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The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O'Neill

Act I: Part three

Act I: Part two

Act II: Part one

Summary

Rocky turns on the lights and opens the bar. Margie and Pearl, Rocky "tarts" appear. Margie attempts to seduce a passed-out Parritt. The girls joke with Rocky and hand over the night's earnings. Rocky hardens when Pearl teases that he is their pimp. They quickly make up. Rocky is no pimp and they are certainly no whores.

They chat about their friends Cora, another "tart," and her pimp Chuck, who have long nursed a pipe dream about getting married and buying a farm. Pearl jokes that Cora does not even know which end of the cow has horns. The lovers appear. It quickly becomes apparent that Cora's professional history and Chuck's habit would be a point of contention in their marital life. Parritt remarks aside to Larry that if he had know whores would be about, he would not have come: he hates every woman who has ever lived. Cora tells how she rolled a sailor that evening. She and Chuck also saw Hickey earlier this evening. He seemed changed and mentioned something about saving the gang and bringing them peace. The group assures itself that Hickey has devised some new gag.

Hickey makes a grand entrance. Strangely enough, he is sober and wants to grab a quick snooze; for whatever reason, he walked to the bar this evening after bidding his wife farewell in Astoria. When the drinks come around, he only takes his chaser; Hickey has given up alcohol. He has finally found the guts to face himself and ditch the pipe dream that was making him miserable. He has come to offer the group the same happiness and freedom. The residents become defensive and eye him suspiciously.

Hickey exhorts Hope to take his walk finally, and pledges to help Jimmy get his old job back. When Larry cheers him sardonically, Hickey swears he will make an "honest man" out of the supposed grandstander too. Parritt sneers at the stung Larry in satisfaction. Hickey pauses before the stranger in their midst: he has the sense that they are somehow "members of the same lodge" and promises to help him as well. Parritt withdraws uneasily.

Yawning with growing drowsiness, Hickey continues to pontificate, trying to rouse the despondent crowd with his promises of "real peace." "Let yourself sink down to the bottom of the sea" he urges. "Rest in peace. There's no farther you have to go. Not a single damned hope or dream left to nag you." Abruptly he falls asleep in exhaustion.

The residents size him up defensively. Larry warns that anyone who takes Hickey up on his sales pitch should make sure his peace is not poison. The least impressed by Hickey's talk, Mosher recounts a comic anecdote about his old friend the snake oil doctor, who successfully identified sobriety as a leading cause of premature death and dreamed of filling the nation's cemeteries with his miracle cure. Eager to lighten the mood, the crowd receives Mosher's story with a great guffaw. It breaks Hickey's slumber, and he drowsily cheers the group on. The laughter stops abruptly.

Analysis

The centerpiece of conclusion of Act I is Hickey's visit. The scenes prior to his arrival also lay the groundwork main's characters' ambivalent relationship to women. Note the relevant motifs: the introduction of the whores, the emergence of the son's (Parritt's) resentment for a mother he implicitly accuses of whoring, the figure of the son who has been burnt by whores themselves, and the husband who takes quiet pleasure in the thought of his wife's misery. Certainly Hope's chuckle about Bess turning over in her grave is not lost on us. These motifs will circulate among the saloon's major players. Already Hickey prefigures this doubling in his intuition that he and Parritt belong to the same lodge.

Hickey then appears, playing savior to an unwilling flock. Once again, the dynamics of Hickey's arrival are largely guided by O'Neill's meticulous stage notes, which chart the subtle shifts in the group's affect as Hickey's intentions become clear.

Certainly the strangest aspect of Hickey's arrival is his sudden slump into sleep, a slump that makes it impossible for the group to return to its good- natured social intercourse. This slump, in which Hickey murmurs about the bliss of "real peace," evokes the motifs of death and sleep described above. Like the residents of Harry Hope's, Hickey crosses freely between sleep and consciousness. As we will see, his "sales pitch," that which would ostensibly demystify the group's pipe dreams, will reveal itself as a pipe dream of its own. Moreover, the call Hickey issues while falling asleep, "Rest in peace," also plays as a call to the grave. Thus Larry's warning that Hickey might be peddling poison. Certainly Mosher's snake oil doctor, though conjured to lift the group's spirit, is implicitly a double for this spiritual salesman as well. Again, the salvation Hickey promises will bring a kind of death, a demystification of the promise of future action upon which survival depends. As Hope complains, Hickey's gospel has placed him outside the community: Hickey has returned "Stone cold sober and dead to the world!" As Travis Bogard notes, Hickey closely parallels another of O'Neill's protagonists, Lazarus of Bethany, from his drama Lazarus Laughed. Here, a messianic figure appears preaching salvation to a world represented in microcosm by type characters. The recipients of the messiah's message prove resistant to it, and when it is forced upon them, prove incapable of adapting to it. In each, the messiah is set free to follow his own path to martyrdom by the murder of his wife. That path leads to the men's respective deaths by fire, whether at the stake and in the electric chair. Like Lazarus's message to rid men of fear and pain is that they should see life as illusory and relinquish the dreams that haunt them. Only then will they know the peace they instinctively seek. Like Lazarus, Hickey is a "messiah of death."

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