With The Iceman Cometh, O’Neill discarded the literary sources and devices with which he had been experimenting for so long, as if they were pipe dreams of his own that protected him from the pain of reality, to concentrate upon realistic material and characters whom he had known firsthand. He set the action of the play in 1912, probably the most important year of his life, when he returned from South America, penniless and despondent, and landed at Jimmy-the-Priest’s in New York.
In the play, Jimmy-the-Priest’s becomes Harry Hope’s saloon, where whiskey costs five cents a shot and where a month’s room and board, including a cup of soup, is three dollars. Of the nineteen characters O’Neill shapes—bartenders, pimps, whores, ne’er-do-wells, retirees—most are based on the assorted derelicts and homeless people O’Neill encountered at that low period of his life. The Iceman Cometh is a naturalistic drama of “the lower depths,” a genre displaying life at the extremities as more real, elemental, and meaningful than that of the pretentious, artificial middle class. Thus, the characters are the dregs of society, with few resources and fewer opportunities. Their heredity and the environment have victimized them.
Almost classical in its adherence to the unities of time and place, the play is structured like a musical theme and variations. Each character seeks an escape through alcohol from the pain of living. Each maintains an existence through a “pipe dream” he or she has created, an illusion surrounding the self that allows a continuance of the lifestyle cultivated at Harry Hope’s. This motif is announced early in Larry Slade’s response to Rocky’s joking remarks that Harry is going to demand payment from everyone—tomorrow. Larry says:I’ll be glad to pay up—tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They’ve all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows. Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!
The theme is developed through repetition by each character of a particular dream—some comic, some serious, but all illusory.
Into this milieu of fantasy comes Hickey, the charismatic drummer (salesman), on his annual birthday visit. He is eagerly awaited by Harry’s denizens, but this year...
(The entire section is 973 words.)