The Iceman Cometh

Citation metadata

Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 1999
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 5. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 21
Content Level: (Level 4)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 141

The Iceman Cometh


Written in 1939, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was not produced until seven years later, largely because O’Neill was concerned that America was not ready for the play’s dark vision. When it was staged in 1946, the play received mixed reviews. By that time, O’Neill was already an internationally-known playwright. In addition, the 1946 production marked the end, for O’Neill, of a twelve year absence from Broadway. Critics praised the play’s passion, suspense, and well-drawn characters but complained about its prosaic language, redundancy, and excessive length—the play runs for almost four hours. In 1956, The Iceman Cometh was revived and this time, widely acclaimed as a masterpiece that would ensure for O’Neill a place among the greatest of modern dramatists. There have been numerous revivals of the play since.

The Iceman Cometh is noted for its dark realism; its setting and characters closely resemble real life. The world of the play is a cruel place. Despair is a constant presence, love only an illusion, and death something to which one looks forward. Relief comes in alcohol and pipe dreams—groundless hopes for a future that will never arrive. Some critics find hope in the characters’ camaraderie and endurance. Others consider such a reading too optimistic, believing O’Neill’s vision to be unremittingly dark.

In spite of critical disagreement, however, the importance of The Iceman Cometh to twentieth-century theater is undisputed. It is truly a modern Page 142  |  Top of Articleclassic, considered by many to be the greatest play by one of America’s greatest playwrights.


On October 16, 1888, Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel on Broadway in New York City. His father was a professional actor, and O’Neill lived on the road with his parents until he began attending boarding school at the age of eight. O’Neill’s mother, born into an affluent family, was unhappy with the nomadic theatre life, which she considered less than respectable. In part because of O’Neill’s difficult birth, she became addicted to drugs. In 1903, she attempted suicide, and O’Neill, at the age of fifteen, learned for the first time of her addiction. That same year, he himself began drinking heavily in a pattern that would persist for most of his life.

O’Neill attended Princeton University, but a drunken prank resulted in his expulsion in 1907 after only nine months of study. Two years later, O’Neill married Kathleen Jenkins. The two had one child, a son, Eugene, Jr. O’Neill and Jenkins did not officially divorce until 1912, but within days of the marriage, O’Neill went to sea, traveling to Honduras and Buenos Aires, where he experienced first-hand the life of a penniless drifter. In 1911, O’Neill returned to New York, where he lived at Jimmy the Priest’s, a saloon populated by drunkards, has-beens, and outcasts. Later in his life, O’Neill called Jimmy the Priest’s “a hell hole” and said of the establishment, “One couldn’t go any lower.” It was Jimmy the Priest’s, with its atmosphere of failure, hopelessness, dashed dreams, and despair that, together with its miserable clientele, eventually became the model for Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s 1946 play, The Iceman Cometh.

In 1912, O’Neill developed tuberculosis, an event that became a turning point in his life. During the five months he spent in a sanatorium, he decided to become a playwright. He began reading modern dramatists and was particularly affected by the dark work of August Strindberg (Miss Julie), whom he later cited as one of his greatest influences. O’Neill studied playwriting at Harvard for one year. He then moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where he became involved with an avant-garde group of artists and radicals. A number of these people later formed the Provincetown Players, the first group to produce a play of O’Neill’, Bound East for Cardiff, in 1916.

In 1918, O’Neill married Agnes Boulton, with whom he had two children, Shane, in 1919, and Oona, in 1925; the marriage ended in divorce in 1929. In 1920, O’Neill’s first full commercial success, Beyond the Horizon, was produced, resulting in the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for its author. That year also saw the production of The Emperor Jones, which focuses on the violence in human nature. In 1924, Desire under the Elms, which reflected O’Neill’s interest in Freudian psychology, was produced. Other important plays in the O’Neill canon include the trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), modeled on the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Oresteia; the autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, probably written around 1939 but produced and published after O’Neill’s death (per his decree, given the intensely personal nature of the play); and The Iceman Cometh, written in 1939, produced in 1946, and considered by many to be O’Neill’s greatest work. In 1936, O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

During the last ten years of his life, O’Neill was in ill health, suffering from tremors in his hands, which eventually rendered him unable to write. He died of pneumonia November 27, 1953. He is considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright.


Act I

The first act of The Iceman Cometh opens in Harry Hope’s saloon in the early morning of the day before Hope’s annual birthday party. The room is occupied by an assortment of disheveled ne’er-do-wells—most in their fifties and sixties. Also present are Rocky, the night bartender, and Harry Hope himself. All of the men sleep except for Larry Slade, a former anarchist. As the curtain opens, Rocky sneaks Larry a free drink. Larry says he’ll pay “tomorrow,” then remarks that all of the men have great plans for a tomorrow that will never come, that all are given hope only by “the lie of the pipe dream.” Larry claims to be the exception; he believes he has no pipe dream. He only waits for death.

Rocky and Larry then speak of Hickey, who comes in every year for Hope’s birthday on one of his two annual drinking binges. He’s known for buying everyone drinks but also for the joking and laughter he brings to Hope’s saloon, particularly his running gag about finding his wife, Evelyn, in bed Page 143  |  Top of Articlewith the iceman. As Larry and Rocky talk, the others awaken from their drunken slumber. All lead existences built on drunkenness, poverty, and despair, but they also speak continually of their grand pasts and their ambitions for tomorrow.

Parritt, a young man who claims to be a friend of Larry’s, enters. Larry continually stresses that Parritt means nothing to him. He was only a friend of the boy’s mother when he was still a committed anarchist, dedicated to what he and Parritt now call “the Movement.” Now Parritt’s mother has been arrested in the wake of a political bombing. Parritt escaped arrest, and as the young man talks, indications that he betrayed his mother to the police become evident.

One by one, the men in the bar talk about their plans for the future, but all are equally obsessed with getting their next drink. The prostitutes Margie and Pearl enter followed by Cora, another prostitute, and Chuck, the day bartender. These characters reveal their own pipe dreams of respectability. The much-anticipated Hickey arrives, jovial and generous to everyone. He soon reveals, however, that he has stopped drinking. As he explains, he no longer needs alcohol because he has given up his pipe dream and found peace. He wants Hope’s roomers to do the same, including Larry, who is offended by Hickey’s suggestion that the ex-anarchist has a pipe dream. Hickey falls asleep, and the roomers express their disappointment at the change in his personality.

Act II

The saloon is now decorated for Hope’s birthday festivities. The time is around midnight of the same day. Chuck, Rocky, and the three prostitutes are making further preparations for the party, while complaining about Hickey trying to control not only the party but also the roomers’ lives, insisting that each give up his or her pipe dream. Hickey enters and renews his attempts to bring the others the peace he’s found. Hickey tells Larry that once he gives up his view of himself as a man who merely observes life, waiting for death, he’ll also find peace. The others enter, all determined to prove to Hickey that their plans for the future are not pipe dreams. Parritt enters and tries to speak to Larry about his mother, but Larry does not want to listen, even when Parritt admits that he betrayed his mother to the police for a reward.

As the roomers speak among themselves, it becomes clear that the camaraderie that once existed is unraveling. Where they had once supported

Eugene ONeill Eugene O’Neill

each other’s pipe dreams, fights now break out as they see each other through Hickey’s eyes. The party begins, but the celebration is dampened by Hickey’s continual appraisals regarding the dark truth of each person’s situation. As anger at Hickey grows, Larry asks Hickey if this time he really did find his wife in bed with the iceman. Hickey tells them Evelyn is dead. All are immediately sorry for their anger, but Hickey says he is not sad. His wife is finally rid of him, and she is at peace.


Hope’s saloon, the next morning. Larry, Rocky, Parritt, and a number of the roomers are present. Rocky and Larry discuss the previous night’s party, which broke up early because of Hickey’s constant badgering. Parritt persists in his attempt to forge a relationship with Larry. While he had previously told Larry that he ratted his mother out for ideological reasons, he now admits that he did it so he could use the reward money on a prostitute. Larry hints that if Parritt has any sense of honor he should end his life. As some of the regulars arrive, it becomes clear that Hickey has turned former friends against each other. Each, while still hanging onto the promise of his own pipe dream, now accuses the others of fooling themselves. Some of the regulars come in with clean clothes, ready to go out into the world, Page 144  |  Top of Articleproving to Hickey that their dreams can come true. Most turn in the keys to their rooms, proclaiming that they will never return to Hope’s saloon.

