The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Act 4 | Summary



It is 1:30 a.m. on the morning of the day after Harry Hope's birthday. Larry Slade, Hugo Kalmar, and Don Parritt are together to the left of the door. Cora and Pat McGloin are grouped on the other side with Cecil Lewis and Piet Wetjoen. At the table behind them are Willie Oban, Harry Hope, and Ed Mosher, with Jimmy Tomorrow at the far right. There are liquor bottles and glasses on the tables. All are facing forward. According to the stage directions, "there is a quality of insensibility about all the people in the group at right. They are like wax figures, set stiffly in their chairs, carrying out mechanically the motions of getting drunk." Joe Mott and Rocky Pioggi are in the bar section; Joe is in a chair "sprawled in drunken slumber." Rocky stands behind him looking on with "dull hostility."

An ugly reality has replaced the quiet conviviality of the first scene. Rocky calls Joe a "nigger." Chuck Morello appears, battered after being in a fight. He has given up his illusions about marrying Cora and acknowledges she is a whore. He complains about drinking and not being able to get drunk. He is angry with Hickey and speculates on Hickey having killed his wife and getting the "Hot Seat." Joe wakes up, calls Rocky and Chuck "White Boys," and moves away to sit behind Captain Lewis. Chuck refers to Cora as his "pig" and goes to collect the money she has made overnight. Lewis refers to Joe as a "Bloody Kaffir." The insults proliferate. Cora hands Chuck some money, insulting him by calling him a "drunken pimp." He responds, noting he didn't have to marry her for her money since he can get it just as easily without marrying her.

Parritt talks about suicide and says Hickey has got him "all balled up." Rocky tries to recruit Larry and Parritt as pimps, noting that only suckers work. Larry seems to understand that Hickey is suffering because he can't find the peace he is offering to his old friends. Hickey enters and calls Larry a liar.

Harry has the same complaint as the others. They are all drinking but can't get drunk. Hickey is disappointed they haven't been able to abandon a "single damned hope or lying dream." He has made a phone call and an appointment for two o'clock and wants to advise them all once more before then. He preaches freedom from self-delusion and the lie about "reforming tomorrow."

Hickey finally tells them the whole truth about Evelyn. They loved each other, but they were both miserable. Choosing between killing himself and killing Evelyn to end their misery, he chose to kill Evelyn. His reasoning shocks all assembled: his death would have insured her unhappiness forever, while her death would end her suffering.

Larry is angry and tells Hickey he prefers remembering the "kindness and laughter" Hickey once brought them. He doesn't want to have evidence that could send Hickey "to the Chair."

Parritt likens his situation to Hickey's, and Hickey resents it. He reminds Larry that Parritt had hate in his heart, while Hickey acted out of love. Hickey reminds them all he is using his life as an example to save them from the same mistakes.

Harry interrupts and like Larry insists he wants to stop listening and keep on drinking. Jimmy tells the truth about the lifelong drinking that lost him his marriage and his job. At that moment, two police detectives, Moran and Lieb, arrive looking for Hickman, who phoned them and confessed.

In long speeches that take up the center of the act, Hickey details his drunken behavior and adulteries and Evelyn's unshakeable loyalty. He tells how he "picked up a nail from some tart" (caught an STD from a prostitute) and passed it on to Evelyn. She forgave him. No matter what he did, Evelyn forgave him and clung to her pipe dream of a good marriage to a loving husband. You could see it in her face: "sweetness and love and pity and forgiveness." He reaches for a photo to show them, then realizes he tore it up after he killed her. He loved Evelyn but hated her pipe dream. As Harry's party approached, he knew he wanted to go, but he also knew he couldn't face disappointing Evelyn again. He couldn't face leaving her and letting her think he didn't love her. So, he shot her in her sleep. Then he heard himself laughing and saying to her, "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!" As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Hickey tries to take them back. He loved her, he swears; he must have been insane to say such a thing. All the while, Parritt intermittently comments in a low voice to Larry, drawing comparisons between his own behavior toward his mother and Hickey's behavior toward Evelyn. He burned his mother's picture. He turned her in because he hated his mother and her "damned old Movement pipe dream." The exchange continues until the detectives arrest Hickey.

