Sexual Stereotypes in The Iceman Cometh

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern drama. In this essay she discusses Hickey's wife and Parritt's mother in terms of sexual stereotypes.

In Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh, the two most significant female characters never appear onstage. These women, Parritt's mother, Rosa, and Hickey's wife, Evelyn, although physically absent throughout the play, are nonetheless powerfully present in the lives of the men who know them. Indeed, Rosa and Evelyn are absolutely essential to the action of the play. Yet O'Neill chose to give these women no voices of their own; the audience sees them exclusively through the eyes of the men who hated and ultimately destroyed them. The result is an incomplete picture of who Rosa and Evelyn really are. An examination of these women and their places in the play must therefore take into consideration the distortion of the lens through which the audience views them.

Edwin A. Engel wrote in his book The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill: "Hickey's wife and Parritt's other represent antithetical aspects of love—the former an excess of love and forgiveness, the latter a deficiency. Both generate hate in the men who are closely associated with them.'' By framing the love of Evelyn and Rosa in terms of "excess'' and "deficiency," Engel essentially faults them for not adhering to some sort of ideal degree of love. His comment that the women "generate hate" suggests that they are to blame for the hatred the men feel, and by extension, are at least partly responsible for their own downfall. The women are essentially destroyed, however, because they are not what the men want or expect them to be. While this can certainly be framed in terms of how much love Evelyn and Rosa are supposed to have for Hickey and Parritt, perhaps a clearer and more telling way to consider this issue is in terms of sexual stereotypes. In the time in which O'Neill was writing, the ideal, traditional woman was absolutely selfless and, although willing to accommodate her husband's sexual needs, was without any sexual desire of her own. If married, she put her husband's needs before her own. If a mother, she sacrificed everything for her children. Published in The Conscious Reader Virginia Woolf described such an ideal in her 1942 essay, "The Angel in the House," named for the heroine of a Victorian poem:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it—in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above—I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty—her blushes, her great grace.

The life of Rosa Parritt is antithetical to that of this "ideal'' woman, the angel in the house. Rosa is therefore seen as a selfish and unloving mother, and her son hates her. Evelyn, on the other hand, is an angel in the house in every way. Still, because of her selflessness and love, Hickey grows to hate her as much as Parritt hates his mother. In The Iceman Cometh , these women are, as the saying goes, damned if they do/damned if they don't. Whether or not they fix themselves to the model of the angel in the house, Rosa Parritt and Evelyn Hickman are condemned, hated, and ultimately destroyed by the...

(This entire section contains 2144 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

primary men in their lives.

Rosa is a political activist, a sexual being, and a parent. In all three roles she rejects traditional femininity and is, in turn, rejected by her son, who finds her mothering skills lacking. The first time the audience hears of Rosa it is in regard to her political actions. Larry reports that she has been arrested for her participation in an anarchist bombing that resulted in several deaths. The action of the play occurs in 1912, eight years before women even had the right to vote. In a time when women have no political voice at all and are expected to accept the system run by men, Rosa is dedicated not simply to a change in government but to the abolition of government itself; where women are supposed to be passive, the "gentle sex," Rosa takes violent action; when women are supposed to live for their families, Rosa is dedicated to the Movement.

Even in radical political movements, women have often been expected to stand on the sidelines, supporting the men. The American women's movement of the 1970s, in fact, partly grew out of women's frustration with the way they were treated within the radical student movements of the late-1960s and early-1970s. Female students felt that they were expected to subordinate themselves to men. But Rosa takes a back seat to no one. In essence, Rosa acts like a man, and her dedication to her lifestyle, which would probably be acceptable, even admirable, in a man, is part of the reason for Parritt' s hatred.

Speaking to Larry of his mother, Parritt says, "To hear her go on sometimes, you'd think she was the Movement." Larry immediately recognizes the hostility of this comment. He is "puzzled and repelled'' and tells Parritt, "That's a hell of a way for you to talk, after what happened to her!'' Parritt quickly backtracks: "Don't get me wrong. I wasn't sneering Larry, only kidding." It is clear, however, that even if said in jest, Parritt's comment is still hostile. Elsewhere Parritt shows that his hostility regarding his mother's political involvement stems from his own feeling that, largely because of Rosa's dedication to the Movement, she was not the good mother for which he longed. He tells Larry, "You were the only friend of Mother's who ever paid attention to me.... All the others were too busy with the Movement. Even Mother."

