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The Iceman Cometh


BY Michael Manheim
FROM Eugene O’Neill’s New Language of Kinship, Syracuse University Press, 1982

I agree with the frequently expressed assumption that The Iceman Cometh is about the need people have for illusions if they are to survive; and I agree that the great conception of salvation through confession, first Christian terms and later in Freudian, is treated in this play as a dubious panacea for most (though not, as it turns out, for all). Total confession, says the reasoning author of this play, can lead rationally only to seemingly  total despair. Among the most important statements made it this play are those which link it to Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.1 Nothing in  The Iceman Cometh states its basic theme so precisely as Dr. Relling’s observation in Ibsen’s play that to “rob the average man of his life-lie” is to “rob him of his happiness.” And as Dr. Relling, showing what Hickey would call “the wrong kind of pity,” actually nurtures life-lies among  his close associates, so Larry Slade nurtures the pipe dreams of his fellow derelicts out of feelings of genuine compassion. For these two uncompromising realists, there is no discoverable truth that can give life genuine meaning.

Little then, will be added about the play’s philosophical conclusions by this study. Nevertheless, many readers and, especially, viewers of the play get the impression that “for some reason” it is not as pessimistic as its stated conclusions would indicate.2 This response is heard most often among O’Neill’s less scholarly admirers, many of them associated with productions of his plays, and less often from academic critics, who tend to be more exclusively concerned with the rational. If one comes at the play primarily from the point of view of O’Neill’s abilities as a “thinker,”3 then it must seem among the most nihilistic pieces ever written. But as one becomes sensitive to its representation of the emotional rhythms in extremely mundane human relationshipswhich exist in spite of, or beyond, rational conclusionthe play becomes something other than despairing.

My discussion will expand this book’s familiar formula. I shall begin with the dramatic representation of the autobiographical, which is here rich and varied, if still carefully disguised, and conclude with O’Neill’s progress in formulating his new language of kinship. The first section will be a treatment again of father, brother, and mother; the last will explore the interplay of illusion and kinship. But the two sections will be bridged by a crucial discussion of Larry Slade, one of the play’s two central figures and by far the most articulate spokesman for its rational conclusions. Larry’s personal problems, especially in his complex relationship with the hapless Don Parritt, are the expression in this play of the final stages of O’Neill’s autobiographical agony. The emotional pain so massively felt is in large measure that which emanates from this likable but most hard-bitten of O’Neill’s cynical heroes. Larry is our guide through O’Neill’s personal emotional hell and also spokesman for the philosophical despair which seems to underlie this play.

The Autobiographical Agony

Several characters in The Iceman Cometh suggest O’Neill’s father, and as O’Neill’s memories of the old actor were less haunting than those of his mother and brother, so are their dramatic re-enactments here less haunting. We get several images of fathers suggesting O’Neill’s: first Willie Oban’s father, the big-time racketeer who betrayed his son by his fraud and corruption; later, Hickey’s father, the preacher who “could sell those Hoosier hayseeds building lots along the Golden Streets.” Then, on stage, there is Harry Hope, who must control even as he is dependent upon a pair of feuding “sons”, Pat McGloin and Ed Mosher. To varying extents these figures all suggest O’Neill’s feelings about his father, but the play never focuses on those feelings for long or in depth. They are clearly not the feelings which were still haunting O’Neill. Harry Hope, in fact, comes to represent feelings chiefly of accommodation and acceptance.

The Iceman Cometh begins and ends in brother Jamie, who appears in many variations. In fact, he peeps through at us, almost satyr-like, in so many variations that to go into them all would be impossible. Undoubtedly I have not recognized them all. We see him highly distorted, for example, in such remotely related figures as Ed Mosher the circus barker and Hugo Kalmar the anarchist. And he is certainly central to the function of Don Parritt, which I shall treat at length in my discussion of Larry Slade. But in terms of O’Neill’s raw, unembellished pity for his dead brother, we see him first in the character of Willie Oban. Willie is the most unfortunate of the derelicts who populate this play. Whereas all the others are probably over fifty, Willie is the most pitiable for being in his late thirties. Like Jamie he is learned, articulate, and brilliantly witty. He is a former attorney, we are told, whose breakdown and total immersion in alcohol came about very suddenly with the discovery that his father was a crook and frauda description which closely parallels Jamie’s sudden deterioration during his senior year at college. Jamie consistently questioned his father’s talents and considered the old man’s reputation an empty one. Willie, in his manic (i.e., drunken) moments is also like the Jamie who is the life of the party. Willie amuses his cohorts with wittily obscene songs and literary allusions. And he is also the Jamie we know from the image of terror-stricken withdrawal and final-stage alcoholism in Dion Anthony of The Great God Brown. Willie’s characterization seems rooted in a compassion for his brother which at times seems uncontrollable in O’Neill. But Willie is far from being the whole Jamie as O’Neill conceived him. Willie is only the Jamie who was cast out by his family, who was consumed with hostility toward his father, who was racked with anguish about and dependency upon his mother, and who was a wonder to his associates in the amount of whiskey he could consume. He is not the Jamie who was to become the embodiment of new understanding in the mature O’Neill.

As an expression of O’Neill’s admiration for his dead brother, Jamie’s most important representative in the play is Hickey himself,4 who might be said to represent Jamie at his best, as Willie represents him at his worst. It is indicated early in the play that Hickey has always been able to bring joy and excitement to the saloon-dwellers, a talent which has gone beyond the simple fact that he has always bought the drinks
as Jamie impoverished himself doing. Like his most immediate predecessor, Sid Davis in Ah, Wilderness, Hickey’s presence has always been that of an eternally bright and spirited crony, a Mercutio who could keep life in a state of perpetual revelry. The Hickey remembered by the derelicts is the mythic Hickey, the Dionysian Hickey, the Hickey who stands for the Jamie so longed for in O’Neill’s imagination. Hickey’s past reputation cannot be overstated because it explains not only the impact of the false hope he brings in the play but also the true hope he is. The real Jamie never came to save anyonefar be that from the mind of James Gladstone O’Neill, Jr.but his very presence was saving because of his brilliant wit and his seemingly endless vitality. And that wit and vitality, which O’Neill had felt constrained to eliminate from his reverential treatment of Jamie in Lazarus Laughed, is the essence of this false, but finally true, savior in The Iceman Cometh. Obviously, I shall have more to say on this subject.

Hickey also parallels Jamie in the complexity of his feelings toward the most important woman in his life. Hickey has persistently betrayed his ever-forgiving wife as Jamie persistently betrayed his ever-forgiving mother. Hickey’s murder of Evelyn and his sudden awareness of the implications of that action parallel Jamie’s whole complex of frenzied hostility and guilt regarding his mother’s death as described and lived through in A Moon for the Misbegotten. In that later play, Jamie’s guilt has been aroused to hysterical proportions by the fact that his mother awoke (or so he imagined) immediately before her death, saw him drunk, and died immediately afterward. He decides this is what killed her, and to compound his guilt, he keeps killing her symbolically through his nightly relations with the whore on the train. Hickey’s grotesque corollary to this story is that he actually did kill his wife. As in Mourning Becomes Electra, a real murder stands as metaphor for the murder O’Neill felt his brother and himself to be guilty of. But the more important point is that Hickey, like Jamie in the later play, has the capacity finally to suffer openly and volubly for his crimes against his wife-mother; and it is that capacity which gives him heroic stature in The Iceman Cometh, as it will later give Jim Tyrone heroic stature in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Characters who stand for O’Neill’s own brooding, negative cynicism never achieve such stature because theirs is an abstract, held-in penance. For a man to be a hero in O’Neill he must actively and emotionally, not simply intellectually, face his ghosts. Their ability to do this is what makes Hickey and Jamie superior to Simon Harford and Larry Sladethough the latter finally also emotionally faces his in private.