Harry attempts to protect his friend, announcing that Hickey's behavior is "crazy." Moran angrily rejects the attempt by Hickey's friends to establish grounds for a plea of insanity. As the detectives lead him out, Hickey protests he wants "to go to the Chair." He tells them Evelyn was "the only thing on God's earth [he] ever loved."

Larry hopes execution will bring Hickey peace. Parritt insists he needs peace, too, saying Hickey has shown him the way to assuage his guilt. Larry, deeply distraught, becomes furious with Parritt and demands he leave: "Get the hell out of life ... before I choke it out of you!" Parritt thanks him for being "kind" and goes. As he leaves, Hugo asks Parritt to buy him a drink. Parritt replies, "Sure! ... Tomorrow! Beneath the willow trees!"

Harry hopes that with Hickey gone the liquor has regained its potency. He is happy to have abandoned the notion that he could walk out into the world again. Rocky agrees. Cora and Chuck admit to having played along with Hickey but never actually intending to marry. Willie admits he spent the day in the park, never attempting to get his job back. Similarly, the others admit folly in pursuing their past situations.

Larry, who has not joined the others, stares out the window, waiting in impatient agony. At long last, there is a "muffled, crunching thud." Parritt has thrown himself from the fire escape. Larry, unable to join the crowd in their drunken rowdiness, realizes he will "be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything" until he dies. He hopes that day comes soon. Somewhat surprised, he concludes that he is Hickey's only "convert to death." Meanwhile, the others continue celebrating. Drunk nearly to the "passing-out stage," they all sing different songs at the same time and then break into laughter. They end by laughingly joining Hugo in reciting the last line of his favorite poem.


This act opens in the same space as the first act but with the tables and the groups of characters somewhat differently configured. All but Joe and Rocky face front. The first act, with nearly the same set of figures onstage, appears to be choreographed: a gentle action with characters, sleeping, musing, waking and moving. They are teasing and joking. The community drinks and dozes. The jokes are good-natured. In this final act, there is something unnatural about the wooden nature of the scene. It is not lifelike; they are almost mannikins in a shop window.

In this final scene the group passes through an orgy of exorcism. First, they exercise irrational anger directed against one another, based in the crude realities of their lives. The ugly relation between the two pimps and the women, the racism of the bartender and the Boer ex-general, the unresolved guilt and hatred boiling over in Parritt, and Harry Hope's genuine despair and inability to handle life fill the stage with intersecting blasts of anger and dysfunction. Hickey's entrance and confession provide a turning point. In his arrest there is potential to return to the status quo: the sudden resignation and rejection of reality of Act 1. There is, however, disappointment here as well, a response absent from the first act.

The gender politics of the plot become clear in Act 4. This reflects O'Neill's own conflicted relationships with women. To reflect on O'Neill's behavior toward women is to recognize his unassuaged needs to be taken care of in a way his mother, Ella, could not. This resulted in a lifestyle that was careless with women. He fell in and out of love. He appreciated the liberated attitudes of women such as Louise Bryant and the nurturing attention he received from Carlotta. In Iceman the roles of the three prostitutes, along with Hickey's description of Evelyn and Ed's description of Bessie, create a particular image of women. These are women who define themselves through their relationships with men. They are entirely blind to their own needs—and taken advantage of by men who capitalize on this blindness. Only Parritt's description of Rosa is a variance. In her life, politics and her fellow anarchists were central, and she was blind to her son's needs.

By Act 4 things have changed—more for some than others. Hickey's exercise in reality has provided Larry with the courage to face his own shortcomings, acknowledge his true sympathies, and face the ambivalence of life that has left him paralyzed. He doesn't seem to have options except facing his death with, perhaps, a resignation distinct from his capability at the play's opening. As the spokesman for the author, Larry's situation at the end simply confirms O'Neill's drive for unvarnished realism. If the play raises questions about social norms and social ideals, about human freedom and vulnerability, it does not attempt a solution. This is just how things are. The answers to questions about a successful state or a good life cannot be generalized. Individuals can only observe and act.

Hugo has had his crusade, followed his star, and been tortured and incarcerated. Now, he simply finds confirmation in all that has passed. He remains himself, finding solace in drink and in the worldly sarcasm and half-mad, childish teasing that defines him. He didn't have a pipe dream in the first place, only memories that depicted a life lived out long before he was old. The others have simply faced a repetition of times past, acknowledging alcohol-fueled failures that led to alcohol-soaked lives.

