The Iceman Cometh

For the album by Jerry Butler, see The Ice Man Cometh (album).
The Iceman Cometh
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Date premiered 9 October 1946
Place premiered Martin Beck Theatre
New York City, New York
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting 1912, Harry Hope's Saloon in New York City

The Iceman Cometh is a play written by American playwright Eugene O'Neill[1] in 1939. First published in 1946,[1] 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 Harry Hope's downmarket Greenwich Village saloon and rooming house in 1912. The patrons, twelve men and three female prostitutes, are all dead-end alcoholics who spend every possible moment seeking oblivion in each other's company and trying to con or wheedle free drinks from Harry and the bartenders. They drift without purpose from day to day, coming fully to life only during the semi-annual visits of the salesman Theodore Hickman, known to them as Hickey. 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 and shows their bickering among themselves, showing just how drunk and delusional they are, all the while awaiting Hickey.

Joe Mott insists that he will soon re-open his casino. Cecil "The Captain" Lewis and 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 is hoping 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 a majority 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. Don Parritt is a former anarchist who shows up later in the play to talk to Larry about his mother (Larry's ex-girlfriend) and her apprehension due to her involvement in the anarchist movement.

Finally Hickey arrives, and his behavior throws the other characters into turmoil. He insists, with as much charisma as ever, that he sees life clearly now as never before because he is sober. Hickey wants the characters to cast away their delusions and embrace the hopelessness of their fates. 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 Hickey 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.

Eventually, they all 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 actually killed her. The police arrive, apparently called by Hickey himself, and Hickey justifies the murder in a dramatic monologue, saying that he did it out of love for her.

Hickey's 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 got tired of his wife's always forgiving him for his whore-mongering and began to feel guilty. He next recounts how he murdered her, supposedly to free her from the pain of his constant philandering. 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 for insanity during Hickey's trial despite Hickey's begging them to let him get the death sentence.

The others all 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 of the last of the lies about what he did and his motivation. However, despite directly witnessing the young man's fatal leap, Larry's eyes continue to remain closed to the reality of his situation ("by God, there's no hope! I'll never be a success...Life is too much for me!") and he is left sitting, claiming to long for a death that Parritt embraced before his very eyes while insisting it is he, Larry, who is the only one of the group to take death seriously. In spite of Parritt's having actually taken the suicidal initiative, Larry grimly maintains his pose and thereby lives.

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 contemporary joke about the "milkman"). In reality, as the plot reveals, he has murdered her. Confessing his crime, he must confront the consequences, to include the prospect of execution. Therefore, the "iceman" seems metaphorical for the ultimate dissolution of the characters' pipe dreams via death, perhaps the only way they can actually relinquish them due to their desperate dependence upon the vain hope associated with maintaining them.

Themes and political content

The central contention of the play is the human need for self-deceptions or “pipe dreams" in order to get 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. Larry, now a bitter man who claims to be waiting for death, is approached by his ex-girlfriend's son, Don, at the beginning of the play, and Don remains at the bar. Don admits that he informed the police of the illegal activities of his mother and other anarchists. He gives several reasons for this, but later admits that they are not the real ones. He first claims that he did it because of patriotism and then that he wanted the money, but finally admits he did it because he hated his mother, who was so obsessed with her own freedom that she became too self-centered and often either ignored or dominated him. The conversations between Don and Larry are among the most emotional in the play. Some of these conversations also often involve Hickey, whose actions somewhat parallel Don's.

Two other characters are veterans of the Second Boer War. One is British, and one is Afrikaans. 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.

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.[2][3]


When O'Neill was alive, he delayed its performance on Broadway for seven years, fearing American audiences would reject it. 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.

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.[4]

The young Marlon Brando was offered the part of Don Parritt in the original Broadway production, but famously turned it down.[5] 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".[5]

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).[6] The play received mixed reviews.[7]

1956: An Off-Broadway production staged after O'Neill's death featured Jason Robards as Hickey and was directed by José Quintero.[8] This production was an unqualified success and established the play as a great modern tragedy.[7]

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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[1][12]

2008: In an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Charlie writes a musical called "Nightman Cometh" which is a pun on Iceman Cometh

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 stand. It was a huge success for the Goodman Theater, whose management stated it was the most successful production in its history.[13] This production omitted the character of Pat McGloin.[14]

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 brought to the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music to begin a six-week engagement on February 5, 2015.[15]


1960: TV Production for Play of the Week on National Educational Television (NET) 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.[16]

1973: A film adaptation 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 role 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.[16]

Notable performers

Awards and nominations


Further reading

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Brantley, Ben (April 9, 1999). "'The Iceman Cometh': Bottoms Up to Illusions". The New York Times.
  2. Hopkins, V. C. (1949) "The Iceman Seen through The Lower Depths", College English 11: 81–87
  3. Muchnic, H. (1948) "Circe's Swine: Plays by Gorky and O'Neill", Comparative Literature 3: 119–128
  4. Mordden, Ethan (2007). All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959. NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312338988. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  5. 1 2 Kanfer, Stefan (2011). Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando. London: Faber. p. 59. ISBN 1400042895. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  6. "The Iceman Cometh". internet Broadway Database.
  7. 1 2 Hawley, William (1985). "THE ICEMAN COMETH AND THE CRITICS--1946, 1956, 1973". The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter, Winter 1985.
  8. "The Iceman Cometh". Internet Off-Broadway Database.
  9. "The Iceman Cometh". Internet Broadway Database.
  10. "The Iceman Cometh". Internet Broadway Database.
  11. Rich, Frank (October 3, 1990). "Dennehy, in 'Iceman Cometh,' Sells Salvation of the Damned". NewYork Times. Retrieved February 9, 2015.
  12. "The Iceman Cometh". Internet Broadway Database.
  13. "Nathan Lane Take on 'The Iceman Cometh' in Chicago". Retrieved July 22, 2011.
  14. "Pipe Dreams and Scythe Dreams: Begging Drinks in Hell's Anteroom". New York Times. Retrieved March 16, 2015.
  15. Prisco, Jaime (February 5, 2015). "Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy Star in Six-Week Engagement of 'The Iceman Cometh' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music". Classicalite. Retrieved February 5, 2015.
  16. 1 2 O'Neill, Eugene (1967). Cerf, Bennett, ed. Plays of Our Time. Random House. ISBN 0394406613.
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