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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 8


Homoeroticism Greek Style: Passion
and Celibacy in O’Neill’s Iceman

Andrew Warnsing
Washington University, St. Louis

A principal theme in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is overt rejection of heterosexual relationships by certain patrons in Harry Hope’s saloon. More specifically, even the most remote traces of dialogue regarding the subject of sex are often unwanted, immediately silenced or violently dismissed. On one hand, these behaviors are typical to the trajectory of the entire play. Most of Hope’s tenants are escapists. They are men incapable of conforming to traditional roles in their community. If booze is unavailable to forget responsibility, they sleep. “The world in which they live exists beyond desire. Whiskey alone sustains physical life. Hunger for food is not expressed, movement of sexual desire disturbs the quiet” (Bogard 1988). In short, the resistance to act on natural, hetero-masculine desires can be read as another coin in the well of fears. Learned and inborn tendencies are overcome by anxieties that end with non- action, immobility and an array of other idiosyncrasies.

Conversely, denial of sexual relations is sometimes so overt, so intense and with such passion that one must further question the motif’s intent. For instance, Willie frequently croons his sailor song to the rest of the saloon. “’Oh, come up,’ she cried, ‘my sailor lad, / And you and I’ll agree, / And I’ll show you the prettiest (rap, rap, rap) / that ever you did see” (O’Neill 587). Response to Willie’s song is not a sleepy dismissal from the patrons. Quite the opposite, many of Hope’s friends stir to agitation, and Willie is threatened violently back into silence. Such a response does not reflect a simple lack of desire to act on sexual urges. Rather, it represents a passionate intent to wall off sexual suggestions found within Willie’s song. It is an overly active and defensive tone for a stage of men supposedly bent on inaction or immobility. The use of defensive tone in response to a heterosexual situation is not uncommon to O’Neill’s plays. This in part leads William Compson Sater to suggest in his essay titled “Between Men: Gay Sensibility and The Great God Brown” that O’Neill was “sometimes writing thinly-veiled homosexual characters” (Sater 2006). It is a challenging and provocative suggestion to be sure. Although Sater argues his case for The Great God Brown, he specifically mentions O’Neill’s Iceman as grounds for further exploration through a homosexual lens.

Difficulties in making such a case for The Iceman Cometh are numerous. Past and present actions of the male characters are often not only hidden from the play’s reader or viewer but from the men themselves. This alone makes it difficult to label an individual’s rationale neatly into an O’Neill drawn heterosexual or homosexual category. Furthermore, the conception of what might be stereotypical homosexual to O’Neill versus simple femininity, sensitivity or awkwardness in a heterosexual man is again complicated to tease out of a potentially “veiled” homosexual character. Even so, I propose that O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is not just devoid of heterosexual magnetism because of each character’s desire to seek complete escape from traditional masculine roles in their community. Rather, for patrons in Harry Hope’s saloon, devotion, esteem and reverence are intended primarily for the male to male relationship; simply put, some these men would rather be among men than with a woman. In addition, the play’s exploration of homoerotic tendencies and relationships teeters between the religious ethics of ancient Greek culture and that of twentieth-century Christianity. As will be discussed, the measure of Greek versus Christian ethics was vitally important to O’Neill as a writer and a person.

That being said, care must be taken to avoid the problematic trap of oversimplifying connections between O’Neill’s characters and homosexual tendencies. As will be further discussed below, it is common knowledge that O’Neill enjoyed the value of stereotypes in his plays (see: Barlow 1998, Pfister 1995, Shaughnessy 1998 and Manheim 1984). Sater plays on this concept in his essay. For instance, he says that,

Though there are exceptions, an O’Neill hero tends to be emotional, intense, not physically strong or athletic. He either shuns women or idealizes them beyond possibility, generally opting for male companionship or solitude instead. An O’Neill hero is the opposite of the aggressively robust, all-American male of popular fiction, to the point of being almost feminine, not only in physical traits but in his goals and the choices he makes. In short, one could say that the common O’Neill hero embodies a common homosexual stereotype (Sater 2006).

However, the “exceptions” to Sater’s O’Neillian hero are not only numerous but seriously important to the playwright’s repertoire of men. For instance, early in his career, O’Neill produced The Emperor Jones with its physically commanding hero, Brutus Jones. Jones, an assertive and self-appointed Emperor, is described as “tall, underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect” (1033). Along with his exploitation of superstitions amongst the natives, Jones dominates other characters with an impressive stature and physique. His bullying techniques along with his size aid his ability to convince natives that he cannot, in fact, be killed with regular bullets. Jones is, of course, important to the O’Neill canon as a male character. In fact, he was the first African-American to be portrayed in a major Broadway play (Black 1999). He is utterly “strong and athletic”. However, his athleticism and strength do little to conquer personal and/or cultural fears. In reality, brute power is rendered meaningless for Jones who gains temporary, tactical advantages for wealth and political power but who ultimately succumbs to the fear and emotions of his personal and/or cultural history. When surveyed next to The Iceman Cometh, it is pertinent to draw special attention to Jones’s marginalized strength. Interestingly, Jones’s complicated emotions and passionate anxieties are central to his development in spite of his seemingly stereotyped, super-masculine persona. In other words, corporal stereotypes are irrelevant next to the intricacies of a character’s emotional development, a topic with which, O’Neill is far more concerned.

Furthermore, relationships with females are unimportant for Jones. However, there is no sense that Jones “shuns women or idealizes them beyond possibility.” Rather, his relationship with women is absent in the play for promotion of other, complex thematic qualities such as race, class, etcetera. There is no reason to believe that Jones lacks a genuine female opposite because he might be homosexual; he is simply too concerned with racial history and the acquisition of power to bother with relationships of any kind. His well thought out plan for escape helps to establish Jones’s comfort with isolation but not in link to any sexual doubts. He is “sexually ambivalent,” physically powerful and assertive yet emotionally complicated and obsessive. Perhaps there is something to be said for the elaborate narrative descriptions of Jones’s body and his slow de-clothing from act to act, but the best description for his sexuality is that he is sexless. He is not tortured by emotions in relation to any particular character but is sexually ambivalent and physically domineering; he is emotionally complex and suffers. Jones is a corporal stereotype and yet can be mixed with Sater’s emotionally stereotypical homosexual. Jones’s character is oblivious to the perception of women yet there is no sense of a homoerotic or homosexual suggestion.

