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Theatre / The Iceman Cometh

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One of Eugene O'Neill's most highly-regarded plays, The Iceman Cometh was written in 1939 and premiered on Broadway in 1947. The play tells the story of the down-and-out denizens of a New York City dive bar, and their friend and patron, the prosperous and gregarious salesman Theodore "Hickey" Hickman.

The bar's regulars are a ragtag group of severely alcoholic has-beens who spend most of their time inebriated and daydreaming about a mostly imaginary glorious past and an even more deluded great future.

Among the regulars are Larry Slade the one-time anarchist firebrand turned cynical "foolosopher", his fellow anarchist Hugo Kalmar who lost much of his eyesight and his sanity while locked away in solitary confinement for his politics in an unnamed eastern European country, Joe Mott the former owner of a casino for black patrons, Captain Cecil Lewis - a former officer in the British Army who fought in the Boer War, General Piet Wetjoen, a Boer commando who fought on the opposing side, Jimmy "Tomorrow" Cameron the former newspaper correspondent, Willie Oban the Harvard law school graduate, Lt. Pat McGloin the former corrupt police officer, and Ed Mosher the former circus ringmaster and lifelong petty Con Man.

Joining them in their self-deluded daydreams is the bar's owner, the equally drunken Harry Hope (who hasn't set foot outside the premise of his own bar and boarding house in years), his bartenders Rocky Pioggi (who doubles as a pimp), his understudy bartender Chuck Morello, and three prostitutes Cora, Margie, and Pearl.

The regular patrons' alcoholic contentment is disrupted one day when Hickey arrives not to drink and party with them, but to reform them so that they can find "true peace" as he has. As the evening progresses, an increasingly unhinged Hickey starts to hint at a very dark and disturbing secret behind his newfound crusade. Meanwhile, Larry is equally disturbed when a desperate Don Parritt, the son of a former lover who suspects that Larry may be his real father, comes to him for guidance.

Sidney Lumet directed a 1960 television production starring Jason Robards as Hickey, and a very young Robert Redford as Don. John Frankenheimer directed the 1973 film version starring Lee Marvin as Hickey, Robert Ryan as Larry, Fredric March as Harry Hope and Jeff Bridges as Don. Sorrell Booke and Tom Pedi appeared in both adaptations as Hugo and Rocky, respectively.

Playing Hickey on stage was a career-making role for Jason Robards in the late 1950s and 1960s. Among the notable actors to play Hickey and/or Larry in stage productions of Iceman during the 21st century are Brian Dennehy, Denzel Washington, Kevin Spacey, and Nathan Lane.

This play provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: All of the main characters, except perhaps Rocky, are alcoholics. The most severe cases are Willie and Hugo, though the rest of them aren't all that far behind.
  • All for Nothing: At the end, all of the bar's regulars except for Larry return to their drunken lives and retreat into the delusional lies about themselves that keep them going. Larry admits that he's the only convert Hickey has made, and he's all the more miserable for it.
  • An Aesop: For many people, the lies they tell themselves are all they have to make their lives seem worth living, or at least seem tolerable. Take away their delusions, and you take away their will to live.
    Larry: It looks like I'm the only convert to death that Hickey's made here.
    Hugo: He was selling death to me, this salesman.
  • Author Avatar: Larry Slade, the former anarchist disillusioned with political radicalism and life in general, is to some extent a stand-in for Eugene O'Neill, who disavowed his Marxist political beliefs in favor of general skepticism later in life (although he is also partially based on an acquaintance of O'Neill's).
  • Awful Wedded Life: Hickey, Harry Hope, and Jimmy Tomorrow delude themselves by reminiscing about how much they loved their wives and how happy their marriages were at first. In fact:
    • While Harry claims that his wife's death is what made him give up on all ambition in life and take up drinking, in reality he was always a lazy drunk, and was glad to be rid of a nagging wife who didn't tolerate his laziness and drunkenness.
    Harry: Close that big clam of yours, Hickey. Bejees, you're a worse gabber than that nagging bitch, Bessie, was.
    • Jimmy claims to have been devastated by his wife's infidelity, and that the pain of his subsequent divorce caused him to start drinking and to quit his job. In reality, his wife cheated on him and left him because of his drunkenness, and he was relieved when she was gone so he could, by his own admission, drink as much as he pleased.
