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The Transcendence of Melodrama in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh


BY Michael Manheim
FROM Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill, edited by James J. Martine, G. K. Hall, 1984


When one talks about melodrama from the perspective of Robert B. Heilman in his two books on the subject,1 one is mainly talking about two closely connected characteristics. The first is intrigue, the often stock melodramatic plot with its deceptions, complications, crises, and denouements. The other is the simple polar opposition of good and evil (often as dictated by the popular culture of a period), and the struggle within the framework of that opposition between clearly defined protagonists and antagonists. Heavily dependent upon melodrama in his earlier plays, despite an oft-stated antipathy to it, Eugene O’Neill in his later plays successfully transcended melodrama. In A Moon for the Misbegotten, the playwright seemingly made intrigue the central dramatic interest of the play, then displaced that intrigue with a far deeper interest, one which announced his concern not with the surfaces of human experience, but with its well-springs.2 In that play, the age-old comic intrigue of a farmer trapping a wealthy suitor into marrying his daughter is displaced half way through by a drama of deep confession and self-recognition. In The Iceman Cometh, on the other hand, the use of melodrama does not emphasize intrigue. Rather, the play is built around the polar opposition of good and evil, on the identification of protagonists and antagonistsand the displacement takes the form of denial of that opposition, of the very existence of protagonists and antagonists. Moreover, in The Iceman Cometh, the polar oppositions of melodramatic experience are identified with the past, with what characters recall about what has brought them to their present circumstances. The transcendence of melodrama is then identified with what the audience and certain characters are brought to realize about the present.


There is, of course, one set of melodramas of the past in The Iceman Cometh which I have already explored.3 Those are the recalled melodramas implicit in the encounters of Larry Slade and Don Parritt, and they lead directly to Parritt’s suicide in the play. This action is in part an enactment of O’Neill’s exorcising of his own fears and hostilities, those hidden feelings that kept pushing him toward a suicidal perspective throughout much of his earlier writing. But the transcending of melodrama in this play cannot be associated solely with the author’s personal experience. Larry’s confusions about his past are relevant to the entire process by which melodrama is transcended in the play. Having been the lover of a woman who was the leader of a radical political “movement”Rosa ParrittLarry left that woman and came to live the life of a derelict at Harry Hope’s saloon. His reactions to what he has done are deeply contradictory. Sometimes he feels he was betrayed by Rosa because her new political ideology had led her to take other lovers. Thus he feels he was the betrayed protagonist in a melodrama in which a faithless woman was the antagonist. At other times, however, he feels he was the antagonist, a guilty betrayer of a woman who was in her fashion faithful to him. The division in his feelings is quite intense and reflects itself in the division in his feelings toward her son. At times he feels a guilty loyalty toward Parritt, and at other times he violently rejects Parritt. In fact, Larry seems trapped between two irreconcilable melodramatic images of himself associated with his past experience. Until Parritt’s suicide, he cannot stop being the betrayer or the betrayed; and this confusion on Larry’s part begins to suggest the means by which the simplicities of the melodrama are explored and rejected in this play.


Larry’s confusion about his past leads us to think about the past lives of the play’s other characters, lives which in fact create a deep resonance of past melodramatic experience repeated again and again. These are figures about whom Larry is objective. He looks at them with detachment and sympathy, understanding them even while he has not fully understood himself. Larry, functioning as a sort of narrator early in the play, relates something of what has brought each figure to his present state. Each has lived through an experience from which he has emerged in defeat. It would appear at first that these men, all of course alcoholics, turned to alcohol as the result of their personal failures. But as we learn more about their stories, it becomes apparent that whether the alcohol was cause or effect is unclear. Did it result from the failure, or did it cause the failure? All we know with certainty is that they have all been alcoholics for a long time.


As with the alcoholism, so with other aspects of the past experiences of these men, we find we cannot distinguish cause from effect. The failure in each case seems actually to have been a conclusion on the individual’s part that the worse, or “evil,” side of his nature became dominant in a crucial experience; and its having become dominant made him believe that his value as a human being was irrevocably lost. That belief accounts for much of his reaction in the present. Each character, fearing what that loss might do to his personal stability, attempts to keep at bay the panic which might result from its total acceptance. Hence the drink (which continues unabated, whether originally cause or effect), and hence the pipe dreams. Each character keeps feeding himself with the illusion that he will reform, take up a life he imagines once having lived as a productive human being. Yet, as we with Larry’s help become familiar with details of the past episodes which were so crucial to these people, we become aware of many obscurities, obscurities which resemble the uncertainty about the alcohol. We begin to realize that the “failure” these people have experienced is rooted not so much in actual evidence as in the individual’s assessment of the key event, and that an opposing assessment is equally plausible. He might not have been the “evil” person he concluded he was.


