Iceman Cometh is a brilliant play by Eugene O'Neill that experiments with the painful side of emotional life. It's all about the different dreams that people aspire to achieve. They live with the hope of one-day achieving them and this is what make their days go by. The characters in this play are all broken-hearted souls who live with their never-ending aspirations of having a better tomorrow.
About the Playwright Eugene O'Neill
The playwright Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel on the very famous location of Broadway and 43rd street in New York City, the location was quite lucky for him. He went on to become one of America's greatest playwrights. Eugene went to study at the Catholic boarding school and then to Betts Academy in Stamford, Connecticut. He was admitted to Stanford but did not make it past the freshman year since he was suspended. From 1909 to 1912, he did a series of odd jobs and traveled vastly as a sailor. He learnt a lot about the lifestyle of simple people from his deep exposure to the working class. His experiences taught him a lot and along with the exposure he had gained is where he created his characters.
While he was recuperating from TB, he read volumes. The range of books he read covered the entire Western dramatic canon but he focused his attention greatly towards Ibsen, Wedekind and Strindberg. This led him to working on one-act plays to full-length ones and also poetry. In 1916, O'Neill started to work with the Provincetown players; this is where O'Neill's career took off from. This landed O'Neill with a venue for his plays and also provided him with the opportunity to learn how his plays worked out onstage. This company also got itself an excellent playwright.
The 1920 Broadway production of Beyond the Horizon marked the start of his fame; he was praised in both America and Europe. There was no American playwright in America who could write dramatic plays during that period. O'Neill went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1936. He was the first American playwright to win such honor. However, with passing of time, more powerful playwright's appeared on the scene, and damaged his career. It was during this horrifying period, he produced some of his most powerful plays, notably, The Ice Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night. He was laid to rest in 1953.
Critique on The Iceman Cometh
For those who are more acquainted with Shakespeare, they might find this play lacks all the elements of action or movement. The play is rather simple and tells the stories about a group of men who are rather depressed with what life has to offer them. They sit around at the bar and live with the hope of making their dreams come true one day. Their dreams are hopeless in reality and that is why in the play they are referred to as "pipe dreams." Hickey is the character who comes along to rescue these lost men. The first Act opens to describe everyone's past to the reader, this is quite stereotyped. The greatest part in the play is the introduction of Hickey where the characters are nearly drunk. This is where O'Neill's dramatization can really be marveled. The play is based on the assumptions of how simple people strive to dream in the hope of improving their future.
The Play- The Iceman Cometh
The play opens up in the back room of Harry hope's saloon. This is a bar that provides services to men and women, who are destitute and nearing death because they have lost all hope in life but are still holding onto the last strings of their 'pipe dream'. Harry is the owner, an alcoholic, who caters to a number of people who live off the free drinks because they never pay him. His bartenders are also pimps, but as the play opens they display an image as hard-working men who protect "tarts" or female prostitutes, who hand over their earnings to them.
The play starts off with Rocky offering a drink to Larry, the philosopher in residence. Rocky tells Larry about the frequent supply of free drinks in the following lines from the play itself:
Not a damned drink on the house," he tells me, "and all dese bums got to pay up deir rent. Beginnin' tomorrow," he says. Larry, I'll gladly pay up -- tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They've all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows."
Larry replies Rocky in the following dialogue:
The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober."
Larry is trying to tell us that these people who pass their days in the bar, manage to get by everyday by lying to themselves about who they really are; it brings up the question of can Hickey really celebrate Harry's birthday and also force these men to give up living on their "pipe dreams" and also admit that they are lying to themselves about who they really are, can Hickey do all this?
This issue is what forms the heart of the story line. The play doesn't just open up with introducing the characters but revolves around the plot's dramatic purpose. The structure of the play is unique because O'Neill introduces the characters as drunk initially, this is a way of introducing the two characters Harry and Larry to the audience. This makes it easier to follow and identify with the characters individually and also the overall dramatic issue of the play.
The story is about how and why people manage to live in self denial and how one character called Hickey is challenged to drive them away from this noxious poison and bring them back to reality. The remaining Acts deal with the challenges and struggles that Hickey has to face in order to bring these people out of insanity. This creates suspense in the play too as each Act concludes with bringing that Act to a climax and ending it there. Each revelation in each Act tells us what Hickey plans to do with the harmony he wants to bring to everybody.
The climax of the play sets around the result of the play, climax because each character has found internal tranquility through their pipe dreams and that's exactly what Hickey threatens in the last act of the play.
In the last Act, all the characters continue to drink heavily and enjoy the numbing effect of alcohol but only Larry sees eye-to-eye with himself and sees his situation. Hickey successfully takes him out of his dream.
I'll never be a success in the grandstand -- or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I'll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! May that day come soon! Be God, I'm the only real convert to death Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward's heart I mean that now."
The play concluded with loud singing and with the following words:
The days grow hot, O Babylon. Tis cool beneath the willow trees."
This play studies the impact of alcoholism and how its effects the lifestyle of people adversely. The play is set in a skid row bar / hotel in 1912. The type of people who frequent this bar comprise of the society's failures, like, drifters, pimps, police informers, former anarchists, failed con-artists, ex-soldiers and prostitutes. The alcoholics await the arrival of the rich, happy-go-lucky spender to treat these 'pipe dreamers' to several drinks of alcohol on the occasion of his birthday.
Hickey arrives late and yet sober. He comes with the hope of rescuing his drinking buddies and drives them away from this evil and away from living in their 'pipe dreams'. The main themes of the play are focused towards alcoholism, depression, family relationships, homicide, human value, memory, suicide and survival. We see different reactions from each character, an unexpected homicide and a surprise suicide that pretty much makes up the plot of the play.
This is the most comprehensive way to understand what the play is based on; some of the parts are also funny, especially in trying to bring comedy to tragedy. However, most of the Acts are dealt with on the level of how alcohol effects our lifestyle. Some of characters are the driving force in the play, while some are just those who refuse to change for the better even on Hickey's continuing efforts.
The effects of alcohol are shown through in a different spectrum altogether, such as, on spouse, parent-child, old friendships, and cultural animosities. This play is especially for those readers who would like to further research into the effects of alcohol during the early 20th century on the American society.
Clive Barnes has called The Iceman Cometh "One of the most absorbing plays of our century." [The Iceman Cometh, an…