Menu Bar

Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 10


The Tragedy of the Train Wrecks:
O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Reality TV

(How to connect pop culture, reality TV and dramatic tragedy in the intro to lit classroom)

John Misak
New York Institute of Technology

In the decade-plus that I have taught various ‘Intro to Literature’ courses, one major hurdle I’ve constantly had to leap—or attempt to—is getting students to truly see the tragedy in drama. Sure, I can give lectures on what tragedy is, and students get this for the most part. They understand the fall and perhaps a bit on catharsis. They follow me as I discuss the elements of tragedy in relation to the character of Oedipus, for instance, but I can see as the discussion goes on, their comprehension falters. Many follow along, but even when I try to bring in current events (the rise and fall of the celebrity, for instance) I am still dealing with abstract ideas in relation to characters from long ago. It’s a matter of connection. The main issue comes when they need to see how this applies to plays like Oedipus or Hamlet. I mean, Hamlet has the word ‘tragedy’ in its title. This should be easy. Of course, as it goes with anything involving teenagers, it’s not. The key, I’ve found, involves developing a relationship between the concepts and the material. If only there was a way I could bridge the material and the students experiencing it for the first time. It turns out the last place I would ever think to look delivered what I needed.

It struck me as I mindlessly flipped through channels one night, searching for something to watch. Half the offerings fell under the blanket of reality television; actors pretending to be real people either at the ‘top’ of society or wallowing in the murky bottom. They are all train wrecks; they only differ in which car on the train they occupy. One would think that shows like Jersey Shore (which I have proudly only watched one episode of) ended the allure of such reality TV. Once audiences realized these weren’t real people but actors following a script, they’d stop watching. “The shows we watch don’t just unfold in real time while the camera runs. Instead, writer-producers carefully craft the story lines. They write the narrative arc of each episode and season.” (Fenton) Despite this revelation, the shows only fueled more of the same. People often watch hockey for the fights, boxing for the knockouts, and reality television for the train wrecks. There’s a reason traffic snarls to a crawl when an accident happens on the side of the road. We can’t look away. Shows like Party Down South (Party) and Celebrity Rehab (Rehab) catch the audience’s attention with all the necessary elements of said wrecks. And yes, there’s offense in’t. And tragedy too. As we sit safely on our couch in front of our television, or on the subway (fittingly) with device in hand, we immediately feel better about ourselves when we see the absolute depravity of these ‘fools.’ My students laugh when I mention such shows, a laughter laced with recognition. Now, as I watched, I wondered: How could I use this? I mean, in a literature course? The humanity! Or humanities. Stay awhile, I will be faithful.

In writing my dissertation on the delusional characters of Eugene O’Neill’s later plays, I spent much time with The Iceman Cometh. I didn’t realize it right away, but after I let my thoughts simmer, it all came together. The bridge I needed appeared. O’Neill’s tragedy of the downtrodden in the back room of a dump of a bar had what I needed to connect my students, reality television, and tragedy. Drunk people? Check. Improper women? Check. Stereotypes? Check. Crooked cops? Check. Blind men refusing to see their fate? Check. Iceman has it all. And although, beneath its seemingly superficial exterior of drunken failures (just like the train wrecks on TV) the play offers a hefty serving of tragedy not unlike Hamlet in intensity and depth. With its relevant commentary on the cathartic offerings of the downtrodden, Iceman comes to light as an early exposure of the train wrecks of society. They live in a bar together, much like the casts of Party and Rehab live in a group environment. Larry Slade calls the bar all these men literally live in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’ and it fits, as this appears a perfect comparison to the lives of the people on reality TV. The little engine that couldn’t went off the tracks and hurtled the men of Iceman, along with their ‘questionable’ female companions, all the way to this crash site. Once derailed, these people become non-existent to society, both by their own doing and the outside world. Family members do not bother searching for the lost ones; no wreaths or shrines are placed outside the door in mourning. They spent their last bit of others’ understanding. No one that knows them wants anything to do with them. Hell, two of them have been told never to come back to their own countries. These are men who have pushed the limits of sympathy. These men embody the roles ‘actors’ play on reality television. Lindsay Lohan has little on them in terms of self-destructions. Yet, these men can elicit enough cathartic sympathy from readers and views to make them useful. The characters played on shows like Party can represent the men in Iceman when younger, and thus the cathartic connection between this play and reality TV can be made.