    • Hickey started out feeling guilty over his drunkenness and infidelity and probably did genuinely love his wife. But his guilt over his own behavior gradually turned to resentment of and hatred towards his wife. It became so extreme that Hickey murdered her.
    • Chuck and Cora discover they can't stand one another as soon as they set out to get married.
    • Larry Slade and Rosa Parritt (Don's mother) qualify as well. Though they were never married, they were lovers who lived together. She kept on having affairs with various random men in the anarchist movement to prove to Larry and herself what a free spirit she was, until Larry couldn't tolerate it any more and left her.
  • The Bartender: Rocky is generally the peacekeeper and voice of reason at the bar, and is responsible for all aspects of the business due to Harry's indifference and drunkenness, even if he does pocket more than his contractual due and even if he is a pimp on the side.
  • Bedroom Adultery Scene: Allegedly, Jimmy came home drunk one night and found his wife in bed with a staff officer of the British Army.
  • Blatant Lies: Most of the regular's versions of the events in their lives are the exact opposite of the sad reality:
    • Harry Hope claims that he's a drunken shut-in because he's still mourning his wife's death. In fact, he couldn't stand his wife and was glad to be rid of her so he could happily spend the rest of his life drinking and loafing around his bar.
    • Jimmy similarly claims that an emotional breakdown in response to his wife's adulterous affair started him on the bottle and ruined his life. In fact, he was a drunkard long before that and was relieved that his wife left him because it gave him a good excuse to drink even more.
    • Lt. McGloin was fired from the police force for graft, but he tells himself and others that he was just a scapegoat for corrupt senior police officers.
    • The Captain and the General strut around as war heroes, despite the fact that they both disgraced their uniforms with their conduct and neither their families nor comrades want anything to do with them.
    • Hickey's pretense of being a good husband to his wife, most notably the time he told her that he caught a venereal disease from a drinking cup.
    • Cora, Margie, and Pearl repeatedly deny being whores, while in the next breath telling stories of the various men they've picked up for a quick buck.
    • Similarly, Rocky, their "manager" angrily denies being their pimp.
  • Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Larry, Hugo and Don (thanks to his mother's influence) were part of the anarchist movement. Hugo spent many years in prison (most likely in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) locked in solitary confinement for his activities, Don's mother was incarcerated for her involvement in an anarchist terror plot in the US.
  • Business Trip Adultery: Hickey routinely sees "tarts and whores" while away from home as a traveling salesman. On one occasion, he brought a venereal disease home and infected his wife.
  • Character Catchphrase: Several characters have pet phrases, e.g.
    • Hugo's refrain of "The days grow hot, O Babylon, 'tis cool beneath thy willow trees", which he shouts automatically whenever he awakens from his drunken stupor.
    • Also Willie with his "Jack, O Jack was a sailor lad" song.
  • Cheating with the Milkman: Hickey is constantly joking that his wife is cheating with the iceman.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Most of the characters due to their drunkenness and self-delusion, with the stand-outs being:
    • Hugo awakens from his drunken stupor to shout anarchist slogans and other strange non-sequiturs.
    • Willie often makes equally strange remarks in his attempts at humor, such as claiming that his favorite bawdy drinking song was actually composed by Jonathan Edwards or Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • Con Man: Ed Mosher, though the best he could usually accomplish was to swap a few dimes for nickels here and there.
  • Cuckold Horns: When Larry suggests that Hickey's strange and often cruel conduct was because Hickey's own wife was probably cheating on him, the Captain and the General taunt Hickey by referencing the horns:
    Captain Lewis: Well, Hickey old chum, it looks like you've sprouted horns, like a bloody antelope.
    General Wetjoen: Bigger, by God! Like a water buffalo!
  • The Cynic: Larry Slade professes a low opinion of the entire human condition.
    Larry: You asked me why I quit the [Anarchist] Movement. I had a lot of good reasons. One was myself, and another was my comrades, and the last was the breed of swine called men in general...As for my comrades in the Great Cause, I felt as Horace Walpole did about England, that he could love it if it weren't for the people in it.
    • Harry Hope is also quite curmudgeonly and loves finding fault with everyone in his social circle, albeit in a humorous and generally good-natured way, at least until Hickey starts egging his secret resentments on.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of the characters, especially Hickey, Larry, Harry, and Rocky.
  • Dirty Cop: Lieutenant Pat McGloin was caught taking bribes and fired from the NY police department.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Twelve disciples (and a turncoat) listening to a charismatic leader preach as he dispenses drinks, shortly before he's taken away by law enforcement. The difference is this charismatic leader is not very nice to begin with, he preaches a hopeless ideology instead of a righteous path, and he eventually admits that he murdered his own wife because he got sick of her unability to realize he was too far gone to even consider reciprocating her undying love for him.
