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The Iceman Cometh

1939

In The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill drew from his past in the low-grade saloons where he spent several years of his young manhood. At Harry Hope's saloon, the inhabitants feed on their dreams of a promise of tomorrow that will never be fulfilled. Yearly, on Hope's birthday, Hickey, a traveling salesman, comes to liven their doldrums with whiskey and good humor. This year, it is different, for Hickey sets out to cause each of the inhabitants of the bar to face the fact that his dream is a lie and that tomorrow will never come. The results are disastrous. Hickey maintains that without hope, they will achieve peace. In fact, without the lie, life drains from them all, for each loses the sense of identity the lie has provided.

Every resident of Harry Hope's saloon has a song, though all of them are not heard until the play's last moments. The first to be heard is Willie Oban's slightly vulgar college song, "Rap, Rap, Rap" through which he clings to the bright college years and the promise that was once his. When Hickey appears, after two words "Hello, Gang!" he breaks into a song whose promise, as it turns out, is entirely false: "It's always fair weather when good fellows get together." He stops after a phrase and shifts invitingly to the basso conclusion of the male quartet arrangement of the British music hall song, "Another Little Drink." Hugo Kalmar, the old anarchist, awakens, calls for a drink and begins the revolutionary song "La Carmagnole." Cora, one of the whores in the bartender's stable, practices Harry Hope's favorite song, "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley," on the saloon piano as a special musical offering for his birthday. Two songs are mentioned but not sung. Jimmy Tomorrow, the Scotsman, remembers that his wife loved "Loch Lomond" and twice Hickey exhorts the men to cheer up and sing "Sweet Adeline," the convivial tune of bar and barbershop, as a testament to the faith he wants them to find.

At the end, when Hickey's presence no longer threatens them, and as the booze regains some of the kick Hickey's reforms have taken from it, a flow of life stirs the "Bottom-of-the-Sea Rathskeller," and each of the bums be-gins his own song. In the staging, by no means should the cast be allowed to sing the same song so that they sound like a well-drilled college glee club. O'Neill's point is that the ability to sing again has restored the individual dream to each of the dreamers. That each has a personal song marks the reassertion of life after Hickey's at-tempt to render the bums empty and lifeless. Their singing is a wonderful theatrical moment, a cacophonous, drunken "Ode to Joy."

Harry begins by singing "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley," and at once the others come alive. Jimmy Tomorrow sings the Harry Lauder tune praising the stirrup cup, "A Wee Deoch-and-Doris." Ed Mosher, the old circus man, picks a sentimental ballad about a dying soldier, "Break the News to Mother." Willie Oban's "Rap, Rap, Rap" is heard again, and Piet Wetjoen, who has performed at the fair in St. Louis sings "Waiting at the Church." McGloin, the former policeman, remembers his political loyalty with the song "Tammany," and the British Captain Lewis picks the music hall ballad, "Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road." Joe Mott, the black gambler, sings a song of a disappointed gambler, "Sympathy," the two whores, Pearl and Margie, oblige with "Everybody's Doing It Now," while Cora, the pianist in the group, sings about a shipboard pianist in "The Oceana Roll." Finally the two bartenders join in with "You Great Big Beautiful Doll" (from Rocky, the pimp) and "The Curse of an Aching Heart" (from Cora's long-standing swain, Chuck Morello). Hugo's "La Carmagnole" forms the coda.

The music creates what O'Neill called "a weird cacophony," and it causes the bums to break into laughter. The songs provide them with the release essential to their rediscovery of the peace they had before Hickey's betrayal of their trust. Life, the songs seem to say, has returned and restored the humanity and fellow-feeling they had lost. Music makes it one of O'Neill's warmest concluding scenes.
 


Willie (He sings in a boisterous baritone, rapping on the table with his knuckles at the indicated spots in the song... The drunks at the tables stir....) The origin of this beautiful ditty is veiled in mystery, Larry. There was a legend bruited about in Cambridge lavatories that Waldo Emerson composed it during his uninformative period as a minister, while he was trying to write a sermon. But my own opinion is, it goes back much further, and Jonathan Edwards was the author of both words and music.  [III, 586-7, 596, 649, 711]

Rap, Rap, Rap - traditional, accompaniment by Dorothy Commins 1946 (O'Neill dictated the words and music of the first two verses to Dorothy Commins, but omitted the second verse when he used it in the play.)


Hickey (jovially) Hello, Gang!... (He immediately puts on an entrance act, places a hand affectedly on his chest, throws back his head, and sings in a falsetto tenor.)  [III, 607]

It's Always Fair Weather - words by Richard Hovey, music by Frederic Field Bullard, published 1901


Hickey (changing to a comic bass and another tune) "And another little drink won't do us any harm!" (They all roar with laughter at this burlesque which his personality makes really funny.)  [III, 607]

Another Little Drink Wouldn't Do Us Any Harm - words by Clifford Grey, music by Nat. D. Ayer, published 1901


Hugo You, Larry! Renegade! Traitor! I vill have you shot! (he giggles) Don't be a fool! Buy me a trink! (He begins to sing the Carmagnole in a guttural basso, pounding on the table with his glass.)  [III,622, 711]

La Carmagnole - traditional


Hicky Somebody light the candles on the cake when you hear us coming, and you start playing Harry's favorite tune, Cora. Hustle now, everybody. We want this to come off in style.
Cora
I got to practice. I ain't laid my mitts on a box in Gawd knows when.
(With the soft pedal down, she begins gropingly to pick out "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley.") Is dat right, Joe? I've forgotten dat has-been tune. (She picks out a few more notes.) Come on, Joe, hum de tune so I can follow. (Joe begins to hum and sing in a low voice and correct her. He forgets his sullenness and becomes his old self again.) [III, 631-2, 638, 641, 643, 711]

The Sunshine of Paradise Alley - words by Walter H. Ford, music by John W. Bratton, published 1895


A Wee Deoch-and-Doris - words and music by Gerald Grafton and Harry Lauder, published 1910


Break the News to Mother - words and music by Charles K. Harris, published 1897


Tammany - words by Vincent Bryan, music by Gus Edwards, published 1905


Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road - words by Albert Chevalier, music by Charles Ingle, published 1901


Everybody's Doing It Now - words and music by Irving Berlin, published 1911


The Curse of an Aching Heart - words by Henry Fink, music by Al Piantadosi, published 1913


The Oceana Roll - words by Roger Lewis, music by Lucien Denni, published 1911

 

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