Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671

Cold Storage is a philosophical play that combines the most traditional of concerns with the most existential of contexts. At the play’s core is the perennial philosophical question: What is the good life? Its context is a contemporary metaphor for human beings’ existential condition: the slow death of survivors in a cancer ward.

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The cancer ward is a microcosm, and the vacuous rituals of modern life are represented by the hospital routine. There are many rules and procedures, most of them intended to make the patients docile and helpless. “It’s just a hospital regulation to wheel you around from place to place so you can get used to being a cripple,” Parmigian explains. Reminders of debilitation abound. The surgical supply store across the street, where body parts are stored “like pieces of cordwood,” resembles some grotesque plastic concentration camp. The busy schedule of the inmates is a meaningless ritual; it consists of meals and of moving one’s wheelchair from one location to another. The remaining patients are signified by a lonely bridge player in the card room, the survivor of a shipwreck long ago, who waits endlessly for three other patients able and willing to sit up and play the game. Day-to-day life is a schedule of useless and humiliating medical procedures. In the struggle with the staff, one’s only protection from total neglect is to participate in everything and to be interesting: “Make yourself interesting the night before they make up the schedule. Make sure they put you down on the list.”

The system of which the hospital is a part is monolithic, omnipresent, and beyond appeal: “Nothing is allowed to interfere with the power cables beneath the street. What has grown beautiful on the surface must not offend the thrust of power below the surface.” There is no mention of who or what controls this vast mechanism. The idea of God is conspicuous only by its absence. The people who administer the system are like so many little Adolf Eichmanns, sitting at their desks and doing their jobs. Like the men who cut down trees as soon as the roots entangle the power cables, they snap at those who dare to question them, “Mind your own business, Jack.”

Cold Storage was written in the shadow of World War II, and it bears the mark of the disillusionment and hopelessness which that war inflicted upon the Western world. “Real suffering is a catastrophe without language,” and it leaves a wasteland of nothingness in its wake. There is no meaning—“The point is there is no point!” Parmigian states—no hope, nothing to look forward to. The two hopeless cancer patients are alone on a rooftop, one of them contemplating suicide, the other knowing that he has been dead virtually all of his life. These are Ronald Ribman’s metaphors for Western humankind, who, in the aftermath of World War II, has seen too much of what people are capable of doing and who suffers from no anthropocentric illusions. So colossal was the damage wrought by that war, so total the devastation to humankind’s image of itself and of what it means to be a human being, that Oedipus’s need to put out his eyes seems trivial by comparison. “I’m tired of being a man,” says Landau. Technically, Landau survived the war, but Ribman suggests that he has in fact spent his entire adult life in “cold storage,” not quite dead, perhaps, but not alive either.

Such is the human condition as represented in this play. However, while Ribman’s vision offers nothing in the way of ultimate hope, it is not nihilistic. Landau and Parmigian, Jew and Arab (metaphorically at least), the only two cancer ward patients willing to seek the rooftop garden, find each other’s friendship and understanding. They have no expectations, but they seem to believe in a few ideas articulated mainly by Parmigian: “Everything interests me. . . . Everybody makes mistakes. . . . Everything is always inconclusive. . . . Everything has a right to live.”

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