Hickey enters and says that all will return when they realize that nothing will ever come of their pipe dreams. And Hickey says that Larry will finally face the fact that he is also kidding himself. Hickey characterizes Larry as an old man afraid to die. Hope, who has not left the saloon since the death of his wife twenty years earlier, now walks outside to prove that he can go out into the world again, but he soon returns, depressed and miserable, just as Hickey claims that Hope can now be at peace. Larry tells Hickey that all that he’s brought Hope is the peace of death, then confronts Hickey with his own belief that Hickey drove his wife to suicide. Hickey tells Larry that his wife was murdered, that the police don’t know who did it but that they soon will. Parritt, meanwhile, becomes agitated at the talk of murder and proclaims that he did not kill his mother. The act ends with Hickey expressing concern that the death of Hope’s pipe dream has not made him happy.

Act IV

Hope’s saloon at 1:30 a.m. All of the roomers are sitting at tables, drinking. They have returned from their failed attempts to realize their pipe dreams. Parritt claims that while Larry now realizes that he does not have the courage to die, Larry believes that Parritt should kill himself. Hickey has left to make a phone call but returns and hears Larry contending that Hickey now realizes that the peace he proclaims is false. Hickey denies this but then says he doesn’t understand why the roomers, now that their dreams are dashed, have not found contentment. Larry accuses Hickey of killing his wife because he found her in bed with the iceman. Hickey admits that he killed his wife, that he had to because he loved her. If he had killed himself, it would have broken her heart; she would have believed she was to blame. Larry tells Hickey to be quiet, that he does not want to know; he doesn’t want to be responsible for Hickey going to the electric chair.

Two policeman, Moran and Lieb, enter, asking for Hickey; they received a call that Evelyn’s murderer could be found in Hope’s saloon. Hickey then tells the others why he killed Evelyn. As a young man, he was considered wild, reviled by his hometown. Only Evelyn believed in him and loved her, and she was the only person he loved. During their marriage, he drank and went to prostitutes, but Evelyn continued to believe his pipe dream—that he would someday straighten up and become a good husband to her. Because of her continuing belief in him, he felt intensely guilty. One night while she was asleep, he concluded that the only way to bring her peace was to keep her from ever waking up, and so he shot her. Hickey’s confession brings Parritt to admit that he turned his mother in because he hated her.

Remembering his last words to Evelyn, “Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch,” Hickey denies that he could ever have hated Evelyn and concludes that he must have been insane to kill her and call her a bitch. The roomers seize on that statement, claiming that they knew Hickey must have been crazy but acted otherwise to humor him. The police take Hickey away.

Parritt sees his situation as a parallel to Hickey’s, except that he cannot claim his mother is at peace; for someone who loves freedom as she does, prison is worse than death. Larry finally tells Parritt that the only thing he can do is to kill himself. Parritt leaves as the roomers continue to claim prior knowledge of Hickey’s insanity. As they gradually resume their good-natured banter, Larry becomes more and more disturbed. He finally hears Parritt jump off of the fire escape and is horrified. He realizes that Hickey converted him. He is no longer just an observer; by telling Parritt to kill himself, Larry has become an active participant in life. As the others, who do not know of Parritt’s death, begin to sing, celebrating Hope’s birthday in earnest, Larry stares out of the window, oblivious to the noise.


James Cameron

See Jimmy Tomorrow

The Captain

See Cecil Lewis


Cora is a prostitute. Chuck Morello is her pimp, but the two of them fantasize about someday getting married and moving to the country. After Hickey’s arrival, she and Chuck leave to get married but are ultimately unable to do so. She believes that Chuck will hold her past against her, and he wonders why he should marry her when he can get her money Page 145  |  Top of Articleanyway. At the end of the play, she and Chuck return to their pipe dream of a future marriage.

The General

See Piet Wetjoen


Hickey is a hardware salesman who comes to Harry’s Hope’s saloon twice a year for a drinking binge. The roomers look forward to his arrival. He buys them drinks, tells them jokes, and allows them to forget the bleakness of their lives. They especially like the running gag in which he says he has left his wife, Evelyn, in bed with the iceman. When Hickey arrives this time, however, he has changed. He claims to have finally found peace, having let go of his pipe dream. He wants the roomers to find peace the same way. To that end, he harasses the roomers, endlessly nagging them, eventually persuading them to realize their pipe dreams. His belief is that they will recognize that they can never achieve these dreams, give them up, and be happier.

The roomers do as Hickey advises, but to his surprise, they become even more miserable. After prodding from Larry to reveal the reason for his change, Hickey first says only that his wife has died. Finally, however, he admits that he has killed his wife, whom he describes as the perfect loving and forgiving woman. She believed that he would one day be a good and faithful husband to her. He initially claims he killed her to end her pipe dream and bring her peace. While describing the murder, however, Hickey calls her a bitch and is horrified at his words. His real pipe dream, unbeknownst to him, is that he truly loved his wife. Rather than face his hatred of Evelyn, however, Hickey says that he must have been insane to call her a bitch and that everything he has said to the roomers since he arrived was the result of his insanity. Thus Hickey, who tried so hard to force the roomers to face their illusions, cannot face his own. Like the others, he returns to the safety of his pipe dream.

Theodore Hickman

See Hickey

Harry Hope

Harry Hope is the proprietor of Harry Hope’s Saloon, the setting for The Iceman Cometh. Although he has a gruff manner and tries to act tough, he is a softhearted sort, and the roomers depend on his kindness when they can’t pay their bills or afford

Sidebar: HideShow


  • The Iceman Cometh was adapted as a film in 1973. This version was directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate). It stars Lee Marvin as Hickey, Robert Ryan as Larry, and Jeff Bridges as Parritt.

another drink. He has not left the bar since the death of his wife, Bessie, whom he idealizes as the perfect wife. The truth is that she was a terrible nag. Hope’s pipe dream is that he will one day leave the safety of the bar and go out into the world again, but his effort to do so ends in failure.

Hugo Kalmar

Kalmar was once the editor of anarchist periodicals. He knew Parritt’s mother and recognizes Parritt when he sees him. Kalmar spent ten years in prison for the Movement, but he is now lost in an alcoholic haze.

Cecil Lewis

Lewis was once a Captain in the British Army. He fought in the Boer War, in which the Boers, South Africans of Dutch ancestry, fought for an end to British occupation.


Lieb is one of the two policemen who come for Hickey at the end of the play.


Margie is a prostitute, with Rocky as her pimp, but she calls herself a “tart,” not a whore, before Hickey’s arrival. Hickey initially convinces her that she is indeed a whore, but at the end of the play, she returns to her pipe dream.

Pat McGloin

McGloin is a former Police Lieutenant who was thrown off the force for corruption. His pipe Page 146  |  Top of Articledream is to return to his old position with the force, but his efforts to be reinstated are met with rejection.


Moran is one of the two policemen who come for Hickey at the end of the play.

Chuck Morello

Morello is the day bartender at Harry Hope’s. He is actually Cora’s pimp, but the two of them dream of someday marrying and moving to the country. After Hickey’s arrival, the two leave to get married, though they soon realize that their plans to marry are a pipe dream. When Hickey leaves, the two return to their whimsical wedding plans.

Ed Mosher

Mosher is the brother of Harry Hope’s deceased wife, Bessie. He is a former circus man and petty swindler. His pipe dream is that he will someday return to his position with the circus, but his attempt to return to that occupation fails.

Joe Mott

Mott, the only Black character in the play, was once the proprietor of a Negro gambling house. Before Hickey’s appearance, he continually refers to himself as someone who is “white,” meaning he has risen above the other members of his race. After Hickey comes, he justly accuses the white roomers of looking down on him because of his color. He no longer believes he can be one of them.

Willie Oban

Born to a wealthy but corrupt businessman, Oban graduated from Harvard Law School but is now a hopeless alcoholic whose family has rejected him. Oban’s pipe dream is that he will some day quit drinking and practice law, but he will never be able to do either.

Don Parritt

A stranger at Harry Hope’s saloon, Parritt arrives looking for Larry Slade, whom he remembers as his mother’s friend—the only one of her friends that ever paid attention to him. Although he initially claims that he is running from the law following his anarchist mother’s arrest—and his own involvement with radical politics—it soon becomes clear that Parritt is hiding something. Eventually he reveals that he betrayed his mother and her friends to the police, though he initially claims to have done so because of his own ideological beliefs. He then claims that he betrayed her for money, which he wanted to spend on a prostitute. Finally, however, Parritt admits that he betrayed his mother simply because he hated her. Throughout the play, Parritt attempts to convince Larry to help him, but Larry rejects his entreaties. After Parritt admits the true reason for his betrayal, however, Larry tells him what he wants to hear—that suicide is the only solution for him. Parritt jumps from the fire escape as the roomers, having returned to their pipe dreams, celebrate Harry Hope’s birthday.