Parritt recognizes that, for Rosa, the Movement took precedence over all personal relationships and is therefore puzzled that Rosa continued to write Larry after he left the Movement. Parritt says that, in regard to the Movement, his mother is "Like a revivalist preacher about religion. Anyone who loses faith in it is more than dead to her; he's a Judas who ought to be boiled in oil." Parritt knows that the bond between mother and child is not as sacred to Rosa as her political beliefs. Just before he commits suicide at the end of the play, Parritt anticipates Rosa's reaction to his death. "It'll give her the chance to play the great incorruptible Mother of the Revolution, whose only child is the Proletariat. She'll be able to say: 'Justice is done! So may all traitors die!.. .I am glad he's dead! Long live the Revolution!'" While very few would admire this level of fanaticism in men or women, such sentiment is especially intolerable in a mother, who, by stereotypical definition, is supposed to be selfless and forgiving, to always put her children's needs before her own.

The angel in the house does not allow herself sexual freedom—or even sexual feeling. Rosa Parritt, however, does. "You've always acted the free woman,'' Parritt tells her when she complains about his keeping company with prostitutes. The word "free" in this context means sexually free. Rosa does not play the part of the ideal wife, who has sex to please her husband, or the prostitute, who at first glance may seem more free. In fact, the prostitute is not free at all. She too has sex to please men; the sex act is not gratifying to her. When Hickey talks about joking with prostitutes, making them laugh, Cora responds, "Jees, all de lousy jokes I've had to listen to and pretend was funny!" Rosa's sexual relationships are for her own pleasure. She even uses men in the way men have traditionally used women.

Parritt tells Larry that Rosa still respected Larry because he left her before she left him. "She got sick of the others before they did of her. I don't think she ever cared about them anyway. She just had to keep on having lovers to prove to herself how free she was." The possibility that Rosa had sexual relations for her own pleasure is unthinkable to Parritt. Rosa's sexual freedom is offensive to her son. "Living at home,'' he says, "was like living in a whorehouse—only worse, because she didn't have to make her living." As Parritt recalls, even the tolerant Larry objected to Rosa's sexual freedom. "I remember her putting on her high-and-mighty free-woman stuff, saying you were still a slave to bourgeois morality and jealousy and you thought a woman you loved was a piece of private property you owned. I remember that you got mad and told her, 'I don't like living with a whore, if that's what you mean!' Rosa's sexual freedom would be more acceptable in a man, but because she is a woman who has sex without being a wife or a prostitute she is condemnable. To Parritt and, if Parritt's story is accurate, to Larry, Rosa is even worse than a whore, fit neither to be a good wife nor a good mother, unwilling to sacrifice her own feelings to the desires of men.

If Rosa Parritt's life is a repudiation of the "traditional woman" concept, Evelyn Hickman is the angel in the house. She is so selfless, loving, and forgiving that she seems to be more of a fantasy ideal than a real woman. When Hickey drinks or goes to prostitutes, Evelyn forgives him. When he gives her venereal disease, she pretends to believe he got it from sharing drinking cups on trains and again forgives her husband. When Hickey doesn't come home from a drinking binge for more than a month, she never expresses anger when he returns. When he promises to change, she believes him. And as always, forgives him.

In his book The Late Plays of Eugene O 'Neill, Rolf Scheibler called Evelyn "an unattainable ideal," but she is an ideal only when seen in terms of her adherence to the role of the angel in the house. A man who behaved the same way would be considered a "sucker," a "pushover," a "sap." Scheibler also stated that Evelyn "finds that happiness can be achieved by giving and forgiving." In reality, however, the audience never knows whether or not Evelyn is happy, whether or not she believes her husband's empty promises, and whether or not she ever truly forgives his trespasses. She is, after all, seen only through Hickey's eyes, and it is convenient for him to believe in her happiness. For the angel in the house, however, the question of personal happiness does not even arise; she is required to always place others' needs and feelings above her own. Acceptance of such a duty, however, should not be construed as happiness.

Evelyn completely embraces the role of the angel in the house, yet Hickey is no more satisfied with her than Parritt is with Rosa. Hickey cannot tolerate the guilt he feels at Evelyn's love and forgiveness. "That's what made me feel such a rotten skunk," Hickey tells the roomers, "her always forgiving me." According to Hickey, it is not his own actions that make him feel guilty; Evelyn's forgiveness is to blame. "Sometimes," he says, "I couldn't forgive her for forgiving me. I even caught myself hating her for making me hate myself so much." In contrast to Parritt, Hickey wants Evelyn to act less like a traditional woman and more like a man. He believes it would be better if she committed adultery as he had.

