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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XI, No. 3
Winter, 1987



Critics have noted Eugene O'Neill's influence on many subsequent American playwrights, yet few have linked O'Neill with one of his major successors, Edward Albee. This is not for a lack of interest in Albee and his sources: some half dozen articles argue for a "source" for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? However, while most of these speculations have focused on the European Theatre of the Absurd, I would argue that Albee's deepest roots are really much nearer home. Albee himself provided a clue when he expressed his great respect for "late O'Neill" and cited The Iceman Cometh as one of the plays he particularly admired (Albee "Interview" 121). While the two plays are dissimilar in many ways, Albee does use drinking, social criticism and language in an O'Neillian fashion in treating the same theme of illusion versus reality. I do not suggest that Albee reached the same conclusion that O'Neill had; far from it. In writing his own work, Albee had to struggle with the iceman's dilemma of truth or illusion and reach his own conclusion, and Virginia Woolf offers a kind of rebuttal to O'Neill's stand on the same theme. Thus, these two plays form point and counterpoint on a shared philosophical conundrum.

No one similarity is sufficient to demonstrate O'Neill's influence on Albee or Iceman's contribution to Virginia Woolf, and some of the similarities are ubiquitous in literature. Nevertheless, the two playwrights use certain subjects in a particular way, and these particularities add up to an unmistakable pattern of influence.

The most obvious similarity is the use of alcohol to develop the main theme. Not just occasional drinking, which might be seen in any play: these two dramas both have a bar on stage throughout the action, showing the enormous importance of drinking for the characters. In The Iceman Cometh alcohol is acknowledged as the catalyst for pipe dreaming, and all four characters in Virginia Woolf drink heavily--especially Honey, who uses alcohol to escape the reality of her confining marriage to Nick and her terror of childbirth.

The broadest reason why the characters drink excessively is to escape from the pressures of society. Albee and O'Neill, like most modern writers, deal with social criticism in a discontented world; however, Albee deals with the same topics as O'Neill, even using the same details, such as the ills wreaked by materialistic clergymen. In The Iceman Cometh Hickey's father was a revivalist preacher in the Midwest who raked in the money from "those Hoosier suckers" (O'Neill 232). Honey's father in Virginia Woolf was a revivalist preacher in the Midwest who accumulated a personal fortune while spending "God's money" (Albee Woolf 108).

Criticism of society's etiquette is manifest through the use of vulgar language. The profanity prevalent in both plays is unacceptable by polite, social standards; thus, by using it, the characters are showing their rejection of such standards. Before O'Neill, few dramatists used such amounts of common vulgarity; and listening to Virginia Woolf, one hears an echo of the older playwright's language. Another type of anti-social behavior present in these works is domestic violence. In both plays the protagonist attacks his wife in their home, indicating extreme discontent with their marriage. Albee's and O'Neill's depiction of the social institution of marriage is an ironic mockery of "wedded bliss."

In the two dramas a political movement, symptomatic of social unrest, threatens the established order. Three of the bar regulars in The Iceman Cometh are former members of the socialist-anarchist movement, intent upon overthrowing the American government; and Nick, the young man in Virginia Woolf, represents a political as well as a professional and sexual threat to the older man, George. The names of the men and their wives suggest George and Martha Washington of the older, Democratic nation as opposed to Nikita and Mme. Khrushchev of the younger, Communist nation.

Two minor parallels concerning parent and child liaisons also link Albee's play and The Iceman Cometh. The first parallel is matricide by a son--not a common topic in literature. In George's novel, which may be autobiographical, the son "accidentally" kills his mother with a shotgun; and in The Iceman Cometh Parritt confesses, "What I did is a much worse murder. Because she [his mother] is dead and yet she has to live [in prison]" (O'Neill 247). The second minor parallel concerns uncertainties about paternity. Parritt does not know who his father is, but he suggests that it might be Larry. In Virginia Woolf Martha raises the question of George's partnership in their "son". The question of paternity, though, forms only a minor point in these plays; it is not the central question it is in Strindberg's The Father.

The fathers in each work finally sacrifice their "sons" as a consequence of facing reality. Larry denies that he is Parritt's biological father, but he has no proof and there was a time when Larry did play a paternal role for Parritt. When Larry decides to throw off his pipe dream and accept his involvement in the real word, he condemns Parritt as guilty. Parritt accepts Larry's judgment and commits suicide, so in this way Larry has sacrificed his "son" as a consequence of facing reality. At the end of Virginia Woolf, George also sacrifices his illusory son as a consequence of facing reality. It is not likely that this peculiar similarity is mere coincidence, especially in light of the other parallels already noted.

Within the psychological atmosphere of Albee's and O'Neill's art, the love-hate marriage is limned. Hickey intensely loves and hates his wife. She was the only person who supported him through the troubled years; yet her proper behavior contrasts sharply with his earthy nature, thus emphasizing his earthiness and causing a guilty resentment that is only exacerbated by her continual forgiveness. The conflicting emotions cannot occupy his consciousness at the same time, so his hatred is usually suppressed. It is highly ironic that Hickey, the salesman of realism, harbors an illusion that he has no hatred for Evelyn.

