The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Act 3 | Summary



The act opens midmorning on the day after Harry Hope's birthday party. Rocky is working Chuck's day shift because Chuck Morello and Cora are going out, having decided to get married. Hugo Kalmar, Larry Slade, and Don Parritt are seated at a table in the barroom. Hugo sprawls across the table, passed out. The other two sit staring into the distance, not drinking. The talk is about the failure of the birthday party, which was more a wake for Evelyn than a birthday party. Although everyone left early, despite the free drinks and food, Hickey attempted to visit each person in the room to pursue his liberation plan. He urged Jimmy Tomorrow to get his clothes clean and pressed, and he loaned Willie money to dress properly for a job interview. His conviction has touched them all—except Larry and Parritt. Parritt is attempting once more to gain Larry's sympathy and attention.

The stage directions call for "a strange pathetic wistfulness" as Parritt addresses Larry: "Do you know, ... I once had a sneaking suspicion that maybe ... you were my father." Larry rejects that notion. Parritt finally admits the real reason he informed on his mother. It was for money. He was "stuck on a whore and wanted dough to blow in on her." Larry repeatedly tells him to "shut up." Turning to Rocky, Larry begins to speculate about Evelyn's death, wondering if it was suicide. Chuck shows up, getting ready to leave with Cora to get married. Rocky Pioggi describes his night with Margie and Pearl, both drunk and berating him. He admits to hitting them both. Chuck acknowledges he threatened Cora when she worried about his alcoholism and what that would mean once they were married. He responded, "If yuh opened your yap, I'd knock the stuffin' outta yuh!"

The violent aggression spreads when Rocky and Chuck begin to fight. The name-calling escalates when Joe Mott tries to stop them and Chuck turns on Joe, calling him a "black bastard." At that point Rocky allies himself with Chuck, calling Joe a "doity nigger." Having had enough, Joe comes out from behind the bar wielding a bread knife. Chuck snatches a whiskey bottle and threatens to hurl it at Joe, and Rocky pulls out a revolver. Larry stops the fight, and Hugo—drunk and nearly incoherent—interrupts as well. Joe blames Hickey for the ruckus and announces he is leaving for good because he is "sick and tired of messin' round wid white men." He calls them all "white trash" and reveals his plan to go back to the gambling business.

Willie Oban shows up dressed for business, and Cecil Lewis announces he is turning in his key, unable to live under the same roof with a "brute of a Dutch farmer." Piet Wetjoen shares his intention to go back to work. Lewis and Wetjoen also disclose each other's dishonorable behavior during the war. In reply Larry sardonically notes that Hickey must have the "miraculous touch to raise the dead" since "he can start the Boer War raging again."

In a moment of shame, they all recover their civility and decide at least to wait and say a decent goodbye to Harry. Willy offers to help Parritt if he is in trouble, and Parritt acknowledges for the second time that he turned his mother in for money "to blow on a whore." Larry refuses to judge him, angrily warning him if he does not keep quiet, he will say "something ... that will make you vomit your own soul like ... nickel rotgut that won't stay down." Larry orders a drink even as he is reminded that he is drinking on Hickey's nickel. Larry exclaims he would take a free drink even if it was the "Iceman of Death himself treating."

Ed Mosher and Pat McGloin appear and repeat the behavior of Lewis and Wetjoen on their own terms. They are turning in their keys, refusing to sleep in "this madhouse" under the same roof as Hickey. Cora shows up, noting that Hickey made clear it was time for her and Chuck to leave. She raises her skirt to get some money for a drink, and Chuck threatens "a sock in the puss" if she continues to show her legs to the crowd.

Just when things couldn't get any nastier, Hickey appears with Jimmy and Harry. Hickey, surprised to find everyone still in the bar, makes one last pitch to urge all to leave. He remembers that when he was drinking, "if anyone forced me to face the truth about my pipe dreams, I'd have shot them dead." Still, he urges them to leave the bar. Slowly, they say goodbye to Harry and do so.

Finally, only Hickey, Larry, Harry, Rocky, Hugo, and Parritt are left in the bar. Hickey begins cajoling Harry to leave. Angrily, he finally gives in and "strides blindly" out the door and away. Rocky keeps an eye on Harry through the window. Harry, he says, is "[s]cared stiff of automobiles." He reports on Harry's progress. After waiting at the curb, Harry makes it to the middle of street, where he stops. Then he rushes back to the bar in a "panic-stricken run," claiming he was nearly run over. Rocky points out there was no automobile, and eventually Hickey forces Harry to admit the truth. Harry becomes resentful and listless.

