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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VI, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1982



The principal women of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh remain offstage. They never appear to the audience in full complexity as characters to engage us in various ways, to elicit a range of response. This design has special virtues for a consideration of some aspects of O'Neill's treatment of women in his work. The invisibility of the significant female figures, Evelyn and Rosa, brings their purpose in the play into relief, uncomplicated by their presence. O'Neill makes palpable here the contribution of women to the symbol pattern of The Iceman Cometh, to the ways in which it makes meaning.

Three women do, of course, figure in lively exchanges at Harry Hope's. But O'Neill's stage directions describe Margie and Pearl, who are somewhat younger versions of Cora, as "sentimental, featherbrained, giggly, lazy, good-natured and reasonably content with life."1 The description alerts us to their marginality in a setting where alcohol and a protective male camaraderie are the substance of life. The "tarts" are external enough to the central movement of the play, and innocuous enough in this context, for Travis Bogard to call Hope's saloon "a world without women."2 There are no women present who will impinge on the experience of the men.

The habitué's of the backroom have managed to sustain a long-term, uneasy harmony--an equilibrium that is disturbed by the unexpected entrance of the tormented Parritt, and the eagerly awaited arrival of Hickey for Harry Hope's birthday. The force of the two men's impact on the backroom is directly related to the experiences they have just had with women. Parritt has betrayed his mother, Rosa, by giving the police the information that led to her arrest; and Hickey has murdered his wife, Evelyn. The stasis of life in the saloon has been contigent on keeping at bay the influence of women outside this haven. The center no longer holds once the proximity of such influence increases.

Simone do Beauvoir says of woman in her book, The Second Sex, "She is defined and differentiated with reference to man.... He is the subject.... She is the other."3 The "otherness" of Rosa and Evelyn is intensified for us by their invisibility. They emerge exclusively in relation to the male characters. Rosa Parritt is a "new woman," dedicated to the Movement, to anarchy and free love. She seems a foil for Evelyn, a traditionally submissive wife. "Sweet and good" (p. 233), Evelyn maintained an unshakeable faith in Hickey, forgiving his drinking and his sexual escapades, even when he infected her with venereal disease.

The audience quickly understands the frustration and hostility such women might have provoked. O'Neill need use little more than a kind of shorthand of familiar feminine images to suggest the fiercely, though ambivalently, independent woman, as well as the long-suffering wife, something of a martyr. John Henry Raleigh says of Rosa and Evelyn, "So fully drawn are they, the strong and domineering woman and the sweet self-effacing one ... that they hover over the play like ghosts."4 We help to fill in the sketch O'Neill provides with detail from a reservoir of notions about types of women.

Jean Rhys in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, imagines a life for Bertha Rochester, the madwoman in the attic of Jane Eyre. We might--with some wistfulness--be tempted to conceive of Rosa as a modern female hero living a life of commitment and risk. Or we might consider what the experience of Evelyn might have been, the isolation and thwarted possibilities of her life. What these women as protagonists in their own dramas might have been like, we can't know from The Iceman Cometh, because in this work, as in so many others, the women tend to be merely representative of that which men struggle with and against in enacting their destinies.

Throughout there are clues to the nature of the process that distances woman as "other." The pipe dreams themselves that give "life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober" (p. 10) turn out to be, for the most part, dreams about women which barely conceal the underlying nightmares. The extent to which a woman is inextricably linked with these illusions is a measure of the degree to which she has been removed from the realm of experience and located in an individual symbol system. When Rocky gives expression to his pipe dream early in the play, he sets out features of fantasy that will recur. He claims that he is not a pimp for Margie and Pearl, but just a bartender who is "pals" with them, and who takes their money because, "Dey'd only trow it away" (p. 12). His illusion is a comic, parodic prelude to the other pipe dreams to be articulated. Rocky's fantasy about himself distorts his actual relationship to the women he depends on. The major characters have corresponding dreams of self that deny the truths of their attachments.