Pearl is one of the three prostitutes in the play. Rocky is her pimp, but she says he is not, and, like Margie, she is careful to refer to herself as a “tart,” not a “whore.” After Hickey arrives, she finally sees herself as a whore, but returns to her pipe dream by the end of the play.

Rocky Pioggi

Rocky is the good-natured night bartender. Although he is clearly a pimp for the prostitutes Margie and Pearl, he deludes himself into thinking he is above such a lowly profession. He refers to himself instead as the women’s “manager.” He claims that a pimp would not have a job and that he takes the women’s money because they wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. After Hickey arrives, Rocky briefly admits to being a pimp, but once Hickey is considered to be insane, Rocky returns to his pipe dream.

Larry Slade

Slade is considered by many to be the protagonist in The Iceman Cometh. He is a former anarchist who became disillusioned with the Movement and abandoned it after years of involvement. He sees himself as having no pipe dreams. He simply sits in the grandstand, observing life and waiting for death. Parritt and Hickey, however, prove him wrong. He was once friends with Parritt’s mother and may be the young man’s father, but when Parritt arrives, Larry insists that the troubled man means nothing to him. As Parritt exposes more and more about himself, slowly revealing that he betrayed his mother, Larry’s continued insistence in his lack of interest in Parritt seems more and more desperate, suggesting that Larry is involved in spite of himself.

Eventually it is Larry who tells Parritt that suicide is his only choice and thus becomes Parritt’s executioner. Hickey’s belief that Larry’s vision of Page 147  |  Top of Articlehimself as an observer, no longer involved in life, is a pipe dream is shown to be true. At the end of the play, Larry is the only one of the roomers who is truly changed by Hickey’s anti-pipe dream campaign. Larry calls himself “the only real convert to death Hickey made.” Deprived of his illusion as a mere observer, for the first time, Larry truly does wait for death.

Jimmy Tomorrow

Jimmy Tomorrow is a former Boer War correspondent. He was dismissed from his position as a reporter because of his heavy drinking. He claims that he began drinking because his wife, Marjorie, was unfaithful to him. The truth is that he began drinking long before that, however, and was grateful to his wife for giving him an excuse to drink. He is called Jimmy Tomorrow because he repeatedly speaks of how he will return to the newspaper and get his job back “tomorrow.” This is his pipe dream. After he leaves the bar in his attempt to return to his job, a policeman finds him by the river. Other characters conclude that he wanted to jump in the river but didn’t have the nerve.

Piet Wetjoen

Wetjoen is the former leader of a Boer commando. The Boers, now called Afrikaners, are South Africans of Dutch ancestry. They fought against British occupation in the Boer War. Wetjoen is friends with Cecil Lewis, who fought on the British side in that war.


Hope and the American Dream

The promise of the American Dream, a goal of material prosperity and success, has long been regarded as a crucial element of American culture. For many, it is the possibility of this dream that separates America from other nations. It is the hope of the downtrodden. The faith Americans have in the dream, that, given enough ambition and determination, absolutely anyone can “make it” is almost religious in nature.

For the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s Saloon, however, faith has led to despair; the dream has soured. O’Neill populates Hope’s with characters from diverse backgrounds. Some, such as Willie Oban, a Harvard Law School graduate, and Jimmy Tomorrow, a former war correspondent, have come close to success—though it ultimately eluded their grasp. Others, such as Joe Mott, the former proprietor of a Negro gambling house, and Ed Mosher, a former circus man, have lived on the edge of respectability. Still others, such as the prostitutes, have always lived lives of petty crime. What unites all but Larry and Parritt, however, is a need to retain their dream, for if the dream is attainable, there is no hope for them. Each sees their failure as a personal issue, not a deficiency in the system. Jimmy Tomorrow rationalizes that as long as he believes that he can quit drinking, get his job back, and resume his former place in society, he can live with his despair.

The former anarchists, however, represent a different perspective. For anarchists, the American Dream is a lie and good can only come when all government is eliminated. Although this too is a dream, it flies in the face of the traditional American belief of individual success within the system. In the early decades of this century, anarchy and socialism were regarded as viable alternatives to an American social system many viewed as flawed. Alternative political beliefs were seen by many as a new hope for America. But in The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill shows that this hope is no more attainable than the roomers’ elusive dreams. Even those who believe that the American dream is an illusion have nothing to offer in its stead.


Harry Hope’s saloon, Larry notes at the beginning of the play, is “harmless as a graveyard.” In a sense, however, Hope’s saloon is a graveyard—“The End of the Line Café,” as Larry calls it. The saloon’s inhabitants cling to their pipe dreams, but their lives are essentially over. Death is the next stop. Larry claims to hope for death. He welcomes it as “a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me.”

As long as the roomers have their pipe dreams, they believe they can hold death at bay, but Hickey’s arrival brings the reality of death. Hickey first brings a spiritual death, telling the roomers that their pipe dreams are empty. Later, Hickey brings literal death into the world of Hope’s Saloon; not only is the news of Evelyn’s murder shattering, it ultimately paves the way for Parritt’s death. Larry, who tells Parritt that his only solution is suicide, becomes Larry’s executioner. After Parritt’s death, Larry says, “By God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here.” No longer a mere observer, Larry’s desire for death is now a reality.

Page 148  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Research the anarchist movement of the early-twentieth century, particularly the life of Emma Goldman. What do you feel might have led people like Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh to first embrace and then abandon the anarchist movement?
  • Compare and contrast the roomers in The Iceman Cometh with the tramps Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. To what extent do the roomers and the tramps control their respective fates?
  • Research the physical and social effects of alcoholism. What part does alcohol play in the lives of O’Neill’s roomers? What social circumstances contribute to their drinking?
  • Discuss the women in O’Neill’s play, considering both those onstage and those who are only spoken of. Why are so few of the women onstage? What does the play suggest about relationships between women and men?
  • Compare and contrast The Iceman Cometh with Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. What differences do you think might be attributed to the fact that Gorky is a Russian writer while O’Neill is an American? How are the playwrights’ views of dreams and illusions similar? How are they different?

Numerous critics have pointed out that the “iceman” of O’Neill’s title is in fact Death, the Grim Reaper. It is Death that has come to Evelyn, sent by Hickey into the arms of the iceman at last. And it is Death that Hickey brings to Hope’s saloon. However, as the play ends, the roomers are able to resume their pipe dreams, denying Death access. Even Parritt’s suicide is unnoticed by all but Larry. Hickey is able to return to his own pipe dream, to deny his hatred of Evelyn as well as his responsibility for her death. He believes that he must have been insane. Only Larry realizes that Death has truly come to Hope’s. For him, that has changed everything.


The characters in The Iceman Cometh are isolated from mainstream society. This is evident from the beginning, when the curtain opens on the drunken, sleeping men alone in the literal world of their dreams. As the play progresses, the essential isolation of the characters becomes clear. Even awake, each character remains caught in his or her own dream. There is a sort of camaraderie among O’Neill’s roomers, but this small sense of community is revealed as a thin veneer following Hickey’s arrival; his proclamations of false dreams reveal an underlying animosity. Forced to face their hopeless realities, the roomers fight among themselves until Hickey’s departure allows them to return to their pipe dreams.

Parritt arrives at Hope’s bar searching for Larry, hoping to end his own isolation. He comes to the ex-anarchist because he recalls Larry being kind to him. Larry, however, rejects Parritt’s appeal for friendship. He believes himself to be in the grandstand, an isolated observer rather than a participant in life, and he intends to remain, isolated, uninvolved.

Hickey also seeks an end to his isolation. In past visits, he was satisfied with his superficial friendship with the roomers. Now, however, he claims to have given up on his pipe dream and is not content with just changing his own life. In his search for relief from isolation, Hickey wants the roomers to come to his realization. His story about murdering Evelyn is an attempt to understand his pain he has felt, but the roomers make it clear that they don’t want to hear him. Only when he declares that he must have been insane, when he is willing to return Page 149  |  Top of Articleto superficial relationships, is he once more accepted by the roomers.