On the other hand, Anna Christie, which was released in the same year as The Emperor Jones, and which utilizes the super-masculine character of Matt Burke, contains legitimate implications of Sater’s over-idealized female. Burke, who is more physically aggressive than Jones and more base in his chauvinism, worships Anna to the point of irrationality. He is described in the play as a “powerful, broad-chested six-footer, his face handsome in a hard, rough, bold, defiant way...about thirty, in the full power of his heavy-muscled, immense strength” (985). Similar to Jones and in the mold of Sater’s “exception” to a lack of “the aggressively robust, all-American male of popular fiction” among O’Neill’s heroes, Burke is emotionally complicated and passionate while personifying the super-macho male with impractical expectations for his female confidant.

Due to events mostly beyond her control, Anna does not meet Burke’s pre-conceived notions of a wife because she is not a virgin. Even though Burke decides to give up his far- fetched, elaborate notions of female chastity in order to accept Anna as a wife, he continues to worship the sea. He wants a life as a sailor. Consequently, and in the future, Burke will spend countless days away from his heterosexual love in favor of an idealized vision of being a sailor. He will either live in the company of men or in seclusion on his ship. It is a choice that might be viewed as practical for a father in support of his family. However, his need for the sea is additionally peculiar in light of his relentless affections for Anna. This latter reading might render Burke a confused, heterosexually ambivalent man. In any case, and as seen with Brutus Jones, physically domineering traits do not necessarily equal emotional shallowness or a lack of intense feelings as might be insinuated through Sater’s claim.

Lastly, it would be inappropriate to ignore the weight of O’Neill’s fiercest hero, Robert Smith who is better known as “Yank” from The Hairy Ape. The Hairy Ape was produced after the appearance of The Emperor Jones and Anna Christie. It was released much nearer the mid- point of O’Neill’s career. Yank embodies the tough-minded, obstinate strength of willfulness and physical power that O’Neill witnessed first-hand during his last stint as a sailor on the S.S Philadelphia (Gelb 2000). The working-classed coal stokers who were buried deep within the guts of their ship and who depended critically on brute force, their deep sense of collective solidarity and who worked in an unlivable mess of heat, soot and macho nakedness impressed O’Neill mightily. Like Jones and Burke, Yank is described as “broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest” (121). O’Neill wrote that “they [the rest of the stokers] respect his superior strength”. Yank is a stereotyped, “aggressively robust” brute leader of a primal-like clan. Yet, his chance encounter with Mildred, who represents his opposite as the stereotyped, decadent, Victorianized female, exposes Yank’s dimwitted yet intricate psyche. He is consumed by the want for meaning, and it is a pursuit that ends his life. Not far from the nakedness of Jones, early scenes of Yank and his men illustrate an intense, homoerotic camaraderie. As seen with both Jones and Burke, Yank is a mixture of the detached stereotypes proposed by Sater. O’Neill probes common stereotypes but these are routinely masks and not entirely relevant to a character’s motivations and/or inner complexities. In other words, it is improper to accept O’Neill’s stereotypes at face value. Rather, he fashions stereotypes and/or masks with the intent of complicating or destroying common societal views or to explore realities of those stereotypes as they existed in the pubs, ships and communities that he knew.

As was previously alluded, stereotyping has been a central branch to O’Neill criticism. Judith Barlow allows that O’Neill’s “conception of women is rooted in a traditional equation of the ’feminine’ with ‘maternal’” but knows the stereotypes to be diverse and to surpass “cliché” (Barlow 1998). Along the same line, Edward Shaughnessy argues that O’Neill’s African and Irish American stereotypes are but superficial shells that contain “souls” of “terrifying psycho- spiritual histories” (Shaughnessy 1998). Brutus Jones, Matt Burke and Yank fit neatly into Shaughnessy’s definition as physically powerful, brute American males whose emotions are incredibly complex and impacted by their cultural histories. On the other hand, Joel Pfister wonders whether O’Neill’s use of African American stereotypes does much to dispel derogatory generalizations of blacks (Pfister 1995). At worst, O’Neill’s use of stereotype was a product of his melodramatic time, and his ability to plunge into a character’s complexity improved to powerful heights while he grew as an artist (Manheim 1984). At best, he earnestly developed the use of stereotype, which he had come to hate through his father’s profession, as its own trope. As Shaughnessy puts it, “for, in the end, all characters in drama, even the most complex or eccentric, are chiseled from standing blocks identified as types A, B, C, and so forth” (Shaughnessy 1998). What makes good art is the artist’s ability to shove beyond superficial realities to the root of things.

