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The Iceman Cometh Paperback – August 28, 2006
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Eugene O'Neill mined the tragedies of his own life for this depiction of a seedy, skid row saloon in 1912, peopled by society's failures: worn-out anarchists, failed con artists, drifters, whores, pimps, and informers. The pipe-dreaming drunks of Harry Hope's bar numb themselves with rotgut gin and make grandiose plans, while waiting for the annual appearance of the big-spending, fast-talking salesman, Hickey. But this year's visit fails to bring the expected good times, as a changed Hickey tries to rouse the barflies from their soothing stupor with a proselytizing message of salvation through self-knowledge.
Considered by many to be the Nobel Prize-winning playwright's finest work, The Iceman Cometh exposes the human need for illusion as an antidote to despair. The recent gripping, critically acclaimed Broadway production, starring Kevin Spacey, has highlighted anew the subversive genius of O'Neill's play. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
I remember the first time I watched this play. I believe it was Lee Marvin's portrayal of Hickey on a presentation of American Playhouse. I was held from first to last with that jaw-gaping awe that only the best dramatic works can inspire.
This is a rare work of the highest measure. It combines its existential angst with portrayals so uncluttered that we are spared the usual contortions of the literati. To be sure, there is symbolism and allusion enough: the entire play takes place in a bar called "Hope"; the setting is a meat packing district, literally the most dead end of dead ends; Hickey sells for a living, a profession that trades on hopes and fears. But these are just passing nods to the writer's craft. O'Neill includes them to keep the acolytes happy. The story depends on neither its setting nor its devices. It would work as well set in some professional clubs I know.
This play is concerned with the necessity of delusions. The various characters assembled around the bar waiting for Hickey's appearance are different flavours of delusion. It's like Dante's Inferno, with each character defining a different circle of hell. And when Hickey shows up, his effect is not much short of Satan's.
No one could write a play like this today. We have become a society so steeped in cool cynicism that we have lost our authenticity. Today, a theme like O'Neill's could only be invoked with a veiled smirk. Think of all the recent movies that have dealt with this thesis: they are either clichéd, cruel or contemptuous. Consider, for example, "American Beauty". Delusion is a topic we approach with patronizing disdain for fear of seeming earnest.
What is the line between delusion and hope? Is hope itself delusional? Perhaps all humans are fundamentally flawed and can only avoid despair by wrapping ourselves in a cloak of unreality and fantasy. Hope is a crutch; avoidance is therapy; unflinching reality leads only to death or to madness. Heavy stuff.
It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with O'Neill's thesis because this play wasn't written to advance a specific point of view; it was written to exorcise demons. All of O'Neill's great plays were, to varying degrees, products of his suffering. This one came closest to connecting his personal pain with universal aspects of the human condition. This theme scares us because we are all so very vulnerable to self-delusion, and O'Neill's unsparing scrutiny exposes our own fear and pain so candidly that we are forced into self-reflection and humility. This empathy is at the heart of all the great tragedies: we could be as foolish as Lear, as jealous as Othello, as ambitious as Faust, or as delusional as Hickey. Don't set yourself higher than these figures: there but for the grace of God go I.
The play, written in the 1940's, is set in 1912. All, or almost all, of the down and out residents at Harry Hope's had once lived fairly normal lives with jobs, families, and plans for the future.
Each man had a pipe dream, fulfillment of which, he thought, would give him a better life. Each man also had a reason why he could never fulfill his pipe dream.
The high point of their lives would come each year on the eve of Harry Hope's birthday when a salesman named Hickey would arrive to begin his periodic binge, For the duration of his stay, the drinks would flow, on Hickey, of course, and an atmosphere of celebration would fill Harry Hope's
His visit in the year of the play was different. A new Hickey showed up. This version of Hickey was a messianic salesman who had seen the light and was determined to sell his friends on the necessity of seeing the same light. He told them that he no longer needed the relief that booze had brought him in the past and that he was freed of his problem with pipe dreams.
His message was that they could do the same. One by one, he dismantled their pipe dreams and pressured them into trying to make their pipe dreams real. He succeeded in sowing seeds of misery in each of them, and each soon discovered that his pipe dream was all he had. Without his pipe dream he had nothing to live for.
They detected that Hickey might not really be as happy as he had let on and they challenged him to reveal how he had rid himself of his problem with pipe dreams so successfully. Hickey, in an almost manic mood, then described a life of drunkenness, dishonesty, and infidelity, including contracting venereal disease and transmitting it to his wife. She had always forgiven him for his infidelities and abuses because she had a pipe dream that he would reform.
In his guilt, knowing that he would never reform, he began to hate her pipe dream and her along with it. Because of his fear that she would eventually be unable to forgive him further, he destroyed her pipe dream by murdering her in her sleep.
While he was relating this, two detectives who had been searching for him had arrived and heard this confession. When he realized that they had heard, he immediately claimed that what he had just said was the result of insanity.
Everyone seized on the word insanity and, convinced themselves that Hickey was insane, rationalized going back to the pipe dreams that he had destroyed, and thus back to their harmonious existence. Each character then narrated a face-saving version of what had happened when he had attempted to fulfil his pipe dream and failed.
O'Neill has made a powerful case that each man must have his pipe dreams, and that if you destroy his pipe dreams you destroy him.
Although some plays seem to be meant to be seen but are not particularly readable, THE ICEMAN COMETH is one that succeeds on both levels. Read it. See it. It's powerful either way.