The stories or scraps of stories we hear about or from these individuals are melodramatic. They all hint at intrigue, and they all assume a fixed ethical framework and a struggle between protagonists and the antagonists. The character first presents himself as the protagonist in his story, and those who opposed him as the antagonists. But no sooner do we get this view than a countering view emerges. The character, we learn, was “really” the antagonist and is currently drinking and pipe-dreaming to escape that role. That might seem sufficient on the face of it: the man is living a lie, while we know the truth. But O’Neill does not let the countering view of the character’s action stand. In fact, we know nothing. The possibility that the person was in deed the protagonist he thinks he so crucially failed to be lingers. Our impressions feel tugged at from either side by the opposing melodramatic constructionsboth of which have fictive life, neither of which (the character's own statements notwithstanding) can quite outweigh the other. Rather than the idea of the past as a shaping force, then, the idea of the past as ambiguous is suggested to usa not uncommon theme in contemporary literature.


These observations need to be spelled out, of course, through the specific experience of the characters; but before they are, one more general observation needs to be made. As I observed earlier, melodrama in this play refers to the past, not the present. When they are not struggling with the conflicting melodramas of their pasts, these characters live in an unmelodramatized present. As we shall see, the protagonist/antagonist divisions associated with the past dissolve in the present into the complexity of the individual persona we see before us. Melodrama, of course, does not ordinarily allow for complexity in its characters. Its conflicts are between simple roles representing a clear struggle between good and evil, and the assumption is that such struggle has really ended for residents of the ‘end-of-the-line” cafe. Except for the Larry-Parritt action, where the conflicting melodramas of Larry’s past become part of the present in the person of DonParrit, there is no real melodrama in the saloon.4 In the present in which we see these people, they have all been cleansed of hope for the triumph of any clearly definable good over any clearly definable evil. Despite their pipe-dreaming claims, they have been freed of hopes and roles. In the day-to-day life of the saloon, they are essentially roleless, complex personalities existing in an ethically indeterminate world. Divided for the most part into groups determined by national or professional origin, these individuals resemble families whose members alternately lacerate and nurture one another. They deny the viability of melodrama because they live in moral flux amid constantly shifting emotions.


Let us look at a few of these characters through the detail we are provided. Most detailed, and most obviously melodramatic, is the story of James Cameron (known as Jimmy Tomorrow), the journalist of the Kipling stripe who feels he has been defeated by his wife’s betrayal of him. Based on a journalist who actually did commit suicide at Jimmy-the-Priest’s while O’Neill was there in 1912, Jimmy Tomorrow is a hypersensitive, affectionate man whose loyalty to his friends is expressed in the most open terms. He recognizes that the seemingly cynical Larry is “the kindest man among us,” and he is a regular peacemaker between Cecil Lewis and Piet Wetjoen, who are eternally at odds. But Jimmy is also weak, sentimental, and muddle-headed. When drunk, he is nothing short of a cry-baby. Jimmy tells the story of his having been destroyed, driven to drink, by the discovery that his wife has become the lover of a hated rival. Hickey reminds Jimmy, however, that his wife probably betrayed him because he was already an alcoholic. This leads to an apparently irresolvable dilemma. Yes, Jimmy had long been an alcoholic; but yes, Jimmy did turn to alcohol in response to his wife’s betrayal. Neither account can be denied. Jimmy was both betrayer and betrayed.