Larry, despite his efforts, develops a brief but real connection with Parritt. That connection, however, only brings him pain. As the play closes, the roomers return to their thin sense of camaraderie, but O’Neill reveals the depth of their isolation. When the roomers begin to sing in celebration of Hope’s birthday, each sings a completely different song. Larry, meanwhile, is spiritually as well as physically isolated from the group. Each of the characters ends the play alone.



The Iceman Cometh is set in the summer of 1912 in Harry Hope’s saloon, a seedy establishment on the downtown West Side of New York. All of the play’s action takes place either in the bar or the back room of the saloon, visually affirming O’Neill’s intention that the bar is a world unto itself. The condition of the bar reflects the hopeless squalor of the roomers’ lives. O’Neill describes the walls and ceiling as once white but “now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty.” Adding to the play’s themes of alienation and isolation, the windows are so filthy that it is impossible to see the outside world through them. The bar is crowded with tables and chairs “so close together that it is a difficult squeeze to pass between them.” This crowded condition adds to the suffocating nature of the bar, its atmosphere of hopelessness and despair. Because the setting changes little throughout the play, the audience gains a gradual sense of the saloon’s oppressiveness.

The only major change in the setting occurs in Act II, when the saloon is decorated for Hope’s birthday party. The room has been cleaned, and a space has been cleared for dancing. Added props, such as a piano, presents, and the birthday cake, contribute to the festive atmosphere. But this lighter setting stands in sharp contrast to the anger and accusations that evolve later in the act, as the camaraderie is destroyed by Hickey’s proselytizing. In this case, the party setting heightens the effect of the stage action with a visual contrast to the dark emotions that present themselves. In the final two acts, the saloon resumes its atmosphere of dirt and despair. In fact, in the final act, when the roomers have come full circle and returned to their pipe dreams, the set is once more as it appeared in Act I, heightening the sense that—save Larry’s situation—little has really changed.

Time and the Theater

A recurring criticism of The Iceman Cometh is that, at nearly four hours running time, the play is simply too long. This begs the question: Is it proper to fault a play for its length? Such a criticism may seem petty and is rarely leveled at novels or poems. It is this sort of criticism, in fact, that brings into relief an important difference between drama and other forms of literature. Unlike other genres, a written drama is not the play’s finished form. The final work is the production (resulting from the work of actors, directors, set dressers, and others involved with the staging) that emerges from the text. A play exists in time in a way that other forms of literature do not. A production of The Iceman Cometh cannot be set aside like a paperback novel, to be picked up later at the viewer’s leisure. An audience’s ability to focus on the play over a continuous time period is a factor that must be taken into consideration.

Directors do consider attention spans. It is not at all uncommon for a director to provide his own “criticism” by cutting the playwright’s dialogue. One director, in fact, managed to shave the running time of The Iceman Cometh by one hour through extensive script edits. It is important, however, that the student of drama not arbitrarily set an “ideal” length for a play. It is more useful to consider the ultimate effect of the play’s length. Does that length serve a useful purpose? In The Iceman Cometh the length of the play adds to the feeling of oppressiveness and hopelessness. The continued repetition in O’Neill’s dialogue, which is sometimes cut by directors who fail to grasp the meaning in its iterations, emphasizes the redundant, looping quality of the characters’ lives. The extreme length of the play contributes to the suffocating atmosphere of Hope’s saloon.


A symbol is something that stands for or suggests something other than itself. In The Iceman Cometh the iceman is a symbol of death. In the time period of the play, before there were electric refrigerators, people owned iceboxes which kept food cold by keeping it in an enclosed space with large Page 150  |  Top of Articleblocks of ice. The ice was delivered by the iceman, who traveled from door to door.

From the beginning of the play, the roomers look forward to Hickey’s running gag about leaving his wife in bed with the iceman. When they discover how much Hickey has changed, some begin to suspect that he did find his wife with the iceman. The figure of the iceman is easily associated with death. In western culture, death is traditionally associated with cold. In addition, it was once customary to use ice to preserve corpses until they could be buried. From this practice comes the slang expressions “to put someone on ice” or “to ice someone,” both of which mean “to kill” that “someone.” The iceman Hickey left Evelyn with is Death. When used in the title with the word “cometh,” the implication is that Death comes in the present tense—it is always arriving for someone. At the end of the play, Death comes for Parritt. Larry expresses a longing for Death, the iceman, who will eventually come for everyone in the bar.

The Unities

The unities are the three rules that govern classical drama. They are unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Unity of time generally means that the action of a play should take place within a twenty-four-hour period. Unity of place means that the action of the play should take place in one location. Unity of action means that events must follow logically from one another.

The concept of the unities originated in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his treatise Poetics. Many, however, consider Aristotle’s discussion of the unities descriptive; he is simply describing the dramatic style of his own time. During the Renaissance, however, the unities became prescriptive—rules for playwrights to follow—particularly in Italy and France. Following the rule of the unities was supposed to make a play more believable for the audience.

In The Iceman Cometh O’Neill adheres to the three unities. The play takes place in one location, within a relatively short period of time, and with events following logically from one another. O’Neill, greatly influenced by classical drama, may have used the unities in order to create an association between The Iceman Cometh and classic Greek tragedy. The unities can contribute to a sense of realism. The audience lives the events as the characters live them and thus experiences the stagnation and despair of Hope’s saloon as if it were real.


Anarchy in the U.S.

During the late-1800s, anarchy, the belief that all systems of government are immoral and unnecessary, was a serious political movement in the United States. Following the assassination of President William McKinley by an anarchist in 1901, anarchists were banned from entering the country; nonetheless, the movement remained viable. Emma Goldman, perhaps the best remembered of the anarchists of this period, may have served as a model for Parritt’s mother. Goldman was still quite active in 1912, the year in which The Iceman Cometh is set. But by the time O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh in 1939, Goldman had been deported to the Soviet Union and, in 1938, the House of Representatives had set up a committee to investigate so-called un-American activities. The major movements of the radical left—anarchism, socialism, and communism—were not as strong as they had been in previous years.

During the early-1930s, the first years of the Depression, with its worsening economic conditions, led many to turn to the radical left for solutions. But by the 1939, when O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, the increasing success of labor unions, the reforms of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the 1938 passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (which set a minimum wage of forty cents an hour and a maximum workweek of 44 hours) made radical change seem less necessary. In addition, increasing military tension in Europe had begun to command the time and attention of Americans. German leader Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland marked the beginning of World War II.

Although Americans now tend to romanticize World War II as a justifiable war that enjoyed popular support from the beginning, this was not the case in 1939. The radical left opposed U.S. involvement in what they considered an imperialist war. But it was not only the left that had qualms about American involvement. Shortly after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, President Roosevelt announced in a radio broadcast, “This nation remains a neutral nation.” It was not until the United States itself was attacked by Japan two years later—the December 7,

Page 151  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow


  • 1912: Temperance groups work toward the goal of complete prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Eight years later Prohibition becomes the law of the land.

    1939: Six years after Prohibition ends in failure, alcoholism continues to be a major social problem. The fledgling group Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935, works to help people overcome what is perceived as a personal failing.

    Today: Alcoholism is now generally viewed as a disease that often has a strong genetic component, but the problem of alcoholism is far from solved. Approximately 18 million Americans are alcoholics and teen drinking is a serious problem.

  • 1912: In spite of a 1901 law prohibiting anarchists from entering the country, the anarchist movement is close to the peak of its popularity in the United States. Socialism and communism are also considered by many to be serious alternatives to capitalism.

    1939: The increasing success of labor unions, the reforms of the New Deal, and laws designed to protect workers make the radical left’s criticism of government seem less potent.

    Today: The dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union result in a general sense in America that what the radical left offers is no longer a viable alternative. The movements of the radical left still exist, but within the United States, anarchism, communism, and socialism have virtually no popular support.

  • 1912: The women’s movement fights for suffrage (the right to vote) and the right to birth control. Social discrimination and discrimination in employment and education remain strongly in force.

    1939: Having won the right to vote and the right to birth control, many believe the women’s movement is no longer necessary. National attention is focused on the economy and the war in Europe.

    Today: Women have earned legal rights equal to those of men, but in actual practice, women still face discrimination. Feminists are particularly concerned about the rights of women in non-Western nations.

  • 1912: Discrimination against African Americans is widespread. Many southern Blacks move North but continue to endure poverty and racism.

    1939: Some of the reforms of the New Deal benefit African Americans but social and legal discrimination remain.