Hickey has finally spoken the unvarnished truth. He shot dead the person who forced him to face the truth about himself. The problem, of course, is that it was not, in fact, Evelyn who forced his hand. Loving her, he hated seeing her suffer. It was seeing what he did to her that reached his conscience. But he also accepted himself as a loser who could not change. Evelyn herself was the true pipe dreamer. She was the one who found a way to perpetuate a marriage that did not serve her because of her partner's behavior. By killing her, Hickey hoped to save her from the disillusionment he had suffered. Yet, at the same time, he resented how Evelyn held to her pipe dream no matter what he did. This put him in the position of having to change to live up to her image of him. But he found he couldn't—or wouldn't—change. The pressure of Evelyn's faith in him sparked anger and resentment in Hickey. So, although his decision to kill her may have been born out of love, the act of doing so released pent-up feelings he hadn't acknowledged before. He calls her a "damned bitch." Even as he relates the story, he is horrified by his words. For Hickey, it becomes paramount that his friends and the police detectives know how much he loved Evelyn. Exploding in bitter hatred, he tries to make clear, was insanity. However, his friends latch onto the notion of his insanity as a possible plea bargain.

Hickey's long explication of his relationship with and feelings toward Evelyn resonate with Parritt. His brief realizations form a whispered confession to Larry. It turns out he also acted out of resentment when he informed on his mother. He hated her for holding on to her pipe dream—the anarchist movement—and for always placing it first. Unlike Hickey, who always came first with Evelyn, Larry never came first with Rosa. Unlike Hickey, Parritt was aware of his feelings of hatred. Yet, Parritt did not kill his mother. The audience may suspect he hoped to make it impossible for her to remain an anarchist. Perhaps he had a pipe dream of his own in which she became the loving mother he so desired. However, if that is true, he has been disillusioned. She is in prison and likely to be executed. Just as Hickey was surprised to learn he harbored some hatred for Evelyn, Parritt is surprised to learn he still loves Rosa. As a result, he is now consumed with guilt. Just as Hickey longs for the state to release him from his pain through execution, Parritt longs for release from his pain. All he needs is for Larry to finally give him permission. After Parritt's drawn-out confession, this finally comes in Larry's exhortation to "Go, for the love of Christ, you mad tortured bastard, for your own sake!" Larry has become not Parritt's father but his father confessor. His words vaguely recall the closing of the Catholic confession: after assigning penance, the priest absolves the penitent and tells them to go in Christ and sin no more. Just as the penitent thanks the priest, Parritt thanks Larry. Then he goes to kill himself.

Parritt's determination to commit suicide mirrors Hickey's call to the police. Hickey knows he will be sentenced and executed. His execution will be viewed as a punishment or penance by the state, which will carry it out. However, for Hickey himself, it will also be a release from the guilt that punishes him daily. Parritt sees a similar penance and release in his suicide. He even says to Kalmar that he will see him "[t]omorrow ... [b]eneath the willow trees." The image is, of course, taken from the poem Kalmar so frequently quotes. However, it also evokes a natural paradise, a place of peace and respite.

Larry is the only member of the group who knows what Parritt is about to do. He sits separate from the group, unable to keep his eyes from the window. He realizes that in sending Parritt to die, he has demonstrated his conversion to Hickey's way of thinking: the only release from a life of disillusionment is death. He no longer belongs in the group of barflies in Harry Hope's saloon.

The curtain falls on the rest of the group, drunk and happy, finally celebrating Harry's birthday as it deserves to be celebrated—in laughter and song. They have rediscovered their pipe dreams and with them their camaraderie. At the very end, Hugo again quotes the last line of his favorite poem. It is a translation of a German poem, "Revolution," written by the 19th-century revolutionary poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–76). (Freiligrath actually knew Karl Marx, whom Hugo's last name, Kalmar, evokes.) For Hugo the poem ratifies memories of his youth, when his life was given meaning by his anarchist cause. When the group joins Hugo in the recitation rather than ridiculing him as they usually do, it again calls attention to the mood of that last line. Its mood is one of hope and perhaps salvation. It is as if these men had found salvation in their pipe dreams.

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