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.'
This isn't very popular. People were pretty okay with drinking and being delusional. The rest of the play is concerned with Hickey trying to talk various characters into action, while they try to figure out what happened to their beloved party king. There's lots of arguing and fighting and turmoil. Lots of dark secrets come out. For example, Lewis, one of the Boer War veterans, left his army in disgrace after drunkenly gambling away his unit's money. And Parritt, the one who betrayed his mother? He did that for money he then spent on a prostitute. No wonder he feels so guilty.
Hickey is successful at getting many of the drunks to get out of the bar. He even gets Harry Hope to go for a walk. But that doesn't go well. He quickly returns, saying a car almost ran over him.
Act III ends with Hickey admitting that his recently deceased wife, Evelyn, was murdered. In Act IV, Hickey tells the story of his wife's death. You see, they were longtime sweethearts. Despite Evelyn's family's objections, they eventually married, after Hickey became a successful salesman. But Hickey cheated on Evelyn constantly, which made her miserable. You see, Evelyn had her own pipe dream - that Hickey would be a good, faithful husband.
Now, what would you do if your philandering was making your spouse miserable? Maybe stop cheating? Not Hickey. He decided to put her out of her misery by killing her in her sleep.
He says, 'The one possible way to make up to her for all I'd made her go through, and get her rid of me so I couldn't make her suffer any more, and she wouldn't have to forgive me again! I saw I couldn't do it by killing myself, like I wanted to for a long time. That would have been the last straw for her. She'd have died of a broken heart to think I could do that to her. She'd have blamed herself for it, too. Or I couldn't just run away from her. She'd have died of grief and humiliation if I'd done that to her. She'd have thought I'd stopped loving her. You see, Evelyn loved me. And I loved her. That was the trouble. It would have been easy to find a way out if she hadn't loved me so much. Or if I hadn't loved her. But as it was, there was only one possible way. I had to kill her.'
With no pipe dream left for himself, Hickey is hauled off to prison begging for the electric chair. Meanwhile, Parritt confesses that he betrayed his mother because he hated her. As with Hickey, Parritt's admission leaves him with no hope left. On Larry's suggestion, he ends up killing himself.
Most of the remaining group responds by picking up Harry Hope's birthday party, singing and returning to their doomed pipe dreams. But Hickey played the role of 'Iceman,' which means death. He's a sort of a grim reaper for the bar's delusions. And that's the end. Well, that's the under five-hour version.
In summary, 1946's The Iceman Cometh is Eugene O'Neill's marathon play about a group of drunks in a New York City bar in 1912. The characters all have their own pipe dreams. They cling to past glories and are delusional about their futures. Their worlds are shaken up by the return of the Hickey, the 'Iceman,' a traveling salesman. Normally the life of the party, Hickey shows up sober and preaching about going out and facing the world.
This is a dark play. It starts with miserable drunks asleep at their tables and only gets uglier from there. It's a tragedy, no question, but also a fascinating study of unique characters.
Once you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize the plot, characters, and theme of The Iceman Cometh
- Discuss the significance of the title