The Iceman Cometh

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The Iceman Cometh
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Date premieredOctober 9, 1946
Place premiered Martin Beck Theatre
New York City
Original languageEnglish
Genre Tragedy [1] [2]
Setting1912, Harry Hope's Saloon in New York

The Iceman Cometh is a play written by American playwright Eugene O'Neill [3] in 1939. First published in 1946, [3] the play premiered on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 9, 1946, directed by Eddie Dowling, where it ran for 136 performances before closing on March 15, 1947.



Plot summary

The Iceman Cometh is set in New York in 1912 in Harry Hope's downmarket Greenwich Village saloon and rooming house. The patrons, twelve men and three prostitutes, are dead-end alcoholics who spend every possible moment seeking oblivion in one another's company and trying to con or wheedle free drinks from Harry and the bartenders. They drift purposelessly from day to day, coming fully alive only during the semi-annual visits of salesman Theodore "Hickey" Hickman. When Hickey finishes a tour of his business territory, which is apparently a wide expanse of the East Coast, he typically turns up at the saloon and starts the party. As the play opens, the regulars are expecting Hickey to arrive in time for Harry's birthday party. The first act introduces the various characters as they bicker among themselves, showing how drunk and delusional they are, all the while awaiting Hickey.

Joe Mott insists that he will soon re-open his casino. The English Cecil "The Captain" Lewis and South African Piet "The General" Wetjoen, who fought each other during the Boer War, are now good friends, and both insist that they'll soon return to their nations of origin. Harry Hope has not left the bar since his wife Bess's death 20 years ago. He promises that he'll walk around the block on his birthday, which is the next day. Pat McGloin says he hopes to be reinstated into the police force, but is waiting for the right moment. Ed Mosher prides himself on his ability to give incorrect change, but he kept too much of his illegitimate profits to himself and was fired; he says he will get his job back someday. Hugo Kalmar is drunk and passed out for most of the play; when he is conscious, he pesters the other patrons to buy him a drink. Chuck Morello says that he will marry Cora tomorrow. Larry Slade is a former syndicalist-anarchist who looks pityingly on the rest. Don Parritt is a former anarchist who shows up later in the play to talk about his mother (Larry's ex-girlfriend) to Larry; specifically her arrest due to her involvement in the anarchist movement.

When Hickey finally arrives, his behavior throws the characters into turmoil. With as much charisma as ever, he insists that he sees life clearly now as never before because he no longer drinks. Hickey wants the characters to cast away their delusions and accept that their heavy drinking and inaction mean that their hopes will never be fulfilled. He takes on this task with a near-maniacal fervor. How he goes about his mission, how the other characters respond, and their efforts to find out what has wrought this change in him, take over four hours to resolve. During and after Harry's birthday party, most seem to have been somewhat affected by Hickey's ramblings. Larry pretends to be unaffected, but when Don reveals he was the informant responsible for the arrest of his own mother (Larry's former girlfriend), Larry rages at him; Willie decides McGloin's appeal will be his first case, and Rocky admits he is a pimp.

Most of the men Hickey talked with do go out into the world—dressed up, hopeful of turning their lives around—but they fail to make any progress. Eventually, they return and are jolted by a sudden revelation. Hickey, who had earlier told the other characters first that his wife had died and then that she was murdered, admits that he is the one who killed her. The police arrive, apparently called by Hickey himself, to arrest Hickey. Hickey justifies the murder in a dramatic monologue, saying that he did it out of love for her. He relates that his father was a preacher in the backwoods of Indiana. Evidently he was both charismatic and persuasive, and it was his inheriting these traits which led Hickey to become a salesman. An angry kid trapped in a small town, Hickey had no use for anyone but his sweetheart, Evelyn. Evelyn's family forbade her to associate with Hickey, but she ignored them. After Hickey left to become a salesman, he promised he would marry Evelyn as soon as he was able. He became a successful salesman, then sent for her and the two were very happy until Hickey became increasingly guilty following his wife's constant forgiveness of his infidelities and drinking. He then recounts how he murdered her to free her from the pain of his persistent philandering and drinking because she loved him too much to live apart from him. But, in retelling the murder, he laughs and tells Evelyn, "Well, you know what you can do with that pipe dream now, don't you?" In realizing he said this, Hickey breaks down completely. He realizes that he went truly insane and that people need their empty dreams to keep existing. The others agree and decide to testify to his insanity during Hickey's trial despite Hickey's begging them to let him get the death sentence. He no longer wishes to live now that he has no illusions about life.