Naturally, Harry Hope’s saloon in Iceman is heavily populated with male stereotypes. Joe Mott’s “face is only mildly negroid in type” (566). Cecil Lewis is “as obviously English as Yorkshire pudding and just as obviously the former army officer” (567). McGloin “has his old occupation of policeman stamped all over him” and is a “big paunchy” man (567). Last, in a far from all-inclusive list, are the bartenders Rocky and Chuck. They are important to note as they are mostly on the other side of Hope’s bar from the rest of the saloon’s patrons; they are at least employed and awake. If we hope to find Sater’s “feminine” male rendered as the stereotypical, closeted homosexual amongst Hope’s isolated drunks then Rocky and Chuck might be Sater’s opposite “aggressively robust, all-American male[s] of popular fiction” in parallel to Jones, Burke and Yank. Rocky “is a Neapolitan-American...squat and muscular” and “the sleeves of his collarless shirt are rolled up on his thick, powerful arms” (569). Chuck is depicted as “a tough, thick-necked, barrel-chested Italian-American” and “he is strong as an ox” (604). Like Burke, they possess and objectify women. They are assertive and have power. The two young men stand in stark contrast to the mostly sensitive, isolated drunks who O’Neill describes variously as “small,” “gray,” “tiny,” “gaunt,” and “flaccid” (567). In essence, and as will be further discussed below, many of Hope’s alcoholics can fit Sater’s definition of the stereotypical homosexual. However, as we said, O’Neill did not operate in stereotypes unless to illuminate. His stereotyped characters often move beyond their narrative descriptions. Therefore, an examination of homosexuality should rely upon investigation of O’Neill’s deeper character complexities while acknowledging the stereotypes he often embraces.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to a homoerotic reading of The Iceman Cometh is that biographical examination has a place in O’Neill criticism perhaps more so than for any other American author. To our knowledge, O’Neill was not a homosexual. Therefore, the idea that he may, in fact, have been writing masked homosexual characters complicates the depths of O’Neill’s power as a biographical playwright. Naturally, the implication would be that he himself was a closeted homosexual or bisexual man. Conversely, Sater briefly mentions an account from Sheaffer’s O’Neill Son and Artist where O’Neill’s third wife, Carlotta, once mentioned privately to some friends, the Smith’s, that she caught O’Neill in bed with another man. Sheaffer goes on more specifically that Carlotta told Mrs. Smith that she caught O’Neill in “a homosexual incident, that she had returned to the penthouse and found him in bed with an old acquaintance of his”. Furthermore, Carlotta divulged that after O’Neill had “injured his shoulder...his ‘fine friends’ deserted him, so he had to ‘send for Mama.’” Carlotta felt O’Neill had given “’consideration to everyone’” but his wife and that was only because she “’would stick by him’” no matter the cost (Sheaffer 1973). According to Sheaffer, anyone who had contact with the O’Neill’s during this time believed that Eugene and his wife got along well enough publicly. However, Carlotta openly spoke of their fighting and often depicted O’Neill as a brutal man whom she feared. Nevertheless, with Carlotta’s nearly bi-polar disposition, violent tirades and her tendency to, as Sater puts it, “exaggerate” the truth, her credibility as a witness must be questioned. Still, one cannot help but consider the biographical connection between Carlotta O’Neill’s account that she “would stick by him” and Hickey’s feelings toward Evelyn in Iceman. It was, of course, Hickey who was forced to murder his wife because he could not endure her ability to forgive. He always “knew Evelyn would forgive [him]” (700). It did not matter how corrupt Hickey acted when he was drunk, how many nights he did not make it home or with whom he might have slept, Evelyn Hickey was going to be there by his side as a maternal, childless woman. The same might be said for Carlotta O’Neill.

Whether or not O’Neill was writing masked homosexual characters and whether or not he himself was a closeted gay is inconsequential to the argument at hand. More important is textual analysis from The Iceman Cometh of which the male to male relationship is a central factor to consider. In the opening scene and throughout large portions of the play there is nothing but men in Hope’s saloon. For instance, when the curtain is first drawn, Joe is sitting at the center table with Piet, Jimmy Tomorrow and Captain Lewis. Hugo is at the left table with Larry. Hope is at the right table with Pat McGloin and Ed Mosher. Finally, Willie is off in the second tier by himself. In effect, the men are grouped by acquaintance. The center table which contains Piet and Lewis is the “Boer War” table plus former gang leader and African-American outsider, Joe Mott. At the right table, Larry and Hugo met through a Syndicalist-Anarchist group. Lastly, Hope’s table is made up of his brother-in-law, Ed Mosher, and Pat McGloin who is an old police officer and friend.

Some of the men can be grouped further into pairs. Piet and Lewis share a close and complicated relationship. As former war adversaries, they make an extremely odd couple. Jimmy Tomorrow, who O’Neill describes as a “prim, Victorian old maid, and at the same time of a...likable, affectionate boy who has never grown up,” has a relationship with both Piet and Lewis. The three men make an odd, yet professionally acquainted, trio. Joe is an outsider to the table and to the saloon at large. However, he has a scrappy, almost dutiful, persona which might explain why he sits with Piet and Lewis. In addition, the two war vets are intimately familiar with the segregated, discriminatory communities of South Africa. From that perspective, Joe’s placement is relatively natural or generates a dramatizing effect from which dialogue easily develops. Larry and Hugo make an obvious pair from the Syndicalist group. Like Piet and Lewis, they have chosen to closet themselves together in this once stylish, now dingy, sunshine stricken saloon. As described by the stage notes, there are only “two windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them” and the only artificial light comes “from single wall brackets, two at left and two at rear” (565). All of the men are effectively shut off from the outside, so it is remarkable that some have chosen to spend their reclusiveness, together, after such lengthy, professional connections. Other important links include Harry Hope who can be paired with McGloin and his brother-in-law, Ed Mosher. Naturally, Harry shares significant relationships with other men in the saloon. Most notable are Hickey, who is not present through the first part of the play, and Larry. There is a bond, or a particular understanding, between Larry and Hickey that is worth exploring, along with Larry’s relationship to pub newcomer, Don Parritt. Parritt, despite an abrupt introduction to the pub, can be paired with Larry and, most importantly, Hickey. Finally are the bartenders Rocky and Chuck who mostly interact during a shift change but who maintain special insight into the other’s lives.

As previously mentioned, Piet and Lewis have a unique connection. They fought as officers during the Boer War between Great Britain and the Netherlands in South Africa. Lewis is described in stage notes as “obviously English as yorkshire pudding and just as obviously the former army officer...his lean figure is still erect and square-shouldered” (567). In the opening scene, he is “stripped to the waist” as his clothes are being used as a pillow. Piet, on the other hand, is “a Dutch farmer type, his once great muscular strength has been debauched into flaccid tallow...there is still a suggestion of old authority lurking in him like a memory of the drowned” (567). In effect, both men have deteriorated with age. However, O’Neill wishes his audience to feel their former, physical and professional strengths. It is not too much to argue that in a younger life, Piet and Lewis were as fit and menacing as Brutus Jones or Matt Burke. Despite that former strength, each man proves to be soft, sentimental or “emotional and intense”. In fact, their feelings are entirely homoerotic.