That catharsis, the purgation, comes more for the audience than for the characters in Iceman as the men only briefly come up for air to experience the truth, but not long enough for it to have a lasting effect on them. The message revealed within deals more with purgation for O’Neill, who had drank right alongside those men, and the audience reading and watching, as they see how far these men have fallen and recognize similar, smaller traits in themselves that require suppression. Only though watching characters take such mistakes so far can the audience sense the message that living in an alcohol-fueled fantasy world can terminate any potential in the real. This mirrors the experience with reality television, where the audience watched merely for the disasters. The characters on these shows present various stages of self-destruction—staged more often than not—and this is where the drama exists. The very illusion of self-destruction put forth on train wreck TV leads to this final resting place in Iceman. Though many might feel better about themselves by watching others far worse off, the relevance lies in that they can see the dangers of such habits. Iceman offers an advice through avoidance, something I can present to my students. Train wreck reality television can help build that bridge. The cathartic purgation actually exists deep under the surface of reality television. And yes, this realization initially caused a purgation reflex in me.

Shows like Party and Rehab represent a form of purgation more like that, for sure. It usually takes place in parking lots and bathrooms after the party. Still, the literary mechanisms of tragedy lie deep within even something as superficial as these young adults partying (Party) or older actors recovering from a lifelong soiree (Rehab). The common excuse for watching train wreck television explains that by watching people so screwed up, the average person feels better about their lives. “The results suggested that the people who watched reality television had above-average trait; motivation to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, vindicated.” (Reiss 363) For the longest time, television shows did the opposite, presented perfection to their audiences. So many TV shows illustrated the lives of the rich and powerful, or merely people living lives that far exceed ours in scope and contentment. This is not unlike how tragedy originally dealt with the great people, the kings and princes, and then, through the efforts of Ibsen and Strindberg, the tragedy of more common people came about. O’Neill, heavily influenced by those two modern drama pioneers (Diggins), attempted to meld Greek tragedy and commoners. In a reverse of the concept of the tragic hero, where the Greek playwrights used the highest of people to relate the common tragedies of man on a grand scale, O’Neill shows how the lowest can bring about the same sense of catharsis. Where an Oedipus shows us the magnified versions of our faults, O’Neill’s denizens in Iceman illustrate the microscopic cracks in our behavior. Still, he maintains the sense of Greek tragedy within his play. He had often wondered, “Is it possible to get [a] modern psychological approximation of the Greek sense of fate into such a play?” (Working Notes and Extracts from a Fragmentary Work Diary 530) Yes, I believe this can be achieved, and O’Neill’s vision can be illustrated with the help of a more common form of entertainment.

Yes, many can learn lessons from the men of high places like Hamlet or Oedipus, yet there is only so much to relate to for the common man. Ay, it is common, one might think, perhaps believing I mean country matters. For train wreck TV, yes, it usually breaks down to that lowest common denominator, but I think it unfair to corral everyone into easiest category. We all have our sensibilities and, though some may elevate to the fine arts while others choose prime time TV, the train wrecks interest all of us. Where the tragedy of the great ones does offer relevance, the audience needs to scratch beneath the surface to get to them. People lower on the rungs of society, ones below the average, can elevate tragedy from the bottom to the middle better than it flows from the top down. O’Neill had long brought the common person to the stage in plays ranging from The Hairy Ape to Emperor Jones and others, where he illustrated the plight of the average Joe. However, his play about the men he encountered in the bowels of society as a young man, the deluded drunks of Iceman who haunted the same bars he did, bring to the audience the purely downtrodden. In their hopeless despair, these characters remain recognizable to all of us. They are not princes lamenting life’s difficult decisions, forcing us to look from below to experience with him. The men—and shady women—of Iceman do not portray magnified greatness but, instead, extreme versions of our common despair. In some cases, they are our worst fears realized, much like those we see on train wreck TV.

As we watch the men of Iceman take in drink after drink, we cannot help but wonder how they keep their ambition at bay. One cannot truly wish to spend all their time drunk. No, the eternal drunks have either given in to addiction or use the alcohol as escape. “Fortunate indeed are those who have escaped ‘the truth’ by virtue of booze, ‘pipe dreams,’ or death.” (LaBelle 442) The common person may never understand the difficulty in leading others, as Oedipus speaks of and Creon swears off, but he knows the feeling of proximate despair. We may dream about success and riches and power but rarely sniff it. The common person surely does know the stench of failure more intimately. The characters of Iceman ooze this scent from their pores, and it becomes a much simpler conversion to understand the tragedy of complete failure than relate to even the most perfectly crafted tragic fall. I say this only in reference to the uninitiated of the theater. Students in a second semester composition class, as a whole, are just learning the depth of characterization versus the identity of characters. Tragedy, for most of them, is a new concept, and to have to apply it to someone they see no common ground with makes the task all the more complicated. This is where the bridge of train wreck television to train wreck theater (Sorry, Eugene, but I assume you get my context) can help mitigate this concern.

