The Iceman Cometh | Study Guide

Eugene O'Neill

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The Iceman Cometh | Themes


The themes in The Iceman Cometh are closely interwoven. The characters indulge their pipe dreams, allowing them to maintain their hopeless hopes. Those dreams are rooted in memories—but not in reality-based memories. Instead, the dreamers have made adjustments to their memories in order to go on living with them. When reality insists on disillusioning any of the characters, the only option available is death.

Hopeless Hope

"Hopeless hope" was O'Neill's phrase. Hope is a positive sentiment or idea in which a positive future is implied. To describe that good future as hopeless indicates that the adjective hopeless somehow enhances that good future. In The Iceman Cometh hopeless hope is present in the characters' pipe dreams—their illusions about themselves.

According to O'Neill's close friend, the screenwriter, director, and producer Dudley Nichols (1895–1960), O'Neill "didn't feel that the fact that we live largely by illusion was sad." Man's quality is judged by the quality of his illusions. As Nichols explained, "No happy person lives on good terms with reality. No one has even penetrated what reality is." Hopeless hope—both for O'Neill and as it is developed in Iceman—is necessary to existence. For the characters in the play, it is what keeps the glass at least half full even if the contents are bitter or poisonous. Hopeless hope keeps people balanced on the edge of action, whereas despair—its opposite—results in stagnation.

Through shooting his wife, Hickey has lost his need for a drunken binge. Instead, he has called the police and turned himself in. He has fallen into reality. He has lost both the subject of his hopeless hope and the condition of hopeless hope. There is no illusion to which he can turn. The past, which might provide for hopeless hope in Hickey's present, died with Evelyn. Her death destroys even the fantasized possibility of a return to a happy past.

Under Hickey's influence, the other denizens of the bar are forced to recognize their illusions for what they are: illusions. Each turns his or her back on the illusion in an attempt to head out and confront the reality that made the illusion necessary. Jimmy Tomorrow cannot return to his old job, nor can any other members of the drunken crew. Facing reality, they retreat rather than experience the rejection that would destroy the illusion once and for all. Ultimately, each returns to the bar to restore the illusion by getting drunk. However, as long as Hickey is present and insisting on everyone facing reality, the alcohol doesn't get them drunk. It only works when the characters resist reality through embracing their pipe dreams.

Those characters are not like Hickey, who embraces his reality. With his pipe dream gone, he takes his end into his own hands. In this sense the alcoholic dreamers are the anesthetized survivors. In contrast Hickey has found an existential freedom in choosing his own death. Unable to live with his illusion any longer, he has nothing left to live for.

Function of Memory

Iceman is a memory play. Its characters are the survivors of the times in which they have lived. The play is permeated by nostalgia for times past even if specific memories have been altered or recreated as lies. In the play, O'Neill explores how people can shape memory to serve their emotional needs.

Piet Wetjoen and Cecil Lewis, for example, both fought in the Boer War but on opposing sides. Once enemies, they are now friends. They sit together habitually and chat about old times with humor and affection. In order to maintain their friendship, each man has had to rearrange his memories of the war. Their common experiences cement the friendship; any memories that threaten to overturn it must be jettisoned. However, when Hickey forces them to be honest with themselves, memory also becomes a minefield. The audience witnesses them come to blows in Act 2. In Act 3 Lewis calls Wetjoen a "stupid bounder of a Boer" and "a brute of a Dutch farmer." Soon, the two men are telling unpleasant truths about each other. Lewis recalls that Wetjoen counseled retreat out of cowardice, and Wetjoen recalls that Lewis gambled away regimental money. Memories have become weapons between them. After Hickey's departure in Act 4, however, memories of the war once again become the glue that cements the two men's friendship. After deciding not to look for jobs, they tell the group, they found themselves sitting on adjacent benches in the park. Lewis refers to Wetjoen as his "old battlefield companion," and the slights they utter are spoken, as the stage directions say, with "affectionate kidding."

Other characters and relationships also explore the function of memory. Larry Slade, Hugo Kalmar, and Don Parritt, for instance, share memories of their anarchist past on the West Coast. Yet, their memories differ greatly. Larry's memories engender bitterness and negativity, which lead him to repulse Parritt's attempts to reanimate their once warm relationship. The audience learns the causes for this as the play unfolds. Parritt, who at first focuses on good times with the only paternal figure he has ever known, slowly releases more facts. Parritt's mother, Rosa, cheated on Larry. In a final showdown, Larry called Rosa a "whore" and walked out on both their relationship and the anarchist movement as a whole. Parritt's memories of Larry are warm, while Larry has tried to erase his memories, which are tainted by Rosa's betrayal. Despite Hugo's alcohol-addled brain, his memories are clearer. In Parritt he immediately recognizes the young boy he once knew. For Hugo, holding on to memories of the movement means holding on to a self-image he relishes. Yet he, too, shies away from remembering some aspects of the movement. This can be seen in various moments when he starts from sleep to exclaim about stool pigeons, traitors, and the bourgeoisie. The memories that torture Hugo are not personal, but institutional. Hugo's outbursts are almost always followed by apologies and calming references to the willows of Babylon.


Death is a pervasive theme in Iceman. Characters flirt with death as a release from suffering. Yet, they also avoid it through clinging to their pipe dreams. The death of those pipe dreams leaves the dreamer with no other option for release than actual physical death.

Larry Slade is the character who flirts most openly with the notion of dying. Within the first few lines of the play, Larry characterizes death as "a fine long sleep" that "can't come too soon." When talking to Parritt, he quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856): "sleep is good; better is death ... / The best of all were never to be born." The notion frightens Parritt, yet he also suspects "it might come in handy."

As the men wait for Hickey through the long exposition of Act 1, they are all impatient to see him. While they cannot know what Hickey has done and will do, Willie Oban's impatience leads him to joke, "Would that Hickey or Death would come!" Later, they will all realize that when Hickey finally walked in, he brought death with him. His brand of death takes two forms: death of the spirit and death of the body.

When Parritt wants to know more about Harry Hope's place in Act 1, Larry characterizes it as "No Chance Saloon. It's Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Café." It's the last stop before death. There, the regulars are able to dream their pipe dreams and postpone death. However, Hickey arrives determined to kill off those pipe dreams. He believes his friends will then find real peace and be able to face their mortality without anxiety. Yet, all that happens is that the men undergo a death of the spirit. Without their pipe dreams, they find no fulfillment in life. They become dejected and irritable. Friendships degrade. Even the alcohol in the saloon has lost its potency, leading Harry to complain in Act 3 that "there's no life in it now."

Death of the body touches three of the main characters and three characters who are frequently mentioned without appearing. Harry's wife Bessie died 20 years earlier, and Harry has been unable to leave the building since then. Still, Harry holds fast to his pipe dream and thus to life. Hickey has killed his wife, Evelyn, and expects the state to execute him for it. With no illusions left, he turns himself in and confesses fully, thus ensuring the outcome. Parritt informed on his anarchist mother. As a result, she was arrested and has permanently lost the freedom she cherished. She may even be executed for treason. Parritt's guilt and remorse lead him to commit suicide. However, Parritt is unable to end his life without Larry's permission. Once he has that permission, Parritt throws himself from the fire escape. Recognizing his words have actually affected reality and resulted in Parritt's death, Larry finally relinquishes his own pipe dream. He realizes he is a "convert to death." This is confirmed by Hugo, who remarks to Larry, "You look dead." Hugo then walks away from Larry for the first time in the play. Before joining the others, he tells Larry, "You vas crazy like Hickey! You give me bad dreams, too." Having suffered death of the spirit, Larry's inevitable next stop is death of the body.

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