clear eyes that they are part of life itself and can ask no higher good. Only then will they know the peace they instinctively seek. Lazarus’s doctrine is a lonely one; he loves humanity, but has little room for tenderness and for individual love. Miriam must follow unnoticed behind him, yearning for the simplicity of her life in the hills of Bethany. Those who accept his paradox, that death is life, lose human contact and the powers of sympathy, hope, humility and belief in man. Caught in the Dionysian ecstasy of his laughter, they throw themselves on the swords of soldiers. It is a chill rendition of Matthew, 10:39: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Hickey’s remedy for the ills of the world, as that world is represented by the types in Harry Hope’s back room, is equally cold, equally predicated on a belief that human life is an illusion. As Lazarus exhorts, so Hickey, by means of a series of long, brutal individual encounters in the rooms above the bar, forces the dreamers to give over their ultimate link with life, the sustaining pipe-dream of their worth as human beings. Their dreams hold at least an illusion of life’s essence: movement in purposive action. Action, to be sure, will never be taken, but the dreams reveal a basic human truth: to foster life, man must preserve a minimal dream of movement. Hickey, whose promised peace is predicated on showing the dreamers that they will never take action and that their dream of doing so is a lie, brings the peace of death. Like much psychiatric theory, Hickey’s Godless theology seeks “adjustment” to a meaningless reality, claiming that he who faces his life will find it. Yet if there is no life to be found, Hickey—not unlike Lazarus—becomes Death’s priest.

The world which the dreamers inhabit has the fragile ecology of a tide pool. O’Neill calls the saloon “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller,” and the imagery of drifting tidal life is pervasive.***** It is a world that barely holds to the fringes of consciousness, moving hesitantly between sleeping and waking, fusing the two conditions into a continuous trance-like existence. The light that filters through the dirty windows from the street is pale and insufficient to separate day from night. Time is meaningless. Voices are nearly unheard in the comatose silence. Existence at Harry Hope’s is reduced to its lowest denominator, a hibernation of animals huddled together in dread of waking.

The dreamers have come to Hope’s because, ostensibly, they are failures in the outside world, but their typicality makes it impossible to read their communal condition in terms of individual weakness. What lies outside is a world without value, a hostile society to which no man can possibly belong, and from which they must take refuge. At one point, Hickey mocks one of the men, saying, “You can’t hang around all day looking as if you were scared the street outside would bite you!” (685) But the menace in the streets is real. The threatening automobile that Harry Hope conjures up to justify his failure to take the walk around the neighborhood is, however imaginary, real. It is a symbol of a mechanized, animalistic, spiritless world, a world in which God is dead.

After the long, poetically oriented quest which he had conducted through the plays of the 1920’s, seeking a God to which men could belong, O’Neill at last has come to agree with Nietzsche that men live in a Godless world. There is no longer the possibility of being possessed by Dionysian ecstasy. Men’s dreams can have no fulfillment that is not in itself illusion; the mindless, unpoetic materialism of each of the dreams is sufficient testimony to the fact that in all the outer world there is nowhere to go, nothing worth having, nothing to which man may make offering as to a God. In the wake of Hickey’s teaching, men are left as walking corpses wandering in an icy hell; all they can do is to wait for death. In Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett describes the same interminable course of life, as Gogo and Didi indulge in senseless repetitious discourse and vaudeville routines to pass time. The pipe-dreams of O’Neill’s characters have the same function: they make life tolerable while the dreamers wait for Hickey or Death. As much as each of the dreamers permits himself to understand anything, he knows that the pipe­dreams, his own included, are a game, that they are not real. Each man mocks the dreams of the others as insubstantial and illusory, but the mockery is a defensive irony, an essential element of the self-identification the individual’s dreams provide. What cannot be admitted is pity, for pity would acknowledge the truth each seeks to conceal from himself. Nietzsche said God died of such pity; in self-pity the lowest creature will come to despair.

For the dreamers, a deliberately fostered illusion is the sign of membership in the club. The subject of the pipe-dream is unimportant. Some dreams, like Hugo Kalmar’s incoherent anarchist ravings, are little more than fragmented, formless memories, holding so little sense of life as to be meaningless. But whether or not the dream is coherent and contains a goal of action, its value lies less in its shape than in the fact that it forms part of the structure of illusion that “gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot” (578) of dreamers. The saving possibility is the mutuality of the dreamers’ condition, for the conjunction of the dreams, the body heat of sleeping animals, provides the warmth of the world. This fact too makes it possible for the dreamers to hope without desire.

The world in which they live exists beyond desire. Whiskey alone sustains physical life. Hunger for food is not expressed, and notably no movement of sexual desire disturbs the quiet. The three whores arouse no one to lust, nor do they try to become objects of desire among the dreamers. Even the proposed marriage of Chuck and Cora is based on other dreams than that of sexual gratification. Very different from the cycle plays, where sexual battles are fought to the death in an arena of passion, Hope’s saloon is a world without women. Nevertheless, as in the cycle plays, the power of woman is felt, and here, too, it is a destructive power.

