Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:05 'The Iceman Cometh'
  • 0:56 Characters and Pipe Dreams
  • 3:29 Hickey, the Iceman
  • 5:28 Hickey's Secret
  • 7:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

What happens when a bunch of downtrodden drunks in a bar are shaken from their pipe dream lives? Find out in this video lesson about Eugene O'Neill's epic play 'The Iceman Cometh.'

The Iceman Cometh

The word ambitious can be applied to lots of things, like eating super-mega-hot wings on a dare or running a marathon in a gorilla costume. And then there's Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh. This play has almost 20 characters and can last up to five hours. That's upwards of three intermissions! And it's about depressing alcoholics in a depressing bar.

The play, written in 1939 and first produced in 1946, is definitely ambitious. But it's also very, very good. How good? Well, we wouldn't be talking about a marathon play about a bunch of drunks from well over half a century ago if it wasn't worthwhile. So let's try to summarize this thing and do it in way less than five hours.

Characters and Pipe Dreams

Act I is mostly an introduction to the numerous characters. The play takes place in a seedy saloon in New York City in 1912. Most of the characters are alcoholic losers. As the play begins, it's morning in the bar. How bad are these drunks? They sleep slumped over at the tables. That's really not good for your spine.

As we meet the characters, we learn that everyone has their own pipe dreams. This is an important theme in the play. For most of the characters, their pipe dreams involve reminiscing about their former glory days, and feeling pretty sure that they're going to relive them soon, even though that's usually wildly unrealistic. It's like a Springsteen song, only sadder, if that's possible. Larry, a cynical former anarchist - yes, that's a thing - says to the bartender Rocky, 'The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober.'

Early on, 18-year-old Parritt enters the bar. He's a young former anarchist and he's hoping Larry will help him, since Larry used to date his mother. You see, Parritt turned on his former fellow anarchists, leading to several of them getting arrested, including his mother. We also meet Willie, who had to leave Harvard Law School when his father's business empire collapsed.

The bar is run by Harry Hope, who hasn't so much as left the bar since his wife died 20 years earlier. He says he's stayed in the bar out of respect for his late wife, and that he'll go outside on his birthday, which happens to be the next day. Harry's brother is a con-man named Mosher. He once worked for the circus and his pipe dream is that he'll return.

The bar's patrons also include a few prostitutes, the only women in the play. Rocky won't admit it, but he's basically their pimp. Thinking he's not a pimp is Rocky's pipe dream. Thinking they're not prostitutes is theirs.

Then there's McGloin. He used to be a police lieutenant, but he was fired for criminal activity. He thinks his conviction will be overturned and he'll become a cop again. Then there's Joe - the only African American of the bunch. He used to run a casino, and he hopes he'll re-open it one day.

There are two disgraced veterans from opposite sides of the Boer War: Wetjoen and Lewis. They're now best of friends and each hopes he'll return home. Oh, gosh, there's more. But that's enough to start, right?

Hickey, the Iceman

Oh, wait. I need to mention the 'Iceman' of the title. That's Theodore Hickman, or Hickey, as he's known. He's a travelling salesman who usually brings the party whenever he shows up. He enters the bar at the end of Act I. Surprisingly, he's sober. He explains his sobriety:

'The only reason I've quit is - Well, I finally had the guts to face myself and throw overboard the damned lying pipe dream that'd been making me miserable, and do what I had to do for the happiness of all concerned - and then all at once I found I was at peace with myself and I didn't need booze any more. That's all there was to it.'

Hickey begins preaching to the characters:

'[I want] to save you from pipe dreams. I know now, from my experience, they're the things that really poison and ruin a guy's life and keep him from finding any peace. If you knew how free and contented I feel now. I'm like a new man. And the cure for them is so damned simple, once you have the nerve. Just the old dope of honesty is the best policy - honesty with yourself, I mean. Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows.'

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