Hickey's belief is reinforced by Jimmy Tomorrow, whose wife did respond to his drinking by sleeping with other men. "I was glad to be free," Jimmy says, "even grateful to her, I think, for giving me such a good tragic excuse to drink as much as I damned well pleased.'' Evelyn, however, gives Hickey no such excuse. So he turns his disgust with himself into hatred for Evelyn. He finally murders her because, in comparison to himself, she is too perfect, too good.

Hickey kills Evelyn for her attainment of the feminine ideal, while Parritt betrays his mother to a fate he says is worse than death for her rejection of that ideal. Both women are ultimately destroyed because of the way they choose to live. Rosa's scorn for the role of the traditional female displeases her son; Evelyn's acceptance of that role—and her perfection of its ideals—confronts her husband with his own inadequacies. Both women pay with their lives.

Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

A Review of The Iceman Cometh

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Brustein is a noted literary critic as well as a respected director of drama. In this essay he reviews a 1985 revival of The Iceman Cometh that features the 1956 Circle in the Square production's star and director—Jason Robards and Jose Quintero. The critic finds that both the play and the creative talents behind its staging have aged well.

When The Iceman Cometh was first produced by the Theater Guild in the mid-1940s, hostile intellectual critics invidiously compared it with Ibsen's The Wild Duck and Gorky's The Lower Depths. After it was successfully revived ten years later by Circle in the Square, commentators began to recognize that, for all its clumsy dialogue, repetitiveness, and schematic plotting, the play was a great work that surpassed even those distinguished influences in depth and power. Today, almost 40 years after its initial appearance with James Barton and Dudley Digges, The Iceman Cometh has been restaged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre by the original director of the Circle in the Square revival (Jose Quintero) with the same Hickey (Jason Robards) and, despite arthritic moments in the production, emerges not only richer than ever but as the inspiration for much that has been written for the stage since.

The play resonates. It is at the same time familiar and strange. One is caught in its potent grip as by a gnarled and crippled hand. Robards, with his past history of alcoholism and air of personal suffering, has always been the American actor who shows the greatest personal affinity with O'Neill's spiritual pain, and this blood kinship, coupled with a valiant heart, carries him through the handicaps of playing Hickey in his late 60s. Hair darkened, face rouged, mouth dentured, energy flagging, Robards would now appear to be too old for the part, and there are times when he seems less to be living his role than remembering it. Still, if the performance is a bit of an overpainting, Robards has belonged to Hickey for many years, and when this remarkable actor makes his first entrance in a boater and off-the-rack pin-striped suit, throwing his bankroll at Rocky the bartender and exhorting the inmates of Harry Hope's saloon in his slurred whiskey bass, there is a thrill of simultaneous immediacy and recognition.

The Iceman Cometh resonates. It is at the same time familiar and strange. One is caught in its potent grip as by a gnarled and crippled hand. Age has given Robards an extraordinary translucency—pallid skin, transparent eyes. His Hickey continually promises his drunken friends the reward of spiritual peace (each act but the last ends on the word "happy"), but for all his drummer's energy, finger snapping, vaudeville physicality, and carny shill delivery, he is a ghost from the moment he walks on stage. Robards is continually undermining his character's professed optimism, as when he gets "sleepy all of a sudden," trips over a chair, and falls into a faint; Robards's face goes slack as though he's had a minor stroke. For while Hickey has the remorseless cheeriness of an American evangelist (he was no doubt inspired by Billy Sunday or by Bruce Barton's characterization of Jesus as the world's greatest salesman), only Larry Slade looks as deeply into the abyss of life without hope or redemption.

Robards is surrounded by a fine cast, the one weakness being Paul McCrane's rather flaccid Parritt. Barnard Hughes is a roistering Harry Hope, John Christopher Jones an intellectually degenerate Willie Oban, James Greene a gaunt Jimmy Tomorrow, and Donald Moffat a dignified Larry Slade, while most of the smaller roles are played with strength. Still, Robards's realism, even when unfulfilled, is of such intensity that it sometimes makes the others seem a little "classical." Take Barnard Hughes, so ingratiating and roguish when holding court in his saloon but not quite anguished enough when his "pipe dream'' is exposed, or Donald Moffat, quietly eloquent and detached throughout the play, yet resorting to languorous legato cadences in his time of agonizing self-recognition.