Hickey’s wife, Evelyn, is dead. Rosa Parritt, Don Parritt’s mother and Larry Slade’s former mistress, has gone to the death of spirit her imprisonment will bring upon her. Yet the power of these women, carried into the dreamers’ world by the men who have loved them, destroys for a time the structure of life fostered there. In the cycle plays, Deborah and Sara attempt to use Simon, to destroy his dreams and rid themselves of his desire. Rosa Parritt is pictured as an independent, fierce-willed woman who has held possessively onto her son at the same time as she has refused his love. His claim is that she has forced him into the radical movement, yet has permitted him no freedom of mature judgment. At the same time, he makes clear that he wants her to be his mother and resents her flaunting her lovers in the name of “Free Love.” Her lover, Larry Slade, has left her in anger, calling her whore, for much the same reason, so that a bond between Larry and Parritt exists that is like, if it is not in fact, that between father and son,****** and both feel guilty at having betrayed Rosa in order to be free of her rejection of their love. To love Rosa, a man must submit himself completely to her ambitions, but must make no demands in return. Betrayal is a defensive movement of their individuality.

On the other hand, Hickey’s wife has made no ostensible demands on her husband. Hickey’s description of her conveys the image of a gentle creature, the opposite of Rosa Parritt, but one who in a different way saps a man’s individuality. She asks nothing, fears her husband’s attention, yet her capacity for forgiveness, her confident faith in him proves to be as destructive as Rosa’s independence. Like Margaret in The Great God Brown, Evelyn cannot see what is behind Hickey’s face, even when he forces her brutally to look upon it. The blindness of her love makes Hickey live true to her dreams of him and fills him with guilt when he betrays her, just as Parritt and Slade are guilty in their compulsive betrayal of Rosa. O’Neill in the past, sensing that man must belong to some force that controls his being, had shown that those who ran from such possession were in the end caught and destroyed by it. In The Iceman Cometh, as in the cycle plays, the force, devoid of its theological implications and reduced to a sexual relationship, has the same effect. Parritt has betrayed his mother to the police, Hickey has murdered Evelyn, and Larry must send his “son” to his death to end his torment, resigning himself finally to the sort of living punishment that Lavinia Mannon accepts. Each seeks death as the only way of assuaging or atoning for the guilt the woman has thust upon him. Simon’s final rejection by Deborah creates in him the same emptiness of spirit, and causes him to turn toward the death that comes in the second scene of The Calms of Capricorn.

The three betrayers are the only occupants of the saloon who need pity. They epitomize, perhaps, the men without dreams who live in the hostile streets beyond the barroom door. They come, at least, from such a world, and disturb the dreaming sea. Both Hickey and Parritt force pity into the waters, but it is pity without tenderness. Parritt demands that Slade take pity on him and punish him by commanding him to suicide. Hickey, who insists that Larry’s instinctive sympathy for the dreamers is the wrong kind of pity, attempts to rip off their masks and free them of the torture of hope. The play charts his failure and notes as well the way returning illusion brings life again to the sterile waters. When he has gone, old currents move again at the bottom of the sea, and the men who have been wakened to a hideous and intolerable truth begin to dream again.

Hickey’s therapy, through different means, is worked on Cornelius Melody. When his role as the romantic soldier is taken from him, he like the bums becomes a comatose, dying animal. He saves himself by assuming another role, as the bums reclothe themselves in illusions. Deborah Harford, too, enters a world like Hope’s saloon when she enters the summer house at the end of More Stately Mansions, but she must live alone, in the isolation of insanity. Deborah’s end is so dark as to be indiscernible.

The Iceman Cometh, however, is illuminated by “darkness visible,” and it reflects the despair O’Neill himself felt in the year of its composition. On September 11, 1939, he wrote to Langner from Tao House,

The whole business from 1918 to now has been so criminally, hoggishly stupid. That is what sticks in one’s gorge, that man can never learn but must be always the same old God damned greedy, murderous, suicidal ass! I foresee a world in which any lover of liberty will continue to live with reluctance and be relieved to die. 

That it would be a relief to die! The desire that surges to the surface of the lives of the three betrayers in the play was a common reaction in that year. O’Neill was not alone.

The death of the human spirit remained his theme. Shortly, he set to work on a play entitled The Last Conquest: “The World-Dictator fantasy of a possible future, and the attempted last campaign of Evil to stamp out even the unconscious memory of Good in Man’s spirit. . . .******* But the play remained in scenario, and The Iceman Cometh was withheld from production because, as he told Langner, “A New York audience could neither see nor hear its meaning. The pity and tragedy of defensive pipe dreams would be deemed downright unpatriotic. . . . But after the war is over, I am afraid . . . that American audiences will understand a lot of The Iceman Cometh only too well.”