What we have in effect here is, again, not one melodrama, but two melodramas, each effectively canceling out the other. In the first, Jimmy has been the protagonist and his betraying wife the antagonist. This is a melodrama of disaster, since the “evil” wife has been victor, and Jimmy has become a despairing derelict. But there is the opposing melodrama, the one in which the wife has been the victorious protagonist, presumably living “happily ever after,” and Jimmy has been the antagonist now receiving his “just desert.” There is no evidence as to which melodrama is the ‘true” melodrama. One is tempted to say the truth lies somewhere in between, but the fictive truth does not lie somewhere in between. If it did, that in-between-ness would have to be provided us through some third fiction of the past, which is not. We are provided only with the two stories, both of which have literary viability, both of which have a “moral,” both of which must be accepted. Thus the past melodramas, being mutually exclusive, can serve in no cause-and-effect relationship to the present, Jimmy’s decision that one of them does notwithstanding. Jimmy says he believes in the story in which he was the protagonist, but with Hickey's help he sporadically admits that he really believes in the other story and in himself as antagonist. That is why he continues to drink and that is why he has his pipe dreams of rehabilitation. In fact, the melodrama in which he was antagonist is no more the truth than its opposite, if Jimmy could but accept this—that is, if Jimmy did not need to see life in melodramatic terms. Larry’s “wrong kind of pity” is really right because in being compassionate, he is encouraging Jimmy the complex man to reveal himself in place of the craven, foolish antagonist. He is recognizing the sensitive, thoughtful Jimmy who really does exist.


Larry’s compassion leads us to the present, the present in which we see Jimmy residing and functioning. That present involves no melodrama. That present, in the saloon, involves the many sides of Jimmy Tomorrow, not as protagonist or antagonist but as a single, complex human being living among others. His personality as we see it includes the sentimentally muddle-headed Jimmy and the compassionate peace-making Jimmyand also a good many other Jimmy’s: the arrogant Jimmy, the jovial Jimmy, the boisterous Jimmy, the patriotic Jimmy, the flaccid Jimmy. In what we see of him there are no melodramatic alternatives. There is only the man in the process of being his various selves in response to shifting stimuli. That is the man we recognize and remember.


Jimmy’s story is the sole set of events out of a character’s past described for us in full-blown melodramatic terms. About the other characters, we get only hints of old stories, not enough to make up detailed or even coherent plots, but enough to suggest that in each case there was an event that affected the individual so strongly that he attributes his present state to it. At the same time, ambiguities about these events quickly present themselves. There are bold contradictions implicit in their stories that suggest the kind of conflicting melodramas associated with Jimmy’s past. We see opposing sides of their personalities that certainly fit their self-contradicting stories; but, then, we also see other qualities in their natures having little to do with their conflicting past melodramatic roles. That Joe Mott has at one time been an independent entrepreneur, the owner of a successful Black gambling house, suggests a self-secure independence of the restrictions placed upon Blacks in the early twentieth century by the White establishment. Here is the Black protagonist, the defender of the honor of his down-trodden people. Yet Joe tells us about his kow-towing to the party boss in order to obtain permission to operate the gambling house, and we quickly are aware of an opposing story (not detailed) and an opposing personality. He has not only been a sychophantic lackey of the very society he has been defying but also an emulator of its corruption. He might have been hypocritical in his role as Black protagonist, of course, or merely manipulative in his relations with the party boss; but we are provided no fictions of the past to justify such in-between interpretations. All we are told is of his conflicting roles, and we thus have no way of knowing who the real Joe was. Joe thinks he was the sycophant and so pipe dreams that he was the successful entrepreneur, but the facts we are provided support the contradiction.


In the present, on the other hand, we see many sides of Joe’s nature. In his relationships with the two bartenders, with the battling Briton and Boer, even with his one trusted friend, Larry, he flatters, he debases himself, he fawns, he is cowardly. Yet at the same time, a genuine defiance is as daring as ever, especially when he breaks a whiskey glass he has been drinking fromto Rocky’s consternation:

I’s on’y savin’ you de trouble, White Boy. Now you don’t have to break it, soon’s my back is tumed, so’s no white man kick about drinkin’ from de same glass….   I’s tired of loafin’ ‘round wid a lot of bums. I’s a gamblin’ man. I’s gonna get in a big crap game and win me a big bankroll. Den I’ll get de okay to open up my old gamblin’ house for colored men. Den maybe I comes back here sometime to see de bums. Maybe I throw a twenty-dollar bill on de bar and say, “Drink it up,” and listen when dey all pat me on de back and say, “Joe, you sure is white.” But I’ll say, “No, I’m black and my dough is black man’s dough, and you’s proud to drink wid me or you don’t get no drink!”5

Joe’s speech calls attention to precisely those attitudes on the part of White society that have hurt most, and which his story of the past never did call attention to. Despite its allusions to the past, Joe’s speech is very much part of the present in that it makes us genuinely empathize with his defiance. But his present personality is also that of the fawning hypocrite, as I have suggested. And it is also that of the ready helper, the curious observer the courageous fighter, and the amiable accommodator. What constitutes the unique, recognizable, and familiar Joe Mott is more elements than can be listed. And there is no one conception of good and evil that can serve as a moral guide to Joe’s behavior, or to the responses of others to him. Despite the apparent evil of the bartender’s racism, for example, Rocky and Chuck suffer in their failures precisely as Joe suffers in his; and Joe has moments not only of defiance or pusillanimity but of genuine harmony with them, as with everyone else. He is a man who, quite apart from his pipe dreams, recoils when hurt, who strikes back, who is compassionate and nurturing when allowed to be.