It is surprising in any discussion of an O’Neill play to think of the image or images of his mother taking second place. But they do here, largely because no character representing his mother, or anyone’s mother, actually appears on stage. Yet the agony associated with his mother remains central. The figures who stand for her are many and tend to parallel each other. They are the remembered wives and mothers who either are dead or have disappeared, or in one case who is permanently incarcerated.5 The most important of these remembered women are three very differently described matrons. The first is Bessie Hope, dead these twenty years (O’Neill’s mother had been dead nearly that when he wrote the play), and blessed in memory to Harry, another drunken shebeen-keeper. Actually, Bessie’s memory serves only to insulate Harry from the real world. His feelings about her are in fact ambivalent. The real Bessie, Larry tells us, was a persistent nag from whom Harry took refuge in life by means of the bottle. Bessie hardly anticipates Mary Tyrone in personality, but she was, like Mary, obsessed with proprieties she felt her husband was insufficiently attentive to. The chief theme involving Bessie is Harry’s fear that he might betray her memory, a fear which supports the shaky stability of his existence. Harry uses this fear to protect himself from the realities of the present, which was one manifestation of O’Neill’s struggle with his guilt many years after the events that set it off.


Second, there is Rosa Parritt,6 whose parallels with O’Neill’s mother are clearer. As O’Neill’s mother was betrayed by a son in California, causing hysterical anguish both in that son and in a second son in New York, so Rosa was betrayed by a son in California causing hysterical anguish both in that son and in a former lover in New York. The “Movement” Rosa heads is also related to the always-abiding theme of betrayal by and of a mother. Rosa is obsessed with her Movement to the point that it has dominated her life. Because of it she has all but abandoned both her son and her lover. It thus parallels Mary’s addiction. Rosa’s obsession is rooted, Parritt tells us, in her desire for freedom, which recalls Deborah Harford’s obsession with her “little Temple” and certainly parallels the freedom brought by Mary’s morphine: freedom from life's sorrows and responsibilities. Along with her Movement are Rosa’s lovers, who also parallel Mary’s narcotic withdrawals in that they cause Rosa to repeatedly turn away from those who genuinely love her and whom she genuinely loves. Rosa, we are told, has felt much guilt toward the men she feels closest to, as does Mary. Parritt reports that when she had time to think about him, she acted “as if she wanted to make up for something, as if she felt guilty.”


But Rosa’s Movement stands not only for Mary’s addiction. It also stands for the altogether opposing pipe dream of family life itself. Rosa has been a good leader, serving her followers, or children, as both provider and protector. Thus, even as the Movement represents Rosa’s escape from responsibility, it also represents her fulfilling of it as the nurturing, providing mother. As Rosa the sinner betrays her loved ones Larry and Parritt, so Rosa the saintly is betrayed by them. What O’Neill suggests here is the seemingly endless recurrence of betrayal and betraying, his old circle. Which comes first, the betrayal or the betraying, again is of no consequence. Rosa Parritt represents the most agonizing of O’Neill’s dilemmas still smoldering inside him, only half understood.


Finally, the third remembered matron is Evelyn Hickman. Evelyn parallels Rosa not only as nurturer and provider, but also in her obsession with an ideal which draws her away from reality. Her ideal, her “Movement,” of course, is her certainty that Hickey will reform. But we are brought to perceive Evelyn in a very different way than we do Rosa. Rosa, despite her betrayals by son and lover, never seems really victimized. Described with remarkably few concrete details of appearance or behavior, she is never made quite vivid. She seems in the descriptions of Parritt and Larry always vaguely self-contained and in command. We feel we ought to have compassion for her in her suffering, but somehow we do not. The clearest impression we ever get is of her being bossy, and that tends to antagonize us, as does her unfaithfulness. Hickey’s description of Evelyn, on the other hand, makes her seem ever the victim. What we are told places her directly in O’Neill’s growing line of long-suffering wife-mothers, ever patient and ever-forgivingand she is thus at all times the betrayed mother, never the betrayer. And the betrayal this time takes the form, as in Mourning Becomes Electra, of actual murder. As Rosa Parritt’s personality, or what we learn of it, suggests O’Neill’s abiding vindictiveness, Evelyn’s suggests his equally abiding guilt.


While all three images of O’Neill’s mother, thenBessie Hope, Rosa Parritt, and Evelyn Hickmanreveal the persistence of O’Neill’s favorite haunt, in this play he was to come to grips with that haunt as never before. We must turn now to Larry Slade, who represents O’Neill himself in his most critical of struggles with the past, a struggle out of which is born the vision of the final plays.

Larry Slade


No character in O’Neill, including the illustrious Hickey, arrives so fully prepared for as does Larry Slade. To understand him at all well, one must go back to Days Without End, where the central character was divided into two separate dramatic personalities, the youthful dreamer John and the cynical nihilist Loving. John conformed in personality to many other youthful dreamers in O’Neill (Stephen Murray, Juan Ponce de Leon, Robert Mayo, Jim Harris, and the early unmasked Dion Anthony), and undoubtedly represented O’Neill’s basic self-image during the years he wrote his earlier plays. This hero was inherently a believer, whether or not one takes his conversion seriously. He was melancholy, like his predecessors, but his melancholy never yielded to hard-bitten cynicism. He was deeply troubled, but he was always the poet who sought for mystical affirmations in both man and nature. Loving, on the other hand, was an image of the hero O’Neill felt himself increasingly drawn to. He spoke with the voice of the rational O’Neill who had reached the conclusion that life was altogether without meaning or purpose. Loving was also free of doubt, self-contained, and absolutely convinced in his cynicism. That O’Neill felt increasingly drawn to him is suggested in part by Loving’s resemblance in despairing tone and manner to Lavinia Mannon and Simon Harford.


Following directly from Lavinia and Simon, Larry Slade seems the ultimate voice of O’Neill’s rational despair, the culmination of his steady move toward hard-bitten nihilism. Larry’s philosophical observations are a seemingly endless series of variations on the single theme that life is hopeless and meaningless, that death is best, that “best of all,” says Larry, “is never to have been born.” But again we must go back to Days Without End to realize that this nihilism is not all there is to Larry. John and Loving in the earlier play really only constituted two halves of a single individualan inherently believing half and an inherently unbelieving half. In the characters who were not artificially cut into those halvesLavinia and Simon—we saw similar halves at war within a single individual. In John Loving, the John half just barely won out over the Loving half, and John emerged sentimentally triumphant. But in Lavinia and Simon, one might say the Loving half triumphed. These characters yielded more and more to their savagely morose cynicism. Finally, in Larry Slade the yielding seems complete. He seems the total nihilist from the start.


But not so. As John was always troubled by his “Loving,” his unbelieving other half, the Loving that culminates in Larry Slade is always troubled by his “John.” The divided nature remainsand will remain. As there was always a hard-bitten cynic struggling against the dreamer in O’Neill’s earlier heroes, so there is always a dreamer fighting the nihilist in Larry Slade. Larry keeps revealing his compassion and understanding in the playnot in the manner of Loving but in the manner of John. Thus is the aura of uncompromising nihilism in The Iceman Cometh never quite convincing. It is always being compromised by Larry’s emotions and Larry’s actionsthough never by Larry’s mind. In earlier plays, O’Neill had been trying to believe but kept being disturbed by the doubt cast by his reason. In this play, O’Neill is trying not to believe but keeps being disturbed by his instincts.


The chief difference between Larry and the nihilists who precede him is that through Larry, O’Neill for the first time really digs at the roots of his sickness. Through Larry, he breaks the circle of hostility and guilt which has dominated just about every play we have dealt with. To understand how O’Neill does in fact triumph over his past in this play, we must look at Larry’s relationship with Don Parritt, and we must assess the significance of Parritt’s suicide near the close of the play.