  • Downer Ending: Hickey confesses to murdering his wife and is taken away by the police, Don reveals that it was he who betrayed his mother to the authorities before he commits suicide, and all of the bar regulars except a depressed, self-aware Larry go back to their drunken, deluded, and wasted lives.
  • Driven to Suicide: Don Parrit, struggling with guilt for having turned his mother in to the authorities for her role in anarchist terrorism, realizes that he did this because of his lifelong resentment of her, and decides that the only way out is to commit suicide by jumping off the fire escape. Realizing that Don is right, Larry encourages him to take his own life.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: The main (or rather, only) occupation of most of the bar's regulars.
  • Drunken Song: Many of the bar regulars start singing their favorite drinking songs once Hickey is gone and they can go back to their normal, drunken, deluded lives.
  • Ensemble Cast: While Larry and Hickey are the most important characters with the most lines, nearly all of the other characters have side stories with lengthy monologues or dialogues.
  • Five-Token Band: A bar setting is among the most plausible ways to bring together characters from different backgrounds and walks of life who would otherwise not know or interact with each other, and this play is no exception. The main characters include two Boer war veterans who fought on opposing sides, two former anarcho-syndicalist political activists, an ex-cop, a former newspaper reporter, a Harvard-educated would-be lawyer, a former circus ringmaster, and a one-time owner of a gambling casino (who also serves as the Token Black).
  • Foreshadowing: Two important examples:
    • A number of Hickey's comments about his wife and allusions to death hint at his later reveal of having murdered her.
    • Don says and does several things that make it quite obvious that he's the one who turned in his mother to the authorities, such as becoming enraged when he hears the drunken Hugo talking nonsense about stool pigeons and traitors.
  • For Your Own Good: Hickey deceives himself that he's convincing his friends to give up their lies about themselves and face reality for their own good. In reality, his motives are entirely selfish, the typical "misery loves company."
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: None of the bar regulars care much for Don and see his presence as an intrusion. Larry coldly tolerates him because of their past connection through Don's mother.
  • Future Loser: Willie Oban in Harvard Law School.
    Willie: I was a brilliant student at law school, too.
  • The Ghost:
    • Don's mother Rosa Parritt doesn't appear on stage as a character, but she has a key role in the dynamic between Larry and Don.
    • Hickey's wife Evelyn drives the plot in an even more important way. Her "ghost" role is an apt way to put it, because she had recently been murdered by Hickey.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Cora, Margie, and Pearl are catty with each other, but they're kind and friendly towards the bar's regulars, mainly because the resident drunks are too far gone to be interested in their "services" and just want to socialize.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Almost every bar regular pokes fun at some other bar regular for being a drunken loser. And they're all mutually correct in their statements about one another. This becomes decidedly less comical and good-natured thanks to Hickey's malign influence.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Most of the bar regulars like to pretend they were well along the way to success until some tragic event sidelined their path to greatness.
  • I Reject Your Reality: As Hickey correctly recognizes, the reason he and the bar regulars drink themselves to oblivion is so that they can escape into an imaginary world where their pasts were glorious and their futures look bright, against all obvious evidence to the contrary.
  • Jaded Washout: Larry Slade was once an idealistic true believer in the anarchist cause, now he's just a bitter, cynical drunk. Or so he likes to present himself.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Hickey destroys most of the characters emotionally by throwing their flaws and personal weaknesses in their faces. However, everything he says about each character is true: they are hiding behind self-deluded lies and empty dreams.
  • "Just Joking" Justification: Most of the characters hide behind drunken jokes as they insult one another.
    • Hickey reveals uncomfortable truths about the bar's regulars, often in a crass and insulting way, but always with a smile and a humorous tone.
    • Harry goes into an angry rant about how annoying he finds the bar regulars and how they take advantage of his good will. He regrets what he said afterwards and claims that it was done in jest.
    • Hugo often makes offensive ethnic and personal remarks, but because he's drunk out of his mind and thinks he's being funny, nobody (except Don) ever gets angry with him.
    • Willie pokes fun at Pat McGloin's Dirty Cop past when he'd routinely take bribes from racketeers to look the other way, and later sheepishly apologizes. Pat is too drunk to care, and just humors Willie by playing along with the cruel jokes.