Larry confronts Hickey, concerned that the peace Hickey claims they will all experience is "the peace of death." Still, Hickey insists Harry and the others will feel "relieved and not guilty any more." Their discussion comes around to Evelyn's death, with Hickey explaining she died of "a bullet through the head." Larry speculates she committed suicide and then that she was murdered. Hickey tells them the police don't know who did it, but he believes "they will before very long."

Harry complains that Hickey has done something to the "booze," saying "[t]here's no damned life left in it." Parritt, who has woken up during the discussion of Evelyn's death, confuses the comments with his mother's situation. He protests she is still alive. Hugo also awakes, crying for another drink and ranting about "blood beneath the villow trees." Hickey shows concern that Harry is not beginning "to feel happy."


As the act proceeds and the plot unwinds, it becomes clear that each of the men has been lost to alcohol for most of his adult life. Their failures, their marriages, and their jobs have been lost to alcoholism. And there is no turning back. Hickey's advice has backfired. Loss of their pipe dreams has meant facing the impossibility of recovering the past. There is no redemption for lives long lost. Habit is habit. Men who drink find freedom in being themselves and doing their thing. There is no social judgment implied. By the end of the act, several of the characters have been forced to admit truths about themselves, notably Harry Hope and Don Parritt. Harry has admitted he resented his wife and that he simply can't face the outside world. While Larry's focus is on Hickey and Hickey's is on Harry, Parritt has admitted to Larry that he turned in his mother for a few dollars. It is a significant revelation, but no one pays much attention to it or, indeed, to Parritt in general. Larry, who so openly shows compassion for Hickey, suppresses his concern for Parritt. Before the play ends, this will prove to be Larry's undoing.

The violence in Act 3 separates individual identities from social identity. In the generalized insults, it is the role of culture and its categories that constitute judgments. This contrasts with the easy coexistence of Act 1. Before Hickey's arrival, the characters were fully aware of their own vulnerabilities as well as those of the others. These were people living outside of culture, living as individuals. They enjoyed freedom without judgment. In Act 3 Hickey has attempted to force the characters to reintegrate into society and culture. To do so they must give up the freedom of their dreams and embrace judgment. The uncomfortable results are destructive, breaking up friendships and worse.

Foreshadowing occurs when Larry orders a drink he knows Hickey is paying for. His exclamation that he would take a free drink even if it was being paid for by the "Iceman of Death" unsettles even Larry himself. The stage directions indicate Larry "stops, startledly, a superstitious awe coming into his face." His pause and facial expression call the audience's attention to the words "Iceman of Death." When Larry continues, he wonders why he used those words. Then he brushes them off with the explanation that death was the iceman who visited Hickey's home. However, Larry's words are prophetic. As the audience will see in the final act, death is the iceman who will visit Harry Hope's bar.

Throughout Acts 1 and 2, Hickey has been urging change on the drinkers in Harry Hope's saloon. Act 3 sees his plan come to some sort of fruition. One by one, the drinkers say goodbye to Harry and leave. The turning point in the act comes when Harry rushes out of the bar and into the street. It is then that Hickey tells Larry that they will come back. The truth he wants them to see about themselves is that they will never fulfill their pipe dreams. For him this realization has been a catharsis—freedom through a release of repressed emotion. He expects them all to feel relief from accepting the truth. He claims that is what he feels. But by Act 4 the group will be back together in Harry's bar.

The test of Hickey's expectation of catharsis comes with Harry's almost immediate, frantic return. He claims he was nearly run over by a car, but Rocky has already narrated the truth. Harry simply stood in the middle of the street until suddenly he ran back inside. Because Rocky has witnessed his cowardice, Harry is forced to admit he is simply afraid of being outside. However, regardless of Hickey's experience, this admission does not prove cathartic. It leaves Harry despondent and resentful. Not even drinking helps. This raises the question of how the rest of the group will react. The audience may well suspect there are two ways it can play out—despair or a return to self-delusion. People, as O'Neill makes clear again and again in the play, need their pipe dreams. Whether any of the characters will find the peace Hickey claims to have found remains to be seen.

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