    Today: Discrimination against African Americans is no longer legal or socially acceptable, but many more Blacks than whites suffer from poverty and a lack of education. Affirmative action programs, which have aimed at providing more opportunities for non-whites, are under attack by conservative politicians.

1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor—that America entered the war.

Civil Rights in the Early-Twentieth Century

In 1912, the primary issue for women’s groups was that of suffrage, the right to vote. Women were actively engaged in social issues, particularly in assisting the poor and fighting for temperance, the prohibition of alcoholism. In order to achieve the reforms they desired, however, women realized that they needed to be able to vote. Another important issue for women was birth control. In 1912, the distribution of birth control information was illegal in the United States. The anarchist Emma Goldman was active in the fight for birth control, which had Page 152  |  Top of Articlethe potential of giving women the same sexual freedom allowed to men. In 1920, women won the right to vote, and in the decade following that victory, doctors were legally allowed to dispense birth control information. With these successes, many women assumed that their movement was no longer necessary. That and the economic troubles of the Depression made women’s rights much less of an issue by 1939.

In 1912, discrimination against African Americans was widespread. In every southern state, African Americans were denied the right of suffrage. In some states, blacks were prohibited from opening businesses of any kind. In 1909, white northerners and blacks joined together and formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which fought for racial equality. Nonetheless, tremendous discrimination continued, especially in the South. Many southern African Americans moved North but could often only work as laborers or servants, if they could find work at all. In addition, many whites in the North and South continued to consider blacks as their intellectual and social inferiors. Joe Mott, the only black character in The Iceman Cometh, has himself absorbed this attitude and continually speaks of himself as being white or acting white. He and the other roomers consider this high praise and a superior social position than that afforded to blacks.

By 1939, many blacks had benefited from the reforms of the New Deal. Employment and social discrimination continued, however. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied the singer Marian Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., solely because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest, then assisted in making arrangements for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. This incident helped to cement African American support for the president and first lady, which translated into support for the Democratic Party.

1930s Culture

While Americans of the late-1930s were dealing with the harsh realities of the Depression and the approaching war, much of the popular culture of the time provided a means of escape from the bleak reality of daily life. This is perhaps best exemplified by the films of the era. Light entertainers such as Shirley Temple, the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, and Mae West were all popular in the 1930s. In 1937, the first full-length animated film, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was produced. The year 1939 saw the production of the fantasy film The Wizard of Oz. The movie version of Margaret Mitchell’s romantic Gone with the Wind, the most popular novel of the decade, was also produced in 1939. At first, this focus on escapism seems quite at odds with the bleak world of The Iceman Cometh. But the pipe dreams of the roomers in O’Neill’s dark world reflect nothing so much as the decade’s need for an escape from reality.


Although The Iceman Cometh is now considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century drama, when the play first appeared on Broadway in 1946, its critical reception was mixed. By the time of the play’s production, O’Neill was a well-established playwright, a recipient of the Nobel Prize, and The Iceman Cometh marked the end of his twelve-year absence from Broadway. Rosamond Gilder, whose review for Theatre Arts is reprinted in O’Neill and his Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, noted “O’Neill’s return has done more than give the new season a fillip of interest; it has restored to the theatre something of its intrinsic stature.” Of the play itself, Gilder wrote, “The Iceman Cometh is made of good theatre substance—meaty material for actors, racy dialogue, variety of character, suspense and passion.” In his book Eugene O’Neill, Normand Berlin quoted George Jean Nathan, who remarked in his review of this production that The Iceman Cometh made other American plays seem “like so much damp tissue paper.”

Yet the play was not free from negative commentary. As Berlin noted, “Those who faulted the play mentioned its prosaic language, its schematic arrangements and, most often, its excessive length.” It is the latter criticism that has continued to haunt the play even as it has received greater and greater acclaim in the decades since its debut. Repeatedly, critics have complained that a full production of The Iceman Cometh, which takes nearly five hours, is simply too long.

Gilder noted in her review that the play “could readily be compressed into a more reasonable running time.” A shorter version, she wrote, “would have brought into sharper focus the conflicting and merging elements of the three chief figures of the fable. The subsidiary characters are not sufficiently important or rounded to demand the time and attention

Page 153  |  Top of Article

A scene from the original 1946 Broadway production, featuring James Barton as Hickey and Dudley Diggs as saloon owner Harry Hope A scene from the original 1946 Broadway production, featuring James Barton as Hickey and Dudley Diggs as saloon owner Harry Hope

they absorb.” Critic Brooks Atkinson, whose review of the 1956 revival is also reprinted in Cargill’s book, disagreed. Atkinson allowed that the play “could be cut and compressed without destroying anything essential.” “But,” he continued, “as a creative work by a powerful writer, it is entitled to its excesses, which, in fact, may account for the monumental feeling of doom that it pulls down over the heads of the audience.”

As director of the German-language premiere, Eric Bentley, whose writing on the matter also appears in Cargill’s book, clarified his own position on the matter of length. By cutting O’Neill’s dialogue, Bentley managed to shave one hour off the length of his production. “Not wishing to cut out whole characters,” he wrote, “we mutilated some till they had, I’m afraid, no effective existence.” The result, Bentley claimed, was a “shortened, crisper version.” In his book O’Neill’s Scenic Images, however, Timo Tiusanen wrote that Bentley in his production “apparently cut away part of the spontaneity of the play.” Tiusanen suggested that “It is conceivable that the criterion of those most eager to shorten O’Neill has been a play with a tightly knit plot. The Iceman Cometh is a play of another kind.”

Berlin agreed that extensive cutting does a disservice to the play. In O’Neill’s Shakespeare, he wrote of O‘Neill’s roomers, “We live with them for four hours; a long time—a time that is necessary because O’Neill wants us to feel the sheer survival quality of these creatures who have come to the ‘last harbor.’” The play is long, according to Berlin and many other critics, because it needs to be long. Its length is intrinsic to O’Neill’s purpose.

Another important issue that arises in the play’s criticism is the question of which character in the play is O’Neill’s protagonist. Bentley argued that “Larry is . . . the center of the play.” But that is so because the stories of Parritt and Hickey “are brought together through Larry Slade whose destiny . . . is to extract the secret of both protagonists.” In other words, Larry is central only because he serves the purpose of drawing together the primary characters. Berlin remarked in O’Neill’s Shakespeare that he saw Larry as “the play’s central character, certainly the most haunting character.”

Though he is central, however, for Berlin, Larry functions as the Fool, a traditional character, particularly in Renaissance comedy and tragedy, described by Berlin as “seemingly set apart, looking at the others in the play, commenting on them, Page 154  |  Top of Articleallowing us to see the world through his eyes, which are clear and awake and contain a gleam of sardonic humor.” For Berlin, Larry, like the Fool in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, provides a crucial commentary on what happens onstage but is not really a part of the play’s action. In The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O‘Neill, Edwin A. Engel described Larry as the protagonist but noted that Larry serves “a choral function as he comments upon the action and interprets the motives of the numerous other characters.” Although Engel compared Larry to the chorus of ancient Greek drama, rather than the Fool, he too saw Larry’s centrality as related to his commentary, not his participation in the action.

Tiusanen also believed that The Iceman Cometh functions with what is essentially a Greek chorus, but for him, that chorus was not Larry but the roomers at Hope’s saloon. For Tiusanen, Larry was “a pivotal character,” but the play’s protagonist is Hickey. Tiusanen quoted Tom F. Driver, who wrote that “The play might be diagrammed with three concentric circles.” For Driver, the outermost circle is occupied by Harry and the roomers, the second by Larry and Parritt. Hickey, however, “occupies the play’s innermost circle.” The story Hickey tells “is virtually a play within the play and . . . the core of the entire business.”

A more uncommon view of the protagonist’s identity was expressed by Rolf Scheibler in his book The Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill. For Scheibler, Harry Hope “is the centre of this little world, and if we are to speak of a protagonist at all, it is he who is the main character.” It is Hope who “enables the outcasts to lead the kind of life they want.” He gives them “food, drink, and rooms, and thus grants them the shelter they need.” Hope’s name is also significant for Scheibler. “The only hope for man to gain his soul lies in adopting the tolerant attitude of the saloon owner.” For Scheibler, the “simple message” of The Iceman Cometh is that “if we are tolerant, we shall not lose our spirituality even if we are subject to the laws of nature. And then, by doing what is possible to-day, perhaps there will be a better tomorrow.” Because Hope embodies this attitude, Scheibler saw him as the play’s protagonist. It should be noted, however, that Scheibler remains in the minority in this view. Most critics see either Larry or Hickey as the play’ central figure.