Except in his seething guilt, which finally drives him to take his own life, Don Parritt is endowed with little personality. He is unlike all the other characters in the play, each of whom possesses some quality or trait capable of exciting an affectionate human response. Parritt has no such quality or trait. O’Neill seems to want us to hate him as characters in the late plays hate what they refer to as “the dead part” of themselves. Parritt is the embodiment of unalloyed guilt, that guilt which O’Neill felt had totally destroyed his brother and was in the process of destroying him. Parritt’s experiences parallel Jamie’s, though his guilt may be seen interchangeably as that of either brother. Like Jamie, Parritt betrayed a mother in California, and like O’Neill he refused to face what he had done. Parritt has used his reward money to take up with a whore the way Jamie took up with the blonde on the train. Like both brothers, Parritt has continued to act out his resentment of his mother even as he is tortured by ever-increasing guilt. Finally, like Jamie, Parritt has come East to seek the comfort that O’Neill coldly denied Jamie and that Larry here denies Parritt. But throughout, we never have any sympathy for Parritt. Lacking the humanity each of the other characters possesses, he leaves us cold. Larry feels guilt toward Parritt, but it is a guilt which continually slips back into disgust. There is no real compassion associated with Parritt, and there is no hope. That is, in the O’Neill who writes the play there is no pity for the suffering he has known, and thus there can be no hope. There is only the feeling, which Larry repeatedly gives utterance to, that he cannot escape the past.


There is also an unreal quality in the relationship between Larry and Parritt. Their exchanges, even as Parritt’s state becomes hysterical, seem repetitious, exaggerated, and strangely unspontaneous. The two are like figures living out some awful horror in a dream. And so they are. What we see re-enacted is indeed a dreamO’Neill’s central nightmare. Larry and Parritt first live out the old agony of O’Neill’s rejection of Jamie. Submerged in O’Neill’s immediately preceding plays, that agony is allowed to surface as never before in The Iceman Cometh. Should he have comforted Jamie by offering him reassuranceor should he have advised him to kill himself for committing that worst of human crimes, mother-betrayal? The latter is also the lingering question in O’Neill about his relationship with himself. (He had long since forgiven Jamie.) Larry is fundamentally guilty because of his own rejection of Rosa Parritt, as O’Neill was fundamentally guilty over his rejection of his mother. Parritt the mother-betrayer is only a reflection-of Larry the “mother”-betrayer. And so with the thoughts of suicide in both characters. Since O’Neill’s despair, probably already concerning his mother, actually did bring him to attempt suicide at Jimmy-the-Priest’s in 1922, we are with Larry and Parritt at the center of O’Neill’s torment in 1939, Larry the present-day O’Neill considering Parritt the O’Neill of nearly thirty years before. Should he not finish the job now that he failed to finish then? What we see and hear on stage is an exploration of O’Neill’s struggle with that question. But O’Neill is doing something more. By unrelentingly putting that struggle on stage, he is also for the first time attempting to cast out his life’s greatest terror.


To more fully understand the Slade-Parritt relationship is to understand the nature of its dialogue, which for all its talk of literal kinship is the very opposite of kinship dialogue. It concentrates on a past full of betrayal and guilt which Larry tries to evade Parritt’s interpretation of, and Parritt concomitantly tries to deceive Larry about. In other words, it concentrates on Larry as the O’Neill who is still trying to face his emotional past and on Parritt as the “image of that horror”— the craven, spiteful youth who tried to escape his pain and could not. Their dialogue is naturally full of the qualities which characterized the dialogue of O’Neill’s middle period: the deception and counter-deception, the manipulation and resistance to manipulation, the accusation and counteraccusation, the cry for pity and the mask of indifference. If we consider the two, like John and Loving, as two sides of a single person, then the dialogue becomes inner dialogue, that of someone deciding whether or not to commit suicide. The deception then becomes self-deception, the manipulation self-manipulation, the accusation self-accusation, the cry for pity self-pity, and the mask of indifference the attempt to protect oneself. The pain is always there, the one constant, and that pain results in the periodic explosions of intense feeling between these two which culminate in Larry’s final imperative:

Get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you! Go up—!

(III. 720)

And so Parritt, the seeming descendant of all O’Neill’s earlier self-tormenters, finally does go up, and by means of some extreme spasm of self-torment, which we never see on stage since the adult O’Neill thank-fully never brought himself to that extreme a spasm, manages to throw himself off. But Parritt is not really the descendant of anybody. He has none of the human qualities of O’Neill’s earlier heroes, being only the faceless embodiment of their unbearable guilt. It is Larry who is the true heir to O’Neill’s earlier suicides and would-be suicides, and it is Larry—not Parrittwho throughout is O’Neill. The figure we remain with at the end is not that remote image of O’Neill’s horror leaping from the fire escape, but the highly immediate and familiar, perpetually agonizing figure of the real self-tormenter Larry Slade, who is those earlier heroes grown older and on the brink of being wiser. What happens late in The Iceman Cometh is that O’Neill manages somehow to throw himself off that fire escape without literally doing so. If my idea that Parritt, as his name implies, has no truly separate identity, then the thought of his fallen crushed body has something of the unreal effect of the smothered baby in Desire Under the Elms many years earlier. When we reach out in our minds to pick that body up, what we find is a pile of rags. The fall reduces Parritt to the imaginary ghoul he really is. The whole emphasis throughout is on Larry and how Larry reacts. Part of Larry’s reaction to Parritt’s suicide is, of course, the renewed commitment to nihilism I shall shortly discuss, but another part is his sense of immense relief, the relief of a man who has hurled some terrible weight off his shoulderssome weight that plummets down like that of a body falling from a fire escape. Parritt’s suicide thus becomes finally a metaphor for O’Neill’s triumph over suicide.


The Larry Slade-Don Parritt relationship and its conclusion constitute a very real psychological exorcism for O’Neill. Like other relationships in O’Neill’s plays, this one has embodied, in thin disguise, all the elements of his years of nightmare regarding his mother, his brother, and his ever-recurring self-hatredthe agony, in short, one stage of which had led him to a suicide attempt in 1912and which made him suicidal throughout his life. Yet in this relationship he dramatizes all those suicidal urgings in such a way that they seem not likely to return; and, in fact, there are no suicides amid the emotional tumult of O’Neill’s last three plays. Furthermore, this action is more than merely the effective therapy  that is implied. O’Neill has also made this experience highly effective drama through his by now superbly developed talent for transforming his most hidden feelings into people, events, and conversations. Few who encounter the play fail to be haunted by Larry Slade and Don Parritt and their mysterious relationship to the past. Some feel so devastated by this part of the play’s action that they turn away from the play altogether, but that result is the risk run by any authentic tragedy. To empathize with the purgation implicit in this action is to recognize that authenticity.’ But there remains much more to be said about Larry Slade. We must also consider that seemingly reinforced nihilism which closes the play, and to do so we must look at the nature of his cynicism throughout. We must compare his condition before and after Parritt’s leap. Throughout the earlier portions of the play, Larry is spokesman for “the big sleep.” He has, he says, through experience become disillusioned with life, and he has withdrawn “into the grandstand of philosophical detachment” to patiently await a much-desired deathwith drink in hand. But the falsely rational quality of his attitudes convinces few. Especially do Rocky and his tarts know that Larry’s cynicism is at least half blarney, that if he really hated life as much as he says he does, he would have killed himself long ere thisa sentiment which is echoed by the all-knowing Hickey. And the depth of Larry’s nihilism is even rendered suspect in what he says to Parritt. Claiming to be totally objective, Larry lets slip remarks indicating that his supposedly detached rejection of life is really intensely subjective, emotionally rooted in personal disappointment, the result of some deep psychological trauma. A passage often cited as the essence of Sladean nihilism actually gives this subjectivity away quite unexpectedly:

Honor or dishonor, faith or treachery are nothing to me but the opposites of the same stupidity which is ruler and king of life, and in the end they rot into dust in the same grave. All things are the same meaningless joke to me, for they grin at me from the one skull of death. So go away. You’re wasting breath. I’ve forgotten your mother.

(III. 649. Emphasis added)

Despite Larry’s intent that these remarks have a universal context, the last sentence reveals that he is really only feeling sorry for himself. He has not forgotten Parritt’s mother. His suffering, like Parritt’s, grows out of a bad experience with a woman who was close to him and not out of some thorough, detached assessment of all facets of human existence.