For instance, in one of their most notable exchanges, Lewis “dreamily,” if not passionately, regrets he cannot take Piet to England with him until his estate has been settled. He says, “You’ll stay with me at the old place as long as you like” (594). O’Neill’s stage notes go on to say that “sentimentally, with real yearning,” Lewis reminisces of Britain. He says, “England in April. I want you to see that, Piet. The old veldt has its points, I’ll admit, but it isn’t home— especially in April” (594). Lewis’s romantic vision of a trip to England with Piet during April evokes feelings of real sentiment between the two men. Spring, of course, carries with it images of love and pursuit which is peculiar enough. More tangible is a link to Robert Browning’s poem “Home-Thoughts, From Abroad” (Killen 2012). Browning writes,

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brush-wood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows—
Hark! Where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent-spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
--Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower! (Browning 1910)

A thorough analysis of Browning’s poem is given by Herbert Tucker in which Tucker notes not just “spatial” qualities of expectation but of the poem’s treatment of time and anxiety (Tucker 1980). In relation to Iceman, Lewis is romanticizing England from afar and it is much easier to romanticize with “space” or distance from the object of one’s desire. This, by itself, does not say much for the argument at hand unless the aim of Lewis is to avoid gazing eyes of his aristocratic society. More simply put, Piet and Lewis share a table, one man sitting next to the other, and there are no spatially romantic defining qualities to their relationship unless they are deliberately hiding out away from family and friends. More interesting are Tucker’s observations about the poem’s handling of time and anxiety which connect substantially to Lewis and to the play at large. He notes that the “awakening of...buttercups is a future event anticipated from the already future perspective of May” meaning there is an anticipation or expectation of “new blossoms” that “keeps Browning a writer” (Tucker 1980). Similarly, Lewis and other members of Hope’s pub live for the future. Just as the speaker’s imaginary Englishman in the first stanza is “unaware” of present beauties, the men obscure the present with booze. Tucker describes Browning’s thrush as an anxious bird signing its song twice while the poem “never sings it once”. In general, the absence of admiration for the present in Browning’s poem is clarified by Tucker as “deliberate” and resulting in a “legitimate cause for anxiety”. The same can be said for any number of Hope’s tenants.

Admittedly, even though Lewis’s vision of England contains Piet as a companion, his reference to the poem is specifically confined to qualities of spatial romanticism for his home country. However, this is unproblematic because the poem itself has a kind of willful blindness to the present only brought to light through careful adjustments in the second stanza (Tucker 1980). With this in mind, the single most intriguing connection between Lewis and Browning’s poem is the suggestion that Lewis blinds himself to the beauty right in front of him, in the present, preferring hopeless beauties of the imagination. The correlation cannot be explained by a simple reluctance to work or an inability to conform to traditional roles in the community. The insinuation is that Lewis purposefully blinds himself from the beauty of Piet or the beauty that might spawn as the result of a homoerotic or homosexual relationship. This does not change the classical thematic qualities of the play. Lewis is immobilized in Hope’s pub with fear or anxiety of the outside. He numbs his condition in the present with excessive booze in order to forget a beauty that he cannot, or will not, present to an unwelcoming community. It is much easier to fantasize of what might be than to act on something complicated that “is”.

The attachment between Lewis and Piet is extreme for the play’s design. More typically, a Hope patron will long for male company in a chummy sense. For instance, Jimmy Tomorrow literally occupies the space between Lewis and Piet even as he represents the neutralized political ground between the two as a once professional correspondent. Late in the play, when the men have lived out Hickey’s vision, and when they have crashed hard into reality, Jimmy appears in a zombie-like state and spills his guts. He says that “it was absurd of me to excuse my drunkenness by pretending it was my wife’s adultery that ruined my life.” Rather, he says, “I have forgotten why I married Marjorie. I can’t even remember now if she was pretty...I much preferred drinking all night with my pals to being in bed with her. So, naturally, she was unfaithful. I didn’t blame her. I really didn’t care” (692).

Jimmy’s revelation is typical to the saloon’s framework. Foremost, Jimmy admits his drinking caused the cheating and it was not the cheating which caused his drinking. That is a common flip in Iceman for anyone who is an alcoholic. Most of the alcoholics choose to reminisce fondly and idealistically about their pasts while pointing out bad fortunes that led to their current drunken states. For Jimmy, it was a perfect life and a great professional career destroyed by Marjorie’s decision to cheat. However, in the end, he admits that it was his drinking that ruined his career, and that he prefers his “pals to being in bed with her.” That statement is of particular interest because it is an overt admission that he favors being with the guys to having sex with his wife. Jimmy gives us ambiguity in relation to Marjorie’s beauty and his desire for it. However, his focus on the denial of her “bed” is specific. Male companionship is at least important to Jimmy and trumps personal relations with Marjorie or any other woman. Maybe it is the idea of closeness or attachment to any other individual which drives Jimmy to the pub; he might only feel comfortable drunk in a group of drunks where honest and personal inspections are rare. However, maybe he is more comfortable with men than with women as he is being drunk to being sober. His motivations are unsurprisingly ambiguous, but his anxiety towards a typical, masculine role is clear. His needs are entirely complicated and homoerotic. He is one of the few characters who is not particularly close to any single other character. In effect, he exists on the fringe of Hope’s saloon relative to other, neatly paired, drunks. Even if it is simply that he prefers “drinking all night with [his] pals” to “being in bed with” Marjorie, with no further sexual implications, then his relationships are still relatively distanced as in comparison to the other patrons. Succinctly put, he lacks desire for intimacy with women, even if it was once readily available with Marjorie, and yet he enjoys the company of men to a point. Jimmy can perceptibly be read as a closeted gay, not entirely comfortable with his feelings, and thus in need of booze for placation. Whether his drinking is to conceal emotions and feelings or to numb a self-hatred, he is content to exist in a group where he ought to.