They return to their empty promises and pipe dreams except for Parritt, who runs to his room and jumps off the fire escape, unable to live with the knowledge of what he has done to his mother after discarding the last of his lies about his action and motivation for it. He first claims that he did it due to patriotism and then for money, but finally admits he did it because he hated his mother, who was so obsessed with her own freedom of action that she became self-centered and alternately ignored or dominated him. Despite witnessing the young man's fatal leap, and acknowledging the futility of his own situation ("by God, there's no hope! I'll never be a success...Life is too much for me!"), Larry fears death as much as life and is consequently left in limbo.

The title

The title (The Iceman Cometh) refers to a running gag between Hickey and the dead-enders about coming home after traveling his sales route to find his wife "rolling in the hay with the iceman" (akin to the more contemporary joke about the "milkman"). Ironically, he has murdered her due to his inability to accept his own infidelities. Confessing his crime, Hickey must confront the consequences, including the prospect of execution.

Themes and political content

The central contention of the play is the human need for self-deceptions or "pipe dreams" to carry on with life: to abandon them or to see them for the lies that they are is to risk death. It is in this context that the story concludes with Larry Slade calling himself “the only real convert to death Hickey made here” as a response to witnessing Parritt's suicidal leap from the roof. Having stopped lying to himself and come to terms with his real motivation behind informing on his mother and her West Coast anarchist coterie, Parritt can no longer live with himself and dies, while Slade continues lying to himself and thereby lives.

The play contains many allusions to political topics, particularly anarchism and socialism. Hugo, Larry and Don are former members of an anarchist movement. Two other characters are veterans of the Second Boer War. One is British, and one is an Afrikaner. They alternately defend and insult each other, and there are many allusions to events in South Africa. Both wish to return to their home countries, but their families do not want them there.

Emma Goldman, whom O'Neill admired, inspired the play's anarchist subplot. [4]

Joe is the only African American character, and makes several speeches about racial differences.

The Iceman Cometh is often compared to Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths , which may have been O'Neill's inspiration for his play. [5] [6]

O'Neill uses the phrase "The Big Sleep", but it is not known if this was an intentional or unintentional allusion to Raymond Chandler's use of it. In a letter to Hamish Hamilton dated May 18, 1950, Chandler wrote, "He used it [ The Big Sleep ], so far as one can judge from the context, as a matter of course, apparently in the belief that it was an accepted underworld expression. If so, I'd like to see whence it comes, because I invented the expression. It is quite possible that I re-invented it, but I never saw it in print before . . ."


When O'Neill was alive, he delayed its performance on Broadway for seven years, fearing American audiences would reject it.[ citation needed ] O'Neill was at the height of his fame when he relented in 1946, and the production was a commercial success, though it received mixed reviews.[ citation needed ]

James Barton, in his performance as Hickey, was reportedly not up to the massive emotional and physical demands of such a titanic part, and sometimes forgot his lines or wore out his voice. [7]

The young Marlon Brando was offered the part of Don Parritt in the original Broadway production, but famously turned it down. [8] Brando was able to read only a few pages of the script the producers gave him before falling asleep, and he later wrote a lengthy critique describing the work as "ineptly written and poorly constructed". [8]