So Larry’s nihilism in the play at first has the sound of much popular and largely superficial early twentieth-century debunking of Victorian optimism and has something of the ring throughout of the sophomore’s lament. It is, like so much barroom cynicism in all ages, a substitute for the crying towelas the other derelicts at Harry Hope’s seem instinctively to know. The Larry we first encounter, though a good deal more hard-bitten, has not really advanced that much from the lovelorn Smitty  of the sea plays. The world is indeed a dark and dreary place, but largely, to quote Jamie quoting Swinburne, because “she would not hear.” Larry is not at first even a match for the earlier Loving, because Loving is intended only as the essence of pure negation, while Larry is always revealing the hurt child underneath the ultra-cynical mask. (He is both John and Loving.) O’Neill wants us to see Larry’s nihilism at first as only an expression of his unresolved guilt and fear because he wants us to understand that a genuine change takes place in Larry following Parritt’s suicide, a change born of O’Neill’s own casting out of his ghosts. And it is the change which John Loving does not go through in the pseudo-exorcism which concludes Days Without End.


O’Neill’s sentimental endings to plays in the 1930sDays Without End, Ah, Wilderness, and A Touch of the Poet (with reservations)are all intended to leave their heroes triumphant following some life-redirecting struggle. Their heroes all go off newly awakened to the meaning of life. The ending of The Iceman Cometh, on the other hand, is as unsentimental as O’Neill can make it. It deals with a new awakening not to the meaning of life but to the meaninglessness of life. The hero now emerges with a bright new sense of the true nihilism. Larry Slade, whose name implies the bed-rock reality he claims to have reached earlier, finally reaches that bed of rock through his encounter with Parritt. He reaches what to his reason seems the core of knowledge that everything in his previous life—his decisions, ideas, opinions, tastes, aspirations, goals—had been tied up with his personal agony, and that without that agony there genuinely does seem to be nothing. There seems no meaning to life whatsoever; and Larry “from the bottom of his coward’s heart” can say for the first time and mean that he is a “true convert to death.” Larry’s great purgation has left him empty, at one with an infinite nothingness. This is the play’s real nihilism, and it is what makes O’Neill in this play an early dramatist of the absurd. This time, we are persuaded, O’Neill has really given up.


Or has he? I am reminded by Larry’s statements as opposed to Larry’s actions at the close of the play of perhaps the greatest of all twentieth-century absurdist plays, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.8 At the close of each act of the Beckett play, the two leading figures agree to “go,” but they do not go. Instead, they remain in place. Where they will go, and what they will do, it seems implied, will be forever precisely where they have been and what they have been doing. In the same manner, Larry, having just recommended and experienced a suicide, says he has become a true convert to deathwhich might suggest that he too in-tends to commit suicide. But he does not “go.” He remains essentially the same posture he has been in throughout the play, and there is nothing to indicate really that he will do anything else. He will keep doing the things he has been doing, and he will await death. In short, he will do what all people do, though he will now do it free of illusion. It is, then, what he has been doing which begins to assume importance. It is what Larry has been doing—not thinking, but doing—which is essential to this play’s transcendence of the absolute nihilism it seems to preach; and what Larry has been doing has a great deal to do with the process of human kinship.


His relationship with the shadowy Parritt aside, Larry’s relationships with everyone else in the play, even Hickey, are close and trusting. He has a separate, distinct, and total relationship with each member of Harry Hope’s band which makes him an eminently welcome figure to them even as they treat him roughly and refer to him as “the old foolosopher.” He does not use people, and he is not used by them. He is instead directly and honestly involved with them, his “grandstand” remarks notwithstanding. Jimmy Tomorrow speaks for the group, I think, when he calls Larry’s bluff. “You pretend a bitter, cynic philosophy,” says a momentarily objective Jimmy, “but in your heart you are the kindest man among us.” (III. 600.) And what has happened to Larry at the end is not likely to stop him from continuing to be the kindest man among them. What Larry condemns in himself as “the wrong kind of pity” is not pity at all but a deep instinct for quickly recognizing and respecting the feelings of others—whether or not these feelings grow out of or proliferate illusions, which they probably do. Larry’s basic attitudes are those of quiet acceptance and the willing capacity to forgive. He has an instinctive faith in human decency which his words, when confronted by his actions, can never convince us has been destroyed.


Larry Slade, in ways which the lines make clear better than do the stage directions, is a nurturing figure at Harry Hope’s saloon. He is less “in the grandstand” than anyone else in the play and always will be. His rejection of all causes and ideals only makes him more in touch with his fellow human beings than most people are. His responses, even when he is on the defensive as he frequently is earlier in the play, indicate the nature of his relationship with others, as do their responses to him:

MARGIE—(sneering) De old wise guy!


PEARLYeah, still pretendin’ he’s de one exception, like Hickey told him. He don’t do no pipe dreamin’! Oh, no!


LARRY—(sharply resentful) I—! (Then abruptly he is drunkenly good-natured, and you feel this drunken manner is an evasive exaggeration) All right, take it out on me, if it makes you more content. Sure, I love every hair of your heads, my great big beautiful baby dolls, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you!


PEARL—(stiffly) De old Irish bunk, huh? We ain’t big. And we ain’t your baby dolls! (Suddenly she is mollified and smiles) But we admit we’re beautiful. Huh, Margie?


MARGIE—(smiling) Sure ting! But what would he do wid beautiful dolls, even if he had de price, de old goat? (She laughs teasinglythen pats Larry on the shoulder affectionately) Aw, yuh’re aw right at dat, Larry, if yuh are full of bull!


PEARL—Sure. Yuh’re aces wid us. We’re noivous, dat’s all.

(III. 635)

The crucial point in this exchange is that at which Larry’s flattery gets through to Pearl and Margie, and their tone toward him veers sharply. He has fed their illusions, of course (“the wrong kind of pity”), but they recognize his flattery well enough, and the feeling he evokes in so doing is genuine“you’re aw right at dat, Larry.” Not his flattery, which O’Neill calls an evasive exaggeration, but the authenticity of the attention he focuses on them gives them reassurance, and for that he will always be aces wid” them. As for the “evasive exaggeration” of the stage direction, Larry’s flattery is the only exaggeration he is guilty of. His first response is not at all exaggerated: ‘All right, take it out on me, if it makes you more content.” His ability to “take it” is evidence of his relative strength and stability. The tarts’ feeling for him is first evoked by his willingness to let himself be their punching bag, then flowers with the attention he focuses on them. What Larry says half fits the stage direction “evasive”; but, true to the divisions in human response explored in More Stately Mansions, it is also half authentic altruism. And the halves are really indistinguishable here. Larry gives even as he evades, and once his reason for evading is gone, as it is at the end of the play, his giving will be more complete than ever.


Larry’s relationship with Pearl and Margie here seems a special one, but so is his relationship with each one of Harry’s clientele. I do not speak of his particular sense of guardianship in the case of Hugo Kalmar, which is tied to Larry’s past and seems one more kind of compassion for himself. I speak rather of his unpremeditated communication at very basic levels with all those “misbegotten” individuals who have nothing to do with his past. The long-awaited Hickey brings them joy for special occasions and is much to be celebrated; but it is Larry who has more to do with their everyday lives. They are dependent on Larry, and far more than he might wish to admit it, he is dependent upon them. If he is “aces wid” them, they are certainly aces with him. In complete contrast to his relationship with Parritt, his relationships with them are free of any kind of serious deception or manipulation. And the ever-present defensiveness and hostility are but the inevitable and necessary indication of the totality of those relationships.


A larger understanding of The Iceman Cometh must recognize that its nihilism does not debate its kinship. This idea is most evident in the character of the bona fide nihilist Larry Slade, whose confrontation with himself in the suicide of Parritt frees him from all past fears, beliefs, and aspirations and also frees him to be more fully the nurturing figure he really has been all along, while trying to deny it. Washed clean of what Martin Buber calls “the rot” in human relationships, 10 Larry is ready at the end to engage more fully with each of his “misbegotten” tribe, as we have seen him from the beginning engage them haltingly but always lovingly. At the end, Larry is for the first time in tune with the present, which is what the play celebrates, whether it wants to or not the present, which always constitutes one or another of the fierce struggles to survive that attest how precious man considers life regardless of its inevitable disillusion. The real ground of this play is these present struggles lived out not primarily by Larry so much as by the play’s minor characters in their pairings and groupings. More than any other O’Neill play since the sea plays, The Iceman Cometh is as much about society as it is about himself.