And I wish that Quintero had been a little bolder in his approach. Ben Edwards's bar setting is selectively seedy, and Jane Greenwood's costumes really look like secondhand clothes that have been rotting on the bodies of the characters. But apart from the opening scene, with the stubble-bearded living-dead derelicts sleeping open-mouthed under Thomas R. Skelton's pasty light, there has been little effort to suggest that this is a world at the bottom of the sea or that The Iceman Cometh has a reverberant symbolic interior as well as a naturalist facade. Quintero acknowledges O'Neill's hints (in his archaic title and elsewhere) that Hickey and his 12 companions bear a strong resemblance to Christ and his disciples—Parritt being Judas and Larry being Peter, the rock on which he builds his church—and that Harry Hope's birthday party is based on the Last Supper (his actors fall into poses inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's painting, Hickey hovering over them with his palms outstretched).

But otherwise the production is a retread of the one staged in 1956, as if nothing had happened to the theater in 30 years. Even the exits and entrances seem designed for Broadway applause. I don't mean this version is old-fashioned—it has too much life for that—and I admit that a more imaginative interpretation might very well have obscured the play's intentions. Still, O'Neill was a very reluctant convert to Ibsenite realism ("holding the family Kodak up to ill-nature," as he called it) and never truly abandoned his devotion to symbolic substructures. A play as thickly faceted (and familiar) as this one deserves more audacious treatment.

Even conventionally staged, however, The Iceman Cometh has lost none of its consuming power. The play is long—it lasts almost five hours—and sometimes painfully repetitious, since each character is identified by a single obsession that he continually restates. Thus, each act offers a single variation on the theme of illusion. The action never bursts into spontaneous life; and the characters rarely escape O'Neill's rigid control, as, say, Falstaff escapes Shakespeare's or Mother Courage escapes Brecht's.

Still, one must recognize that the work consists not of one but of 13 plays, each with its own story; O'Neill has multiplied his antagonists in order to illuminate every possible aspect of his theme, and every rationalization, whether religious, racial, political, sexual, psychological, or philosophical, with which humankind labors to escape the truths of raw existence. And in some crazy inexplicable way, the very length of the play contributes to its impact, as if we had to be exposed to virtually every aspect of universal suffering in order to feel its full force.

This exhaustiveness of design probably accounts for the influence of The Iceman Cometh on so much subsequent work; seeing the play today is like reading the family tree of modern drama. Surely, Death of a Salesman, also recently revived (superbly) as a film for television, owes a strong debt to The Iceman Cometh, with its O'Neillian theme of an illusory tomorrow embodied in another philandering drummer cheating on another saintly wife in out-of-town hotels. (The name Willy Loman even unconsciously echoes O'Neill's character Willie Oban.) Hickey's long-delayed entrance ("Would that Hickey or Death would come") may have inspired a similar long-awaited figure, Beckett's Godot, who, like Hickey, stands in an almost supernatural punitive relationship to hapless derelicts. And there is no question that Jack Gelber's dazed junkies in The Connection owe a great deal to O'Neill's drunks in Harry Hope's "End of the Line Cafe,'' just as it is likely that if the play were written today, the characters would have been drug addicts.

I cite this partial list of influences not to swell the secondary reading list of the dramatic lit syllabus but to suggest how a great play over time becomes a seedbed of riches. And The Iceman Cometh is as great a play as the modern theater has produced. The current production brings no new insights. It is occasionally badly paced and laborious, especially in the overly schematic third act; and the actors, gifted as they are, sometimes draw back from the precipice. But by the conclusion of this long evening, this masterwork has managed to cut to the bone, and that makes the production a signal event in any Broadway season.

Source: Robert Brustein, "Souls on Ice'' in the New Republic, Vol. 193, no. 18, October 28, 1985, pp. 41–43.

Review of the Original Staging

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In this review Stark appraises the 1946 Broadway production of O'Neill's play. In his positive assessment of the staging, the critic labels the work "beautiful, luminous, filled with the witty and the poetic together mingled.''

The Iceman Cometh marks the return of Eugene O'Neill to Broadway after an absence of twelve years. The performance of the play runs into two sessions, of about an hour and a quarter before the dinner intermission, and two and three-quarters after. The Theatre Guild, by its own lights, has brought the highest intentions to its production, a large company mostly of experienced actors, plus the décor by Robert Edmond Jones and the directing by Eddie Dowling.

The scene of The Iceman Cometh is Harry Hope's, a saloon with a back room curtained off, which can pass as a restaurant and run Sundays as well as week days, and with lodgers upstairs, which turns it into a Raines Law hotel that can stay open night and day. Among the guests are a former Harvard man; a one-time editor of Anarchist periodicals; a one-time police lieutenant; a Negro, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house; a one-time leader of a Boer commando; a one-time Boer War correspondent; a one-time captain of British infantry; a one-time Anarchist; a one-time circus man; a young man from the West Coast, who has squealed on his Anarchist mother; a hardware salesman; the day and night bartenders; and three tarts. They have, the majority of them, fallen from what they once were and live in a kind of whiskey-sodden dream of getting back: tomorrow will make everything right.