Similarly, Hickey echoes Jimmy’s need for being part of a male group. During his long, frequently interrupted, confession at the end of Iceman, Hickey explains some of his thoughts leading up to Evelyn’s murder. He says, “I’d get thinking how peaceful it was here, sitting around with the old gang, getting drunk and forgetting love, joking and laughing and signing and swapping lies” (699). In effect, Hickey yearns to socialize with his buddies, to get drunk and be himself. He knows he is a dirty, foul thinking binge drinker. Evelyn is far more morally grounded. The values that she lives by are the values that Hickey must follow in their home when he is with her. However, those values are too lofty for Hickey’s personality. In addition, like Jimmy, Hickey’s personal life or his “issues” with Evelyn are a community affair. His public confession emphasizes that fact but the appearance of his “Iceman” jokes well before he even takes the stage bear out his tendency to make his personal troubles a known subject for “the guys.”

Likewise, Harry Hope’s need for male bonding is mostly of the communal variety. His continual repeat of “bejees” to the point of annoyance is typical for someone more comfortable in a group or for someone who likes to blend in rather than stand out. For instance, the repetitive “bejees” is cliché speak or a superficial way to communicate amongst friends. As with Evelyn and Marjorie, Harry’s image of Bessie is well known in the pub, but he perpetuates a continuance of that “dear old Bess” to the point of cliché rather than provide any personal introspection. Even in his former professional life, it was Bessie who pushed him into the public. He says “the boys was going to nominate me for Alderman. It was all fixed. Bessie wanted it...Bessie made me make friends with everyone, helped me remember all their names. I’d have been elected easy” (593). Of course, after Bessie’s death, Harry never steps foot from the bar again. He shares a long time relationship with Mosher and McGloin but friendships with Harry tend to be measured by time rather than intimacy. Frankly, sitting at Mosher and McGloin’s table and being drunk with his buddies is easier for Harry than being with “that nagging bitch, Bessie” (678). His anxieties regarding the community outside the saloon walls are as clear as the role Bessie played in forcing Harry to face his anxiety and participate in his community. Hope is far more comfortable among men, or other drunks, where he can take part in the group superficially and forget responsibility.

Other problems for the saloon regulars are more private. There is a particular interchange between McGloin and Mosher, after Hickey is pulled away by detectives, where the two men reaffirm delusions with one another. McGloin says, “(with drunken earnestness) I know you saw how it was, Ed. There was no good trying to explain to a crazy guy, but it ain’t the right time. You know how getting reinstated is” (708). Mosher replies, “Sure Mac. The same way with the circus.” It is an innocent and drunken interchange but underscores the survival of friendship in the dingy saloon between two men. McGloin and Mosher scuffle briefly when Hickey deliberately turns one on the other for his vision’s sake. Their subsequent need to exchange regret over the argument and to reaffirm delusions with one another is both personal and touching. It underscores the fact that, though all the men participate within the group, more private understandings between one man and another occur.

Similar but more complicated is the relationship between Rocky and Chuck. As we previously noted, the two bartenders represent the super-machoism as seen with Yank, Jones and Burke. Rocky likes to take money and slap around his whores but viciously denies being a pimp. He says, “De like me, see? What if I do take deir dough?” (571). His characterization of any male to female relationship requires female submissiveness and physical brutality. “I just give dem a slap, like any guy would his wife, if she got too gabby” (622). In addition, he outwardly denies any notion of his femininity when he says “What de hell do I know about flowers?” (618). Again, the overly defensive tone requires a more introspective reading. Outwardly, Rocky is simple and violent, but, in truth, he is complex emotionally and walled off from interpersonal relationships. His stereotyped outward persona could be true to a super-macho nature or it might be read as the stereotypical front for something more complex and interesting. It could be an over-masculinized mask for a less than masculine and private persona. Notably, when it appears Chuck and Cora may finally get married, Rocky barbs Chuck in the play’s typical style and Chuck responds, “Sure! You’d like dat, wouldn’t yuh? I’m wise to you! Yuh don’t wanta see me get married and settle down like a reg’lar guy! (658). The attack could be innocent. For instance, Chuck might really be “that guy” who does not want to settle down and who wants his buddies to live the same way. However, Chuck’s condemnation could be indicative of latent, homoerotic jealousy that might be felt from one, the other or both Rocky and Chuck.

That is not to say that every male to male relationship implies a homoerotic connection. For instance, Larry shares a unique connection with Parritt. Parritt seeks paternal guidance from Larry in the midst of his personal crisis. Their relationship is clearly intended to be of the father and son variety. Parritt commits the ultimate betrayal of his mother. He subsequently seeks out Larry as “the one of them all she cared most about” (634). In one sense, Parritt includes himself as one of the “all”. His jealousy of his mother’s “freedom” or attention to other men and of her commitment to “the movement” over her own son is too painful for Parritt to deal with emotionally. He exacts revenge by ratting out Rosa’s entire clan. On one hand, Parritt can identify with Larry as, potentially, his father. There is literally no other place Parritt can turn for parental advice or punishment. He additionally identifies with Larry as someone else his mother has let down. There is potential, in Parritt’s mind, for Larry and he to connect through that common destruction. Ultimately, he accepts Larry’s judgment though it requires pushing Larry to recognize his own, old longing for Rosa. For instance, after Hickey’s gross confession, Parritt tells Larry his own thoughts after turning his mother in. He says, “you know what you can do with your freedom pipe dream now, don’t you, you damned old bitch!” (704). It is too much for Larry who helps condemn Parritt to suicide. It is the only point in Iceman where a man chooses the female relationship over the male. The power of that decision is heightened somewhat by the fact that Parritt could be, or is likely, Larry’s own son and that Larry has spent so much effort in forgetting Rosa to begin with. Similarly, despite his hatred, Parritt cannot live with the betrayal of his own mother. The mother and son bond is therefore presented in Iceman with decisive strength.