The Language of Kinship


Perhaps Beckett’s Waiting For Godot is a good play to return to in seeking more completely to understand The Iceman Cometh. If it is clear that Beckett is a brilliant exponent of the nihilism which Larry’s casting off the burden of his past brings him to, it is also clear that Waiting For Godot is a play which comprehensively describes the forms and textures of human kinship in the face of that nihilism. The play deals with the relationships among the individuals in two pairs of characters. Much that these characters say, like much that Larry says, deals with the bankruptcy in the twentieth century of all philosophical and religious systems; and much else that they say deals with their mutual dependency upon one another. Vladimir and Estragon, the central pair, make clear that the only certainty they have in life, aside from their appetites and the inevitability of death, is the complex interaction of their feelings toward each other. Their conversations are in the main aggressive and mutually challenging, but when hurt or seriously challenged, each tends to lose confidence and seek comfort from the other, who generally provides it. Their exchanges are rapid-fire and are allthe tone of the dialogue leaves little doubtrooted in their illusions. The only thing not illusory in what they say is the emotion which underlies it, and that emotion is half-destructive, half-supportive. Most important, there is great joy in this play. Its mood is never really dark for all that its themes are, and there is little question that the two central figures take genuine pleasure in one another’s company. Their wait for some externally delivered meaning for life is futile, but their lives themselves do not feel futile. And this absence of futility seems inextricably linked to their total and freely acknowledged interdependence.


In discarding all beliefs and systems as illusory, Beckett in Waiting For Godot leaves man with only the bedrock reality of his human relationships. The real terror in the play is that of isolation. A moving, almost sentimental, view of human interdependency is the second of the two pairings, that between the authoritarian Pozzo and the hapless Lucky. Pozzo’s cruelty and arrogance of the first act are reversed in the second, where Pozzo, now blind and helpless, is altogether the charge of the still-serving Lucky. Their relationship remains constant regardless of who at the moment happens to possess that greatest of all illusions, power. One might say of the play’s second act, where all the characters become figures of great endurance and instinctive understanding, that Waiting For Godot envisions the workings of human kinship about as precisely as any play of the twentieth century.


Far more complexly presented, The Iceman Cometh is also a play about the possibilities of human kinship in the face of enervating twentieth-century nihilism. O’Neill’s use of the phrase “the misbegotten” to describe Harry Hope’s clientele parallels in mood and purpose the Chaplinesque quality of Beckett’s heroes. They are, of course, not misbegotten, no more than any who endure the human condition. Or perhaps we are all misbegotten in the twentieth century, if to be otherwise means that we must adhere to traditional beliefs and values. Like Beckett’s characters, O’Neill’s, in their rejection and poverty, live at the bedrock of reality and must strain if they are to maintain the life-preserving illusions which the more fortunate among us keep up more easily but are still very much indebted to. And also like Beckett’s characters, O’Neill’s establish the dramatic shape of their interdependence through their dialoguein O’Neill as in Beckett, dialogue which is essentially characterized by its endlessly varied rhythm of alternating hostility and affection. Through his minor characters and their groupings, O’Neill in The Iceman Cometh makes a giant step toward the full expression of his language of kinship.


To begin with, Harry Hope expresses in his monologues the oscillations of feeling which are for O’Neill the essence of kinship. In the earlier plays, those oscillations were most apparent in the voluble IrishmenDriscoll, and Paddy, and Mat Burkewho first captured the ebbs and flows of kinship in rhythms which were like those of the sea on which they lived. O’Neill presented their capacity to give uninhibited voice to the split-second changes in their moods as a great natural gift, and this gift he later passed on in purest form to Con Melody and later still to Harry Hope. The sharply contradictory feelings of people living in close proximity are heard and felt in almost every speech of the volatile Harry. We encounter them first in his savage attack on the unfortunate Willie Oban. Early in Act One, Harry attacks Willie for singing so early in the morning and threatens to send him to his miserable room because of the noise; but when Willie “dissolves into pitiable terror” at the prospect, Harry immediately relents. Without warning, he becomes ostentatiously charitable toward Willie and instead attacks Rocky for refusing the poor lad a drink. Then, equally without warning, he relents toward Rocky—and so in turn each member of the group first feels the sting of Harry’s voluble abuse, then is abruptly forgiven and rewarded with a drink. The antiphony of loudly expressed, altogether contradictory emotions which constitute the core of Harry Hope is the core of kinship in this play.


Harry’s speeches in the second act follow the same pattern. Sober, to defy Hickey, he arrives at his much-anticipated sixtieth birthday party with what he calls “a real grouch on” and proceeds to roast everyone in turn:

Cut out the glad hand, Hickey. D’you think I’m a sucker? I know you, bejees, you sneaking, lying drummer! (With rising anger, to the others) And all you bums! What the hell you trying to do, yelling and raising the roof? Want the cops to close the joint and get my license taken away? (He yells at Cora who has stopped singing but continues to play mechanically with many mistakes) Hey, you dumb tart, quit banging that box! Bejees, the least you could do is learn the tune!

(III. 654)

But as soon as he sees how much he has hurt them, Harry’s hostility melts:

Listen, all of you! Bejees, forgive me. I lost my temper! I ain’t feeling well! I got a hell of a grouch on! Bejees, you know you’re all as welcome here as the flowers in May! (They look at him with eager forgiveness. Rocky is the first who can voice it) Rocky: Aw, sure, Boss, you’re aces wid us, see?

(III. 660)

He is aces with them, and they with him, and all is welluntil the next volley, which follows very soon.


The progression of Harry’s feelings is relatively clear and represents O’Neill’s paradigm of human feeling generally. Harry does what is necessary to maintain his illusions—that is, he drinks. Any attack upon the insulation of those illusions—statements by others or the intrusion of sobriety—enrages him. To regain his insular position, he attacks the intruder, usually the person last addressing him, whether or not that is the real intruder. He attacks explosively and, on the surface at least, viciously. But almost before the attack is over, Harry becomes aware of the person he is addressing, and that awareness immediately translates itself into compassion and regret. His instincts are thus both to protect himself (his illusions) and to nurture. Both instincts are expressed freely and fully, neither is ascendant over the other, and neither is relinquishable in the face of the other.


And so the process is established for the others. Beginning with some hurt or imagined hurt, some assault or imagined assault upon a character’s fortress of illusion, often merely the result of that character’s waking up sober, the character lashes out with an attack on his neighbor’s most sacred territorywhether or not the neighbor is the offender. And the neighbor replies in kind. In the normal state of affairsthat is, state of affairs early in the playthis takes the form of some crudely ical insult exchange from which the parties quickly recover. But occasionally, the attacks and counterattacks develop into torrents before the forgiveness sets in. The volleys of abuse may in fact threaten violence, but in the normal state of things the hostility subsides before harm is done. One party, realizing the hurt he or she is inflicting, becomes sorry or apologetic, the other party returns in kind, and a harmony is reestablisheda harmony of mutually-respected pipe dreams.


To understand how things are in the beginningthat is, before Hickey’s arrivalwe must consider the arrangement of the characters which opens the play. At the very beginning, we have Larry as narrator, serving as a kind of god to his own nihilism, “creating” his world of the misbegotten. One by one, Larry introduces the newly arrived Parritt to the residents at the saloon. Larry does so “with sardonic relish,” says O’Neill, “but at the same time showing his affection for them.” (III. 593). The first characters we meet are the worst off in that they are the most isolated. The brilliant Willie Oban, the most pitiable, sits alone and communicates only in alcoholic extremes of biting wit and haunting fear. He is very badly off, but since he does manage communication of a sort, he can barely manage to survive. Following Willie, just a little better off by virtue of a special though enigmatic relationship with Larry, is the old bomb-thrower Hugo Kalmar, the arrogant East European revolutionary whose pipe dream is to be a member of the aristocracy. Hugo’s articulation of the pain that sobriety and the necessary facing of reality brings with it is the most poignant in the play. Because he is so articulate, he later describes for us most precisely what the others feel in response to Hickey’s “saving”message.