On the surface, it can appear people watch train wreck TV to have something to make themselves feel better, or worse, to have a motivation/excuse to exonerate their own questionable behavior. There's no escaping that drinkers can feel better watching the alcoholics in Iceman, seeing men in far lower on the substance abuse scale. Still, partiers can look at the cast of Party and immediately feel vindicated as the Reiss study suggests. We find the tragedy compelling. Though it pains me to make this leap, but looking at such a show for what it is, actors playing roles, one with a keen eye for drama can see cathartic opportunity amidst the mess. With that, we can find the tragedy of the train wrecks, even outside of the accepted arts. This connection, between the oft-horrible, sigh inducing train wreck TV and perhaps the second-best work produced by America's greatest playwright, can be made for students more easily than relating to the tragedy of Oedipus. Though many of us don't know people from high places intimately, we know people close to the ones portrayed on Party and in Iceman. There may not be a Julius Caesar or even a Torvald Hellmer within these, but there exists a connection. Perhaps during the time period of Ibsen commoners could find someone just like that in our midst, but the students of today struggle to understand the dynamics of bourgeois culture from such a distant past. It’s not so much the bridge of time preventing understanding but instead simple concepts. The Hellmers try to navigate the gender politics of the day while appearing to struggle over money concerns. Yet, what concerns them may be above what most common people worry about. The Hellmers seem well-off, and even though Nora has worked hard to bring them to a place of peace, her actions (working) have no surprise element for today’s audience. The play does illustrate the cost of independent thinking in a world not ready for it and can serve as an illustration of where society has been. It does not, however, inform students on elements of today’s society. It lacks that sort of punch because, thankfully, we’ve progressed enough from that place. Iceman, however, with its drunken delusional, acts as a timeless reminder of what happens when bad habits lead one astray. And this is something we see in our current society, magnified on the screens in our living room through train wreck television.

In Iceman, as we watch the characters ramble on about their elusive dreams, it becomes readily apparent that they have no intention to carry them out. They engage in high hopes. The dreams are used only as an excuse, keeping responsibility a day away. Willie Oban, the youngest of the downtrodden, exemplifies the train wreck perhaps better than the rest. He hopelessly denies that his father’s wrongdoing has destroyed his career prospects and has exited life in order to keep himself drunk enough to deal with the pain of failure. Because he has so much more potential ahead of him, he struggles to sleep like the others, who drift in and out throughout the long play. Oban must down copious amounts of whiskey to pass out, and in the process acts much like the drunken revelers on train wreck TV. He harkens back to his college days, singing the songs of Harvard, lost in a past before his fall, his restoration point. Oban can elicit the most sympathy from audiences, as it appears, unlike McGloin, the grafting police officer caught for taking his corruption too far, he has been victimized by another’s actions. What makes him the perfect train wreck is that, underneath the stories and cries of wrongdoing by his father, we discover he drank far too much in college to excel anyway. Train wrecks love to blame the world instead of themselves, unless enough alcohol is applied to reveal the truth underneath. The tragedy lies in the destruction their habit causes. They find a way to excuse their behavior, and the audience realizes the mistake in deferred realization.

