The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Act 1 | Summary



When the curtain opens, there are 11 men—all alcoholics—dozing, drinking, and dreaming in the back room at Harry Hope's saloon. The room is as disreputable in appearance as the men are. The windows facing the backyard are grimy, and the once-white walls of the room are peeling and splotched, "stained and dusty." There are spittoons distributed "here and there" on a floor covered with sawdust.

The men, including Harry, the proprietor, have been waiting downstairs, apparently all night, for Hickey (Theodore Hickman) to appear and initiate the celebration of Harry's 60th birthday. Hickey is a traveling salesman who arrives twice a year to join the others in drunken binges. Unlike the others, who are essentially destitute, Hickey has money to pay for drinks.

The action begins with Rocky Pioggi, the night bartender, good-naturedly pouring drinks, knowing full well that no one can pay. He also acknowledges that no one has paid for their rooms, and Harry, although he likes to complain, makes no moves to collect from this hopeless crew. The hotel is really a flophouse—a safe, out–of-the-way place for this motley crew and Harry, their carelessly gentle host.

Rocky pours the first drink for Larry Slade, who ironically points out the unanimity among the men in their "touching credulity concerning tomorrows" when they anticipate "cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases." They are a crew of hopeless dreamers.

The regulars include Ed Mosher, a one-time circus man and Harry's brother-in-law; Pat McGloin, once a police lieutenant who was always on the take; Willie Oban, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a failed lawyer; Joe Mott, a black man, once the proprietor of a Negro gambling house; Piet Wetjoen, the leader of a Boer commando unit during the Boer War; Cecil Lewis, captain of a British infantry unit that fought in the Boer War; Hugo Kalmar, once the editor of anarchist journals; Jimmy Tomorrow (James Cameron), once a Boer War correspondent; and Rocky Pioggi, the night bartender. With the exception of Hugo and Joe, the men room at Harry's.

The group swells with the arrival of 18-year-old Don Parritt, who has been sleeping upstairs; Chuck Morello, the day bartender; and three women, all streetwalkers. Cora is with Chuck Morello, and Margie and Pearl work for Rocky, who takes their money and consistently denies he is their pimp. Margie agrees, explaining she and Pearl "wouldn't keep no pimp, like we was reg'lar old whores. We ain't dat bad." Pearl concurs: "No. We're tarts, but dat's all."

There is a gentle banter among the group that acknowledges they are all in the same boat. There is a sort of communal goodwill that has clearly developed over time and is comfortably shared.

The men are all middle-aged, with the exception of Parritt and Willie Oban, who is 30. Besides Parritt, who says he's "on the wagon," no one seems to have a mission other than to remain consistently drunk. Parritt has come to Harry Hope's in order to connect with Larry Slade, an ex-boyfriend of Parritt's mother. Rosa Parritt is a free-spirited political radical and dedicated anarchist. She is currently in prison, having been identified by a snitch for her part in an anarchist bombing, a crime for which she could be executed. Parritt remembers Larry as the only one of his mother's boyfriends who paid any attention to him. Parritt delivers the news that Rosa and her group have been arrested after being informed on by an insider. Larry is incensed. Parritt unsuccessfully attempts to get Larry to talk about why he left the movement. Larry notices that Parritt acts defensive about having money and gets angry when prostitutes are mentioned. Parritt seems to want to confide something to Larry. Yet, Parritt keeps avoiding the topic. Still, Larry grows increasingly uncomfortable and suspicious and tries to disentangle himself from the conversation.

Arriving much later than expected, Hickey finally appears, cold sober and determined to stay that way. He has had a revelation, he explains. "I have changed ... about booze. I don't need it anymore." He urges them all to join him, renouncing their pipe dreams—the false hopes that they can succeed in the world. In place of the anxiety of pipe dreams and the need for alcohol, Hickey proposes they make their dreams reality by returning to their past stations in life.

Hickey goes to sleep. According to the stage directions, "They all stare at him, their faces ... puzzled, resentful and uneasy."


Act 1 is disproportionately long. The play is carefully balanced nonetheless in that this long act is required to establish the setting and introduce each character. Thus, the first act is all exposition. Yet, the details reveal a greater function than just catching the audience up with what has gone before. The men are in midlife with only a couple of exceptions. The first act establishes the relationships among them in several ways, taking advantage of all aspects of stagecraft. First, the elaborate arrangement of tables and chairs establishes connections in terms of personal space—who is sleeping, who is sprawling, who is aware of the others' every move. It also reveals relationships—who sits near whom, who moves, and who stays in place. For example, Larry Slade and Hugo Kalmar, who were once active in the West Coast anarchist movement, habitually sit together, as do Piet Wetjoen and Cecil Lewis, who fought on opposite sides during the Boer War. Third, in this eminently theatrical piece of dramatic realism, costumes are condensations of life stories. They are condensations of failed pipe dreams, indicating who each character once was and who he is now.

