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The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Symbols


In The Iceman Cometh O'Neill uses a variety of symbols. They are both visual and referential. Visual symbols include the arrangements of the actors on the stage. Referential ones make use of allusions to the Bible, literature, and shared ideas.

Stage Directions as Symbols

O'Neill uses blocking—the term for the stage directions that account for the actors' movement on stage and the relations among the characters—as other writers use symbols. Meaning often comes from where the actors sit or stand or how they move.

The Iceman Cometh is choreographed as though it were a dance. During his lifetime, O'Neill took an active role in the production of his work. He left very detailed and specific instructions for costumes and blocking, even motives and gesture. The script includes elaborate stage directions. Therefore, readers can picture and appreciate the repetitions and variations in posture and position. The function of those repetitions and variations can be compared to the operation of symbols in a literary text.

For example, Hugo and Larry sit at same table. This indicates they are closely linked. The audience learns both men were once anarchists. Both have left behind those behaviors as well, it seems, as the convictions that initiated them. Larry, the slovenly American version, is the voice of the act. He works not to be engaged. Hugo, the addled and sarcastic voice of a European past, also operates as a commentator, offering a refrain that trivializes his past behavior. The veterans of the Boer War present as a group and also function on two levels of meaning. The first is the strained personal relations among them, including a provisional sort of peace. The second is the prejudices raised by

  • British exceptionalism in the case of Lewis,
  • Boer prejudices from the perspective of Wetjoen, and
  • Jimmy Tomorrow's version—that of a newspaperman, a "ghost of a gentleman."

It may also be noted that the anarchists sit on stage left and the more conservative group at stage right.

Harry's Birthday Party/The Last Supper

O'Neill never entirely lost his entanglement with the Church. The title of The Iceman Cometh situates the play between heaven (invoked by the archaic form cometh) and earth (in the person of the iceman). Hickey of course is not a god but a man, a false messiah, demonstrating just how far the ordinarily blasphemous can fall.

The play specifically evokes the story of the Last Supper. Through the constellation of characters and their careful arrangement, it brings to mind the famous Renaissance painting of that name by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). This is especially true in Act 2, when the seating is spread out in a line across the stage. Hickey has not 12 but an inauspicious 13 disciples who partake of wine at Harry's birthday celebration. Parritt resembles Judas Iscariot. Just as Iscariot is the 12th disciple, Parritt is the last man to arrive at the saloon. Judas betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver, and Parritt has betrayed his mother for money. Both men are far from home: Judas is from Judea, and Parritt is from the West Coast. Parritt recalls his mother saying that anyone who quits the movement is a Judas, and he identifies himself as her betrayer. Even Hugo presciently calls him as a stool pigeon at first sight. Finally, Judas killed himself either by hanging (Matthew 27:5) or by " falling headlong" (Acts 1:18); Parritt commits suicide by throwing himself from the fire escape.

There are other parallels too. Just as Christ knew during the Last Supper that it was the last meal he would share with his disciples, Hickey leaves the group knowing he will be executed. The three prostitutes sympathize with Hickey just as the three Marys did with Jesus.

Willows of Babylon

Hugo Kalmar frequently quotes the last line of the 1850 poem "Revolution" by the German political poet Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–76): "The day grows hot, O Babylon! 'Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!" In The Iceman Cometh O'Neill uses the symbol of Babylon's willows to conjure a mood of natural solace and peace.

The speaker of the poem is Revolution itself, who explains even though it has apparently been banished or eradicated, it lives on in people's minds and hearts. One day it will return triumphant as decreed by "History's iron law." Thus, the reference to the poem with its assurance of ultimate victory provides comfort to Hugo, the failed revolutionary. The poem's final image is of a rest earned through long struggle, and he returns to it each time something upsets him. For instance, he often quotes the calming words after berating those around him. When Hickey disrupts people's pipe dreams, Hugo's treatment of the line changes. In Act 2 he corrupts it with bitter cynicism: "Soon, leedle proletarians, ve vill have free picnic ... beneath the villow trees! ... Like beautiful leedle hogs!" By Act 3 all semblance of peace has turned to pain and horror for Hugo: "Always there is blood beneath the villow trees! I hate it and I am afraid!"

After Hickey's confession and departure in Act 4, the line once again works its magic—and not only on Hugo. As he leaves the bar on his way to kill himself, Parritt assures Hugo he will buy the old revolutionary a drink "Tomorrow! Beneath the willow trees!" The solace and peace evoked by this mention are those of eternal rest. They offer a vision of a natural paradise that will follow death and redemption. This interpretation is reinforced when Hugo moves from Larry's table to join Harry and the others. As part of his greeting, he declaims, "soon comes the Day of Judgment!" Moments later, everyone but Larry joins Hugo in chorusing, "'tis cool beneath thy willow trees!"

However, the willow symbolism is layered like so much in Iceman. O'Neill's use of it as an image of solace and peace is undermined by reference to its biblical source, Psalm 137. It begins, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. / We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof." The psalm memorializes the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted half a century or longer. It ended in 538 BCE. During that time Jews were held captive in Babylon. Psalm 137 promises Babylon will be destroyed like Jerusalem, closing with this brutal image: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." Thus, when Hugo mentions the blood beneath the willows in Act 2, he may actually be closer to Freiligrath's original use of the reference. Freiligrath is warning the powerful oppressor that revolution's victory is near at hand.


Although the notion of the iceman derives from a running joke between Hickey and his chums at Harry's saloon, its symbolism changes during the play. The joke is based on Hickey arriving home and finding his wife in bed with the iceman. When at the end of the second act the men begin teasing Hickey about Evelyn and the iceman, he stops them cold by announcing she is dead. This creates a clear link between the iceman and death. As the play progresses, Hickey releases further details. First, he tells the others that Evelyn was killed—shot in the head. Thus, the iceman becomes not just a rather morose symbol of death, but a terrifying one of cold brutality. Finally, Hickey admits that he himself killed his wife. He did so out of love, he says. It was the only way to end the misery she had to endure because he continually failed to live up to her faith in him. This final admission actually turns Hickey into the iceman. This final iceman is an image tinged with madness, since Hickey's pals find both his action and his reasoning incomprehensible.

Having left Evelyn dead at home, Hickey has walked for hours to reach Harry's saloon, bringing death with him. Larry recognizes this: "I felt he'd brought the touch of death on him!" The death Hickey the iceman brings is not only literal death but also figurative. It is literal in that Evelyn is dead and Hickey expects to be executed for killing her. It is literal in that Parritt commits suicide after listening to Hickey's protracted confession. By the end of the play, Larry's pipe dream of longing for death (poetically postponed through alcoholic companionship) has become a reality. The death Hickey brings is also figurative in that it relates to the pipe dreams that keep the saloon's regulars going. From the moment he arrives, the mood among the group disintegrates further and further as the members' disillusionment grows. Hickey seems to want to destroy those pipe dreams completely, but after he is arrested and led away, the men return to them. Larry recognizes that he is "the only real convert to death Hickey made here." Still, it remains a fact of life that the iceman of death is still coming and will arrive sometime, even for Harry Hope's other patrons.

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