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...
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