When Hickey arrives and sees Parritt, he recognizes something about him. "We're members of the same lodge--in some way" (p. 84), he says, sensing that they have in common some essential guilt. He also intuits accurately that at the heart of Parritt's trouble is an anguished experience with a woman. "Hasn't he been mixed up with some woman? I don't mean trollops. I mean the old real love stuff that crucifies you" (p. 118.) Of course, Hickey has no suspicion that the "woman" involved is Parritt's mother; but his good guess suggests that if a man is going through some profound turmoil, a woman is likely to be implicated.

Still, it is not a woman herself who is necessarily the problem. Arthur and Barbara Gelb report, "The truth of the play, as O'Neill explained to [Dudley] Nichols and to two or three other close friends, was that Hickey had long ago begun to harbor a murderous hatred for his wife; she represented his own, punishing conscience."5 O'Neill, then, was highly aware of the symbolic function of Evelyn for Hickey. He also had great insight into the risk of violence inherent in a too-seamless fusion of person and symbol.

The revelations about women that emerge in the play are revelations of hatred. Parritt's early outcry, "I hate every bitch that ever lived!" (p. 71), foreshadows the confessions to be made. When pipe dreams are temporarily dispelled, Harry Hope, who had clung to a sentimental vision of his marriage and a claim that Bessie's death is the reason for his inactivity, makes a telling remark to Hickey: "Bejees you're a worse gabber than that nagging bitch, Bessie, was" (p. 202). And Ed Mosher talks of his delight in cheating Bessie, who was his sister: for him, "Dear Bessie wasn't a bitch. She was a God-damned bitch!" (p. 132) Similarly, Jimmy Tomorrow acknowledges that he had been a drunkard long before his wife committed adultery, though he's always offered her infidelity as his perennial excuse for his drinking. In fact, he felt no love for her.

Helen Muchnic points out:

The poor harmless souls at Harry Hope's--good natured, easy going, and rather appealing with their vague beliefs in love and honor so long as they remain in their drunken stupor--exhibit, as soon as they are forced to consciousness, unsuspected deep-seated murderous hatreds.6

And, with great consistency, the hostility is directed toward a woman. Winifred Frazer compares The Iceman Cometh with No Exit, suggesting that in both, "'Hell is other people,' especially people of the female variety."7

Hickey, adopting an evangelical stance, offers to bring his somnolent friends release and serenity. He believes that he killed his wife, whom he says he'd always loved, because murder was "the one possible way to free poor Evelyn and give her the peace she'd always dreamed about" (p. 226). The truth, however, is wrenched out of him, as he describes his torment. "There's a limit to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and the pity you can take. You have to begin blaming someone else too" (p. 239). A woman comes to share in the blame in this case as in the others. Finally, he shocks himself by recalling what he said to Evelyn at the last: "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!" (p. 241)

Parritt, who at first concealed that it was he who betrayed Rosa, gradually admits to more hostility toward his mother while Hickey makes his extended confession. As Travis Bogard says, "There are not many moments in theatre comparable to the canonical weaving of the narratives of betrayal, Hickey's and Parritt's, toward the end of the play."8 As an intermediate step, Parritt says that he betrayed Rosa for money, a motive that seems less reprehensible to him than his own. And finally, at the moment when Hickey is about to utter his ultimate secret, Parritt, limp with "exhausted relief," says, "I may as well confess, Larry. There's no use lying any more. You know, anyway. I didn't give a damn about the money. It was because I hated her" (p. 241).

The outbursts of hostility are as similar as the cacophonous, joyful songs at the conclusion of the play are disparate. The power with which they are invested no doubt derives, in part, from O'Neill's own troubled personal experience, as Louis Shaeffer suggests:

In the interlocked stories of Hickey and Parritt, he at last gave full vent to his fury against Ella Quinlan O'Neill, drug addict, the chief source of the bad conscience and the feeling of self-hatred that would fester in the playwright till the end of his days.9

But O'Neill manages to convey more here than a parable of misogyny. He recognizes, and gives eloquent expression to his understanding, that women are often interposed between men and the realities of life and death they have to face. Simone de Beauvoir says, "In all civilizations and still in our day woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence, which he projects on her."10 In The Iceman Cometh, the hatred of woman that emerges is itself something of a screen. After the betrayals are enacted and the confessions are made, vital tasks still remain to be done. Hickey has to face judgment, and Parritt must go to his suicide. As the former said to Harry Hope when prodding him to take his walk, "You've got to keep a date with yourself alone" (p. 194).

