The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Act 2 | Summary



The second act begins with the preparation for Harry Hope's party. Hickey has contributed a birthday cake, flowers, and champagne. The three women are helping set up the festivities. Rocky Pioggi and Chuck Morello are present, and the mood is foul. The women almost have a fight, and Rocky physically threatens Margie and Pearl in order to stop an argument. No one is happy with Hickey's provisions for the feast. Nor is anyone happy with Hickey, who has been pressuring everyone to give up their pipe dream. Hickey has asked them to recognize that none of them have the commitment to fulfill their dreams. Moreover, he knows they are all past the point when they might do so. Even if they wished, it would not be possible. Hickey knows from his own situation that opportunities to return to the past are dead. Still, he counsels they must change. He encourages Cora and Chuck to marry and Joe Mott to return to his gambling. Everyone is offended that Hickey seems to be suggesting that their pipe dreams are just that. He encourages them to fulfill their dreams instead of barely surviving on the hopes of a tomorrow that will not arrive.

Everyone is on edge. It seems Hickey has been visiting them one by one to proselytize.

In a long speech to Larry Slade, Hickey insists Larry should admit he is "just an old man who is scared of life, but even more scared of dying." To give up drinking, Hickey insists, is to find "real peace ... you won't be scared of either life or death ... You simply won't give a damn!" He goes on to offer Larry advice about Don Parritt. He tells Larry that "there is only one possible way out" for Parritt, "if you have the right kind of pity for him." Larry won't hear it, though, claiming Parritt means "nothing" to him. Soon, Parritt himself enters and approaches Larry. Despite Larry's attempts not to talk about the past, it comes out that he left the movement because Rosa cheated on him. Parritt suspects that both Hickey and Larry have guessed his secret. Hickey knowing frightens the young man, but he needs to talk to Larry about it. He talks about having been a traitor to the country and having to decide what to do. Larry refuses to engage.

The party persists in failures and reconciliations. Fights break out with each moment of truth. Then the parties reconcile and attempt to go on with the celebration. Finally, Larry asks Hickey to describe the circumstances of his conversion and the "great peace" he has found.

Hickey, who admonished Jimmy Tomorrow for his behavior after finding his wife had cheated on him, admits the basis for his change was the death of his own "dearly beloved" wife, Evelyn. Hickey astounds all assembled by saying he feels no grief. Evelyn suffered, he explains, from being married to a "no-good cheater and drunk." Her suffering ended with her death. After all, all she "ever wanted out of life was to make [him] happy." The act ends with everyone staring at Hickey "in bewildered, incredulous confusion."


Facing reality seems lethal to all good feeling among the group preparing for the party. In Act 2 the ethical, emotional worlds of all are topsy-turvy. The honesty Hickey preaches turns to uncivilized insult and aggression among all present. The fallout from the reality testing at the birthday party is an abandonment of pipe dreams that barely veil a painful reality. As a result, the characters' privacy is violated, and social judgment is revealed as aggression. Invasion of the personal by the demands of social prejudices echoes the period in which the play was written—the beginning of World War II. (Although not performed until after the war, The Iceman Cometh was written in 1939, just as the war in Europe was breaking out.) British novelist Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), O'Neill's near contemporary, declared that in times of war there is no private life. The ethnic slights and potential for physical violence among this group of sleepwalking alcoholics serves such a reality. Public identity supersedes the personal and the civility that comes with individualized sympathies. All are generalized losers.

At the birthday party, personal connections fail as everyone generalizes. Cora calls Pearl a "fat Dago hooker" and a "cheap old whore." Chuck and Rocky grab the women from behind to stop a fight. The women turn on Rocky, reminding him that if they are whores, he is a "lousy little pimp." The name-calling escalates into ethnic insults and physical violence. For example, Rocky slaps both Margie and Cora.

It appears that Hickey has approached nearly everyone, counseling change. As anxiety escalates, so does everyone's anger. Larry and Hugo confirm their irritation. Larry offers a conciliatory view, and all angry thoughts briefly turn to Hickey. Joe generalizes about "white boys," becoming vaguely threatening. Cora and Chuck persist in vulgar slurs, having an exchange with Joe in which they use racist vernacular ("coon," "nigger"). Rather than escalate the situation, Joe—"shamefacedly" according to the stage directions—apologizes. Everyone is at their worst. It is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for commentary on the reality Hickey purports to seek.

Hickey admits to Larry that he has been intentionally upsetting people in order to shake them out of their lethargy. His accurate understanding of both Larry and Parritt indicates to the audience that his clear-sightedness is genuine. He sees that Larry does not desire death despite his protestations that he does. On the other hand, he recognizes the same pain in Parritt that he has felt himself. As the play progresses, this similarity between the two men will devolve into resentment.

The very bases for the friendships become the subjects of insults and taunts. The result of Hickey's visits are unmediated responses to the vulnerabilities of each character and for each a keen awareness of the vulnerabilities of their friends. A naked ethic produces disclosures that result in pain aggressively addressed. Thus, Larry rejects Parritt's need for a friend, refusing to understand the young man's implied confession of snitching on his mother. Usually friendly Lewis and Wetjoen go after each other based on reactivated nationalism left over from their having been on opposing sides in the Boer War. Mosher disparages the deceased Bessie, who was his sister and Harry's wife, calling her a "God-damned bitch." The two friends nearly come to blows.

Larry recognizes the imminent collapse of the peaceful social order of Harry's saloon. As the preparations for the birthday party ramp up, he comments, "it's a second feast of Belshazzar, with Hickey to do the writing on the wall!" Belshazzar was regent of Babylon. He threw a great feast, where he saw a hand written message in Aramaic on the wall. The message said that the city was soon to be destroyed. In October 539 BCE Persian troops took Babylon. During the city's capture, Belshazzar was killed. Larry's comment implies that Harry's birthday party may be the last feast the group celebrates. Hickey's words to the group members foretell that soon their little sanctuary will fall.

The subject of the "iceman"—code for adultery— is raised by Hickey. Avid in his truth telling, Hickey reminds Jimmy that his marriage ended when Marjorie was found to be cheating. The subject of the iceman brings the act full circle to the astounding admission by Hickey that Evelyn is dead. The group is further astounded to hear Hickey say that her death was a good thing, as it ended her suffering in a marriage to a deceitful drunk. That is Hickey's reality and his avowed peace.

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