Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama)
Eugene O’Neill himself remarked that The Iceman Cometh has little plot in the ordinary sense; he believed that the theme was carried primarily by the characters. The residents of the boardinghouse are all failures; all were onetime viable members of society, but all have been kept from having to face their degeneration by the illusion that he or she will or at least could make up for that failure and become a success. They help sustain one another by professing mutual belief in one another’s pipe dreams. O’Neill’s grim point is that all people have such dreams and that any attempt to live without them is doomed. Even the determination to live without illusions or the conviction that one has moved beyond such dreams through philosophy or cynicism is itself usually a pipe dream. That even a genuine disillusionment cannot solve this problem is exemplified by Larry’s shattered condition at the end of the play: Dreams, even delusory ones, may constitute a positive, if not finally optimistic, note in this bleak context.
The relatively straightforward theme is given depth and resonance by being reinforced at several different levels. Character names are symbolic, beginning with that of Harry Hope, who runs a hotel full of drifters living on impossible hopes. Parritt is, as his name implies, a symbolic parrot in his role as a police informer; the greedy bartender is named Pioggi, “pig.” The revolutionary Hugo Kalmar’s surname is a...
(The entire section is 439 words.)
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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 black 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,...
(The entire section is 1038 words.)