  • Lazy Bum: Most of the main characters - certainly all of the bar's regulars, who are long unemployed and unemployable due to their alcoholism, and of course Harry Hope himself, who delegates running the bar to Rocky while he loafs and drinks with is friends.
  • Loser Protagonist: All of the characters, particularly Larry because he's the most self-aware of his downward spiral.
  • Loser Son of Loser Dad: Willie came from elite wealth and education. However, his stock broker father wound up in prison for unethical "bucket shop" business practices (i.e. selling off high risk securities under false pretenses to his clients), while Willie is a pitiful drunk fast approaching terminal delirium tremens.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Averted when Larry tells Don that he didn't even meet his mother until after he was born, as a response to Don's claim that he always suspected that Larry was his real father because he treated him so much better than his mother's other lovers.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Both Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen like to talk of their glory days as war heroes. In fact, they both disgraced their uniform and neither their families nor their former comrades want to have anything to do with them: Lewis by embezzling regiment money, Wetjoen through cowardice. It's strongly implied that both of their stories of battlefield heroism are mostly tall tales.
  • Mood Whiplash: The play fluctuates between the comical drunken antics of the main characters and the tragic events in their lives that brought them where they are. Most notably, there are many scenes in the play where Hickey goes from light-hearted, joking glad-hander to despairing rager and back again, sometimes in the same sentence.
  • My Beloved Smother: Don Parritt's childhood was plagued by his overbearing, sexually promiscuous, political zealot mother.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Hickey at the end of his final monologue. He builds his monologue around trying to justify his actions as an act of love and arguing that adopting his mentality would work the same "wonders" for the other men at the bar, but at the end, Hickey just implodes emotionally and admits that he's basically lost his mind.
  • Neet: All of the bar regulars are unemployed and have no hope of ever being gainfully employed again due to their severe alcoholism. What's more, most of them are in serious denial of the fact that this will be their permanent state. The most notable example is probably Jimmy "Tomorrow" Cameron, who always talks about how he'll clean up his act, put on a new suit, and get his job as a newspaper correspondent back tomorrow. He eventually admits that he'll do nothing of the sort because his situation is hopeless.
  • Nice Guy: Harry Hope, bar owner, who, despite his grumpy facade, lets the regulars drink for free most of the time and board in his spare rooms, because he sympathizes and identifies with their situation in life.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The characters in Iceman were loosely based on Eugene O'Neill's friends at a new York City pub that he frequented.
    • Czech-American radical Hipolyte Havel was the inspiration for Hugo Kalmar.
    • Don's mother, Rosa Parritt, was based on prominent anarchist Emma Goldman.
  • Not So Above It All: Hickey and Don's visits to the bar force Larry to admit that his cynical "grandstand" was just a front and defense mechanism. Behind the crusty cynicism, Larry is a sensitive, emotionally wounded man who still pines for his lover (Don's mother), remains loyal to his former comrades in the anarchist movement, and feels deeply for all of the lost lives, first and foremost his own.
  • Officer O'Hara: Pat McGloin the Irish-American former cop, as well as the police officer who comes to arrest Hickey on murder charges.
    • Lampshaded by Harry Hope, who jokes that when Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, they swam across the Atlantic and joined the police force.
  • Only Sane Man: Ultimately averted for Larry, who likes to present and think of himself as a man who has put his self-delusions behind, in contrast to the other drunken bar regulars. Hickey makes it a point to prove to Larry that he's hiding behind self-deceptions and kidding himself about his true nature and motives just like everyone else.
    Larry: Be God, you've hit the nail on the head, Hickey! This dump is the Palace of Pipe Dreams!
    Hickey: Well, well! The Old Grandstand Foolosopher speaks! You think you're the big exception, eh? Life doesn't mean a damn to you any more, does it? You're retired from the circus. You're just waiting impatiently for the end—the good old Long Sleep! Well, I think a lot of you, Larry, you old bastard. I'll try and make an honest man of you, too!
  • Pass Fail: Joe Mott is described as a light-skinned black man with "only slightly negroid features", and it's implied that he tried to pass as white in the past or at least thought about it. After being egged on by Hickey, he lashes out with resentment at the other bar patrons to cover up his insecurity:
    Joe(shouting): “Listen to me, you white boys! Don't you get it in your heads I's pretendin' to be what I ain't, or dat I ain't proud to be what I am!"