The question of the identity of the play’s protagonist, or whether the play even has a real protagonist, will doubtless remain a subject of disagreement among critics. In spite of differences of interpretation, however, and consideration of possible flaws, such as the play’ length, most critics now agree on one point: The Iceman Cometh is a play of major importance among O’Neill’s work as well as in the history of twentieth-century American drama.


Clare Cross

Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern drama. In this essay she discusses Hickey’ wife and Parritt’ mother in terms of sexual stereotypes.

In Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh, the two most significant female characters never appear onstage. These women, Parritt’s mother, Rosa, and Hickey’s wife, Evelyn, although physically absent throughout the play, are nonetheless powerfully present in the lives of the men who know them. Indeed, Rosa and Evelyn are absolutely essential to the action of the play. Yet O’Neill chose to give these women no voices of their own; the audience sees them exclusively through the eyes of the men who hated and ultimately destroyed them. The result is an incomplete picture of who Rosa and Evelyn really are. An examination of these women and their places in the play must therefore take into consideration the distortion of the lens through which the audience views them.

Edwin A. Engel wrote in his book The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill: “Hickey’s wife and Parritt’ other represent antithetical aspects of love—the former an excess of love and forgiveness, the latter a deficiency. Both generate hate in the men who are closely associated with them.” By framing the love of Evelyn and Rosa in terms of “excess” and “deficiency,” Engel essentially faults them for not adhering to some sort of ideal degree of love. His comment that the women “generate hate” suggests that they are to blame for the hatred the men feel, and by extension, are at least partly responsible for their own downfall. The women are essentially destroyed, however, because they are not what the men want or expect them to be. While this can certainly be framed in terms of how much love Evelyn and Rosa are supposed to have for Hickey and Parritt, perhaps a clearer and more telling way to consider this issue is in terms of sexual stereotypes.

Page 155  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow


  • The Lower Depths, a 1902 play by Maxim Gorky, is also concerned with the lives of a group of outcasts and their desire to use illusion to shield themselves from the pain of life.
  • Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett written in 1952, focuses on two tramps who wait vainly for the arrival of the mysterious figure Godot to give meaning and purpose to their lives.
  • Living My Life is the 1934 autobiography of famed anarchist Emma Goldman, who may have served as a model for Parritt’s mother Rosa. Goldman’s story provides useful context for Larry and Parritt’s discussions regarding the Movement.
  • The Lost Weekend is a 1944 novel by Charles Jackson. It is the story of an alcoholic who attempts to resist drinking but finds he is helpless before his addiction. The film version, which was produced in 1946, the year of the first production of The Iceman Cometh, adds an optimistic ending not warranted by Jackson’s dark novel.
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night, an O’Neill play produced in 1956, is an autobiographical domestic tragedy dealing with addiction and dysfunctional relationships. The play is widely considered to offer insight into O’Neill’s personal life.

In the time in which O’Neill was writing, the ideal, traditional woman was absolutely selfless and, although willing to accommodate her husband’s sexual needs, was without any sexual desire of her own. If married, she put her husband’s needs before her own. If a mother, she sacrificed everything for her children. Published in The Conscious Reader, Virginia Woolf described such an ideal in her 1942 essay, “The Angel in the House,” named for the heroine of a Victorian poem:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above—I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace.

The life of Rosa Parritt is antithetical to that of this “ideal” woman, the angel in the house. Rosa is therefore seen as a selfish and unloving mother, and her son hates her. Evelyn, on the other hand, is an angel in the house in every way. Still, because of her selflessness and love, Hickey grows to hate her as much as Parritt hates his mother. In The Iceman Cometh, these women are, as the saying goes, damned if they do/damned if they don’t. Whether or not they fix themselves to the model of the angel in the house, Rosa Parritt and Evelyn Hickman are condemned, hated, and ultimately destroyed by the primary men in their lives.

Rosa is a political activist, a sexual being, and a parent. In all three roles she rejects traditional femininity and is, in turn, rejected by her son, who finds her mothering skills lacking. The first time the audience hears of Rosa it is in regard to her political actions. Larry reports that she has been arrested for her participation in an anarchist bombing that resulted in several deaths. The action of the play occurs in 1912, eight years before women even had the right to vote. In a time when women have no political voice at all and are expected to accept the system run by men, Rosa is dedicated not simply to a change in government but to the abolition of government itself; where women are supposed to be passive, the “gentle sex,” Rosa takes violent action; when women are supposed to live for their families, Rosa is dedicated to the Movement.

Even in radical political movements, women have often been expected to stand on the sidelines, Page 156  |  Top of Articlesupporting the men. The American women’s movement of the 1970s, in fact, partly grew out of women’s frustration with the way they were treated within the radical student movements of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Female students felt that they were expected to subordinate themselves to men. But Rosa takes a back seat to no one. In essence, Rosa acts like a man, and her dedication to her lifestyle, which would probably be acceptable, even admirable, in a man, is part of the reason for Parritt’s hatred.

Speaking to Larry of his mother, Parritt says, “To hear her go on sometimes, you’d think she was the Movement.” Larry immediately recognizes the hostility of this comment. He is “puzzled and repelled” and tells Parritt, “That’s a hell of a way for you to talk, after what happened to her!” Parritt quickly backtracks: “Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t sneering Larry, only kidding.” It is clear, however, that even if said in jest, Parritt’s comment is still hostile. Elsewhere Parritt shows that his hostility regarding his mother’s political involvement stems from his own feeling that, largely because of Rosa’s dedication to the Movement, she was not the good mother for which he longed. He tells Larry, “You were the only friend of Mother’s who ever paid attention to me. . . . All the others were too busy with the Movement. Even Mother.”

Parritt recognizes that, for Rosa, the Movement took precedence over all personal relationships and is therefore puzzled that Rosa continued to write Larry after he left the Movement. Parritt says that, in regard to the Movement, his mother is “Like a revivalist preacher about religion. Anyone who loses faith in it is more than dead to her; he’s a Judas who ought to be boiled in oil.” Parritt knows that the bond between mother and child is not as sacred to Rosa as her political beliefs. Just before he commits suicide at the end of the play, Parritt anticipates Rosa’s reaction to his death. “It’ll give her the chance to play the great incorruptible Mother of the Revolution, whose only child is the Proletariat. She’ll be able to say: ‘Justice is done! So may all traitors die!. . . I am glad he’s dead! Long live the Revolution!’” While very few would admire this level of fanaticism in men or women, such sentiment is especially intolerable in a mother, who, by stereotypical definition, is supposed to be selfless and forgiving, to always put her children’s needs before her own.

The angel in the house does not allow herself sexual freedom—or even sexual feeling. Rosa Parritt, however, does. “You’ve always acted the free woman,” Parritt tells her when she complains about his keeping company with prostitutes. The word “free” in this context means sexually free. Rosa does not play the part of the ideal wife, who has sex to please her husband, or the prostitute, who at first glance may seem more free. In fact, the prostitute is not free at all. She too has sex to please men; the sex act is not gratifying to her. When Hickey talks about joking with prostitutes, making them laugh, Cora responds, “Jees, all de lousy jokes I’ve had to listen to and pretend was funny!” Rosa’s sexual relationships are for her own pleasure. She even uses men in the way men have traditionally used women.

Parritt tells Larry that Rosa still respected Larry because he left her before she left him. “She got sick of the others before they did of her. I don’t think she ever cared about them anyway. She just had to keep on having lovers to prove to herself how free she was.” The possibility that Rosa had sexual relations for her own pleasure is unthinkable to Parritt. Rosa’s sexual freedom is offensive to her son. “Living at home,” he says, “was like living in a whorehouse—only worse, because she didn’t have to make her living.” As Parritt recalls, even the tolerant Larry objected to Rosa’s sexual freedom. “I remember her putting on her high-and-mighty free-woman stuff, saying you were still a slave to bourgeois morality and jealousy and you thought a woman you loved was a piece of private property you owned. I remember that you got mad and told her, ‘I don’t like living with a whore, if that’s what you mean!’” Rosa’s sexual freedom would be more acceptable in a man, but because she is a woman who has sex without being a wife or a prostitute she is condemnable. To Parritt and, if Parritt’s story is accurate, to Larry, Rosa is even worse than a whore, fit neither to be a good wife nor a good mother, unwilling to sacrifice her own feelings to the desires of men.