The play's mode is social realism. It has an anthropological and sociological aesthetic with its references to anarchy (the "Movement") and allusions to communism and socialism, along with the men's apparent impoverishment. This act—a sort of sociology of poverty and alcoholism—reveals a gentle understanding among these men. Jimmy's sentimentality adds to the mood not of reconciliation but of conciliation. They are all in the same boat and know it. The peaceful group models a nonviolent, anarchist-inspired, ideal culture. In this culture, rules are determined by the needs of individuals rather than by laws that govern a political entity, such as the state. What's at stake is the freedom of all, a social order determined by individualism.

The anarchist movement is explicitly present in the characters of Hugo Kalmar, Larry Slade, and Don Parritt. All three of the men knew each other 11 years earlier, when Hugo and Larry were part of Parritt's mother's anarchist group. The conversation between Larry and Parritt in Act 1 is the longest the two men will share in the play. Because of his desire to leave the pain of his anarchist experiences in the past and his increasing focus on Hickey, Larry's tolerance for Parritt, who is already impatient in Act 1, continues to degrade throughout the play. The confession Parritt cannot manage to make in the first act will come, however, and will confirm Larry's worst fears. In a moment of prescience, Larry accuses Parritt of wanting him to provide "some answer to something." Although he says he has no answers, he quotes two lines from the poem "Morphine" by the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856): "sleep is good; better is death; ... / The best of all were never to be born." Heine wrote the poem during the last eight years of his life, when illness made him unable to walk and kept him in physical agony. His doctor prescribed opiates to try to keep the pain at bay. Earlier in his life, in 1843, Heine met Karl Marx, to whose ideals the anarchist movement adhered. However, Heine was not himself a communist revolutionary; he might have been called a libertarian revolutionary, as he promoted freedom from society's moral restrictions. Ostensibly, by quoting Heine, Larry means only to mention the only answer he himself has found. Yet, Parritt seems to see more in it, calling it "the hell of an answer." In the final act, the answer will be more explicit.

Parritt's betrayal of his mother to the authorities is loosely based on a true case. Parritt was modeled on Donald Vose, whose story O'Neill read in the writings of prominent anarchist Emma Goldman. Vose was the son of Emma Goldman's friend and fellow anarchist Gertie Vose. Despite his trusted status, Vose informed on two anarchist brothers who had bombed the Los Angeles Times building in 1910. This exemplifies how real people served as models for O'Neill's characters.

The scene between the men from opposing sides in the Boer War—Wetjoen and Lewis—offers two points of view that reveal British exceptionalism and racism as a matter of origin. Lewis, "a onetime hero of the British Army," uses the word kaffir to refer to Joe Mott, who is the only black character in the play. Kaffir is an old South African slang term used to refer to black Africans that is now considered deeply offensive. Wetjoen's explanation that kaffir means "nigger" compounds the insult. With some honor prevailing among the oppressed and the dejected, they shake hands. Joe seems to accept Lewis's characterization of him as the "[w]hitest colored man I ever knew" but announces his bitter rejection of the word nigger. This exchange lays bare common racial tensions. Similarly, the ex-Boer general and the former British captain affirm not only their mutual tolerance but their brotherly dependence on each other.

O'Neill's allusion to the coming of Christ in the play's title has led to speculation on the play's use of Christian imagery. There are 12 men waiting for Hickey (like the 12 disciples), and Hickey has in fact come to "save" his drinking buddies. O'Neill, who was long past Catholic practice (albeit never totally free of Catholic guilt), had, in his early 20s, read Nietzsche's declaration of the death of God. He had also read Freud and was wary of the individual ever being able to know their own motives. To place Hickey in the position of messiah is an allusion of deflation. It is a bitter reflection on a savior whose modes are self-delusion and murderous violence—although one might note the purity and single-mindedness of his motives. Hickey's saving grace and also his crucial error in judgment is his desire to prevent such misery in the failing lives of his drinking buddies. They have already and irredeemably fallen. Larry Slade, who is doomed to see both sides of every question, seems to be the spokesman for O'Neill when he says, "To hell with the truth!" He goes on to say it is not the truth but "[t]he lie of a pipe dream [that] gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us."

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