The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh

Infobox Play
name = The Iceman Cometh

caption = Kevin Spacey (center) as Hickey in the 1999
writer = Eugene O'Neill
characters = Harry Hope
Ed Mosher
Pat McGloin
Willie Oban
Joe Mott
Piet Wetjoen
Cecil Lewis
James Cameron
Hugo Kalmar
Larry Slade
Rocky Pioggi
Don Parritt
Chuck Morello
Theodore Hickman (Hickey)
setting =
premiere = October 9, 1946
place = Martin Beck Theatre,
New York City, New York
orig_lang = English
subject =
genre = Drama
web =
ibdb_id = 4634

"The Iceman Cometh" is a play written by Eugene O'Neill in 1939. First published in 1940 and first produced on Broadway in 1946, it is considered one of the author's finest works. The play was later adapted into a TV movie in 1960 as well as a big screen motion picture in 1973, both by the same name.


*Harry Hope, "proprietor of a saloon and rooming house*"
*Ed Mosher, "Hope's brother-in-law, one-time circus man*"
*Pat McGloin, "one-time Police Lieutenant*"
*Willie Oban, "a Harvard Law School alumnus*"
*Joe Mott, "a one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house"
*Piet Wetjoen, ("The General"), "one-time leader of a Boer commando*"
*Cecil Lewis, ("The Captain"), "one-time Captain of British infantry*"
*James Cameron ("Jimmy Tomorrow"), "one-time Boer War correspondent*"
*Hugo Kalmar, "one-time editor of Anarchist periodicals"
*Larry Slade, "one-time Syndicalist-Anarchist"
*Rocky Pioggi, "night bartender*"
*Don Parritt*
*Pearl, "street walker*"
*Margie, "street walker*"
*Cora, "street walker"
*Chuck Morello, "day bartender*"
*Theodore Hickman (Hickey), "a hardware salesman"
*Lieb(* Roomers at Harry Hope's)


The play is set in Harry Hope's decidedly downmarket Greenwich Village saloon and rooming house, in 1912. The patrons, who are all men except for three women who are prostitutes, are all dead-end alcoholics who spend every possible moment seeking oblivion in each others' company and trying to con or wheedle free drinks from Harry and the bartenders. They tend to focus much of their anticipation on the semi-regular visits of the salesman Theodore Hickman, known to them as Hickey. When Hickey finishes a tour of his business territory, which is apparently a wide expanse of the East Coast, he typically turns up at the saloon and starts the party. He buys drinks for everyone, regales them with jokes and stories, and goes on a bender of several days until his money runs out. As the play opens, the regulars are expecting Hickey to turn up soon and plan to throw Harry a surprise birthday party. The entire first act introduces the various characters and shows them bickering amongst each other, showing just how drunk and delusional they are, all the while waiting for the arrival of Hickey.

One of the focuses of this act is a dialogue between two of the characters, Larry Slade and Don Parrit. Don's mother, a member of an anarchist movement, has recently been arrested, apparently as a result of an informant. Larry was dating Don's mother for the majority of Don's childhood and Don is preoccupied with getting Larry, who has resigned himself to a detached state, to admit his continued belief in the movement.

Joe Mott is the only African American member of the group and is the former owner of a black casino. He insists he will soon re-open the casino.

Cecil "The Captain" Lewis is a former infantryman of the British Army who fought with Piet "The General" Wetjoen, a Boer during the Boer War. The two are now good friends. The two insist they'll soon go back to their nations of origin.

Willie Oban is a Harvard graduate who says he will soon get a job at the DA's office.

Harry Hope is the proprietor of the bar and, though he is constantly saying otherwise, has a tendency to give out free drinks. He has not left the bar since his wife Bess's death 20 years ago. He promises that he'll take a walk around the block on his birthday, the next day.

Pat McGloin is a former police lieutenant who was convicted on criminal charges and kicked out of the force. He says he is hoping to appeal, but is waiting for the right moment.

Rocky Pioggi is the night bartender, but is paid little and makes his living mostly off of allowing Pearl and Margie stay at the bar in exchange for all the money they make. He despises being called a pimp.

Ed Mosher is Harry's brother-in-law, Bess's brother. He is a former circus box-office man and con-man who prides himself on his ability to give incorrect change. He kept too much of his illegitimate profits to himself and was fired, but says he will get his job back someday.

Hugo Kalmar is a former anarchist who often quotes the bible. He is drunk and passed out for a majority of the play and is constantly asking the other patrons to buy him a drink.

James "Jimmy Tomorrow" Cameron is a former British newspaper correspondent. He is constantly procrastinating getting a job, hence his nickname.

Chuck Morello is the day bartender and Cora's boyfriend. He says that he will marry her tomorrow.

Pearl and Margie are two prostitutes that work for Rocky.

Cora is a third prostitute and is Chuck's girlfriend.

Finally Hickey arrives and his behavior throws the other characters into turmoil. He insists, with as much charisma as ever, but now together with the zeal of a recent convert, that he sees life clearly now as never before, because he is sober. He hectors his former drinking companions that they are meaninglessly clinging to "pipe dreams" of some kind of positive change in their lives, while continuing to drown their sorrows exactly as before. Hickey wants the characters to cast away their delusions and embrace the hopelessness of their fates. He takes on this task with a near-maniacal fervor. How he goes about his mission, how the other characters respond, and their efforts to find out what has wrought this change in Hickey take over four hours to resolve.

During and after Harry's birthday party most seem to have been somewhat affected by Hickey's ramblings. Harry, Lewis and Wetjoen all leave the bar, though Harry comes running back with the (untrue) excuse that he was almost run over by a passing car and they all come back later in the day. Larry pretends to be unaffected but, when Don reveals he was the informant, Larry rages at him; Willie decides McGloin's appeal will be his first case and Rocky admits he is a pimp.