Only a little better off than Willie and Hugo is one of the play’s most brilliant and prophetic characterizations, that of the black gambler Joe Mott. A descendant of Brutus Jones, Joe is certainly the American black as the American white establishment has forced him to be, though his name suggests that he may also stand for other racial and religious minorities as well.” Desperately isolated, full of indignation, he capitulates not so much because of his personal ghosts, though they exist, as out of a necessity bred by the inescapable vulnerability America has forced upon its racial minorities. He is linked at first with the urban Italian-American pair Rocky and Chuck, but the link is an unwilling one on both sides, and their “reconciliation” is particularly debasing to Joe. His relations with the white African pair, Lewis and Wetjoen, who stand in part for the black man's earlier tormentors, seem more promising from the start and develop to the point where in the end Joe actually joins (or should one say, rejoins) their “table.” Joe is better off than Hugo or Willie. He moves boisterously and genially among the groups, but he evokes perhaps the greatest compassion of all in his outburst against white society in Act Three. The individual afflicted by his inner fears (Willie) and the individual afflicted by a repressive society (Joe) are seen as essentially in the same condition.


Then there are the groups at the other tables, each a community made up of a pair of individuals accompanied by a single individual. Usually the members of the pair are better off than the single individual at the table because they feel less isolated, though all are better off than the most isolated Willie, Hugo, and Joe. At one table are paired the former British Army captain, Cecil Lewis, and the Afrikaans farmer, Piet Wetjoenthe old Boer War team—in residence with the former war correspondent Jimmy Cameron (Jimmy “Tomorrow”). Jimmy is only a step removed from Willie, Hugo, and Joe in the extent of his isolation. At another table sits the Irish-American team of Harry Hope and his pair of sponging cronies Pat McGloin, the corrupt policeman, and Ed Mosher, the former circus barker. The similarity in pattern between this table and the first is obvious enough, but so too is the dissimilarity. Among other things, O’Neill consciously avoids symmetry and system in this play. Quite unlike the spineless Jimmy of the first table, Harry is boss at the second by virtue of his position and his verbosity. McGloin and Mosher never emerge as far from the background as do the earlier pair, Lewis and Wetjoen. Then, behind the bar, is a pair without accompanying single partner, Rocky and Chuck, whose battles approach violence and whose reconciliations are deep and convincing. And at another table, in the adjoining bar, are the whores, Margie and Pearl, who are joined sporadically by the more isolated Cora. Margie and Pearl are also in a pair-single relationship with the pimping Rocky, who joins their table at crucial moments; and Cora is seen often in tandem with Chuck, the sole man-woman pairing on stage in the play.


The essential pattern of kinship is evident in all these groups. Hostility among them is always associated with some kind of interference with pipe dreams, reconciliation with a return to those dreams, a return which it is important to say is in no way isolating but is instead unifying. The people are closest to one another when most comforted by their illusion and farthest from one another when they are most insecure about their illusions. As the overall effect is unschematized, these relationships quite difficult to illustrate, but one passage may serve to convey the quality of much of the first act, the “beginning” state of things before Hickey arrives. When we first meet them, each character is at his most desperate because he has just waked up sober and, of course, hung over:

(... at the middle table, Captain Lewis and General Wetjoen are as wide awake as heavy hangovers permit. Jimmy Tomorrow nods, his eyes blinking. Lewis is gazing across the table at Joe Mott, ... The expression on Lewis’s face is that of one who can’t believe his eyes)

LEWIS(aloud to himself, with muzzy wonder) Good God! Have I been drinking at the same table with a bloody Kaffir?


JOE(grinning) Hello, Captain. You comin’ up for air? Kaffir? Who’s he?


WETJOEN(blurrily) Kaffir, dot’s a nigger, Joe. (Joe stiffens and his eyes narrow. Wetjoen goes on with heavy jocosity) Dot’s joke on him, Joe. He don’t know you. He’s still plind drunk, the ploody Limey chentleman! A great    mistake I missed him at the pattle of Modder River. Vit mine rifle I shoot damn fool Limey officers py the dozen, but him I miss. De pity of it! (He chuckles and slaps Lewis on his bare shoulder) Hey, wake up, Cecil, you ploody   fool! Don’t you know your old friend, Joe? He’s no Kaffir! He’s white, Joe is!


LEWIS(light dawningcontritely)- My profound apologies, Joseph, old chum. Eyesight a trifle blurry, I’m afraid . . . . No hard feelings, what? (He holds out his hand)


JOE(at once grins good-naturedly and shakes his hand) No, Captain, I know it’s mistake. Youse regular, if you are a Limey. (Then his face hardening) But I don’t stand for “nigger” from nobody. Never did. In de old days, people calls me “nigger” wakes up in de hospital. I was de leader ob de Dirty Half-Dozen Gang. All six of us colored boys, we was tough and I was de toughest.


WETJOEN(inspired to boastful reminiscence) Me, in old days in Transvaal, I vas so tough and strong I grab axle of ox wagon mit full load and lift like feather.


LEWIS(smiling amiably) As for you, my balmy Boer that walks like a man, I say again it was a grave error in our foreign policy ever to set you free, once we nabbed you and your commando Cronje. We should have taken you to the London zoo and incarcerated you in the baboons’ cage. With a sign: “Spectators may distinguish the true baboon by his blue behind.”


WETJOEN(grins) Gott! To dink, ten better Limey officers, at least, I shoot clean in the mittle of forehead at Skion Kopje, and you I miss! I neffer forgive myself!

(III. 598—600)

What we have here is a complex interplay of emotions involving three characters. Each character is in the  process of moving from hostility to good will, though since the artificial symmetry that characterizes much of the dialogue in More Stately Mansions is missing, that emotional movement is more difficult to trace. Captain Lewis, his pipe dream of racial superiority briefly threatened by his finding himself awake, sober, and in the company of a black, is quickly reconciled with Joe but enters upon a familiar refrain of abuse and counterabuse with Wetjoen. As old war enemies, Lewis and Wetjoen have established a kinship which is deeper than that between Lewis and Joe. Thus their hostility is more severe and their reconciliations more pronounced. But the tone of the hostility at this point is still no more than the jesting camaraderie characteristic of most fraternal relationships. The hostility is not yet the virulent sort we shall encounter later. My quotation stops at this point because to go on with the ensuing outflow of good will among these figures would take too long. But following the lines quoted, and as the effects of the first morning drink take hold, each character in the room gives a recital of his personal pipe dream, in the course of which Lewis and Wetjoen exchange the warmest, most mutually respecting utterances. The emotion, previously jestingly hostile, now becomes sentimentally affectionate. We know, of course, that the hostilities will resume, but so too will a return to the harmony follow the hostilities.


All thisthe hostility and the good willgrows out of the illusions these characters are striving to preserve, but that is not the main point. The main point is that the emotions themselves are authentic and the continuing rhythm of their oscillation, albeit with variations, is assured. Though these figures live at the bottom of civilized human existence, as Larry tells us, they freely feel all the emotions that cluster around hurt and resentment countered by all the emotions that cluster around forgiveness and reconciliation. In short, they feel what everyone feels, their drink serving only to intensify both sets of feelings. This is the point that Hickey misses in his reforming zeal. He fails to see that from the start the illusions these people protect are their means of communication, and that throwing off their illusions will result in nothing more than the perpetual hell of isolation. He also fails to recognize, both in the other characters and in himself, the necessary alternation of hostility and affection. Like most reformers, he wants to cast all hostile reactions out of them, as he supposes he has cast all hostile reactions and all guilt out of himself. Hickey is seeking a utopian existence, and O’Neill now opposes utopias of any sort.