The responses to the confessions of Hickey and Parritt emphasize further woman's place in this cosmos. Harry Hope, feigning aggrieved indifference, wishes Hickey would interrupt his compelling story: "Give us a rest, for the love of Christ! Who the hell cares? We want to pass out in peace!" (p. 240) And all but Parritt and Larry loudly second him. Of course they don't want to hear, as Larry says, "things that will make us help send you to the chair" (p. 227). More significantly, however, in the backroom--where fantasies mask feelings that approximate violence toward women--evidence that such violence can be acted out is threatening and unwelcome. Even Hickey himself had come to see Parritt as a dangerous intruder. While he recognized their kinship at the outset, Hickey later says, "I wish you'd get rid of that bastard, Larry. I can't have him pretending there's something in common between him and me" (p. 227). Parritt later concurs. "You know what I did is a much worse murder," he says to Larry. "Because she is dead and yet she has to live" (p. 247).

It is not only because Rosa is consigned to a living death that Parritt's was "a much worse murder." He has come close to committing matricide, an act that evokes a feeling of primal horror. And matricide in this context is also the ultimate embodiment of the varying degrees of hostility toward women that find expression throughout the play. Raleigh refers to Parritt as a "moral leper."11 No doubt he inspires such repulsion because, by his own example, Parritt locates in the mother-child bond the genesis of the tormented relationships the men have experienced and mythologized. Hickey might get a light sentence if judged insane. Parritt, on the other hand, seems a scapegoat, whose death is necessary for the restoration of order and life-sustaining illusion.

The iceman, prominent symbol of the play, is almost invariably linked with women. Rocky, for example, associates the iceman with Hickey's wife: "Remember how he woiks up dat gag about his wife, when he's cockeyed, cryin' over her picture and den springin' it on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman?" (p. 13) And Chuck later says of women that they can't be trusted: "De minute your back is toined, dey're cheatin' wid de iceman or someone" (p. 214).

O'Neill had discussed the iceman's role with Dudley Nichols, whose report of the playwright's comments is recorded by the Gelbs:

The iceman of the title is, of course, death.... I don't think O'Neill ever explained, publicly, what he meant by the use of the archaic word, "cometh," but he told me at the time he was writing the play that he meant a combination of the poetic and biblical "Death cometh"--that is, cometh to all living--and the old bawdy story ... of the man who calls upstairs, "Has the iceman come yet?" and his wife calls back, "No but he's breathin' hard."12

Cyrus Day extends the analysis by tracing parallels between the iceman and Christ as bridegroom: "Waiting for the bridegroom symbolizes man's hope of redemption."13

Women are expected to betray men with the iceman. They are, indeed, his proper consort here. Like him they bear the signs of death, sexuality, and salvation. Not simply creatures of the imagination as the iceman is, however, they suffer for having been transmuted into symbol by the men in their lives. Although the feminine is cast into protean forms--Evelyn and Rosa are strikingly contrasting figures--woman here is always the second sex.

Chuck's pipe dream of a happy marriage to Cora functions as relatively gentle mockery of all such aspiration. His picture of Cora, the whore as bride, settled with him on a farm out in the country, seems an absurd reminder of the failed unions of the play. When pimp and prostitute irritably evade marriage in spite of Hickey's prodding, the couple seem spared the ancient emnities of male and female that arise when the real vies with the illusory.

The theme of woman's otherness is, perhaps, made most clearly manifest in the transformation that Larry Slade undergoes during the course of the play. While much of our attention is riveted on Hickey and his struggle to promote and achieve a catharsis, it is Larry whose pipe dream is the first to be revealed and the only one to be absolutely dispelled. Still more engaged in life than he can acknowledge, Larry imagines that his illusions are behind him and that he is waiting dispassionately for death. He no longer sees himself as an anarchist:

I saw men didn't want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they'd have to give up greed, and they'll never play that price for liberty. ... And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance (p. 11).

