Act 1 of The Iceman Cometh begins in the back room and a section of the bar at Harry Hope’s on an early morning in summer, 1912. The right wall of the back room is a dirty black curtain which separates it from the bar. At the rear, this curtain is drawn back from the wall so the bartender can get in and out. The back room is filled with three rows of tables from front to back, three in the front line, two each in the second and third. To the right of the dividing curtain is a section of the barroom, with the end of the bar visible at the rear and one table in front. Light comes in from the two large street windows on the right, with swinging doors to the street between them.
Larry and Hugo are at the table left front. Hugo is a small man in his late fifties, foreign and radical-looking, like a cartoon of a bomb-throwing Anarchist. He is asleep, his head resting on his arms folded on the table. Larry is tall, sixty, white-haired, and the only occupant of the room who is not asleep. At the middle front table are Joe, Wetjoen, Jimmy, and Lewis. Joe is black, about fifty years old, in a light suit that was once sporty but is now falling apart. Wetjoen, in his fifties, is a Dutch farmer type, a huge man with a bald head and grizzled beard, once muscular but now fat. Jimmy is a small man about the age and size of Hugo, similarly dressed in black, with gentlemanly manners. Lewis is approaching sixty, a stereotypical English military officer, lean and erect, with white hair and mustache. At the table at right front are McGloin and Mosher, both big, paunchy, slovenly men, and Harry Hope, sixty, white-haired, very thin, and a little deaf, though not so deaf as he usually pretends to be. At the left table in the second line sits Willie, in his thirties, with ragged blond hair and clothes fit for a scarecrow.
As the curtain rises, Rocky, a short, muscular Italian, enters through the curtain at the back and, seeing Larry awake, gives him a free drink. As they joke about the other characters, Larry sums up the play’s theme in his second speech: “To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. And that’s enough philosophic wisdom to give you for one drink of rot-gut.” Larry quickly denies that he himself has any dreams left at all; he insists that he is the detached exception to the rule.
As act 1 proceeds, the characters wake up in sequence from their stupors, and each in turn reveals the nature of his own pipe dream, the illusion that keeps him going and helps him keep from seeing himself as the miserable failure he really is. They are all waiting for the arrival of Hickey, who periodically turns up to finance an extended drunk for everyone and enliven the group with his jokes and energy. This particular occasion will be his annual visit for Harry Hope’s birthday, always an especially festive event. When he finally appears, however, he is not the same man to whom they have become accustomed. He is still the quintessential salesman, about fifty, short and stout, friendly, generous, and glib, and he still jokes and buys the drinks, but he does not drink himself, and he has now become obsessed with the idea that he must save them all by getting them to recognize and reject their lying pipe dreams, thereby freeing them from the guilt they feel for not living up to them. He claims to have found “real peace” by facing up to his own illusions and ridding himself of the guilt he had always felt for not achieving his dream. The residents are at first irritated and depressed by his new manner, but after he falls asleep himself at one of the tables they recover their spirits under the influence of alcohol, convincing themselves that he has been joking with them.
Act 2 opens on the back room only, with the black curtain that divides it from...
(The entire section is 5,239 words.)