Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is early morning in the summer of 1912. In the back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope’s saloon, with tables and chairs squeezed closely together, nine men are seated, mostly dozing, at the tables, including sixty-year-old host Harry Hope and Larry Slade, about the same age. Larry’s expression of tired tolerance gives his face “the quality of a pitying but weary old priest’s.” These men are alcoholics who frequent the saloon. With the exception of the black Joe Mott, they are also roomers who live on the upstairs floors. All are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the salesman Hickey, due to join them to celebrate Hope’s birthday the next day. Larry, contemplating his friends’ and his addiction to alcohol, comments in an early speech, “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us.”
Don Parritt, an eighteen-year-old, good-looking but unpleasant fellow who rented one of Hope’s rooms the previous night, engages Larry in an intense conversation. Don is the only son of Rosa Parritt, an anarchist leader arrested and imprisoned for a bombing on the West Coast. Larry speculates that some member of the movement betrayed Rosa to the police and hopes that the informer’s soul will rot in hell. He left the movement eleven years ago, having come to regard humanity as too base for its idealism. Parritt describes his mother as an independent, fierce-willed woman who took and abandoned many men, including Larry. Sardonically, Larry tells Parritt not to expect any intimacy from him, because he has none left to give and only wishes to be left alone.
Willie Oban, a dropout from Harvard Law School, hopes that “Hickey or Death would come!” Two streetwalkers, Margie and Pearl, return from their night’s work and turn their earnings over to Rocky, the night bartender, who deeply resents being called a pimp, just as they insist that they are tarts, not whores. The day bartender, Chuck, a tough but amiable Italian American, enters with his girlfriend Cora, a thin blonde several years older than Pearl and Margie. Cora is also a prostitute.
Toward the end of act 1 Hickey finally arrives; he’s a roly-poly man of fifty, with a salesman’s affable, hearty personality. Warmly welcomed, he shocks his friends by announcing his abstention from alcohol and his evangelical program for these derelicts: He will rescue them from the illusions of their “pipe dreams,” will force them to confront themselves honestly and realistically; then they will find the peace that he now has.
In act 2 the regulars assemble toward midnight for Hope’s long-awaited birthday party. They are anxious and...
(The entire section is 1094 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
With The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill discarded the literary sources and devices with which he had been experimenting for so long, as if they were pipe dreams of his own that protected him from the pain of reality, to concentrate upon realistic material and characters whom he had known firsthand. He set the action of the play in 1912, probably the most important year of his life, when he returned from South America, penniless and despondent, and landed at Jimmy-the-Priest’s in New York.
In the play, Jimmy-the-Priest’s becomes Harry Hope’s saloon, where whiskey costs five cents a shot and where a month’s room and board, including a cup of soup, is three dollars. Of the nineteen characters O’Neill shapes—bartenders, pimps, whores, ne’er-do-wells, retirees—most are based on the assorted derelicts and homeless people O’Neill encountered at that low period of his life. The Iceman Cometh is a naturalistic drama of “the lower depths,” a genre displaying life at the extremities as more real, elemental, and meaningful than that of the pretentious, artificial middle class. Thus, the characters are the dregs of society, with few resources and fewer opportunities. Their heredity and the environment have victimized them.
Almost classical in its adherence to the unities of time and place, the play is structured like a musical theme and variations. Each character seeks an escape through alcohol from the pain of living. Each maintains an existence through a “pipe dream” he or she has created, an illusion surrounding the self that allows a continuance of the lifestyle cultivated at Harry Hope’s. This motif is announced early in Larry Slade’s response to Rocky’s joking remarks that Harry is going to demand payment from everyone—tomorrow. Larry says:I’ll be glad to pay up—tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They’ve all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows. Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!
The theme is developed through repetition by each character of a particular dream—some comic, some serious, but all illusory.
Into this milieu of fantasy comes Hickey, the charismatic drummer (salesman), on his annual birthday visit. He is eagerly awaited by Harry’s denizens, but this year...
(The entire section is 973 words.)