Larry’s old want for family and love coincide with Evelyn’s hope in Hickey as does Parritt’s betrayal of Rosa overlap with Evelyn’s murder. Hickey recognizes the latter connection when he says to Parritt, “I know damned well I recognized something about you. We’re members of the same lodge—in some way” (612). As will be discussed in more detail below, Hickey’s love or want for Evelyn is entrenched in his need for her maternal care. His subsequent murder of Evelyn betrays her affection in the same way that Parritt turns on his own mother. In the end, the difference, of course, is that Parritt admits he hates Rosa while Hickey cannot accept the compulsory evil spoken from his mouth during the confession: “well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!” (700). Those are the words he spoke directly to Evelyn’s corpse while Hickey’s repeated attempts to declare an undying love for Evelyn are mere pipe dream. Rather, his contempt for Evelyn during the confession creeps from his conscience unwillingly. For instance, he says, “I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it was something I’d always wanted to say...” (700). In any case, the relationship or connection between Parritt and Hickey illuminates circumstances for each man. Parritt is able, finally and totally, to confide in Larry as he watches Hickey unravel. Though, as Stephen Black rightly points out in Eugene O’Neill Beyond Mourning and Tragedy, Larry’s intentional disregard for Parritt’s emotions requires that the young man move nearer and nearer to truth (Black 1999). Similarly, the pain which Evelyn must have suffered to endure Hickey’s wickedness is made plain through the actions of Parritt. The relationships between Hickey and Larry and Larry and Parritt are far from homoerotic; however, they are central to Iceman’s course. They explicate incompatibilities between man and woman, expose masculine sensitivity and complicate the play’s onslaught of feminine destruction.

Yet, the parallel between Parritt and Hickey should be explored more vigorously. If we dip momentarily back into the biographical, Black notes in his book that O’Neill rejected Christianity in favor of a life-long, intense study of many “ancient religions” but especially those mythical philosophies of the Ancient Greeks; “guided by Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, Eugene reread Greek tragedy more deeply than before, and he also read scholarly works on pre- Pythagorean philosophy and ancient cultures” (Black 1999). Black’s purpose for this portrayal is centered on evaluating O’Neill’s “tragic sense” and his search for peace from the guilt of his mother’s morphine addiction in addition to Eugene’s effort to model his plays after the “spirit” of the Greek tragedies. As Black additionally points out, O’Neill wished to “restore the theater its function as a temple where starving human souls might renew themselves in celebration and worship of Dionysus” (Black 1999). For the purpose of this argument, it is useful to understand O’Neill’s powerful connection to Greek philosophy in relation to sexuality. To reach this vital point, it is essential first refer back to Black who specifically notes that due to O’Neill’s rebuff of Christian religion in favor of mythic Greek beliefs that,

many consequences may ensue from detaching morality from the idea of a deity; it was certainly neither the American way nor the Catholic way, but it must have been comforting to Eugene to learn that there was no such connection in Greek mythology or the literature that grew out of the myths. It gave Eugene a space in which to contemplate responsibility as an idea not always identical with guilt. It must have been at this time that Eugene began consciously to identify with Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who is compelled by Mycenaean ethics and by the god Apollo to kill his mother and, in consequence, is driven mad by the Furies (Black 1999).

In essence, O’Neill felt a personal connection with Orestes who had murdered his own mother, Clytemnestra. In the same light, Orestes may be connected to Don Parritt whose mother, Rosa, had effectively denied a father. More perceptively, we might say that Rosa murdered the existence of a father for Parritt as she never divulged the man’s identity. As Black notes, Parritt “resolves his crisis of conscience by adopting a mystical certainty that he must die for betraying her” (Black 1999). That “mystical” implementation for Parritt is akin to early Greek philosophies and in opposition to a more Christian-based view of right and wrong or “responsibility” and “guilt” or external, enforced punishment. Conversely, Hickey, who was “that drummer son of a drummer” or the son of a preacher who was literally beaten as a child in order that the Christian association of “responsibility” and “guilt” might be properly conveyed into him, had no spiritual means by which to deal with his sinfulness against Evelyn. Quite the opposite, Hickey says “I’ve had hell inside me” (630). Rather than deal mystically with his essence, Hickey burns inwardly and torturously for years with guilt. In a moment of perverted pity, he murders Evelyn and seals a fate for himself of imposed death in contrast to Parritt’s death, which is chosen. The same “mystic” principle which guides Parritt’s verdict of suicide can be applied more broadly to concepts surrounding sexuality. That O’Neill personally identified with Orestes and that he had a profound understanding of Greek religious meaning is clear. As Black puts it, this “gave Eugene a space in which to contemplate responsibility as an idea not always identical with guilt” meaning that O’Neill could ostensibly deal with the fate of his own mother. However, this also provided O’Neill a useful platform from which to explore human sexuality.

In Iphigenia of Tauris, Iphigenia, who has yet to identify Orestes as her brother, asks, “are you brothers, then, born of a single mother?” Orestes replies, “Brothers in love we are, but not brothers by birth” (Euripides 2010). Of course, the definition of love in an ancient Greek play is a difficulty by itself. In The Greeks & Greek Love, James Davidson makes the case that for Orestes this is surely the kind of love as expressed homoerotically between two, apparently, bisexual men (Davidson 2007). His lengthy examination of “love” across the city states of Ancient Greece, of course, points to numerous detractors who might argue the love is of “philia” or friendship. Philia is typically translated to friendship; however, as Gerald Hughes points out in the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle on Ethics, the definition for Philia is, in turn, broadly defined by Aristotle, among other things, as “young lovers,” “lifelong friends” and between “parents and children” (Hughes 2001). In many places, this encounter of philia for Orestes will be left in its broad context. For instance, in John Ferguson’s A Companion to Greek Tragedy, Ferguson refers to this particular exchange between Orestes and Pylades as a “theme” where the “philia is strong” and leaves it at that (Ferguson 1972).

