The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Some critics complained about the play’s length (more than four and a half hours) when it was first produced, but the full dramatic values of the play were finally recognized when it was produced in 1956 (ten years later) at a small Off-Broadway theater that had formerly been a nightclub. The intimate venue, seating less than two hundred people, and arena staging proved perfect for reproducing the atmosphere of Harry Hope’s seedy saloon, and Jason Robards, Jr., brought a depth and range to the part of Hickey that had been absent from the earlier production, transforming the role into one of the most challenging for subsequent American actors. The length was now seen to be an essential element of the play’s power. O’Neill’s staging was seen to be subtle rather than static, relying on characters passing out or falling asleep onstage rather than a series of awkward entrances and exits to produce different combinations of characters smoothly and realistically. The degree to which this long but carefully constructed play observes the classical unities of space and time became clearly evident only in a well-acted version. Another element of the play in performance is its humor, a quality often overlooked in readings. The camaraderie among the drifters is engaging, and this bleak play begins in an atmosphere of relative warmth. Hickey is presented at first as a character of considerable charm and humor. O’Neill once described The Iceman Cometh as a comedy that does not stay funny very long, and the alternative movement between comedy and tragedy has proven crucial to its effective presentation.

The play has been found to be full of hidden meaning at every level, as the wealth of critical literature about it suggests; the very arrangement of the tables on the stage (minutely specified in O’Neill’s stage directions) has proven significant. At Harry’s party, for example, the characters are positioned around the tables exactly as the disciples are in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, suggesting a range of symbolic meanings without a word being spoken. The twelve residents are the twelve disciples, with Hickey as Jesus, Parritt positioned in the place of Judas, and so on, as the physical elements of the staging parallel and reinforce the symbolic elements of the characters’ names and functions.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Harry Hope’s saloon

Harry Hope’s saloon. Squalid barroom in lower New York City. Although a fictional creation, it is modeled on three actual spots familiar to Eugene O’Neill: Jimmy the Priest’s, a flophouse where O’Neill landed after a stint at sea; the Hell Hole, a Greenwich Village establishment; and the taproom of the Garden Hotel near the old Madison Square Garden.

O’Neill’s stage directions describe a “dirty black curtain” that separates the backroom from the bar. The backroom, the location of the primary action of the play, is so crammed with tables that it is difficult for anyone to pass through. There is a toilet built out into the room and a nickel-a-slot phonograph. The windows, which look out on a backyard, are filthy, and the walls and ceiling are “splotched, peeled, stained and dusty.” Larry Slade, the “old Foolosopher,” calls it the “No Chance Saloon” and “The Bottom of the Sea Rathskeller.”

Walled from the street outside, Harry Hope’s saloon provides a place of escape for its occupants, who are social outcasts, derelicts, and failures, existing with their five-cent whiskey, free lunch, and pipe dreams of tomorrow. It is a setting in which one can forget, repress, deny. Symbolically, Harry Hope’s is like a womb: It is warm, cozy, dark, and filled with fluid.

At the end of the first act, the comfortable booziness of the backroom is disturbed by the entrance of Hickey, the salesman, arriving ostensibly to help celebrate Harry’s birthday, as is his annual...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Anarchy in the U.S.
During the late-1800s, anarchy, the belief that all systems of government are immoral and...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The Iceman Cometh is set in the summer of 1912 in Harry Hope's saloon, a seedy establishment on the...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1912: Temperance groups work toward the goal of complete prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages....

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the anarchist movement of the early-twentieth century, particularly the life of Emma Goldman. What do you feel might have led people...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Iceman Cometh was adapted as a film in 1973. This version was directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate)....

(The entire section is 34 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Lower Depths, a 1902 play by Maxim Gorky, is also concerned with the lives of a group of outcasts and...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Atkinson, Brooks. Review of The Iceman Cometh in O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill,...

(The entire section is 246 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Unites theatrical understanding with textual insights. Emphasizes the resemblance of The Iceman Cometh, in its use of the chorus, to Greek tragedy.

Cargill, Oscar, N. Bryllion Fagin, and W. J. Fisher, eds. O’Neill and His Plays. New York: New York University Press, 1961. A collection of reviews and articles, including Helen Muchnic’s important essay comparing The Iceman Cometh to Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.

Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic...

(The entire section is 166 words.)