  • Pauper Patches: Willie is literally dressed in rags, having traded his suit for "bum clothes" to have more money for alcohol, and eventually trading in the bum outfit for rags. The cloth scraps Willie uses for pants are held in place by a rope around his waist.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Hugo's strange appearance, half-awake stupor, and tendency to randomly shout anarchist slogans make him a comic relief character throughout the play.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Several of the bums at Harry's bar retain vestiges of their backgrounds of wealth and education in their speech:
    • Willie likes to speak with an obscure vocabulary and throw in literary references to highlight his Ivy League education.
    Willie:[to Don] Broke? You haven't the thirsty look of the impecunious. I'd judge you to be a plutocrat, your pockets stuffed with ill-gotten gains.
    • Captain Lewis often waxes eloquent with flowery speech as well, so as to differentiate his education and social class from General Wetjoen, a one-time farmer.
  • The Shut-In: Bar owner Harry Hope hasn't set foot outside of his bar and boarding house in 20 years. He's visibly disturbed when he finally ventures out into the street for the first time in two decades, suggesting acute agoraphobia.
  • Stepford Smiler: Hickey. He's clearly unhinged and racked with guilt over something in his past, but he goes on smiling, telling jokes, and pretending to be happy and chummy.
    Don: ...But I hate [Hickey's] guts! I don't want anything to do with him! I'm scared of him, honest. There's something not human behind his damned grinning and kidding.
    Larry:: Ah, you feel that too?
  • Stepford Snarker: Larry affects an attitude of cynical detachment to hide his own regret, pain, and fear. He finally admits this to himself in the final scene. Lampshaded by various characters, e.g.
    Jimmy: No, Larry, old friend, you can't deceive me. You pretend a bitter, cynic philosophy, but in your heart you are the kindest man among us.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Most of the bar regulars are egged on by Hickey to sober up, step out of the bar, and pursue their "pipe dreams"- i.e. trying to get their old jobs back or otherwise getting their broken lives back on track. In Harry's case, it just means having the courage to step out of his bar and flat and see the outside world again for the first time in twenty years. By the end of the evening, each man returns to the bar even more despairing and broken than when he left it, as they finally admit to themselves they're in no shape to ever live anything resembling a normal life again.
  • This Loser Is You: Take away their extreme alcoholism, and the regulars at Harry's bar are like a lot of people who ease the pain of their lives by deluding themselves with selective memories about a mostly fictionalized happy past and with false hopes of an even more unrealistic (and utterly unattainable) great future.
  • Title Drop: Hickey's joke about his wife cheating with the iceman.
  • Token Black: Joe Mott is the only black man in the group of regulars. The other men put their racial prejudices aside when drunk, but undercurrents of racial resentment on both sides bubble up thanks of Hickey's prodding about being "truthful", especially when there isn't enough alcohol to act as a social lubricant.
  • Traveling Salesman: Hickey is a very successful one thanks to his ability to "read" other people, if his stories and reputation at the bar are to be trusted.
    Hickey: I had the knack. It was like a game, sizing people up quick, spotting what their pet pipe dreams were, and then kidding 'em along that line, pretending you believed what they wanted to believe about themselves. Then they liked you, they trusted you, they wanted to buy something to show their gratitude.
    Hickey: Don't try to kid me, Little Boy. I'm a good salesman—so damned good the firm was glad to take me back after every drunk—and what made me good was I could size up anyone.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Played with. Cora, Margie and Pearl delude themselves into thinking that they aren't really prostitutes, just fun-loving girls having a good time and making some money on the side. Similarly, Rocky likes to tell himself and others that he isn't really a pimp, just a guy "managing" the girls and keeping them out of trouble.
  • Verbal Tic: Harry Hope seems to preface every other sentence or phrase with "Bejees."
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen, as well as Pat McGloin and Ed Mosher.
    • Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen, who fought on opposing sides of the Boer war:
    Larry: They love to talk of the glory days in South Africa when they tried to murder each other."
    • Drinking buddies Ed Mosher and Pat McGloin are also always making jabs at one another's foibles and disgraces. They call one another crooks, and both are right.
  • The Whitest Black Guy: Lampshaded (as a pun, based on "white" being a slang for decent) in the case of Joe Mott. Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen use racial slurs about black people, but then reassure Joe that they don't mean him.
    Captain Lewis: My profoundest apologies, Joseph old chum, eyesight is a trifle blurry, I'm afraid. [You're the] whitest colored man I ever knew. I'm proud to call you friend!