Eventually, they all return and are jolted by a sudden revelation. Hickey, who had earlier told the other characters that his wife had died and that she was murdered, admits that he is the one who actually killed her. The police arrive, apparently called by Hickey himself, and Hickey justifies the murder in a dramatic monologue, saying that he did it out of love for her.

When Hickey was a child his father made a living as an evangelist, which led Hickey to become a salesman. He met his wife, Evelyn, and Evelyn's family forbade her to associate with Hickey, which she ignored. After Hickey left to become a salesman he promised he would marry Evelyn as soon as he was able. He became a successful salesman, then sent for her and the two were very happy until Hickey got tired of his wife always forgiving him for his whore-mongering and began to feel guilty. He contemplated both divorcing her and killing himself, but believed both would convince Evelyn he didn't love her, so he looked for another way out. While watching her sleep, he decided it would be better if she just didn't wake up, so he shot her in the head with her revolver. He next recounts how he taunted her and, in realizing he said this, realizes that he went insane and that people need their empty dreams to keep them going. The others agree and decide to testify for insanity during Hickey's trial despite Hickey begging them to let him get the death sentence.

The others all go back to their empty promises and pipe dreams except for Don who compares Evelyn's murder with his selling the Movement out, but worse saying that his mother has to live with the knowledge that her son "killed" her. He runs up to his room with the intention of jumping off the fire escape. Larry grimaces and listens at the window with his eyes closed. Don jumps and Larry at first seems to be relieved.

The play ends with everyone singing in dissonance happily except for Larry who stares straight ahead in horror as the curtain falls.

Political content

The play contains many allusions to political topics, particularly anarchism and socialism. Hugo, Larry and Don are former members of an anarchist movement. Larry, who is now a bitter man who claims to be waiting for death, is approached by his ex-girlfriend’s son, Don, at the beginning of the play, and Don remains at the bar.Don admits that he informed the police of the illegal activities of his mother and other anarchists. He gives several reasons for this but later admits that they are not the real ones. He claims that he did it out of patriotism and then that he wanted the money, but finally admits that he did it because he hated his mother, who was so obsessed with her own freedom that she became too self-centered and often either ignored or dominated him. The conversations between Don and Larry, are among the most emotional in the play. Some of these conversations also often involve Hickey, whose actions somewhat parallel Don’s.

Two other characters are veterans of the Second Boer War. One is British and one is Dutch. They alternately defend and insult each other, and there are many allusions to events in South Africa. Both wish to return to South Africa, but their families do not want them there.

There is also an African-American character named Joe, who gives several speeches about racial differences.


The play is certainly O'Neill's most ambitious work, and bears the impression of having been written from a perspective of profound despair. It expresses the playwright's disillusionment with the American ideals of success and aspiration, and suggests that much of human behavior is driven by bitterness, envy and revenge. Despite the emotional difficulty of this play which may have decreased its popularity, fans of the play believe that all the characters are so well explored, with measured doses of wry humor, that the best productions are compelling. The suspense of discovering the true meaning and intentions of Hickey's character usually maintains the audience's interest.

This massive undertaking is seldom staged. Even when O'Neill was alive, he delayed its performance on Broadway for seven years, fearing American audiences would reject it. O'Neill was at the height of his fame when he relented in 1946, and the production was a commercial success, though it received mixed reviews. The realistic, seedy language of some of its ne'er-do-well characters was a departure for O'Neill, who was known for writing plays with high-flown and melodramatic dialogue. This play tends to preserve O'Neill's typical passion and intensity while losing some of its aestheticism in the language, and risks a certain amount of redundancy as a result, so it is not surprising that some critics did not fully embrace it at first.

Another problem may have been the performance of James Barton as Hickey. Barton was reportedly not up to the massive emotional and physical demands of such a titanic part, sometimes forgetting his lines or wearing out his voice. Interestingly, the young Marlon Brando was offered the part of Don Parritt in the original Broadway production, but famously turned it down. Brando later claimed to have read only a few pages of the script the producers gave him, and to have started an argument at the audition about the worth of the play and O'Neill's writing style – which ended with his rejecting the part, apparently in order just to seem consistent – rather than admit to his laziness.

The play was mounted again Off-Broadway in 1956, after O'Neill's death. This production, starring Jason Robards as Hickey and directed by José Quintero, was massively acclaimed, and the play was accepted as a true masterpiece. Robards won multiple awards for his performance, and went on to distinguish himself throughout his life as the leading interpreter of O'Neill's great male roles. He was most widely known for his film roles but repeatedly devoted his most serious energies to theatrical roles, and especially to O'Neill.


Robards starred in a 1960 live television version of the play, and returned to it in a 1985 Broadway production again directed by Quintero and featuring a cast that included Barnard Hughes as Harry Hope and Donald Moffat as Larry Slade.

Other noteworthy actors to play the role of Hickey include Lee Marvin, in a 1973 film adaptation directed by John Frankenheimer; James Earl Jones, in a 1973 revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre that was edited for length and criticized for the weakness of its supporting cast; and Kevin Spacey, who was lauded for his 1998-1999 stage rendition of the part on London's West End and then on Broadway. The play is now widely considered to have the dimensions of a true tragedy, whereas many of O'Neill's earlier works would be more accurately characterized as melodrama.

The 1973 film version featured many notable character actors besides Lee Marvin, including Fredric March as Harry, Robert Ryan as Larry, Jeff Bridges as Don, and Moses Gunn as Joe.



External links

*ibdb show|4634
*imdb title|204394|The Iceman Cometh (1960)
*imdb title|70212|The Iceman Cometh (1973)

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