The Iceman Cometh

by: Eugene O'Neill

Act I: Part one

Summary Act I: Part one

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.

Analysis

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.