Interestingly, there is at least one ancient source which defines the philia between Orestes and Pylades as both sexual and brotherly. In Amores, which is otherwise known as Affairs of the Heart and sometimes referred to as Erotes, the author states that,

At any rate, as soon as they [Orestes and Pylades] set foot on the land of the Tauri, the Fury of matricides was there to welcome the strangers, and, when the natives stood around them, the one was struck to the ground by his usual madness and lay there, but Pylades ‘Did wipe away the foam and tend his frame / And shelter him with fine well- woven robe,’ thus showing the feelings not merely of a lover but also of a father. When at any rate it had been decided that, while one remained to be killed, the other should depart for Mycenae to bear a letter, each wished to remain for the sake of the other, considering that he himself lived in the survival of his friend. But Orestes refused to take the letter, claiming Pylades was the fitter person to do so, and showed himself almost to be the lover rather than the beloved. (Pseudo-Lucian 1993).

This excerpt is sometimes attributed to Lucian but M.D. Macleod claims it “Pseudo-Lucian” because it is most likely written by an “imitator” of Lucian as made clear in the way the document is fashioned. In any case, Macleod estimates its date as most likely “early fourth century A.D.” (Macleod 1993). The autobiographical connections between Orestes and O’Neill are obviously more provocative if we view the relationship between Orestes and Pylades as both brotherly and sexual. Given O’Neill’s typical approach to literature and drama, it is likely he would have at least considered the relationship between the two young Greeks when exploring his personal bond to Orestes. However, his conclusion in regards to their sexuality and its meaning for himself is anyone’s guess. What is clear is the relationship between Orestes and Pylades is unusually intimate, in a public context, by standards of the twentieth century. However, its occurrence is common in Greek literature and O’Neill would have been conscious of this fact. Furthermore, the intimate and homoerotic bond between Orestes and Pylades provides an attractive mode by which to explore homoeroticism in The Iceman Cometh.

When one reads Iceman for sexuality, the amount of heterosexual dialogue versus the reluctance for sexual action is striking. There are numerous examples, but perhaps most intriguing is the plethora of references to “tarts” and “whores” even though these prostitutes never succeed in soliciting their male counterparts to participate in sex. Solicitation is the correct term in this case because almost always it is the whore who is seeking out the male rather than the male seeking out the whore. Even when a sexual act does not take place, the prostitute often gets paid; however, the payment almost always takes place without service or it happens via pick pocketing. This kind of activity takes place in many of O’Neill’s plays, and one of the most interesting cases in Iceman is when Cora recounts her mugging of a young sailor. She says,

It was a sailor. I rolled him. (She giggles.) Listen, it was a scream...My dogs was givin’ out when I seen dis guy holdin’ up a lamppost, so I hurried to get him before a cop did. I says, ‘Hello, Handsome, wanta have a good time?’ Jees, he was paralyzed! One of dem polite jags...’Lady,’ he says, ‘can yuh kindly tell me de nearest way to de Museum of Natural History?’ (They all laugh.)...I says, ‘Sure ting, Honey Boy, I’ll be only too glad.’ So I steered him into a side street where it was dark and propped him against a wall and give him a frisk. (She giggles.) And what d’yuh tink he does? Jees, I ain’t lyin’, he begins to laugh, de big sap! He says, ‘Quit ticklin’ me.’ While I was friskin’ him for his roll! (605).

There are a couple ways to interpret the lack of sexual tension between Cora and her sailor. For instance, the sailor’s drunkenness, in line with the men back at Hope’s saloon, suggests the typical “lack of desire” in Iceman as pointed to by Bogard and others. In addition, given the flourish of “gay life at sea” as has been well documented in texts such as Paul Baker and Jo Stanley’s book Hello Sailor! (see: Baker 2003), there is potential to interpret this sailor, who merely giggles at the touch of Cora, as one of many in his profession who is more interested in men than women. In this case, perhaps the thought of sex with a prostitute does not even occur to the young man. Given O’Neill’s extensive experience at sea, he would have been well acquainted to this kind of sailor whether he himself was a homosexual participant or not. However, I think it right to pay special attention to the sailor’s desire for the “Museum of Natural History” which, aside from being comical, pleads for further interpretation. A standard definition of natural history is “the properties of natural objects, plants, or animals...or the biology of particular organisms” (OED 2012). This being the case, and given Iceman’s sexual ambiguities, and given the sailor’s circumstances as a man turning down a “good time” with a woman for a chance to learn about “natural development,” it is attractive to presume the sailor might be on his way to learn of humankind’s sexual development in his drunken attempt to understand his own essence. The sailor, like Hickey and other members in Hope’s saloon, lives in a place where Christian ethics have manifested a strong relationship between “responsibility” and “guilt”. Perhaps a trip to the Museum of Natural History would instruct the sailor of another time when mystical ethics ruled and homosexuality was not so much externally punishable or of a personal defining quality as it was a trait of one’s fate. That is not to say that cheating on a spouse or being a homosexual was necessarily accepted in Greek mythic culture. After all, Agamemnon was, in part, murdered by his wife for being unfaithful. However, fate is fate. If someone felt sexual urges for a man or a woman then that was simply who that person was. How they dealt with their own or other’s feelings on the matter was a personal decision and derived of personal guilt. It was not directed by any single deity. As we have mentioned, Hickey showed signs of burning tortuously with Christian guilt while Parritt’s ultimate decision came of his own personal guilt and judgment.