If Rosa Parritt’s life is a repudiation of the “traditional woman” concept, Evelyn Hickman is the angel in the house. She is so selfless, loving, and forgiving that she seems to be more of a fantasy ideal than a real woman. When Hickey drinks or goes to prostitutes, Evelyn forgives him. When he gives her venereal disease, she pretends to believe he got it from sharing drinking cups on trains and again forgives her husband. When Hickey doesn’t come home from a drinking binge for more than a month, she never expresses anger when he returns. When he promises to change, she believes him. And Page 157  |  Top of Articlewhen he inevitably returns to his old ways, Evelyn, as always, forgives him.

In his book The Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Rolf Scheibler called Evelyn “an unattainable ideal,” but she is an ideal only when seen in terms of her adherence to the role of the angel in the house. A man who behaved the same way would be considered a “sucker,” a “pushover,” a “sap.” Scheibler also stated that Evelyn “finds that happiness can be achieved by giving and forgiving.” In reality, however, the audience never knows whether or not Evelyn is happy, whether or not she believes her husband’s empty promises, and whether or not she ever truly forgives his trespasses. She is, after all, seen only through Hickey’s eyes, and it is convenient for him to believe in her happiness. For the angel in the house, however, the question of personal happiness does not even arise; she is required to always place others’ needs and feelings above her own. Acceptance of such a duty, however, should not be construed as happiness.

Evelyn completely embraces the role of the angel in the house, yet Hickey is no more satisfied with her than Parritt is with Rosa. Hickey cannot tolerate the guilt he feels at Evelyn’s love and forgiveness. “That’s what made me feel such a rotten skunk,” Hickey tells the roomers, “her always forgiving me.” According to Hickey, it is not his own actions that make him feel guilty; Evelyn’s forgiveness is to blame. “Sometimes,” he says, “I couldn’t forgive her for forgiving me. I even caught myself hating her for making me hate myself so much.” In contrast to Parritt, Hickey wants Evelyn to act less like a traditional woman and more like a man. He believes it would be better if she committed adultery as he had.

Hickey’s belief is reinforced by Jimmy Tomorrow, whose wife did respond to his drinking by sleeping with other men. “I was glad to be free,” Jimmy says, “even grateful to her, I think, for giving me such a good tragic excuse to drink as much as I damned well pleased.” Evelyn, however, gives Hickey no such excuse. So he turns his disgust with himself into hatred for Evelyn. He finally murders her because, in comparison to himself, she is too perfect, too good.

Hickey kills Evelyn for her attainment of the feminine ideal, while Parritt betrays his mother to a fate he says is worse than death for her rejection of that ideal. Both women are ultimately destroyed because of the way they choose to live. Rosa’s scorn for the role of the traditional female displeases her son; Evelyn’s acceptance of that role—and her perfection of its ideals—confronts her husband with his own inadequacies. Both women pay with their lives.

Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

Robert Brustein

Brustein is a noted literary critic as well as a respected director of drama. In this essay he reviews a 1985 revival of The Iceman Cometh that features the 1956 Circle in the Square production’s star and director—Jason Robards and Jose Quintero. The critic finds that both the play and the creative talents behind its staging have aged well.

When The Iceman Cometh was first produced by the Theater Guild in the mid-1940s, hostile intellectual critics invidiously compared it with Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Gorky’ The Lower Depths. After it was successfully revived ten years later by Circle in the Square, commentators began to recognize that, for all its clumsy dialogue, repetitiveness, and schematic plotting, the play was a great work that surpassed even those distinguished influences in depth and power. Today, almost 40 years after its initial appearance with James Barton and Dudley Digges, The Iceman Cometh has been restaged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre by the original director of the Circle in the Square revival (Jose Quintero) with the same Hickey (Jason Robards) and, despite arthritic moments in the production, emerges not only richer than ever but as the inspiration for much that has been written for the stage since.

The play resonates. It is at the same time familiar and strange. One is caught in its potent grip as by a gnarled and crippled hand. Robards, with his past history of alcoholism and air of personal suffering, has always been the American actor who shows the greatest personal affinity with O’Neill’s spiritual pain, and this blood kinship, coupled with a valiant heart, carries him through the handicaps of playing Hickey in his late 60s. Hair darkened, face rouged, mouth dentured, energy flagging, Robards would now appear to be too old for the part, and there are times when he seems less to be living his role than remembering it. Still, if the performance is a bit of an overpainting, Robards has belonged to Hickey for many years, and when this remarkable actor makes his first entrance in a boater and off-the-rack pin-striped suit, throwing his bankroll at Rocky the bartender and exhorting the inmates of Harry Hope’s saloon in his slurred whiskey bass, Page 158  |  Top of Articlethere is a thrill of simultaneous immediacy and recognition.

The Iceman Cometh resonates. It is at the same time familiar and strange. One is caught in its potent grip as by a gnarled and crippled hand. Age has given Robards an extraordinary translucency—pallid skin, transparent eyes. His Hickey continually promises his drunken friends the reward of spiritual peace (each act but the last ends on the word “happy”), but for all his drummer’s energy, finger snapping, vaudeville physicality, and carny shill delivery, he is a ghost from the moment he walks on stage. Robards is continually undermining his character’s professed optimism, as when he gets “sleepy all of a sudden,” trips over a chair, and falls into a faint; Robards’s face goes slack as though he’s had a minor stroke. For while Hickey has the remorseless cheeriness of an American evangelist (he was no doubt inspired by Billy Sunday or by Bruce Barton’s characterization of Jesus as the world’s greatest salesman), only Larry Slade looks as deeply into the abyss of life without hope or redemption.

Robards is surrounded by a fine cast, the one weakness being Paul McCrane’s rather flaccid Parritt. Barnard Hughes is a roistering Harry Hope, John Christopher Jones an intellectually degenerate Willie Oban, James Greene a gaunt Jimmy Tomorrow, and Donald Moffat a dignified Larry Slade, while most of the smaller roles are played with strength. Still, Robards’s realism, even when unfulfilled, is of such intensity that it sometimes makes the others seem a little “classical.” Take Barnard Hughes, so ingratiating and roguish when holding court in his saloon but not quite anguished enough when his “pipe dream” is exposed, or Donald Moffat, quietly eloquent and detached throughout the play, yet resorting to languorous legato cadences in his time of agonizing self-recognition.

And I wish that Quintero had been a little bolder in his approach. Ben Edwards’s bar setting is selectively seedy, and Jane Greenwood’s costumes really look like secondhand clothes that have been rotting on the bodies of the characters. But apart from the opening scene, with the stubble-bearded living-dead derelicts sleeping open-mouthed under Thomas R. Skelton’s pasty light, there has been little effort to suggest that this is a world at the bottom of the sea or that The Iceman Cometh has a reverberant symbolic interior as well as a naturalist facade. Quintero acknowledges O’Neill’s hints (in his archaic title and elsewhere) that Hickey and his 12 companions bear a strong resemblance to Christ and his disciples—Parritt being Judas and Larry being Peter, the rock on which he builds his church—and that Harry Hope’s birthday party is based on the Last Supper (his actors fall into poses inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Hickey hovering over them with his palms outstretched).

But otherwise the production is a retread of the one staged in 1956, as if nothing had happened to the theater in 30 years. Even the exits and entrances seem designed for Broadway applause. I don’t mean this version is old-fashioned—it has too much life for that—and I admit that a more imaginative interpretation might very well have obscured the play’s intentions. Still, O’Neill was a very reluctant convert to Ibsenite realism (“holding the family Kodak up to ill-nature,” as he called it) and never truly abandoned his devotion to symbolic substructures. A play as thickly faceted (and familiar) as this one deserves more audacious treatment.

Even conventionally staged, however, The Iceman Cometh has lost none of its consuming power. The play is long—it lasts almost five hours—and sometimes painfully repetitious, since each character is identified by a single obsession that he continually restates. Thus, each act offers a single variation on the theme of illusion. The action never bursts into spontaneous life; and the characters rarely escape O’Neill’s rigid control, as, say, Falstaff escapes Shakespeare’ or Mother Courage escapes Brecht’s. Still, one must recognize that the work consists not of one but of 13 plays, each with its own story; O’Neill has multiplied his antagonists in order to illuminate every possible aspect of his theme, and every rationalization, whether religious, racial, political, sexual, psychological, or philosophical, with which humankind labors to escape the truths of raw existence. And in some crazy inexplicable way, the very length of the play contributes to its impact, as if we had to be exposed to virtually every aspect of universal suffering in order to feel its full force.

