The play opens on an early summer morning in 1912 in the crowded back room of Harry Hope's saloon. The residents sleep slumped over their tables. Rocky, the night bartender, sneaks Larry Slade, a former Syndicalist- Anarchist, a drink of whiskey. Larry should make it fast; the boss has started that bull again about making the sleeping deadbeats pay up. Cynically Larry jests that he will happily pay tomorrow. After all, their group has a "touching credulity" concerning tomorrows. So what if their ships have long sunk: the "pipe dream" gives life to the "misbegotten lot."
On his part, Larry, the old "Foolosopher," claims to have buried his pipe dreams. Having left the Movement, he has retired to the "grandstand of philosophical detachment" to watch the carnage and await death. Amused with himself, he wakes Hugo, a one time Anarchist editor, to get his assent. The drunken foreigner abuses both men and drops back into his slumber. Rocky is a little sore about Hugo reference to his "slave-girls": though he may manage a few "tarts," he is certainly no pimp.
Glancing around the room, Rocky notes that only Hickey's imminent visit could keep the group up. Everyone is afraid of missing the booze and merriment. Rocky recalls one of Hickey's gags in which he came in crying over his wife's picture and announced that he had seen her in the sack with the Iceman.
Suddenly Willie blurts out from his dream: "It's a lie! Papa! Papa!" His father was arrested years ago for illegal dealings in the bucket industry. Joe Mott awakes. Thinking of how he might procure a free drink, he recalls the young man, Parritt, who rented a room in the saloon last night and flashed a bankroll. Parritt, a young Anarchist, has come to Larry for help upon the arrest of his cohorts for a bombing on the Coast. Years ago, Larry was his mother's lover.
Larry defensively dismisses his visit as insignificant. Joe admits to a preference for Socialists over Anarchists as the former always have to give him a cut. Parritt enters, and the others size him up. He defensively insists that he has no bankroll to offer them. Rocky and Joe settle into sleep.
Now alone with Larry, Parritt explains how he has come to hide out from the police. He recalls Larry from his childhood and always thought of him as a father. Larry is moved in spite of himself. Neither of them can believe a stool pigeon lurked in the Movement. Parritt found Larry through the letters his mother kept in their flat, a strange gesture for a woman so committed to her cause. He is convinced Larry left the Movement over their affair.
Larry protests that he left the Movement because he could never refuse to see all sides of a question. Parritt remarks mockingly that Mother always thought otherwise: she probably thought she was the Movement. He and Mother fought before her arrest. Apparently, though she always played the "free woman," she bawled him out for running around with prostitutes. Puzzled and repelled, Larry rebukes him. If Parritt expects anything of him, he has nothing to offer.
The Iceman Cometh begins with a set of O'Neill's characteristically extended, almost novelistic stage notes meticulously establishing character, setting, and historical context. Similar notes persist throughout the scene and especially to establish the subtle shift in a character's tone or affective state: Larry Slade's vacillations between pity, bitterness, and disgust are the prime example. Of particular importance in the notes here is their introduction of the characters.
In creating his cast, O'Neill turned to his memories of time spent in the saloons of lower New York-Jimmy the Priest's, The Golden Swan, nicknamed "The Hell-Hole," and of their inhabitants. These appear largely as caricatures or "types," ethnic, political, and otherwise, resulting in the play's diversity of voices. The word "type" occurs frequently in the stage directions. Hugo bears "a strong resemblance to the type of Anarchist as portrayed in newspaper cartoons"; Joe Mott's face is "mildly negroid in type"; and Piet Wetjoen is "A Dutch farmer type." Cecil Lewis "is as obviously English as Yorkshire pudding and just as obviously the former army officer." McGloin has "the occupation of policeman stamped all over him." Ed Mosher "looks like an enlarged, elderly, bald edition of the village fat boy." The same is true of the three women: Pearl and Margie are called "typical dollar streetwalkers." The exceptions to these types are Harry Hope, the host, and the three principal actors, Hickey, Slade and Parritt.
As Travis Bogard notes, while tableau formed may at times seem "externally static" as a result of these profusion of "types," it has a powerful "inner movement." The chorus is overwhelmingly unified in what Bogard, borrowing from Stanislavski, terms their "essential action" to foster himself in his pipe dream. Thus, despite the multiplicity of voices in the play, voices varied in accent, diction, and tone, its underlying logic is unitary. This unifying principle marks O'Neill's dramaturgy as conservative in nature.
A number of tropes crucial to the pipe dream appear here, tropes that will circulate throughout the dialogue. Larry, the play's "Foolsopher," largely introduces them. The first is that of the death house: Harry Hope's is alternately described as a "morgue" and "graveyard," littered with the bodies of its dreaming drunks. Second is that of the pipe dream as sunken ship. Larry describes the group's dream ships, imagined as filled with cancelled regrets, fulfilled promises, clean slates, and new leases, as being blown by the breath of whiskey and long looted and scuttled. Larry also introduces the all-important temporality of the pipe dream, which organizes itself around the promise of the tomorrow. With the tomorrow, the achievement of the pipe dream can remain endlessly deferred.
A number of critics have also identified the play's cast as a quasi-Greek chorus. Already the choral aspects of their intercourse are apparent. Note, for example, the repetition and circulation of various motifs among various voices, moments of counterpoint between multiple sets of characters, and the choreography of their passing into and violently out of sleep. Critics often identify the choral aspect of O'Neill's work as one of the more expressionistic elements at work in his largely realist frames. As we will see, O'Neill's vocal arrangements function to vary the leitmotif of the pipe dream through its differential repetitions or echoes across the cast's myriad voices. In echoing each other's pipe dreams, the characters will in turn come to double each other in their fantasies and underlying desires.