Another figure with a strikingly contradictory past is the old shebeen-keeper himself, Harry Hope. That past is tied up with Harry’s activities as a Tammany Hall politician and with his much-lamented late wife, Bessie. Harry says the party wanted to run him for office, and his cronies in the play attest to the fact that he once had a political following. And he certainly played the role of the steadfast husband. Then we learn that in fact Harry was a hack the organization was going to run for office in a year in which they expected to lose, and we learn that in fact Bessie was a “nag” who made Harry’s life miserable. In this case, it is more tempting than ever to say that the truth lay somewhere in between. Harry could have been both a popular politician and the hack the organization took him for; and he could have been both strong and henpecked as a husband. Those contradictions could simply make for an early complexity in his character. But the Harry of the past is not a character in this play. Harry sees himself in the past as playing contradictory roles in contradictory melodramas: one in which he was the popular politician and good family man unreasonably victimized by an indifferent organization, the other in which he was the corrupt hack who was henpecked to boot. We never directly encounter the Harry of the past; we are only told about him. And what we are told supports only two mutually exclusive interpretations—both of which are oversimplified versions of the man we see in the present.


In the character we do encounter, we are made acquainted with the contradictory aspects of his personality suggested by his contradictory melodramas, and we are acquainted with much more.  We meet a man who is genuinely compassionate, genuinely giving, genuinely unfeeling, and genuinely selfish.  He cares for others even as he abuses them; he is taken advantage of even when he is lover.  The contradictions here end in complexity, not oversimplification.  When he looks back, Harry runs from one melodramatic role to another which is more acceptable to him.  But neither role characterizes the volatile, irate Harry we know, who gives affection when people need it.  This Harry, who is actually free of the melodramatic images his view of the past creates, is the figure who is genuinely suited to the name O’Neill gives him, even with its ironic overtones.  More than any other character but Larry, Harry in his concern for others represents this play’s kind of hope.


And so for the assumptions of the others about themselves. They each seem caught between conflicting melodramas in their lives. Hugo Kalmar championed the masses in a disastrous melodrama of revolution, but he fears he was really an aristocratic oppressor of the masses. Both melodramatic images have equal validity, and we are told nothing about his past to suggest the complex individual we see onstage. Willie Oban was a brilliant, witty law student who was at the same time a father-hating ne’er-do-well. Cecil Lewis dreams of returning to his position of honor in the British military establishment, while he recalls all too well the story of his having been discovered to be a petty crook and probable coward. And his inseparable companion and eternal adversary Piet Wetjoen dreams of being the brave Boer fighter he really was to obscure the story of his equally undeniable cowardice. Pat McGloin and Ed Mosher, whose shadowy pasts linked them respectively to the police department and the circus, are similarly caught between opposing melodramatic images. McGloin was a shrewd, successful grafter or gullible fall guy, depending on the melodramatic perspective from which he views himself. Ed was the barker who turned to drink because he lost his job, or lost his job because he turned to drinkthe basic contradictory story of the play. At the same time, in all these figures, we see spontaneous qualities that exist quite apart from their fears and dreams. And it is the whole image for which we chiefly remember them.