The first session of The Iceman Cometh—absorbing and in the early O'Neill manner—is taken up with the revelation of the various characters as they wait for the arrival of Hickey, the hardware salesman, who joins them every year at this time to celebrate Harry's birthday with a big drunk. Hickey arrives, greets them with the old affection and surprises them with the announcement that he has left off drink and that he has come to save them not from booze but from pipe-dreams. It is these, he says, that poison and ruin a guy's life and keep him from finding any peace; he is free and contented now, like a new man; all you need is honesty with yourself, to stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrow. He hands out a $10 bill to start the party and falls asleep from fatigue.

In the next act Hickey's effect is seen. Harry must go out on the street for the first time in twenty years and see his friends in the ward about the alderman's post they had once offered him; the short-change expert must go back to the circus; the various others back to their old positions in life; the day bartender and one of the tarts must go on and marry instead of always talking about it, et cetera. But now the friendly backwater of sots and wrecks and whores turns into hate, violent rows and imminent fights. Hickey gets them all out, one by one; he knows they will come back again, beaten but free of their pipe-dreams, and so will find peace. They all return, everything has gone wrong, even the whiskey has lost its kick. Hickey, who has confessed to killing his beloved and loving wife, to free her and free himself from a torturing pipe-dream of his reform, turns out to be insane, and this at last, and this only, frees them. All but two, for whom death is the end, go back to their dreams, somewhat gloriously, and the whiskey works again.

Eddie Dowling has directed The Iceman Cometh in his by now well known style. His is a method sure to be admired: it consists largely in a certain smooth security, an effect of competence, of keeping things professional and steady, and often of doing pretty much nothing at all. To this he adds in The Iceman Cometh a considerable degree of stylized performance, actors sitting motionless while another character or other groups take the stage. Since there is a good deal of stylization in the structure of The Iceman Cometh this may well be justified. But in my opinion the usual Dowling method brought to the directing of this O'Neill play would gain greatly by more pressure, more intensity and a far darker and richer texture.

The same remark applies to the acting. It is a relief to see so many expert actors instead of the usual run of technically indifferent players we so often get on Broadway nowadays. The three actresses who have the tart roles belong, alas, to this latter indifferent rank; otherwise the acting is notable for its excellence, especially E.G. Marshall, Nicholas Joy, Frank Tweddel, Carl Benton Reid and Russell Collins, plus fair enough performances by Paul Crabtree, John Morriott and Tom Pedi.

James Barton as Hickey, a most central character in the entire motivation and movement of the play, plays the part very much, I should imagine, as Eddie Dowling would have played it, judging from his performance in "The Glass Menagerie'' and elsewhere, and from his directing. Which means a sort of playing that is competent, wholly at ease and with a something that appears to settle the matter, to close the subject as it were, so that for the moment at least you are prevented from thinking of anything else that could be done about it. Only afterward do you keep realizing what might have been there and was not. Russell Collins could have played the role of Hickey with much more inner concentration, depth, projection and unbroken emotional fluency.

It was these qualities that appeared in Dudley Digges's performance. His Harry, the proprietor, was on a different plane from every other to be seen on the stage at the Martin Beck. It was exact, with the exactness that belongs to all fine art; and full of the constant surprise that appears in all first-rate art whatever, as it does in whatever is alive in our life. It was beautiful, luminous, filled with the witty and the poetic together mingled. 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so, as Horatio says, and most unfair, perhaps, to wonder what would happen to The Iceman Cometh if more of the players could do the same by it. But that would imply no doubt a condition equal to that of the Moscow Art Theatre in Gorky's "The Lower Depths.'' How much the play could be cut or not cut then would remain to be seen. As The Iceman Cometh now stands, it is a remarkable play but could certainly be cut.

Robert Edmond Jones's setting for The Iceman Cometh seems to me one of those impalpable evocations of his in the medium of décor, austere, elegant and elusively poetic, and uncannily right for the realistic-poetic quality of this O'Neill drama. It suggests, too, the same passionate undercurrent of feeling that lies within the play throughout.

Source: Stark Young, "O'Neill and Rostand" in the New Republic, Vol. 115, no. 16, October 21, 1946, pp. 517-18.


The Iceman Cometh