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The Iceman Cometh

Eugene O'Neill

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the significance of the celebration in the play?

Two celebrations occur in the course of the play. The first is Hope's birthday party in Act II, the occasion for Hickey's visit, and the second is the "second birthday party" that closes the play. One predicts the cast's ruin, and the other makes reparations. The first shows the characters as they begin to crumble under the weight of Hickey's gospel: each miserably pledges to act on their pipe dreams and almost come to blows with anyone who might deride their plans. Foreshadowing their imminent falls, this celebration takes on an ominously prophetic function. Cyrus Day argues that the party evokes the Last Supper. Key correspondences include the twelve disciples of Hickey, the three women, the presence of Parritt as a suicidal Judas figure, the wine drinking, and the midnight hour. For Day, Hickey becomes a sort of "Anti-Christ," foretelling an apocalypse to come.

Larry identifies the feast's prophetic function in jesting that he is the divine hand from the feast of Belshazzar. Here he refers to a story from the Book of Daniel (5: 1–6, 25–8). Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gives a banquet for his nobles, blasphemously serving wine in the sacred vessels his father Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. During the banquet, a divine hand appears and writes a prophecy on the wall a phrase only the prophet Daniel can decipher. It reads as follows: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting…" That very night Belshazzar is slain. Hickey's judgment similarly predicts ruin for the drunken guests.

The second party takes place after Hickey's arrest and declaration of insanity. It is a second birth of sorts, as the removal of Hickey enables the group to revive their pipe dreams. The group's collective ode to Babylon that closes the play evokes the Feast of Fools, as Larry dubs it, from before. Though Hickey has departed, the writing foretelling the group's doom grimly remains on the wall.

Early in the play Larry quotes from Heine's poem "Death and his Brother Sleep ('Morphine')." How might one begin to read this poem against the play?

Early in the play, Larry quotes Heine's "Death and his Brother Sleep ('Morphine')." He does so to indicate to Parritt that, compared with the joys of Sleep and Death, it is better to have never have been born at all. The poem, however, does not only speak to Larry's pose of cynical, philosophical detachment but to one of the play's central motifs as well. The poem opens by posing a "mirror likeness between those two shining, youthfully-fledged figures" of sleep and death. The play similarly begins with this likeness. The saloon of sleeping guests is continually described as a "morgue" and "graveyard." The pipe dreaming of its residents condemns them to a sort of living death.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss O'Neill use of dialect. Draw on two characters for comparison.

What is the significance of the policemen who appear in the final scene? Consider their effect of Hickey, Hope, and the residents of the saloon.

Discuss O'Neill's use of the anecdote. What role does the random, everyday story play in the bar?

Discuss O'Neill use of character placement. Compare the stage notes of two scenes in your answer.

Close read O'Neill's stage notes on setting at the very beginning of the play. How does it go about establishing the context of the action?

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