In the case of the outsiders, those characters who have not taken refuge at the saloon but practice their “trade” in it, past and present are less separable. As with the derelicts, however, they seem caught between self-images associated with conflicting interpretations of their experiences. In this sense, they extend the play’s vision to the outside world to those who have not taken permanent refuge in the “No Chance Saloon.” As bartenders, Rocky and Chuck pride themselves that they are protagonists in a war against cheating and violent drunks, while they flee the equally accurate label of “pimp,” a surefire antagonist’s label in any melodrama. Cora, Pearl, and Margie must similarly see themselves as “tarts,” protagonists in a world where lustful men and pimps are the antagonists, while they flee the label “whore,” which turns them into antagonists in the melodrama of the wicked woman. As tarts the girls can be simply flirtatious, while as whores they are cheats, thieves, and debasers of men. As bartenders, Rocky and Chuck can be protective and brotherly toward the girlsChuck can actually be Cora’s suitorwhile as pimps they are the worst of scavengers in regard to the girls. Yet what can we say actually characterizes these people? We see both aspects of their personalities, their good versus evil views of themselves; but more important, we also see in each a nature that is free of either label. They are whole human beings, not melodramatic simplifications. Rocky has a natural altruism quite apart from his bartender role-playing, while Cora and her friends display a motherly benevolence at times that exists quite independent of the business they engage in. These qualities are evident especially when these characters are involved with the figure they each trust most in the play, Larry Sladeand the greater openness and complexity when with him is evident in all the play’s minor figures.


Which brings us back to Larry, and the first problem we must again address is why he shows these people what Hickey calls “the wrong kind of pity.” Unlike Hickey, Larry recognizes that these people have totally accepted what they claim to have denied, their “failure.” Thus he does not badger them, as Hickey does, about their refusal to admit that failure. While he reminds Jimmy of the contradictions in his story, he spares Jimmy the humiliation of actually living out the hopelessness of his pipe dream of rehabilitation. He spares Harry the agony of admitting he cannot take his walk around the ward. He spares Hugo the pain of having to explicitly acknowledge his aristocratic pretensions. Larry knows he need not elicit these all-out statements and gestures of despair because the men know all too well how true and inevitable they are, even if they do not represent the whole truth. And Larry knows that once made, such statements and gestures can only make the men feel truly “licked,” which is the way they return to the bar following their attempts to confront “reality” in Act IV.


But neither does Larry believe his friends capable of rehabilitation in the usual sense. Although he knows their secret despair, he by no means accepts their pipe dreams, their visions of themselves in their lost protagonist’s roles. In fact, Larry is dubious of all the opposing images with which these people are obsessed. He no more believes in Jimmy or Harry or Hugo as protagonists than he accepts their despair when they see themselves as antagonists. Larry has rejected all melodramatic divisions. He is “cursed,” he says, with being able to see all sides to all questions. Hence, the past, with its conflicting melodramas, is for Larry meaningless as a guide to the present. The Jimmy that Larry accepts is neither the bankrupt nor the wronged husband but an individual made up of constantly changing moods and outlooks. Larry will not classify Jimmy into the opposing roles Jimmy classifies himself into on the basis of his past. Jimmy is simply a being who responds to Larry, who affects Larry and who is served by Larry. And so with each member of the club, Larry has a unique, significant, and unconditional relationship. Larry’s outlook earlier in the play, of course, is some-what colored by the struggle with own past, by counterpulls of his own melodramatically conceived roles in his relationship with Rosa Parritt. But Larry from the start is recognized by Jimmy explicitly and the others implicitly as “the kindest man among us,” and by the time Larry is able to cast off the demons of his past, as he does in experiencing Parritt’s suicide, Larry’s acceptance of his associates has become as bedrock as the bar he inhabits.


Parritt’s suicide and Hickey’s great confession remain central problems, however (with or without their autobiographical implications for O’Neill); and since these events are so crucial to the play’s development, before the final word is spoken about Larry, those events must be examined from the perspective of their relationship to melodrama. The first point to be observed is Hickey’s immediate recognition that he and Parritt have something deeply in common. Both have lived out a melodrama that places them among the great antagonists of popular culture. They have sold out motherhood. Hickey has betrayed the virtuous wife-mother, and Parritt has betrayed his heroic mother and the social cause she is devoted to. Thus, any possibility of their being able to pipe dream for a past in which they are protagonists seems remote.


To look at Parritt first, Larry knows that a counter-image of the boy once did exist. There was a melodrama in which Parritt loved and revered his mother, but wanted to be loved and revered in return. Since, because of Rosa’s Movement, her love and approval were withheld, Parritt became, in his view of himself, the protagonist son who took revenge on his evil mother. But the crime was too great for Parritt to take refuge in his pipe dream. (He makes a feeble attempt when he talks about his “patriotism,” but he fails abysmally.) Unlike the derelicts, who punish themselves in little ways for their actions as antagonists in the past but whose crimes necessitate no large-scale punishment, Parritt cannot avoid large-scale punishment. He literally cannot live with himself.