The same can be said for Party, which is the highest rated show on its network. (O'Connell) Like Iceman, viewers watch these characters down alcohol, as most of the show revolves around drunks and their mishaps. The first episode’s title ‘Black Out’ and Season Two’s opener ‘Hot Mess Express’ give indication this is certainly train wreck television. The booze-filled adventures of Matti Breaux, Tiffany Heinen, Josh Murray, and Ryan ‘Daddy’ Richards mirror those of Iceman in their obvious drunken mayhem. Of course, these are young characters not yet at the age of wanting nothing but sleep and escape, so the actions differ wildly, yet the root cause of their problems appears to be self-inflicted, much like their O’Neill counterparts. Like those men, the cast often drinks heavily at night and then slowly recovers the next day, only to repeat the drinking and the bad behavior. While audiences wonder how the men of Iceman could live such desperate, empty lives of drinking and escape, those who view Party anticipate drunken hookups and accidents and the disaster that follows them. Neither group live lives worthy of any respect; the characters actually play out exaggerated versions of ourselves, no different than the magnification we see in the tragic hero. No, we do not live in the back room of a bar, but we may seek out alcohol as an escape. We may not party so hard or so often that we jeopardize our careers on a regular basis, but some might walk close to that line, or at least know those who do. By viewing such extreme versions of the downtrodden, we can see the message for the rest of us. Just as we don’t have a horrible, tremendous mistake we overlook in our lives like Oedipus, we walk away from the play wanting to more closely analyze our lives for something smaller we may be missing. The message in Iceman and train wreck TV may be to stop escaping, to stop trying to be something we are not. The men in Iceman spend their days drunk in order to escape what they know they are. “All of the characters in Iceman pretend to be one thing, but are truly something else.” (Brietzke 73) The actors on Party and Rehab pretend to be something else, as well. The tragedy of these train wrecks lies in their inability to truly be themselves, that they need to exaggerate their bad behavior for attention. Students can easily relate to this in the television characters, and this understanding can feed a deeper tragic realization in a play like Iceman.

TWTV and plays like Iceman are not the polar opposites some may think. Worlds apart artistically, what lies beneath both is an easily made connection between tragedy and everyday human life. The men sitting in Harry Hope’s backroom, downtrodden and without potential, may very well have started out just like the Lebeauxs and ‘Big Daddy’s’ of Party, celebrating youth and life with drink, with little consideration for consequences. At the core, even a show like Rehab attempts to illustrate man at his basest level, the bottom. O’Neill wanted to show the same in Iceman. “There are moments in [Iceman] that suddenly strip the secret soul of man stark…with an understanding compassion which sees him as victim of the ironies of life and himself.” (Bogard 511) The Jimmy Camerons just illustrate the end result of what the cast of Party pretends to illustrate with their weekly scripts. A man like Willie Oban represents something similar to what the casts of Rehab show, the pipe dream of restoration after throwing away potential through substance abuse. “Each has his own story, but all are similar in that a past which had, or was thought to have had, potentiality has given way to a present in which there is nothing but drink. This drink is made both palatable and potent by the presence of illusions or ‘pipe-dreams.’” (Driver 13) The partiers of Party and the characters suffering from too much revelry on Rehab show different stages of the same. By showing students how the cast of Party represents the men of Iceman before the train wreck and those in Rehab the results, the bridge between the material and the student can be built.

Shows like Rehab also incorporate the pipe dream much like Iceman does. According to Hickey, the pipe dream represents the tragic flaw of the men in the room. By clinging to false hope, they prevent their own happiness and enact their own downfall. A man like Michael Lohan, the father of Lindsay and a cast member of Rehab, whose fame only came from a previous reality show, illustrates the senselessness of engaging in train wreck TV. He, for the most part, ‘fakes’ a substance abuse problem just to get on television so that someone may cast him in another. Though I suspect many in the audience believe his fiction, some should see through the ruse and visualize a man attempting to get back to glory days—if I may call them that—he really doesn’t deserve. He echoes Jimmy ‘Tomorrow’ Cameron of Iceman perfectly in that Cameron swears he can get his job back merely by showing up, when it is clear he drank away his prospects. The same goes for McGloin, Iceman’s grafting police officer who feels he deserves another chance. The drug addicts and those that pretend to be such on Rehab don’t want sobriety so much as they want the chance to return to glory. These are not the high echelon actors, and those that really do suffer from addiction got that way by reveling during the height of their small-time careers. They can elicit sympathy, however, much like the men in Iceman, just as both can garner an equal amount of scorn. Much like the men in Harry’s saloon went all-in on their belief in the Capitalist system and its preaching of success for anyone, the actors in Rehab tasted fame and will do whatever they can to get it back. McGloin, Mosher, Oban and Cameron all had a taste of success, and even though the blame of their failure lies clearly with themselves, they want to believe a second chance is there merely for the asking. Most of us can relate to wanting a second chance, much like the cast of Rehab and Iceman. Illustrating the former to students may make understanding the latter a bit easier.