This exhaustiveness of design probably accounts for the influence of The Iceman Cometh on so much subsequent work; seeing the play today is like reading the family tree of modern drama. Surely, Death of a Salesman, also recently revived (superbly) as a film for television, owes a strong debt to The Iceman Cometh, with its O’Neillian theme of an illusory tomorrow embodied in another philandering drummer cheating on another saintly wife in out-of-town hotels. (The name Willy Loman even unconsciously echoes O’Neill’s character Willie Page 159  |  Top of ArticleOban.) Hickey’s long-delayed entrance (“Would that Hickey or Death would come”) may have inspired a similar long-awaited figure, Beckett’s Godot, who, like Hickey, stands in an almost supernatural punitive relationship to hapless derelicts. And there is no question that Jack Gelber’s dazed junkies in The Connection owe a great deal to O’Neill’s drunks in Harry Hope’s “End of the Line Cafe,” just as it is likely that if the play were written today, the characters would have been drug addicts.

I cite this partial list of influences not to swell the secondary reading list of the dramatic lit syllabus but to suggest how a great play over time becomes a seedbed of riches. And The Iceman Cometh is as great a play as the modern theater has produced. The current production brings no new insights. It is occasionally badly paced and laborious, especially in the overly schematic third act; and the actors, gifted as they are, sometimes draw back from the precipice. But by the conclusion of this long evening, this masterwork has managed to cut to the bone, and that makes the production a signal event in any Broadway season.

Source: Robert Brustein, “Souls on Ice” in the New Republic, Vol. 193, no. 18, October 28, 1985, pp. 41–43.

Stark Young

In this review Stark appraises the 1946 Broadway production of O‘Neill ’ play. In his positive assessment of the staging, the critic labels the work “beautiful, luminous, filled with the witty and the poetic together mingled.”

“The Iceman Cometh” marks the return of Eugene O’Neill to Broadway after an absence of twelve years. The performance of the play runs into two sessions, of about an hour and a quarter before the dinner intermission, and two and three-quarters after. The Theatre Guild, by its own lights, has brought the highest intentions to its production, a large company mostly of experienced actors, plus the dècor by Robert Edmond Jones and the directing by Eddie Dowling.

The scene of “The Iceman Cometh” is Harry Hope’s, a saloon with a back room curtained off, which can pass as a restaurant and run Sundays as well as week days, and with lodgers upstairs, which turns it into a Raines Law hotel that can stay open night and day. Among the guests are a former Harvard man; a one-time editor of Anarchist periodicals; a one-time police lieutenant; a Negro, onetime proprietor of a Negro gambling house; a one-time

Sidebar: HideShow


leader of a Boer commando; a one-time Boer War correspondent; a one-time captain of British infantry; a onetime Anarchist; a one-time circus man; a young man from the West Coast, who has squealed on his Anarchist mother; a hardware salesman; the day and night bartenders; and three tarts. They have, the majority of them, fallen from what they once were and live in a kind of whiskey-sodden dream of getting back: tomorrow will make everything right. The first session of “The Iceman Cometh”—absorbing and in the early O’Neill manner—is taken up with the revelation of the various characters as they wait for the arrival of Hickey, the hardware salesman, who joins them every year at this time to celebrate Harry’s birthday with a big drunk. Hickey arrives, greets them with the old affection and surprises them with the announcement that he has left off drink and that he has come to save them not from booze but from pipe-dreams. It is these, he says, that poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace; he is free and contented now, like a new man, all you need is honesty with yourself, to stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrow. He hands out a $10 bill to start the party and falls asleep from fatigue.

In the next act Hickey’s effect is seen. Harry must go out on the street for the first time in twenty years and see his friends in the ward about the alderman’s post they had once offered him; the short-change expert must go back to the circus; the various others back to their old positions in life; the day bartender and one of the tarts must go on and marry instead of always talking about it, et cetera. But now the friendly backwater of sots and wrecks and whores turns into hate, violent rows and imminent fights. Hickey gets them all out, one by one; he knows they will come back again, beaten but free of their pipe-dreams, and so will find peace. They all return, everything has gone wrong, even the whiskey Page 160  |  Top of Articlehas lost its kick. Hickey, who has confessed to killing his beloved and loving wife, to free her and free himself from a torturing pipe-dream of his reform, turns out to be insane, and this at last, and this only, frees them. All but two, for whom death is the end, go back to their dreams, somewhat gloriously, and the whiskey works again.

Eddie Dowling has directed “The Iceman Cometh” in his by now well known style. His is a method sure to be admired: it consists largely in a certain smooth security, an effect of competence, of keeping things professional and steady, and often of doing pretty much nothing at all. To this he adds in “The Iceman Cometh” a considerable degree of stylized performance, actors sitting motionless while another character or other groups take the stage. Since there is a good deal of stylization in the structure of” The Iceman Cometh” this may well be justified. But in my opinion the usual Dowling method brought to the directing of this O’Neill play would gain greatly by more pressure, more intensity and a far darker and richer texture.

The same remark applies to the acting. It is a relief to see so many expert actors instead of the usual run of technically indifferent players we so often get on Broadway nowadays. The three actresses who have the tart roles belong, alas, to this latter indifferent rank; otherwise the acting is notable for its excellence, especially E.G. Marshall, Nicholas Joy, Frank Tweddel, Carl Benton Reid and Russell Collins, plus fair enough performances by Paul Crabtree, John Morriott and Tom Pedi. James Barton as Hickey, a most central character in the entire motivation and movement of the play, prays the part very much, I should imagine, as Eddie Dowling would have played it, judging from his performance in “The Glass Menagerie” and elsewhere, and from his directing. Which means a sort of playing that is competent, wholly at ease and with a something that appears to settle the matter, to close the subject as it were, so that for the moment at least you are prevented from thinking of anything else that could be done about it. Only afterward do you keep realizing what might have been there and was not. Russell Collins could have played the role of Hickey with much more inner concentration, depth, projection and unbroken emotional fluency.

It was these qualities that appeared in Dudley Digges’s performance. His Harry, the proprietor, was on a different plane from every other to be seen on the stage at the Martin Beck. It was exact, with the exactness that belongs to all fine art; and full of the constant surprise that appears in all first-rate art whatever, as it does in whatever is alive in our life. It was beautiful, luminous, filled with the witty and the poetic together mingled. ‘Twere to consider too curiously to consider so, as Horatio says, and most unfair, perhaps, to wonder what would happen to “The Iceman Cometh” if more of the players could do the same by it. But that would imply no doubt a condition equal to that of the Moscow Art Theatre in Gorky’s “The Lower Depths.” How much the play could be cut or not cut then would remain to be seen. As “The Iceman Cometh” now stands, it is a remarkable play but could certainly be cut.

Robert Edmond Jones’s setting for “The Iceman Cometh” seems to me one of those impalpable evocations of his in the medium of decor, austere, elegant and elusively poetic, and uncannily right for the realistic-poetic quality of this O’Neill drama. It suggests, too, the same passionate undercurrent of feeling that lies within the play throughout.

Source: Stark Young, “O’Neill and Rostand” in the New Republic, Vol. 115, no. 16, October 21, 1946, pp. 517–18.


Atkinson, Brooks. Review of The Iceman Cometh in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, New York University Press, 1961, pp. 212-13.

Bentley, Eric. “Trying to Like O’Neill” in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, New York University Press, 1961, pp. 331-45.

Berlin, Normand. O’Neill’s Shakespeare, University of Michigan Press, 1993, pp. 176-77.

Engel, Edwin A. The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill, Harvard University Press, 1953, pp. 283-86.

Gilder, Rosamond. Review of The Iceman Cometh in O ‘Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher, New York University Press, 1961, pp. 203-08.

Tiusanen, Timo. O’Neill’s Scenic Images, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 265-73.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Angel in the House” in The Conscious Reader, edited by Caroline Shrodes, Harry Finestone, and Michael Shugrue, Macmillan, 1988, pp. 264-68.

Page 161  |  Top of Article


Berlin, Normand. Eugene O’Neill, Macmillan, 1982.

This book provides a brief biography of O’Neill and a general introduction to his plays.

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Harper, 1960.

This is a more extensive, in-depth biography of O’Neill.

Scheibler, Rolf. The Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Francke Verlag, 1970.

This book provides a careful analysis of The Iceman Cometh as well several of O’Neill’s later plays.

Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century: A People’ History, Harper & Row, 1984.

This book presents a history of twentieth-century America from a leftist political perspective.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693000018