Parritt’s dissimilarity to the others goes beyond the seriousness of his crime, however. O’Neill has also made him faceless. The residents of the saloon find him repellent chiefly because he reveals nothing with which they can empathize. Even his suffering is antisocial. He keeps living only in the single, desperate melodrama in which he is the antagonist who committed the greatest of crimes. It is as though Parritt has no existence in the present and thus can draw no understanding or compassion. We see in him none of the spontaneous, ever-changing quality that makes for the complexity and humanity of the living others. Only Larry and the audience are fully exposed to him; and all we and Larry hear is the repetition of haunting fears, arrogant denial, and feverish appeal for sympathy. It is the mood associated with haunting fear that sets the Parritt episodes apart from the rest of the play—a fear that is part of Larry’s persona as well, since he is struggling to understand his reactions to the same woman and to a parallel pair of past melodramas. It is the fear that ends for the audience and Larry alike only with Parritt’s terrible plungethat plunge which as it ends Parritt’s existence ends also both melodramatic effect and the recall of melodramas in the play. Following that plunge, the present, with all its complexity, is allowed finally to dominate.6


Like Parritt, the Hickey we see in the play is living in a single melodrama; but he cannot allow himself to see himself as antagonist, but must rather see himself in a twisted way as protagonist. Throughout his past, he has been the stock antagonist in an old-fashioned melodramathe wastrel husband of the long-suffering wife. His pipe dream in this role, of course, was that he would reform; but that dream, like those of the derelicts, proved impossible to fulfill. Like them, he really did accept his role as antagonist, although he would not acknowledge it. His false promises to reform, as he tells us, built up such guilt in him that he came to hate himself, the hatred finally becoming so unbearable that he could no longer live with himself. Suddenly, however, he says, he came to acknowledge his role as antagonist. He came, he says, to accept the fact that he would not reform and simply performed an act, murdering his wife, which would spare her further suffering. In doing so, Hickey had actually come to see himself as protagonist in a new melodrama, a melodrama of self-acceptance, in which the wife became the new antagonist in her patience and hope. And it is in this new role as protagonist of self-acceptance that Hickey came to reform his friends in the saloon. That this new view was in fact just an opposing melodrama is what he seems to become aware of in the last moment of his long confession:

.  .  .  I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it were something I’d always wanted to say: “Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch! (He stops with a horrified start, as if shocked out of a nightmare, as if he couldn’t believe what he had just said. He stammers) No! I never!

No! That’s a lie! I never said! If I did, I’d gone insane! Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life.7

In killing Evelyn, Hickey did not come to accept himself, as he claims. He has indulged in a new pipe dream, this one being that his wife “deserved” to die. The minute Hickey realizes this, at the end of his speech, he realizes at once the counter-truth of the old melodrama. Of course he loved  Evelyn. Of course he was insane, if insanity means total failure to perceive  reality. He was criminally insane. The failure to perceive the reality that he  both loved and hated his wife resulted in the ultimate crime of violence.  And like Parritt, he now sees clearly the true need for his punishment. In  coming to understand the nature of his insanity, Hickey is ready to assume  genuine responsibility for his action. His new melodrama disappears into true self-acceptance.


The difference is that Hickey is hardly the faceless Parritt. Like the derelicts, he has a quite distinct existence apart from his conflicting melodramatic roles. He lives in a vivid present as well as a haunting past, as Parritt cannot. Aside from his efforts to reform the others, which are a function of his new melodrama of self-acceptance, Hickey has a direct, personal relationship with each of them, as Larry does. He gives to others, and is given to by them. Hickey is basically a “lord of misrule,” a bringer and receiver of pleasure, “not only witty in himself but the cause of wit in others.”8 Beyond his melodramatic confusions, Hickey is an infinitely complex man, a figure of great strength and gargantuan flaws. And his sudden coming to self-awareness at the end of his speech is of tragic magnitude. Through the true confrontation with his contradictory selves which closes his great confession, he achieves understanding beyond that of others, and he accepts death. He becomes, in short, a tragic hero.