Hickey has in the past served an important purpose in Harry Hope’s world. In the past, he has represented a break from the ordinary. But the break has not been a change, really. Hickey has been an extension of the nickel rotgut, more highly charging the pipe dreams and delaying longer the inevitable morning afters. He has allayed the tedium of the old ebbs and flows for a while, and thus has genuinely served to make the saloon-dwellers happier. This time Hickey arrives “saved,” he believes, and determined to “free” others from their destructive pipe dreams as he feels he has been freed. But in his efforts to get the others to face themselves, he only does more penetratingly what they have been doing all along in their barroom aggressiveness. He attacks their pipe dreams, and the effect is to make what had usually been said under the protective canopy of raillery become serious. As this happens, real portents of violence begin to be heard. The central pairs begin to disintegrate. There cease to be the regular returns to the reciprocal acceptance that binds them. Moreover, the characters begin to gang up on one another, which we have not seen them do before. The idea of a scapegoat comes into being. We see groups under pressure to “face” their illusions attacking their weaker members as a means of reassuring themselves.


The sickness Hickey comes to cure is for most simply the fear of disappointment and failure all flesh is heir to. To admit one’s pipe dreams and to confront one’s fears is for Harry Hope and company as for Relling’s “average man” only to be made miserable, hopeless, and alone. The rehabilitation Hickey seeks is not possible. Illusion and kinship for most people go hand in hand—which is not to call kinship an illusion. Kinship is authentic. Most people simply need illusion as a catalyst in achieving it. But there are heroes in the fold, and a hero in O’Neill’s later plays is one who can in fact “face his ghosts,” who can live without illusion and in kinship with others. O’Neill is explicit about this in every play from A Touch of the Poet on. I suggested earlier that Larry’s stature is larger than the others because he does cast out his fears and his armor of protective illusion, and he has the strength not only to survive but to continue helping others to survive. Hickey is larger yet, in ways we must now examine. Like Larry he lives out a terrible ceremony of emotional exorcism, but Hickey does so aloud, in public, for others to see and learn from. Larry’s agony in the Parritt affair is treated throughout as a personal matter, as are his reactions to Parritt’s suicide. No one knows, or will ever know, the significance of that falling body but Larry, not even an audience unfamiliar with O’Neill’s life and earlier works. But everyone can know and understand what happens to Hickey. Hickey is wrong in what he tries to do for the others, but he is not wrong finally in what he does for himself.  Hickey, misled and misleading, nevertheless finally transcends all others in this play because he most openly and clearly brings together its two affirming energies: the energies of confession and kinship. Confession we have encountered in the many personal confessions throughout O’Neill’s works, and kinship we have encountered in the dialogue of genuinely communicating people ever since the S. S. Glencairn series. But we have rarely encountered them together as we do in the character of Hickey. We have never heard a confession like the one we hear from Hickey, and we have encountered no embodiment of the spirit of human kinship, with all its ebbs and flows starkly in evidence, to rival his. O’Neill through Hickey goes beyond the nihilism of Larry Slade.


Hickey’s great confession anticipates Jamie’s in Long Day’s Journey and A Moon for the Misbegotten in that he lives out what he is confessing as he confesses it. Hickey starts intending to confess “everything,” and ends up confessing more than he thought was there to confess. In the practiced manner of the brilliant raconteur that he is, he builds up slowly to the story of how he came to kill his wife out of love. He thinks he is admitting all the foulness that is in him by recounting the many times and ways he betrayed his wife, always to return and be forgiven. He confirms what he believes to be the totality of his confession by asserting that he came finally to hate her forgivings and her belief in him. But these are all realizations bred by Hickey’s not very strong reason, and the “freedom” he thinks he has achieved by murdering his wife is the muddled pseudo-freedom rationalized confessions lead to. Hickey is not free until the last phrase of his long confession because though he states that he hated his wife, he has never really come to grips with the reality of that hatred. Even his admission that he killed her to spare her his betrayals is a rationalization. He killed her because he hated her, pure and simpleand only in reliving this hatred does he understand it for what it is: ‘Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!” He actually has these hateful feelings as he expresses them. But even in expressing them, the realization is not complete. He must also relive the equally potent feelings of the love which completes his kinship, and this takes place immediately following his famous explosion. As his hatred was great enough to result in his act of ultimate violence, so is his love for her large-scale and authentic:

No! That’s a lie! I never said—! Good God, I couldn’t have said that! If I did, I’d gone insane! Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life.

(III. 716)

And he means it.


Throughout his adult life, Hickey’s love and hate had lived inside himtwin feelings, neither of which could ever affect the other. This twinning of opposite, mutually exclusive, feelings is what O’Neill’s dialogue of kinship has been revealing and will reveal further about all close human relationships. Who really cares about the cause of Hickey’s hatredthe guilt, the envyor of his love either, for that matter? The facts are simple, that the hate was terribly real, and the love equally so. Only the failure to recognize these twin truths breeds the violence: to recognize that authentic love cannot in fact even exist without an accompanying hate. Hickey’s tale is an extreme one, but it is through extremes that tragedy has always communicated.


Hickey’s doom is the sole tragic irony in this playbecause for all the joyous, mock-hypocritical exploitation of his false “insanity” by the pipe dreamers, Hickey has in fact been insane, as many are insane. He has at a crucial moment lost touch with reality, not because he hated his wife, but because he never acknowledged the inevitability of that hatred. He did not perceive reality because he could not perceive the irreconcilable extremes which govern man’s inescapably contradictory nature. The result was the burst of violence by which true tragedy brings things home to us. Hickey is himself ready to die for his crime, not out of guilt so much as for his failure in perception. Like Shakespeare’s Gloucester in King Lear, he really was blind when he thought he could see. The ever-cerebral Larry, thinking as much of the still-living symbol of his own agony, Parritt, as of Hickey, hopes that “the Chair” may “bring him peace at last,” but the Hickey led out by the police is already and for the first time actually at peace with himself. He has grown in a moment of deep, sudden recognition, and his growth adds to his already mythic stature. The “lord of misrule” has become tragic hero. No longer the “average man,” he must see where others cannot.


Though Larry Slade is stage center at the end of the play, it is the departed Hickey the end of the play celebrates.12 Hickey’s spirit of oldHickey the bringer of fellowship and good will governs the saturnalia in which all take part but the benumbed Larry. Hickey has failed in his misguided mission, but he has succeeded in bringing about that kind of release he has always inspired. The celebration we witness at the close of the play is a celebration of the essential Hickey, the Hickey of his previous visits. It is a full, vital expression of the joyful pole of kinship, as the morning after will be the most abysmal expression of its inevitable opposite. The flow of feeling from individual to individual is true, even if it is a flow three parts whiskey to one part fellowship. The cacophony which dominates these final festivities, resulting from each person literally “singing his own song” is an altogether welcome dissonance which tells us that the kinship we have encountered here is real. This clash of songs is one of the few musical images we ever get from O’Neill, but it is a fitting one. The sound is not pleasant, but it is the sound of releaseand that is the most satisfying sound of all in the plays of Eugene O’Neill.


In the midst of the festivities Larry sits alone and “stares oblivious to their racket”a counter-image, but no more than that. Larry’s responses at the end of the play are, as they have always been, cerebraland cerebral response can lead only to despair in The Iceman Cometh. But the party which goes on around him is as much a part of this scene as Larry’s ashen detachment. Larry’s nihilism cannot be denied, but even Larry acknowledges, by his continuing existence and his abiding loyalty to his “misbegotten” cohorts, that there will be a morning after and that he will have duties to perform. Unlike Parritt, Larry does not go.13




1.  The strong affinity between lbsen’s play and O’Neill’s was first discussed in Sverre Arestad, “The Iceman Cometh and the Wild Duck,” Scandinavian Studies 20 (February 1948): 2-fl, and has been observed by numerous others since. For other parallels between Ibsen and O’Neill’s late plays, see Egil Tornqvist, Ibsen and O’Neill,” Scandinavian Studies 37 (1965): 211-35.


