The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Plot Summary

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Summary

The four acts of The Iceman Cometh take place in Harry Hope's saloon, which looks out through dirty windows onto a busy street "on the downtown West Side of New York." The narrow five-story tenement with a bar/dining room on the street floor has a second-floor flat "occupied by the proprietor" and rooms for rent on the upper floors. Thus, the saloon is "legally a hotel" and has the privilege of serving "liquor in the back room of the bar after closing hours and on Sundays."

Act 1

It is early on a summer morning in 1912. The barroom is divided by a black curtain separating a back room, which serves as the dining area, from the bar. Eleven men whose sole occupation in life is drinking have waited all night for the reappearance of the one member of their cohort who is gainfully employed. This is a salesman known as Hickey. The men are mostly in their midlife. The occasion for the gathering is the 60th birthday party of Harry Hope, the hotel's proprietor. The voice of sanity and clarity of understanding in the group—despite his lack of sobriety—is Larry Slade. Slade is an ex-anarchist who sees through the pipe dreams (illusions) of his peers. He has abandoned all hope and lives waiting for death. Eighteen-year-old Don Parritt injects himself into this middle-aged group. He is looking for Larry, who was once a father figure to him. Parritt needs to talk to Larry about his mother's arrest for treason, but Larry doesn't want to hear it. This "family circle of inmates" expands to include three "ladies of the pavement," who room on the third floor, and Chuck, the daytime bartender.

The group is eagerly anticipating Hickey's return to the saloon, the sanctuary for his alcoholic binges: time stolen from his marriage and his work. When Hickey arrives, he is sober, and his strong judgments are far from the camaraderie and laissez-faire attitudes to which the others hold. Hickey is a changed man and a fresh mystery to all. Still, the occasion is Harry's 60th birthday, and the plans persist for a grand celebration. Hickey does not endear himself on this visit. He preaches the end of everyone's false pipe dreams. The act ends with everyone feeling "puzzled, resentful and uneasy."

Act 2

The second act takes place later the same day in the back room. It is near midnight. Since the earlier events, Hickey has visited everyone, urging all of them to give up their pipe dreams. Now the women are helping rearrange the tables and distribute the food, flowers, and gifts Hickey has brought for the party. The arrangement of tables has changed, so everyone can sit in a row facing forward. The regulars seem disappointed with the unexpected changes, and the general mood is nasty. The women exchange insults; the men complain about Hickey's need to run everything. Hickey arrives with champagne for everyone. He also has a program for how the party will work. Willie appears, preparing for his second chance at the law. Parritt unsuccessfully attempts to get Larry's sympathy and admits he is afraid of Hickey. McGloin and Mosher, who usually get along, are sniping at each other. Harry attempts a birthday speech in which he agrees with Hickey and looks forward to some changes. Finally, Larry confronts Hickey, who encourages him to give Parritt the advice the young man needs. Everyone wants to know why Hickey has changed. Not wanting to ruin the party, Hickey admits he has important news. He announces his wife, Evelyn, is dead, and he feels no grief. She is out of her misery, he explains. She no longer has to deal with a "no-good cheater and drunk."

Act 3

The third act takes place in the bar and part of the back room on the morning of the following day. Driven by Hickey, the mood of the group has grown ugly with disappointments, competitive behaviors, and brutal threats. Despair replaces the usual good-natured resignation of all. Everyone is angry, and earlier alliances are threatened. McGloin and Mosher along with Wetjoen and Lewis announce they are leaving and handing in their keys. Finally, only Harry Hope, Hickey, and a few others are left in the bar. At Hickey's urging, Harry leaves the building for the first time in 20 years. Within moments he is back and must face his cowardice, which leaves him despondent. Even drinking no longer helps. Hickey admits to Larry that Evelyn did not die naturally but was shot in the head. The police have not yet found the killer. Parritt, who has been dozing on the table, wakes up confused. Guiltily, he protests that his mother is still alive. Larry, focused on Hickey's revelations, tries to ignore what the young man is saying. Hickey cannot understand why Harry has not found peace in relinquishing his pipe dream.

Act 4

It is early the next morning, around 1:30 a.m. The setting is the same as in Act 1: the back room and a section of the bar. Hickey admits he was the one who shot Evelyn. He says he constantly hurt her and that she constantly forgave him. This made them both miserable, and shooting her was the kindest remedy. He has called the police to turn himself in. As Hickey makes a lengthy confession to his old friends in the presence of the detectives, Parritt makes his own whispered confession to Larry. Hickey is arrested and taken away, with his friends vowing to support a plea of insanity. Larry finally gives Parritt permission to put an end to his suffering and guilt. Parritt leaves the room. The old group, now reunited, again finds solace in alcohol and pipe dreams—with one exception: Larry Slade. Larry, sunk in his own thoughts, watches the window. Moments later he sees Parritt fall from the fire escape. Oblivious to the group's renewed good spirits, Larry realizes he is Hickey's "only real convert to death." Meanwhile, the rest of the group breaks into companionable song and laughter.

The Iceman Cometh Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 The group of alcoholics waits all night for Hickey to arrive.

Rising Action

2 Hickey arrives, sober and preparing for a party.

3 Hickey announces that his wife, Evelyn, is dead.

4 The birthday party is a flop.

5 Hickey urges all to embrace reality.

6 No one in the group can fulfill their pipe dreams.

7 Parritt identifies with Hickey and is rejected by Larry.

8 Hickey confesses to murdering Evelyn.

Climax

9 Hickey is arrested.

Falling Action

10 Parritt commits suicide.

11 Larry realizes that he is Hickey's one convert.

Resolution

12 The rest of the group drinks, sings, and laughs together.

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