If, then, in the classical sense, O’Neill intends Hickey to be the tragic hero of the play, the strong man who lives out his ultimate agony in public, where does that leave the play’s other hero, the introspective Larry Slade, who lives out his personal agony in private? Part chorus and part raisonneur, Larry is the strongest man of all, the one who can live on without pipe  dreams, the one survivor capable of seeing life in other than melodramatic terms. Through Parritt, he comes to realize the contradictions of his own melodramatic past—the utter indeterminateness of Rosa Parritt and her “Movement,” and the absence of anything to be learned from his loving! hating relationship with her other than that it once existed. The condition in which we find Larry at the play’s conclusion embodies the significance O’Neill intends for the entire work. The derelicts are happily returning to their rotgut and their melodramatic pipe dreams; Parritt and Hickey have met their “just deserts,” Larry, having transcended his personal melodramas, reaches his point of stasis, that absolute middle which many heroes of later twentieth century drama attain. Amidst the cacophony and dissonance of the newly unreformed derelicts, “Larry stares in front of him, oblivious to their racket.”


We must review just what O’Neill has Larry do and say in the few moments between Parritt’s suicide and this final, enigmatic scenic image. Larry’s posture, it cannot be stressed enough, implies no emulation of Parritt. There is no suggestion whatsoever that he will follow Parritt up that fire escape.9 His immediate reaction following Parritt’s leap is actually more revealing of his mental state than the final image referred to above. Though often alluded to in part, that immediate reaction is by no means a single simple response:

Poor devil! (A long-forgotten faith returns to him for a moment and he mumbles) God rest his soul in peace. (He opens his eyeswith a bitter self-derision) Ah, the damned pitythe wrong kind, as Hickey said! Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstandor 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! (With an intense bitter sincerity) 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.10

What is usually referred to in this speech is Larry’s “real” conversion to death,11 but that is only one of the moods out of which he speaks. His first response is one of compassion, a compassion rooted in a “long-forgotten faith’ Larry’s attitudes at this point recall those of the late Con Melody referred to by his daughter Sara in the recorded version of O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions (written shortly before Iceman). Sara speaks admiringly of Con for his “defiance of a God he denied but really believed in.”12 The contradictions implicit in this observation, obliterating as they do any kind of melodramatic view of existence, parallel the contradictions of Larry Slade in this speech. Obviously and not surprisingly overwrought at what has just happened, Larry speaks of his compassion, then of his wrong kind of pity, then of his inability to hold a fixed view of things, then of his “real” conversion. There is no reason to believe that he will stop seeing all sides to all questions, that he will cease showing compassion, that he will cease believing intermittently in a long-forgotten faith, or cease defying a God he has long since denied. A new attitude toward death in the speech is present, but it is the attitude that finds death the one certainty amidst so much uncertainty. The speech is not a suicidal statement, any more than is his oft-quoted Sophoclean/Nietzschean sentiment that “best of all were never to have been born.” Larry awaits the certainty of death, but his final stage image contains nothing of the haunted quality which accompanies Parritt’s genuinely suicidal statements in the play. Larry now awaits death with a determination about life that is made all the stronger by his triumph over illusion of any kind.13 Thus do we understand the play as a commitment to the complexity of the present.


In the meantimeand that is a large meantime since it includes the ongoing lives of Larry and all his friends—Larry goes on. And there is no way of imagining Larry existing in any fashion other than that we have already seen. He will continue to be a nurturer of others. Perhaps Larry will parallel in his fashion the enigmatic doctor in the parable with which Ed Mosher closes the first act of the play. This great physician, says Ed, spent a lifetime providing useless medicine and giving meaningless counselexcept that there was a medicine to his person that saved, and the meaninglessness of his counsel was the only thing which had “meaning.” He was, says Ed, a lazy good-for-nothing who died of overwork at the age of eighty:

The saddest part was that he knew he was doomed. The last time we got paralyzed together he told me: “This game will get me yet, Ed. You see before you a broken man, a martyr to medical science. If I had any nerves I’d have a nervous breakdown. You won’t believe me, but last year there was actually one night I had so many patients, I didn’t even have time to get drunk. The shock to my system brought on a stroke which, as a doctor, I recognized was the beginning of the end.” Poor old Doc! When he said this he started crying. “I hate to go before my task is completed Ed,” he sobbed. “I’d hoped I’d live to see the day when, thanks to my miraculous cure, there wouldn’t be a single vacant cemetery lot left in this glorious country.”. . . I miss Doc. He was a gentleman of the old school.14