Hickey shot his wife because he could no longer tolerate his ambivalent relationship with her. Yet, he willingly goes to the electric chair because the game of life is over for him and he is eager to see her again in the afterlife. Although Cyrus Day claims that Hickey wants to be electrocuted "when he realizes that his love for his wife was an illusion, and that he killed her because he hated her" (Day 81), the truth is that Hickey's hatred of Evelyn never stays in his consciousness for more than a second. Then the hatred is suppressed again and love takes over. Hickey tells us himself, "Oh, I want to go [to the chair] ... I've got to explain to Evelyn. But I know she's forgiven me" (O'Neill 245). These final lines indicate that in the end love holds the edge in Hickey's mind, but his regard for his wife is clearly one of intense ambivalence.

Language is a major area in which O'Neill made an impression on the younger playwright, as was noted earlier in their use of profanity. Another linguistic parallel is harder to label but might be called verbal. ritual. In both plays, characters tell stories that, though not written down, are nevertheless of rigorously set wording. George goes so far as to ask Martha for her "recitation" of the story of their son and cues her with the first two words of it (217). All of the pipe dreams in The Iceman Cometh are related in similarly fixed speeches. For instance, when Joe Mott tells of his past days, Harry Hope comments, "You've told that story ten million times and if I have to hear it again, that'll give me D.T.s anyway!" (47). In both plays, verbally codified stories provide a common bond between characters.

In each work the protagonist functions as the director on stage; thus, George and Hickey perform a similar role. Hickey organizes Harry's birthday party and prods the others to act. George organizes the game of "Get The Guests" and controls the bar, an important focal point. George directs the others to their places in the final scene of Virginia Woolf and even gives Martha and Honey their cues. He controls every action on stage as he forces the others to face reality. In the middle of The Iceman Cometh, Hickey similarly controls the action as he forces the bar regulars to face reality. Both director-characters are ridiculed at some point in the play when their control breaks down, but they are the most articulate in their casts and regain control as the dominant personality. George has his special trait as the self-conscious professor, but the close parallels suggest that Albee borrowed this type of role from Iceman's protagonist.

During the final scenes of Virginia Woolf and Iceman, an attempt is made to retrieve illusion, which the dominant director-character has banished. In Virginia Woolf Martha makes the attempt, first by trying to nullify George's "killing" of the pretend son, saying that he doesn't have the right to do so, and then by suggesting that a second illusion be substituted for the exorcised Sonny Jim. But the attempt to restore illusion fails: the crux of Virginia Woolf is that pretenses are cast out of the marriage in favor of a more honest, realistic approach. George asserts that even though one can never be certain of what is true or illusory, "We must carry on as though we did" (202) and cope unpretensiously with the world.

In The Iceman Cometh Harry Hope (appropriately, given his name) is the individual who tries to retrieve illusion. Hickey suggests that he was insane to call Evelyn a bitch, and Hope grasps at the salesman's suggestion in order to nullify Hickey's anti-illusion campaign. Thus, the survival of Hickey's illusion of not hating Evelyn is linked to the survival of the group's pipe dreams. The attempt to restore illusion succeeds in O'Neill's play, which solidifies his theme that all people need a shield of illusion in order to feel alive in this strident world. This theme is the crux of The Iceman Cometh.

The difference in thematic outcome between Virginia Woolf and The Iceman Cometh demonstrates that Albee is a determinedly independent author who adapted O'Neill's influence to suit his own purposes. As he said in the interview cited earlier, "Influence is a matter of selection, acceptance, and rejection" (Albee "Interview" 121, italics added). After seeing a performance of Iceman, Albee said that O'Neill had made a strong case for illusion, but that "perhaps in the long run it was best for people to try to live with the truth" (Baxandall 92).

In addition, Albee develops the truth-illusion dichotomy in a way which is philosophically different from that in Iceman. In O'Neill's play, the line separating truth from illusion is clearly drawn. This is necessary to the older playwright's design of contrasting how lively the characters are when they have their pipe dreams and how lifeless they are without them. In Virginia Woolf, Albee creates ambiguity to underscore his philosophical theme of the uncertainty of what is real or illusory. This major dimension of Virginia Woolf marks a considerable divergence from the content of Iceman.

However, Virginia Woolf still owes a substantial debt to The Iceman Cometh. The satire of acquisitive clergymen from the Midwest, the portrayal of a father sacrificing his "son" as a consequence of the father's facing reality, the reference to matricide, the use of protagonist as on-stage director, and the linguistic parallels between the two plays form an unmistakable pattern of influence. And both plays address the same theme, albeit with radically different conclusions. Speaking at Dekalb Community College in April 1982, Albee agreed that after completing his play, he realized that "subconsciously" he had created a thematic rebuttal to The Iceman Cometh. Albee struggled with the iceman's dilemma of illusion and reality and emerged with a contrasting but complementary dramatic achievement.

--David W. Berry


Albee, Edward. "An Interview with Edward Albee," in The American Theater Today, ed. Alan S. Downer (New York: Basic Books, 1967), pp. 111-123.

Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Atheneum, 1975.

Baxandall, Lee. "The Theater of Edward Albee," in The Modern American Theater, ed. Alvin B. Kernan (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987), pp.80-98.

Day, Cyrus. "The Iceman and the Bridegroom: Some Observations on the Death of O'Neill's Salesman," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Iceman Cometh, ed. John Henry Raleigh (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), pp. 80-98.

O'Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.



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