The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Act 1 of The Iceman Cometh begins in the back room and a section of the bar at Harry Hope’s on an early morning in summer, 1912. The right wall of the back room is a dirty black curtain which separates it from the bar. At the rear, this curtain is drawn back from the wall so the bartender can get in and out. The back room is filled with three rows of tables from front to back, three in the front line, two each in the second and third. To the right of the dividing curtain is a section of the barroom, with the end of the bar visible at the rear and one table in front. Light comes in from the two large street windows on the right, with swinging doors to the street between them.
Larry and Hugo are at the table left front. Hugo is a small man in his late fifties, foreign and radical-looking, like a cartoon of a bomb-throwing Anarchist. He is asleep, his head resting on his arms folded on the table. Larry is tall, sixty, white-haired, and the only occupant of the room who is not asleep. At the middle front table are Joe, Wetjoen, Jimmy, and Lewis. Joe is black, about fifty years old, in a light suit that was once sporty but is now falling apart. Wetjoen, in his fifties, is a Dutch farmer type, a huge man with a bald head and grizzled beard, once muscular but now fat. Jimmy is a small man about the age and size of Hugo, similarly dressed in black, with gentlemanly manners. Lewis is approaching sixty, a stereotypical English military officer, lean and...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Some critics complained about the play’s length (more than four and a half hours) when it was first produced, but the full dramatic values of the play were finally recognized when it was produced in 1956 (ten years later) at a small Off-Broadway theater that had formerly been a nightclub. The intimate venue, seating less than two hundred people, and arena staging proved perfect for reproducing the atmosphere of Harry Hope’s seedy saloon, and Jason Robards, Jr., brought a depth and range to the part of Hickey that had been absent from the earlier production, transforming the role into one of the most challenging for subsequent American actors. The length was now seen to be an essential element of the play’s power. O’Neill’s staging was seen to be subtle rather than static, relying on characters passing out or falling asleep onstage rather than a series of awkward entrances and exits to produce different combinations of characters smoothly and realistically. The degree to which this long but carefully constructed play observes the classical unities of space and time became clearly evident only in a well-acted version. Another element of the play in performance is its humor, a quality often overlooked in readings. The camaraderie among the drifters is engaging, and this bleak play begins in an atmosphere of relative warmth. Hickey is presented at first as a character of considerable charm and humor. O’Neill once described The Iceman Cometh as a...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Harry Hope’s saloon
Harry Hope’s saloon. Squalid barroom in lower New York City. Although a fictional creation, it is modeled on three actual spots familiar to Eugene O’Neill: Jimmy the Priest’s, a flophouse where O’Neill landed after a stint at sea; the Hell Hole, a Greenwich Village establishment; and the taproom of the Garden Hotel near the old Madison Square Garden.
O’Neill’s stage directions describe a “dirty black curtain” that separates the backroom from the bar. The backroom, the location of the primary action of the play, is so crammed with tables that it is difficult for anyone to pass through. There is a toilet built out into the room and a nickel-a-slot phonograph. The windows, which look out on a backyard, are filthy, and the walls and ceiling are “splotched, peeled, stained and dusty.” Larry Slade, the “old Foolosopher,” calls it the “No Chance Saloon” and “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller.”
Walled from the street outside, Harry Hope’s saloon provides a place of escape for its occupants, who are social outcasts, derelicts, and failures, existing with their five-cent whiskey, free lunch, and pipe dreams of tomorrow. It is a setting in which one can forget, repress, deny. Symbolically, Harry Hope’s is like a womb: It is warm, cozy, dark, and filled with fluid.
At the end of the first act, the comfortable booziness of the backroom is disturbed by the entrance of...
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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 work-week of 44 hours) made radical change seem less necessary. In addition, increasing...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
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...
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Topics for Further Study
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?
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What Do I Read Next?
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.
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...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
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....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Unites theatrical understanding with textual insights. Emphasizes the resemblance of The Iceman Cometh, in its use of the chorus, to Greek tragedy.
Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and W. J. Fisher, eds. O’Neill and His Plays. New York: New York University Press, 1961. A collection of reviews and articles, including Helen Muchnic’s important essay comparing The Iceman Cometh to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958. Brilliant and short interpretive study, astute in analyzing Larry Slade.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. Reviews the plot of the play in detail.
Raleigh, John Henry. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. Stresses the autobiographical and sociological elements in The Iceman Cometh. Argues that the characters form a hierarchy, not a democracy.
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