He claims, that is, that his motives are philosophical, political, impersonal. Not only is he in error about the degree to which he is aloof from experience; he is also deceiving himself about the "purity" of his reasons for detachment.

The events of the play are cumulatively a catalyst for change in Larry. In some important way, what happens in The Iceman Cometh happens to Larry Slade. Though he tries to remain an observer, he is forced to move beyond the inertia he cultivates. The drama he would be content to be audience for, turns out to be a participatory one for him. Parritt, desperate in his need for Larry to play, if not to be, his father, knows intuitively that he must get Larry to face the truths of his own experience before he will respond to him. So he goads him about his relationship with Rosa, trying to show him that she is responsible for the wreckage of Larry's life as well as his own.

Early in their exchange, Parritt asks, "What made you leave the Movement, Larry? Was it on account of Mother?" And Larry retorts, "Don't be a damned fool! What the hell put that in your head?" (p. 29) But Parritt is on the right track. He remembers an important quarrel Larry and Rosa had had before Larry's departure, and reacts "with a strange smile" to Larry's reply that their quarrel was about Larry's disenchantment with the Movement. When Parritt talks insistently about Rosa's behavior as a sexually "free woman" (p. 32), Larry's defensiveness is revealing. Then, when Hickey shows up, with his perspicacity about the pipe dreams of others, he hurts Larry by suggesting that he hasn't retired from life and offering to "make an honest man" (p. 83) of him, to Parritt's satisfaction. Later Hickey says to Larry, "Hell, if you really wanted to die, you'd just take a hop off your fire escape, wouldn't you?" (p. 116)

By this point Larry is ready for a confrontation with self. The direct assault on his pipe dream by Parritt and Hickey, and the climate of Harry Hope's, in which de-illusionment reigns for this short while, prepare him for the steps he must take. Parritt advances now, pursuing further the subject of Rosa's infidelity and its effect on Larry:

That's why you finally walked out on her, isn't it? ... I remember her putting on her high-and-mighty free-woman stuff, saying you were still a slave to bourgeois morality and jealousy and you thought a woman you loved was a piece of private property you owned. I remember that you got mad and you told her, "I don't like living with a whore, if that's what you mean!" (p. 125)

When Larry says it's a lie, Parritt softens the blow by talking of Rose's respect for Larry for rejecting her:

I think that's why she still respects you, because it was you who left her. She just had to keep on having lovers to prove how free she was. (p. 125)

Unable to evade these intense exchanges, Larry is finally moved. He gives Parritt sanction for his suicide, which, it had become apparent, was what he had hoped for from Larry. Ultimately, Larry simultaneously admits and denies, "I sit here, with my pride drowned on the bottom of a bottle, keeping drunk so I won't see myself shaking in my britches with fright, or hear myself whining and praying: Beloved Christ, let me live a little longer at any price!" (p. 197) The truth is out.

Implicit in Larry's transformation is an addition to the indictments of woman as mother, wife, sister, mistress and prostitute that abound here. Having been vouchsafed a critical insight--that his motives for leaving the Movement were alloyed with his disgust at Rosa's promiscuity--Larry no longer has a pipe dream: "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!" (p. 258)

At the conclusion, Harry Hope's is newly peaceful. Illusion has been restored for all but Larry, whose final bleak vision, though it lacks generativity, seems a kind of triumph. Larry can now face his own reality directly. Woman as other has been exorcised.

--Bette Mandl

1 Eugene O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh (New York: Random House, 1946), p. 62. Subsequent page references to the text will appear in parentheses following the quotations.

2 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 416.

3 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), p. xvi.

4 See John Henry Raleigh's introduction to his edition of Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Iceman Cometh" (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 11.

5 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 832.

6 Helen Muchnic, "The Irrelevancy of Belief: The Iceman Cometh and The Lower Depths," O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Brillion Fagin and William J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press, 1961), p. 440.

7 Winifred Frazer, Love as Death in "The Iceman Cometh" (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1967), p. 21.

8 Bogard, p. 409.

9 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Artist (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1973), p. 495.

10 de Beauvoir, p. 138.

11 John Henry Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), p. 163.

12 Gelb, p. 832.

13 Sheaffer, p. 495.



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