Stage productions

1947: The original production was staged at the Martin Beck Theatre and opened on October 9, 1946, and closed on March 15, 1947, after 136 performances. It was directed by Eddie Dowling with production and lighting design by Robert Edmond Jones. The cast starred James Barton (Theodore "Hickey" Hickman), Jeanne Cagney (Margie), Leo Chalzel (Hugo Kalmar), Russell Collins (James "Jimmy Tomorrow" Cameron), Paul Crabtree (Don Parritt), Dudley Digges (Harry Hope), Ruth Gilbert (Pearl), Charles Hart (Lieb), Nicholas Joy (Cecil "The Captain" Lewis), Marcella Markham (Cora), Joe Marr (Chuck Morello), John Marriott (Joe Mott), E. G. Marshall (Willie Oban), Al McGranary (Pat McGloin), Tom Pedi (Rocky Pioggi), Carl Benton Reid (Larry Slade), Morton L. Stevens (Ed Mosher), Frank Tweddell (Piet "The General" Wetjoen), and Michael Wyler (Moran). [9] The play received mixed reviews. [10]

1956: An Off-Broadway production staged after O'Neill's death featured Jason Robards as Hickey and was directed by José Quintero. [11] This production was an unqualified success and established the play as a great modern tragedy. [10]

1973: A Broadway revival staged at the Circle in the Square Theatre ran from December 13, 1973, to February 16, 1974, with James Earl Jones as Hickey. [12]

1985: A Broadway revival staged at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre featured Jason Robards as Hickey with a cast that included Barnard Hughes as Harry Hope, Donald Moffat as Larry Slade, and again directed by José Quintero. It ran from September 29, 1985, to December 1, 1985. [13]

1990: Chicago's Goodman Theatre mounted a production directed by Robert Falls, starring Brian Dennehy as Hickey, Jerome Kilty as Hope and James Cromwell as Slade. [14]

1998: A London production featuring Kevin Spacey had a successful and critically acclaimed run through 1998 and 1999 at the Almeida Theatre and the Old Vic in London.

1999: A Broadway revival from the 1998 London production staged at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with Kevin Spacey as Hickey. It ran from April 8, 1999, to July 17, 1999. [3] [15]

2012: A revival at Chicago's Goodman Theatre featured Nathan Lane in the lead role of Hickey, Brian Dennehy this time as Larry Slade, and was directed by Robert Falls. It started its run at the Goodman Theatre in April 2012, slated for a six-week engagement. It was a huge success for the Goodman Theater, whose management stated it was the most successful production in its history. [16] This production omitted the character of Pat McGloin. [17]

2015: The Goodman Theatre production directed by Falls, starring Lane and Dennehy and the rest of the original cast with the creative team from Chicago was produced at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a six-week engagement starting on February 5, 2015, that featured Nathan Lane and John Douglas Thompson. For his performance, Thompson won an Obie Award. [18] [19]

2018: Denzel Washington starred as Hickey and Tammy Blanchard as Cora, in a Broadway revival directed by George C. Wolfe. The production ran for 14 weeks at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, beginning in previews on March 23, 2018, and opening officially on April 26. [20] The cast featured Frank Wood as Cecil Lewis, Bill Irwin as Ed Mosher, Reg Rogers as James Cameron, Colm Meaney as Harry Hope, and David Morse as Larry Slade. [21] The sets were by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Ann Roth, and lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. [22]


1960: TV Production for Play of the Week on the National Telefim Associates (NTA) syndication network, directed by Sidney Lumet. This production featured Jason Robards as Hickey, Tom Pedi from the original 1947 stage production as Rocky Pioggi, Sorrell Booke as Hugo Kalmar, and Robert Redford as Don Parritt. It is presented as two separate episodes of the series due to the length of the work with a total run time of 210 minutes. It is notable in view of TV standards of the time that while much dialog was omitted for time, that which was retained was not changed to soften its language. For example, at the end of Hickey's breakdown Robards says the words "that damned bitch" exactly as O'Neill had written. [23]