Another example of Iceman’s intriguing lack of sexual action culminates through the relationship of Hickey and Evelyn. There are several potential angles from which one could approach Hickey’s sexual conundrums, but it is impossible to ignore the Iceman joke from which the play, in part, gets its name. In one of opening lines from the play, Rocky says of Hickey, “Yeah, some kidder! Remember how he woiks up dat gag about his wife, when he’s cockeyed, cryin’ over her picture and den springing’ it on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman?” (571). Hickey’s joke is known disturbingly well throughout the saloon among Hope’s regulars. Perhaps more troubling is the way Hickey “woiks [it] up” with his fake crying while even using Evelyn’s picture. On one hand, the gag fits Hickey’s personality. He is, after all, a salesman who knows how to bring life to the group and dramatize a situation in order to keep his audience’s attention. However, the public way he jokes about an utterly serious situation is disturbing. His use is beyond that of a drunken jabber; this is a gag that has been obsessively used again and again. It reveals Hickey as a man plagued by guilt over his own disloyalty to Evelyn; however, it additionally exposes his lack of compassion and lack of interest in Evelyn sexually. It might also represent a powerfully shameful conscious from Hickey if the joke has any factual basis. Perhaps Evelyn really did sleep around when he was out on the road for weeks at a time as a salesman.

The Iceman joke, taken literally, goes, “honey, has the Iceman come?” to which the woman responds, “no, but he is puffing pretty hard.” It is cited numerously that Eugene and his brother Jamie thought the joke was hilarious and Black references the commonly cited biblical connection to Christ and the Bridegroom (Black 1999). The biblical verse from the King James Version says, “And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.” Jesus is the bridegroom and the ten virgins are metaphorical for the kingdom of heaven. O’Neill himself said that his title was to imply the salesman joke in unison with a deeper meaning of death (Wislon 1990). A few versus earlier, 24 Matthew 48:51 says that

but and if that evil servant [metaphorical bridesmaid] shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; / And shall begin to smite his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; / The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, / And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Kohlenberger 1997).

If taken literally, and in the context of the salesman joke, Hickey is lord come to judge the drunken regulars who have waited impatiently for Hickey to “come.” In turn, and in accordance with Mathew 25:6, Hickey “comes” before he meets the regulars. The word “come” might be taken to mean the murder of Evelyn. It would be a physical and violent masturbation against his female spouse. In that respect, the word maintains its association with death. However, it could also be taken metaphorically in relation to the act of sex. In the context of the salesman joke, for Matthew 25:6, the Lord ejaculates and cries out with pleasure before he ever comes to meet the bridesmaids. In one sense, the use of bridesmaid can be taken literally and equated to all types of women. It could also be taken metaphorically for Hope’s drunks who impatiently wait Hickey’s “coming out” only to find he clings to the pipedream of Evelyn and euphoric love. In response, Hickey comes unexpectedly in timing and in soberness; he attacks “hypocrites” for clinging to their own pipedreams. There is much “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” among the regulars, but they fail to escape their pipedreams because Hickey’s solution is phony. He is simply unable to accept himself for what he is. He is bound by the Christian ethics of “responsibility” and “guilt.”

Ultimately, there are several detractions to this particular theory. While Hickey admits to cheating on Evelyn, he says it is with “women” (696). In addition, other than the peculiar use of the word “queer” in reference to Parritt, there is not a single, overt homosexual reference in the play. For example, at one point, Larry says, “It’s strange the queer way he [Hickey] seemed to recognize him” and later Larry says “I think. I’m telling you this so you’ll know why if Don acts a bit queer, and not jump on him. He must be hard hit. He’s her only kid” (626 and 575, respectively). Naturally, “queer” as a term has other meanings such as “off-center” or “perverse” but it came in to use as slang for a homosexual by 1922 (Barnhart 1995) All that being said, the need to identify any one individual as a homosexual is unnecessary given the play’s mythic Greek context. As expressed above, mythical Greek perspectives lack characters who choose to define or punish themselves over sexuality. Orestes and Pylades possess a clear homoerotic bond that can be depicted as homosexual but there is no emphasis on the sexual act. Their love is of philia or broadly defined. The lack of sex in The Iceman Cometh compared to its obsessive sex talk mirrors the homoerotic context of Orestes and Pylades in that neither text makes sex important despite intense male affection. The use of obsessive sex talk, despite the lack of sex, heightens the thematic emptiness of such labeling. It additionally depicts a natural response to Christian ethics; the identification of sin leads to feelings of intense guilt. If one’s essence is in conflict because it is labeled as sin, escape of guilt is only possible through abandonment of the ethics or death. This concept is captured properly through Hickey who murders Evelyn and who will face a sentence of certain death because he clings to Christian ethics of matrimony. Had he viewed his suffering as a fate rather than a mistake, Evelyn, her religion and forgiveness, would not have prevailed as a destructive force.

A common conception of O’Neill’s women is that they are, in fact, a destructive force as seen through the eyes of their male partners (Barlow 1998). The Iceman Cometh is no exception. As we have seen, Parritt and Larry’s struggle is pinned sharply on Rosa. Hickey’s downfall is tied to his intense guilt for Evelyn, and Hope claims his seclusion as a response of mourning to Bessie’s death. Barlow points to Linda Ben-Zvi’s essay titled “Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill: The Imagery of Gender,” where Ben-Zvi notes that O’Neill’s male protagonists “yearn... [for] love, closeness, home, family, and belonging” (Ben-Zvi 1986). Those are the values Parritt and Larry claim to miss from Rosa and it is believable. However, characters such as Hickey or Jimmy Tomorrow want something else. Their pain flourishes when given the advantage of a matronly spouse, and their true desires are vague and complicated yet rooted in want for male companionship. As O’Neill understood it, acceptance of self was easier, or only possible, through an interpretation of Greek fate. This concept, in opposition to traditional Christian values of sin and punishment, allow one to accept his or herself as he or she is when it comes to the moral fringe. In Iceman, that includes everything from maternal hatred to sexual promiscuity and orientation. Homoeroticism is thoroughly and purposefully present in Iceman but its relation to sex is clearly dubious or entirely concealed. Furthermore, the meaning of homoeroticism to O’Neill as a person is unclear, but further examination of his time spent in the notoriously “gay-friendly” quarters of Greenwich Village and Provincetown seems practical. Given the great and thorough playwright that he was, and given his commitment to truth, pursuit of this question is valuable as a complicating factor for O’Neill criticism.


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