* O’Neill has taken care to make the speech of his characters accurate. Cf. for example, Hugo of The Iceman Cometh: Realism and O’Neill, Doris M. Alexander, American Quarterly V (winter, 1953), 357-66.

** Arthur and Barbara Gelb and Louis Sheaffer have devoted extensive research to the identification of the real-life sources for O’Neill’s characters. Of the cast only Rocky, Morello, the three women and, of course, Moran and Liebe, both extras, appear to have no actual counterparts, although even here the possibility is that they are formed from memory. The only significant exception appears to be Hickey. The Gelbs suggest (285) that he was based on a character named “Happy,” a collector for a laundry chain whom O’Neill had known in The Hell Hole. An aspect of the portrait was derived from characteristics of Jamie, who, it will be remembered, had appeared in a supporting role in a play called The Travelling Salesman. Sheaffer points to a character named Adams in the unpublished Chris Christophersen. The play opens with a scene between Adams, Burns and “Johnny the Priest.” Adams, like the inhabitants of Hope’s saloon is asleep at a table. The action begins with Burns attempting to wake Adams. Johnny, the bartender-owner intervenes:

JOHNNY  (Frowning) Leave him alone, Jack. He’s been talking me deaf, dumb and blind all day. I’m sick o’ listening to him. Let him sleep it off.

BURNS  You? Huh! How about me? I’m going to make him buy ‘nother drink, that’s what—to pay me for listenin’ to his bull, see? (2)

He wakes Adams, they argue about the purchase of a drink, and finally Burns dozes off while Adams sits “staring at him with sodden stupidity.” He comes to a short while later, becomes noisy and is sent protesting upstairs to bed. When he has gone, Johnny says of him, “Smart fellow, too—when he’s sober. I’ve known him for twenty or thirty years. Used to be a clerk at a ship chandler’s. Left that and became a travelling salesman. Good one, too, they say. Never stays long on one job, though. Booze got a strangle hold on him. He’s been fired again now. Good schoolin’—every chance, too. He’s one of the kind ought to leave red eye alone. Always ending up his drunk here. Knows no one’ll know him here ‘cept me and he ain’t shamed to go the limit. (Philosophically) Well, he’s a good spender as long as he’s got it. Don’t be too rough with him.” (6)

The detail of the portrait suggests that O’Neill drew it from a model, especially since Adams disappears from the script at this point. Here probably is the unnamed progenitor of Hickey.

*** Cf. Cyrus Day, “The Iceman and the Bridegroom,” in Modern Drama, I, 1, May, 1958, pp. 3-9. Professor Day’s article lists a number of resemblances between Hope’s party and The Last Supper, including the twelve “disciples” of Hickey, the three women, the presence of Parritt as a suicidal Judas figure, the wine drinking, the midnight hour. Day is in error when he states that the stage grouping resembles Da Vinci’s Last Supper. O’Neill throughout the play has been very specific as to where each person sits at the tables. At the party, Hickey and Hope face one another from opposite ends of the table, Larry and Parritt occupy the central positions facing the viewer where Da Vinci places Christ. The point is perhaps unimportant except that it raises the question as to who is the Christ figure at this “supper,” Hickey or Harry Hope? Professor Day’s view is that Hickey is a form of anti-Christ and that the play is blasphemously nihilistic (“Did (O’Neill) introduce concealed blasphemies into his play . . . ? And did he laugh in secret at critics who supposed he had written a compassionate play . . . ?“). The party is, after all, Hope’s party, and it is Hope who rises from the death they suffer to bring life again to the bums. O’Neill’s compassion in this play, while it may rest on ambiguities, and while it was born of despair, is not fraudulent.

**** Like the traveling salesman, the iceman gained a certain mythic dimension in American smoking-car jokes. Dudley Nichols recorded that O’Neill had wished to recall the Biblical quotation by his use of the archaic verb form, but that he also wanted to suggest the bawdy story of the husband who called upstairs to his wife, “Has the iceman come yet?” The answer: “No, but he’s breathing hard.” (Gelb. 831) The end of an era for the iceman as folk hero was marked by a song of minor popularity in vaudeville whose refrain went: “The Frigidaire can never replace the Iceman.”

***** Interestingly, no one of the cast of characters has any connection with the sea, as if O’Neill were deliberately denying the source of his earlier poetic dreams.

****** Larry has stood in loco parentis to Parritt. Whether or not he is actually Parritt’s father is deliberately left ambiguous. Slade denies it when Parritt suggests that he is, but with such vehemence as to raise the possibility.

******* O’Neill to Dudley Nichols, December 16, 1942. He had worked on the outline and scenario over the year prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


© Copyright 1999-2007