Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736
The Iceman Cometh is a memory play, with Eugene O’Neill’s homeless outcasts drawn from people he knew, a generation earlier, during his vagabond period. Harry Hope’s saloon is primarily derived from a New York waterfront dive, Jimmy the Priest’s, where O’Neill often stayed in 1911 and 1912, subsisting on free lunches and cheap beer between jobs as a seaman. He also drew on characters he met during a time in the Hell Hole, a Greenwich Village barroom-hotel, and the taproom of the Garden Hotel, located across the street from Madison Square Garden. The prototype for Hope, for example, is Tom Wallace, proprietor of the Hell Hole.
The Iceman Cometh is commonly regarded, along with O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), as among the most impressive dramatic achievements of the twentieth century. Its theme, that most human beings cannot live without illusions, parallels that of Henrik Ibsen’s Vildanden (1884; The Wild Duck, 1891), while its seedy, dissipated characters and gloomy setting resemble Maxim Gorky’s Na dne(1902; The Lower Depths, 1912).
O’Neill assembles fifteen illusionists, all of whom live on alcohol and the pipe dream that they have been or some day will be happy and respectable. The large cast results in an extremely long play, and since each character restates his or her single obsession, the work can also be faulted for being boringly repetitious. O’Neill indulges in his restatements with full awareness of their effect, seeking to achieve a lyric, incantatory effect. The sum of his many characters’ self-deluded dreams is intended to represent no less than the total content of human illusion.
Political illusions are illustrated by Hugo’s will to power through his pretended love of the proletariat. Racial illusions are brought to light by Joe’s insistence on his equality with whites. Domestic illusions are maintained by Chuck and Cora’s fantasy of marriage and a farm. Status illusions are manifested by the prostitutes’ refusal to recognize their whoredom or the bartenders’ refusal to admit their pimp status. Psychological illusions belong to Parritt’s recital of false motives for having betrayed his mother. Intellectual illusions belong to Willie for citing excuses to explain his failure to finish law school. Philosophical illusions are held by Larry Slade as he parades his detachment from all issues and problems. Religious illusions are harbored by Hickey when he professes to have discovered peace and salvation. Together, these outcasts constitute a family of humanity, each able to discern the lie of the other but not his or her own. Before Hickey’s arrival and evangelism, the people exist in relative harmony and toleration by adhering to a vague anticipation of tomorrow, that day when they will confront their feelings and surmount them.
Against this escapism into tomorrow, Hickey insists on interposing his doctrine of today, thereby forcing the unhappy derelicts to live their lives without illusions. Hickey’s antagonist is Larry, who is often doomed to passivity by his penchant for seeing both sides of an issue. He is, however, instinctively kind and compassionate and tries to protect his friends, as well as himself, from Hickey’s drive to destroy all their pipe dreams. Whereas Hickey is certain that only the truth will bring people peace, Larry knows that their survival, uncertain as it is, requires self-deception and mutual deception.
In this play O’Neill rejects any superhuman providence, affirming only humaneness, pity, and friendship. Beneath the text’s realistic surface, he develops an ironic Christian parable. Hickey’s long-delayed entrance has supernatural implications: “Would that Hickey or Death would come,” groans one character. Hickey is identified not only with death—he is, after all, a killer—but also with the iceman, whose coming is a parody of the Savior’s arrival. Hickey turns out to be the false messiah, and Parritt is like Judas Iscariot, having betrayed his mother for money. Larry, admitting at the end that he developed into the only convert to Hickey’s religion of death, assumes the role of Peter, the rock on which Hickey builds his false church.
Hickey escapes tragic dimensions by pleading insanity, so he can escape the grim realization that he hated his forgiving wife. He joins the other derelicts by embracing his own delusion. Larry, however, is too truthful to lie and too cowardly to take his life, as Parritt does. He stares grimly into the abyss as the play ends.