The point of the anecdote, so evocative of the American vaudeville image of the drunken doctor, is its discontinuitywhat some would call its absurdity. Ed’s doctor is impossible to assess rationally. There are too many gaps and implicit contradictions in his story. There is no logical way to understand his past. What precisely do we do with a doctor who preached the avoidance of work and who at the age of seventy-nine was so busy he did not have time to get drunk? Too many implied contradictions are present here for us to do much more than smile, which is of course what we are intended to do. His medical career was a haphazard sequence of indeterminate actions leading his patients to recovery or death, or both, and himself to endless inebriation, endless laughter, and a youthful deathat the age of eighty. There was obviously no melodramatic perspective in any phase of Doc’s existence. He is the one figure referred to in the play of whom it might be said that his remembered past was characterized by the same chaos as his presentand that he embraced that chaos.


Hickey, of course, the Hickey of better days, is the character who most resembles Doc in personality; but Hickey is gone forever, and the only creature left with Doc’s perspective must now be the introspective Larry. Larry now really believes that the past cannot be a guide to the present, that there can in fact be no past but only conflicting interpretations of it. And we have been brought to see what Larry sees, that, in the words of a recent well-known literary theorist, the past can only be “experienced as a picture with gaps or as two pictures side by side which cannot be reconciled.”16 The two pictures for us have been the contradictory melodramas, and we have learned that the only reality is a present which in its complexity denies all melodramatic perspective. We too are cursed in having to look at all sides of all questions and all people.


Larry will continue to live suspended between his poles of faith and deniallike a good many mature thinkers before himand he will fill his days ministering to others. He will live in the unmelodramatizable mercury of the present. He, like the play he speaks for, in transcending the melodramatic view of existence, leaves us with an image of existence in flux.




1. Tragedy and Melodrama (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968); and The Iceman, the Arsonist, and the Troubled Agent: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973).


2. See my “O’Neill’s Transcendence of Melodrama in A Touch of the Poet and A Moon for the Misbegotten,” in Critical Approaches to O’Neill (N.Y.: AMS Press, 1988): 147-159.


3. See my book Eugene O'Neill’s New Language of Kinship (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1982). I discuss the play as a whole on pp. 113-56, concentrating specifically on the Larry-Parritt action on pp. 138-41.


4. Heilman, countering this view, sees The Iceman Cometh as a “drama of disaster;’ a melodrama in which evil triumphs rather than good, the evil in the play coming in the form of Hickey’s perfidy and the weakness of the derelicts, and the good in the form of a never-achieved self knowledge. See Tragedy and Melodrama, pp. 49-55. I disagree with Heilman’s conclusions about the play, both as to characterization and theme.


5. Eugene O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh (New York: Random House, 1946), p. 170.


6. This shift at this point suggests that Parritt is not a living character like the others, but what Jamie in Long Day’s Journey calls “the dead part of myself.”


7. The Iceman Cometh, pp. 241-42.


8. The phrase, of course, paraphrases Falstaff’s description of himself in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2: 1.2. 11-12.


9. Mary McCarthy led the way in seeing Larry’s outlook as suicidal at the play’s conclusion in her review of the original production, “Dry Ice,” Partisan Review (November-December1946) : 577-79.


10. The Iceman Cometh, p. 258.


11. Most critics recognize Larry’s “conversion to death” as the only point of the passage. See, for example, Winifred Dusenbury Frazer, Love as Death in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1967), especially pp. 31-32; Doris V. Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958), pp. 161-62; Leonard Chabowe, Ritual and Pathosthe Theatre of Eugene O’Neill (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1976), pp. 85-86; and Cyrus Day, “The Iceman and the Bridegroom” Modern Drama 1 (May 1958), 5. But several critics also recognize the sense of release, of a deep trouble having past, implicit in Larry’s speech. See, in particular, Edwin Engel, The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 285; and Normand Berlin, Eugene O'Neill (New York: Grove Press, 1982), p. 138.


12. From the recording of More Stately Mansions, ed. and abridged, as produced on Broadway, by Elliot Martin (New York: Caedmon Records, TRS 331).


13. Of Larry’s final posture in the play, Normand Berlin says that he “seems to be staring directly at man’s existence.” (Eugene O'Neill p. 142)


14. The Iceman Cometh, pp. 89-90.


15. In real life, of course, this idea suggests the image of the introspective Eugene having to become the embodiment of the long-dead extraverted Jamie.


16. J. Hills Miller, “Ethics of Reading” in American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1981), pp. 19-41. The quotation is taken from p. 31.


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