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...
(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....
(The entire section is 973 words.)
Act 1 Summary
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 with 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,...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Act 2 Summary
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 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...
(The entire section is 261 words.)
Act 3 Summary
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, proving 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....
(The entire section is 350 words.)
Act 4 Summary
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 policemen, 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 him, 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....
(The entire section is 530 words.)