When students wonder how tragedy befalls either Oedipus or Willy Loman, we can draw a line to the blind foolishness of those on train wreck TV as the genesis point. Delusion through alcohol starts small, much like the delusion Oedipus crafts by ‘forgetting’ his prophecy and his murder. As we see Willy’s hallucinations finally crumble and reveal the truth, it remains clear he started by avoiding the truths of life. We do not have the heavier question of predestination versus free will to consider there, as both the men of Iceman and the cast of Party have been written as the end result of free will without self-analysis. Whereas Oedipus may have been blind to tremendous faults in his life, these characters represent what happens when the common man blinds himself to the smaller issues inherent in his life. And, as Oedipus’ transgressions come to the stage in magnified form, so do the despair and missteps of the train wrecks. Even if the ones on Rehab fake their pain, they still remain close to us. We are not kings or the descendants of such. Nor are we sitting in the cheapest seats on the express train to the wreckage. Still, our students have closer ties to those scraping by. The great ones just mirror the egos they see on their screens, large and small, daily. Much like the men of Iceman present the extreme result of living solely for a pipe dream, the cast of Party shows an extreme version of the current American Pipe Dream, that living it up on the small screen can lead to fame. “It is, I believe, the promise of sudden fame that lures participants.” (Lam) The sad characters on Rehab show this dream in its extreme. If only some producer or director can see how well they can display their pain and give them a call or send them a script. This desperation echoes the men of Iceman and their pipe dreams, and this provides yet another connection for the classroom.

The drinking in both works—and yes, I hesitate to call Party a ‘work’—offers an escape. These people want to evade pain in their life, or simply, escape from themselves. The men in Iceman drink to stay in complete delusion concerning the mistakes they have made in the past. On the surface, they may very well want nothing more than the enjoyment of drinking, the feeling of inebriation. However, to drink on such a grand scale indicates something deeper. They want to enable themselves to engage in their pipe dreams of restoration, but I’ll hold off on going too far into that here. (For those into a fabulous read on that topic, my dissertation will satisfy.) O’Neill attempted, over the course of his career, to illustrate how pipe dreams were both useless and necessary to existence. In Iceman, he took this idea further and made an entire play about people in constant delusion. The drinking helps them manage this perpetual state. We watch as they beg for whiskey and indulge in copious amounts of it to sustain their dreams. Sadly, or perhaps happily, I am about to walk out on the plank as the only one to find the literary reason for the drinking on TWTV.

Artistic and literary impulse may drive us to avoid such base material as TWTV. For the most part, yes, one has much better options for their time. Still, with students finding interest in such entertainment, drawing a parallel between their hobby and their study makes navigating other drama and tragedy that much easier. We spend countless hours attempting to show our students how to look beyond the words of plays like Othello and A Raisin in the Sun to find the deeper meaning. When they simply skim over these dense themes, it frustrates us, yet we should heed our own advice and find the connections necessary for students to relate to the works we so desperately want them to experience. TWTV exists out in the ethersphere of modern entertainment. Either it can symbolize our disgust with pop culture or it can serve as an entry point to something far greater. By combining TWTV with Iceman, we make a connection, a bridge between what students see as ‘our’ world and ‘theirs,’ and they just might realize it is not a bridge too far.

Both those on TWTV—either the eager young actors on Party or the has-beens of Rehab—and the characters of Iceman show the faults in the system within which we live. We watch the fallen as they grasp desperately at their dreams, knowing they would fall further if there was space below them. The train has already wrecked, and we watch the coverage, wondering how these people survive in such a desolate state and listen as they try to convince themselves a miraculous restoration awaits over each horizon.


Bogard, Travis and Bryer, Jackson, ed. Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Book.

Brietzke, Zander. The Aesthetics of Failure: Dramatic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.

Diggins, John Patrick. Eugene O'Neill's America: Desire Under Democracy. Kindle Edition. Chicaco: The Chicago University Press, 2007.

Driver, Tom F. "On the Late Plays of O'Neill." The Tulane Drama Review 3.2 (1958): 8-20.

Fenton, Reuven and O'Neill, Natalie. "Writers demand 'real' $$ Scribes admit reality TV scripted & want perks." The New York Post 26 June 2014: 22.

LaBelle, Maurice M. "Dionysus and Despair: The Influence of Nietzsche upon O'Neill's Drama." Educational Theatre Journal 25.4 (1973): 436-442. Web. 12 December 2012. < >.

Lam, Perry. "Realities of Reality TV Put Audience in the Spotlight." South China Morning Post 5 September 2014: 4.

Reiss, Steven, Wiltz, James. "Why People Watch Reality TV." Media Psychology (2004): 363-378.

"Working Notes and Extracts from a Fragmentary Work Diary." European Theories of the Drama: With a Supplement on the American Drama. Ed. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Crown, 1947. 530.


Copyright © 1999-2015