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The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O'Neill

Act IV: Part one

Act III: Part two

Act IV: Part two

Summary

Act IV begins half past one the next morning in the saloon. The group has returned and sit like wax figures mechanically performing the gestures of getting drunk and benumbing themselves to the world. Rocky shakes a sleeping Joe to get him into the backroom. Chuck enters; evidently he has been brawling. Both men resolve to quit their jobs, each saying that they have been saps to work with whores in their stables. Chuck and Cora's marriage is off and Hickey was right in calling it a pipe dream, even if it was fun to entertain. Rocky reports on the residents: Jimmy was found weeping on the dock, too frightened to jump. Joe came in threatening to shoot Hickey and he borrowed a gun for a hold-up, but did not have the guts to follow through.

Rocky then moves over to Parritt, who jeers that Larry is still pretending to ignore him. He implores Larry to judge him anew, and Larry damns him for trying to make him his executioner. "Who cares?" Rocky remarks apathetically, and the crowd mumbles in agreement. He then attempts to recruit Larry and Parritt into pimping. Larry remarks sardonically that Hickey's peace has apparently driven him to make everyone into a pimp like him. Offering an afterthought, Rocky muses that he hopes Hickey does not return. Larry is certain he will, since he needs to convince himself of his peace now. Hickey appears at the doorway and denounces Larry angrily. The crowd shrinks away. Mechanically Hope complains, as he does throughout the scene, that Hickey has done something with the booze and no one can get drunk.

Hickey begs his friends not to persist in their depression if they are trying to spite him. They have killed their tomorrows and should rejoice as he does. He was living in hell himself until he found a way to free Evelyn from his rotten self and her pipe dream of his possible reformation. If he had killed himself, she would have died of a broken heart. He says that he had to murder her. Larry futilely attempts to silence him. Parritt tells Larry to shut up, saying that Hickey wants to go to the electric chair as much as he himself does. Repulsed, Hickey declares he has nothing in common with Parritt, and love was in his heart, not hate. He begins his story anew, but now Hope silences him. The most lifeless among them, Jimmy muses vacantly that his nonsense about tomorrow was a stupid lie, just like his blaming his drunkenness on his wife's adultery. He drank long before her and preferred the bar to their bed. Two policemen, Moran and Lieb enter from the rear. Hickey has called to turn himself in. Rocky directs them to the party, promising that Hickey's confession is imminent.

Analysis

Act IV shows the characters wide-awake. This waking reality is a new kind of death. As the stage notes indicate, the demystification of their pipe dreams and destruction of their relations of sociability have turned them into living dolls, automatons engaged in the mechanical gestures of benumbing themselves to the world. They no longer joke with, deride, or humiliate each other. Hickey's gospel has reduced them to apathetic refrains of "who cares?" which they deliver with nagging, exasperated stupidity. Harry Hope leads this monotonous chant, periodically stirring to silence Hickey and complain about the booze. Again, note how his slump before Hugo in the act previous has prefigured Hope's transformation into a Hugo-like figure.

Before this crowd of corpses, Hickey's own pipe dream begins to unravel. Again, this pipe dream would allow him to evade his guilty conscience by casting his wife's murder as a shared salvation from their pipe dreams. As Larry predicts, Hickey must desperately tell the story of Evelyn's salvation and his concomitant conversion experience to convince itself of its reality. Its feeble logic reveals itself: he had to kill her, as his own death would have done so more cruelly. As noted earlier, Hickey becomes defensive as his pipe dream becomes increasingly less tenable. Suddenly he and Parritt have nothing in common; whereas Parritt hates mother, he only has love for his wife. As prefigured in the act previous, both the play's guilt-stricken criminals, that is, Hickey and Parritt, are driving themselves toward their own judgment. Thus Hickey's extended narrative of Evelyn's murder will serve as a confession to the two figures of the law he has invited on scene. In the case of Parritt, it becomes increasingly clear that the help he demands from his father figure is punishment for this crime.

A pause of sorts, Jimmy's tale of his marriage serves as a brief, encapsulated counterpart to the stories of Parritt and Hickey. Already it has become clear how O'Neill's choral vocal arrangements are interested in the possible echoes between his characters' voices, echoes between voices that differ in terms of dialect, cadence, diction, and accent. The similarities between Jimmy and Hickey's, and even Hope's, stories are clear. The figure of James Cameron, in many senses a double for the young O'Neill himself, is practically identical to the central figure of O'Neill's Tomorrow. Like Cameron, Anderson awaits an endlessly deferred return to better days through the assistance of his friends, having similarly worked as a journalist correspondent in South Africa. Upon the announcement of a new newspaper job, however, he too discovers that he can no longer write and returns, dejected, to his saloon. Disabused of the pipe dream that kept him alive, he throws himself from the window of his rented room soon thereafter. Such doubling between the various characters both within The Iceman Cometh and across O'Neill's life and oeuvre recalls the structure of the chorus with the pipe dream serving as the chorus' leitmotif. Indeed, despite the appearance of many voices, of a certain "polyvocality," in O'Neill's dialogues, they occasionally reveal themselves to be quite monologic in nature. As we have noted, the dialogue of Iceman in particular is haunted, even obsessed by the story of pipe dream and the death that follows upon its demystification, circulating it from dialect to dialect, character to character, and mouth to mouth.

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