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The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O'Neill

Act II: Part one

Act I: Part three

Act II: Part two

Summary

Act II begins in the back room of Harry Hope's toward midnight of the same day. The room has been prepared for the party; the washing of the walls has only heightened their leprous look. The tarts finish arranging the room; Chuck, Larry, and Rocky look on; and Hugo slumbers in his usual position. There is something forced about their cheerfulness, an undercurrent of irritation and apprehensiveness.

The tarts and their men bicker. Rocky pins their irritability on Hickey—indeed, everyone has taken to their rooms to flee his preaching. In defiance to Hickey's suggestion that their marriage would not work, Cora and Chuck have decided to marry tomorrow. Pearl, Margie, and Rocky mock their friends. Cora calls Pearl a whore, and they lunge at each other.

When Rocky restrains Pearl, she and Margie accuse him of considering them whores too. Cora adjusts her alliances and sides with the girls. Pearl and Margie continue: if they are whores, Rocky is certainly a pimp. Bewildered by their defiance, he slaps them both.

Larry bursts into a sardonic laugh. The group immediately turns on him: Hickey certainly has his number too. Larry ignores them and wakes Hugo: the revolution has come on account of Hickey, the great Nihilist. Hugo denounces him and sings the Carmagnole. He complains Hickey has been on him as well, accusing of truly wanting to tyrannize the masses. The group continues to harass Larry. Though wounded, he moves to mollify them and goes on to wonder why Hickey has kept his conversion experience from the group thus far. Cora speculates that his wife might have finally cheated on him.

At that moment, Joe enters defiantly and pours himself a drink. Hickey has been on him as well. When Rocky defends Hickey from Joe's criticism, Joe reacts violently. They agree with Hickey, as he is white. Incidentally, none of them should think that he is pretending to be what he is not or ashamed of what he is. Chuck and Joe almost brawl. The group quickly makes up anew.

Larry broodingly muses to himself that Hickey seems to be dying to tell them something, just like that damned Parritt. Suddenly Hickey makes another grand entrance, his arms filled with boxes of champagne. He teases Larry. Although he puzzles over his conversion, he will have to find peace like the others. He leads the rest of the preparations, alternately pleasing the group with the apparent return of his old self and wounding them with references to their pipe dreams.

When Larry defends his friends, Hickey declares that Larry's form of pity leaves a man worse off by sustaining dreams that can only consume him with guilt. Larry himself must recognize his pose as the "grandstand foolosopher" as his own pipe dream. Larry is an old man who fears life and fears death even more. Moreover, he is certain that Larry is the only one who can help Parritt. Parritt needs punishment so he can forgive himself. Hickey is certain a woman is involved somehow.

Analysis

As midnight approaches, it becomes clear that Hickey's work has unraveled the group's relations of sociability and fragile web of pipe dreams. Irritably they lash out at each other, the former co-conspirator in the pipe dream becoming a witness who laughs behind their back, a judge who can call them out on their illusions. The anxiety Hickey inspires lies precisely in his messianic call to judgment.

Hickey does not so much speak of judgment here as pity. He distinguishes between a pity that colludes with the pipe dreamer and condemns him to guilt when he fails to realize it and the other, his own, that would force the dreamer to confront himself apart from his fantasy of tomorrow. As he implies with regard to Parritt, this pity might require the dreamer's punishment. In some sense, Hickey's pity includes the notion of judgment as well.

The proximity of pity and punishment suggest how, in this play, pity is closely tied to aggressive intentions. The subtle patterns in the play's fabric make this dialectic, that of a fundamentally ambivalent, love/hate relationship with the other, abundantly clear. There is something nasty in the way the residents of Harry Hope's warmly collude with each other's pipe dreams, as if bent if keeping their closest friends at rock bottom with them. Similarly, as Larry continually point out, Hickey's pity for the dreamer—a pity which, again, explicitly includes that dreamer's punishment—is often quite cruel. The reversible relation between pity/aggression and love/hate will find lethal articulation in Hickey's murder of his wife. Hickey will justify this murder to himself as his wife's salvation. Only the final scene will reveal it as an act of revenge as well.

We will return later to the dreamer's ambivalence toward the beloved, and more specifically, the beloved woman. Note here how Hickey's fantasy of his wife's salvation is a crucial element of his own pipe dream. This inability to admit his ambivalence toward his wife, the mixture of love and hate impulses, recalls Hope's own relation to his sentimentally enshrined Bess. Arguably, one of the defining features of the pipe dream is an inability to tolerate one's ambivalence toward the beloved.

At the same time, along with this aggressiveness, there is something inexorably masochistic about Hickey's sales pitch. This masochism partially explains the messiah-like fascination he exerts over Larry and the other residents. Hickey has destroyed his dreams and, through his self-torments, is reborn. As Rocky observes, it is as if tonight is his birthday. More precisely, we sense, particularly in his identification with Parritt, that Hickey's demystification of his fantasies function as a sort of punishment or atonement, a delivering of himself up to judgment. As Larry notes, however, Hickey has yet to make the "great revelation" to both his friends and himself. Only in the final scene will we learn how Hickey's scripture of judgment, punishment, and salvation colludes in the denial of his own sense of guilt.

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