2.  This response was typically expressed by the screenwriter Dudley Nichols, who discussed the play with O’Neill in the early 1940s. In spite of its focus on death, Nichols did not feel the play was pessimistic, or even gloomy. Like others, of course, Nichols accepted the inevitability of the life-lie. See the Gelbs, O’Neill, pp. 831-32. Floyd suggests that the explicit theme of an early version of the play is that close friendship and human warmth are the sole means of human survival. See Eugene O’Neill at Work, p. 268.


3.  Eric Bentley attacks what he considers the intellectual limitations of The Iceman Cometh in ‘Trying to Like O’Neill,” Kenyon Review 14 (July 1952): 47692. He is effectively answered, I think, in Robert Brustein, The Theatre of Revolt (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962), pp. 33948.


4.  Sheaffer (Son and Artist, p. 494) convincingly demonstrates that Charles E. Chapina “prominent newspaper executive” who in 1918 shot his wife (while she slept) out of love and concern for her welfareis a model for Hickey. Similarly, Sheaffer and others have identified O’Neill’s close friend of the teens Terry Carlin as a model for Larry Slade. (See Sheaffer, Son and Artist, pp. 62, 428; Alexander, The Tempering of Eugene O’Neill, p. 211; and Carpenter, Eugene O’Neill, p. 153.) Similarly, too, other real-life models for the figures who appear or are referred to in Iceman have been identified: Hippolyte Havel for Hugo Kalmar (Doris Alexander, “Hugo of the iceman Cometh: Realism and O’Neill,” American Quarterly 5 (Winter 19531: 357-66; Emma Goldman for Rosa Parritt (Winifred L. Frazer, E.G. and E.G.O.: Emma Goldman and The Iceman Cometh (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 19741); James Findlater Byth, O’Neill’s alcoholic press agent, for Jimmy ‘Tomorrow” (Sheaffer, Son and Artist, pp. 490-91); and a composite of the big-time Tam-many politicians of the early twentieth century for Willie Oban’s father (Raleigh, The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, p. 67). Having no reason to quarrel with any of these identifications, I only observe that the persons of O’Neill’s immediate family may be seen beneath the real-life models in almost every case. Alexander (The Tempering, p. 211) and Carpenter (Eugene O’Neill, pp. 157-58) acknowledge this as far as O’Neill himself and Larry Slade are concerned, while Sheaffer sees parallels between O’Neill and both Hickey and Parritt (Son and Artist, p. 499).


5.  Robert J. Andreach identifies the real remembered women in the play as varying manifestations of the Virgin Mary, which considering O’Neill’s ambivalence toward the church is a reasonable corollary to their identification with his mother. See “O’Neill’s Women in The Iceman Cometh,” in Eugene O’Neill: A Collection of Criticism, edited by Ernest G. Griffin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), pp. 103-13. The Holy Mother could always be equated with the real mother whenever O’Neill was in the throes of his guilt. When Andreach goes on, through biblical parallels, also to equate the whores in the play with the Virgin Mary I suspect he goes too far. They are not, after all, virginal whores like Josie Hogan, who may well be associated with the Blessed Virgin. Nor do the whores resemble Josie, as do other possible Blessed Virgin counterparts—Cybel, for example.


6.  For Rosa’s probable historical model, see Frazer reference in note 4 above.


7.  Engel, in Haunted Heroes, without the knowledge of O’Neill’s life which was to come later, seems to recognize a sense of unrevealed information about Larry throughout he play, and of exorcism, in his responses late in the play. Says Engel:

Larry’s bitterness is intensified as the play progresses, and the disparity between that emotion and the facts which O’Neill gave to account for it is widened. Larry continues to be a mysterious figure even after we supplement the inadequate facts with inferences. Never completely divulged, the content of his pipe dreams is insufficient motive and cue to his acrimonious expressions of self-loathing, misanthropy, nihilism. Larry is increasingly distressed as certain other characters in the play try to disinter his “dead and buried” dreams. . . . In one instance were it not for the author’s interpolation the significance of a remark would go unnoticed. For when, near the end of the play, Larry, moved by horrified pity mumbles, “God rest his soul in peace, O’Neill informed the reader of the play that a long-forgotten faith (has returned to Larry for a moment... (sic) Having called attention to the phenomenon, O’Neill never again referred to it. What spiritual trauma was responsible for the disaffection remains hidden (p. 285).

8.  Similarities between Iceman and Waiting for Godot were noted by several critics in reviews of the 1956 revival of Iceman by Jose Quintero. See reviews by Richard Watts, Jr. and Thos. R. Dash as summarized in Jordan Y. Miller, Eugene O’Neill and the American Critic (Hamden, Connecticut: The Shoe String Press, Anchor Books, 1973), p. 352.


9.  William R. Brashear deals well with Larry’s immense compassion, in ‘The Wisdom of Silenus in O’Neill’s Iceman,” American Literature 36 (1964): 180-88. See also Brashear’s remarks on this play and Long Day’s Journey in O’Neill and Shaw: The Play as Will and Idea,” Criticism 8 (1966): 155-69.


10.  See Martin Buber, “What Is To Be Done,” in Men of Dialogue, ed. E. E. William Rollins (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969). Buber defines the rot in human relationships as that which makes “meaning degenerate into convention, respect into mistrust, modesty in communicating into stingy taciturnity” (p. 6).


11.  Joe’s last name obviously calls to mind Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown. By using the name, O’Neill seems to be linking Joe not only to black America but to America’s racial minorities generally.


12.  Chabrowe Ritual and Pathos, pp. 73-99, sees the entire play as a Dionysian celebration of life. He focuses on repeated rituals of singing and dancing in the play, including its cacophonous finale. The songs at the close of the play themselves do not “constitute a celebratory ritual,” says Chabrowe, but “embedded as they are in a structure of dialogue with a pattern of repetition, they contribute to an overall rhythmic effect which does make for celebratory ritual” (p. 95).


13.  Eric Bentley clearly recognizes the kind of opposition in emotional attitudes that I label the "language of kinship” in this play. See “Eugene O’Neill,” in Theatre of War (New York: The Viking Press, 1972), pp. 64-92, especially pp. 87-92. But Bentley feels, as I do not, that the negation overwhelmingly outweighs the affirmation. Similarly, Winifred L. Frazer sees the many expressions of love in the play as finally having to do not with life but with death. See Love as Death in The Iceman Cometh (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1967); and “King Lear and Hickey: Bridegroom and Iceman,” Modern Drama 15 (December 1972): 267-78. As love and hate are one to Frazer, so love and death “result in the same thing” (Love as Death, p. 35). 


Other critics, however, sense varying degrees and types of tragic affirmation inherent in the alternations of feeling in the play. Brashear finds in Larry’s compassionate side an “affirmation of human value in spite of the apparent meaninglessness of life (‘The Wisdom of Silenus,” p.186). Tom F. Driver—in “On the Late Plays of Eugene O’Neill,” Tulane Drama Review 3 (December 1958): 8-20—feels that O’Neill is strongest “wherever we care to look at man coming to terms with himself in a world of total darkness,” but accepts Engel’s idea that death is philosophically central to the play. Carpenter finds that “Iceman gives highest expression to O’Neill’s lifelong belief that emotion is more important than action ...“(p. 157). And Henry Alonzo Myers, in Tragedy: A View of Life (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1956), says that O’Neill “seems to identify ambivalence with the tragic predicament of modern man, who is simultaneously attracted toward and repelled from objects, persons, and even life itself; (sic) Shakespeare identifies the tragic predicament of man in all times and places with equivalence, with the two-sided nature of human feeling whereby man, in accordance with his capacity for feeling . . . is fated to enjoy and suffer in equal measures. O’Neill may be said to have shown, perhaps better than any other modern dramatist, the sickness of an age and an aspect of tragedy particularly noticeable in our time. The Iceman Cometh contains O’Neill’s most explicit identification of ambivalence with the tragic predicament of modern man” (pp. 99-100). See also Tiusanen, O’Neill’s Scenic Images, pp. 264-84.


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