1973: A film adaptation as part of the American Film Theatre directed by John Frankenheimer. This production featured many well known actors including Lee Marvin as Hickey, Fredric March as Harry Hope, Robert Ryan as Larry Slade, Tom Pedi as Rocky Pioggi, Bradford Dillman as Willie Oban, Sorrell Booke as Hugo Kalmar, Martyn Green as Cecil Lewis, Moses Gunn as Joe Mott, George Voskovec as The General (Piet Wetjoen) and Jeff Bridges as Don Parritt. This film was the final film appearance of Fredric March, Robert Ryan and Martyn Green. The film run time is 239 minutes. Dialog was consistently trimmed for time as might be done for a stage production. The character of Ed Mosher was excised entirely. There are some variations in words or word order in ordinary speech that differ from the published text. The most important speeches are present and usually performed in full from the published text. Some segments of dialog are presented in an order that differs from the published text. [23]

The 2013 short video game The Entertainment features numerous references to The Iceman Cometh, including characters named after Evelyn Hickman, Larry Slade, Harry Hope, and Pearl. The game was released as an interval work as part of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer. [24]

2020: The Iceman Cometh was broadcast as a two-part Zoom Premiere on YouTube Live as a benefit for the Actors Fund. The cast featured Austin Pendleton as Cecil Lewis, Arthur French as Joe Mott, Paul Navarra as Hickey, Patricia Cregan as Pearl, Mike Roche as Larry Slade, Holly O'Brien as Cora, Marygrace Navarra was the stage manager. The event was produced by Caroline Grace Productions, in association with the 2020 Theatre Company. The event was a benefit for the Actors Fund during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. [25]

Notable performers

Awards and nominations

Original Broadway production

YearAward ceremonyCategoryNomineeResult
1947 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award Best American Play Eugene O'Neill Nominated

1973 Broadway revival

YearAward ceremonyCategoryNomineeResult
1974 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Costume Design Carrie F. RobbinsWon

1985 Broadway revival

YearAward ceremonyCategoryNomineeResult
1986 Tony Award Best Revival Nominated
Best Direction of a Play José Quintero Nominated
Best Scenic Design Ben EdwardsNominated
Best Lighting Design Thomas R. Skelton Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival Nominated
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play Donald Moffat Nominated
Outstanding Costume Design Jane Greenwood Nominated

1999 Broadway revival

YearAward ceremonyCategoryNomineeResult
1999 Tony Award Best Revival of a Play Nominated
Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play Kevin Spacey Nominated
Best Direction of a Play Howard Davies Nominated
Best Scenic Design Bob Crowley Nominated
Best Lighting Design Mark Henderson Nominated
Drama Desk Award Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play Won
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play Paul Giamatti Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Howard Davies Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Revival of a PlayWon
Outstanding Actor in a Play Kevin Spacey Won
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play Tim Pigott-Smith Nominated
Michael Emerson Nominated
Outstanding Director of a Play Howard Davies Won
Outstanding Set Design Bob Crowley Nominated
Outstanding Costume DesignNominated
Outstanding Lighting Design Mark Henderson Nominated
Drama League Award Distinguished Revival of a PlayNominated
Theatre World Award Clarke Peters Won

2018 Broadway revival

YearAward CeremonyCategoryNomineeResult
2018 Tony Award Best Revival of a Play Nominated
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play Denzel Washington Nominated
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play David Morse Nominated
Best Direction of a Play George C. Wolfe Nominated
Best Scenic Design Santo Loquasto Nominated
Best Costume Design of a Play Ann Roth Nominated
Best Lighting Design of a Play Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer Nominated
Best Sound Design of a Play Dan Moses Schreier Nominated
Drama League Award Outstanding Revival of a Broadway or Off-Broadway PlayNominated
Distinguished Performance Award Denzel Washington Nominated
Outer Critics Circle Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play David Morse Nominated
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play David Morse Nominated

See also

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Further reading