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Hickey directs the final preparations for the party. At his request, Cora tries to bang out "The Sunshine of Paradise Alley" at the piano. Willie enters in a pitiable state and declines Cora's offer a drink. Hickey is loaning him the money to get his suit out of hock. Tomorrow he plans to visit the District Attorney, an old friend of his father's, and get himself a job.
Parritt enters furtively and sits beside Larry. Hickey has dragged him down to the party. He fears Hickey has something on him and makes another appeal for his help. After all, he says, he and Mother loved each other. His mother was always convinced Larry would return to the Movement—and her. He recalls their parting argument, in which Larry, unable to brook her being a "free woman," declared her a whore and stormed out. Parritt shudders at the memory of his mother's other lovers. Their home was effectively a "whorehouse."
Larry repulses Parritt anew. The latter begs him to let him confess what Larry must have already guessed, otherwise he will tell Hickey. Though Larry refuses to listen, he continues. Parritt admits to having progressively developed a patriotic love for his country: it was his duty to betray his cohorts. Larry tries to withdraw into himself, and asks what it matters, as he has retired from life. In any case, he does not believe Parritt at all.
Pearl and Margie enter from the bar, and instantly Parritt subsides. The noise of a scuffle is heard: Lewis and Wetjoen are fighting over some remark of Hickey's. They reconcile in deference to the occasion. McGloin and Mosher appear discussing the threat in Harry's imminent trek through the ward. Bess's relations are sure to denounce them. Regardless, they both resolve to return to their respective occupations on the morrow. When they mock each other's aspirations, another fight almost breaks out.
Hickey begins the festivities, and the crowd half-heartedly follows. A frightened and drunk Jimmy appears with Harry. Bristling and pugnacious, he rails at the crowd for raising such a ruckus. Immediately ashamed of himself, he moves to apologize and get into the celebration but cannot raise his spirits. Hickey makes a toast to the birthday boy. Its sincerity touches the crowd. Immediately, however, Hickey begins preaching anew, returning the guests to their defensive and apprehensive postures. Larry tauntingly asks about Hickey's supposed conversion experience, and asks whether his wife finally ended up with the iceman. The party vindictively seizes on this opportunity to revenge themselves, their chorus of taunts culminating in Willie's bawdy sailor song.
Hickey remains unmoved. With a simple, gentle frankness, he announces that his wife Evelyn is dead. What is more is that he feels no grief. Evelyn is finally free of her no-good, cheating drunk of a husband. She is finally at peace. The crowd stares at him in incredulous confusion.
The latter half of Act II consists almost entirely of Harry Hope's birthday party. Character placement at this feast assumes great significance. As indicated in the stage directions, the duos of secondary characters have split apart—for example, Wetjoen and Lewis, Cora and Chuck, Mosher and McGloin. The drinking partner or co-conspiring intimate has becomes the first liability, the most humiliating judge and witness. As for the main characters, Hickey and Hope face one another from opposite ends of the table while Larry and Parritt occupy the central positions facing the viewer. Thus the four men from a frame of sorts: their stories that structure this tightly organized play.
The seating arrangement pairs the main characters according to their relations with the beloved object. Larry and Parritt's beloved is Parritt's mother, and their conflict with her revolves around the figure of the whore. Both jealously malign her as a whore for her rejection of monogamy. Certainly one could easily postulate the frustration of an incestuous or Oedipal desire behind Parritt's resentment in particular: as classically noted by Freud, the Mother all-too- easily becomes the whore in the mind of the child when involved with his perceived rivals. It is appropriate then that in one version Parritt's pipe dream, a self-deception as to his hatred for his mother, he betrays his mother for a whore—that is, a "free woman" who might serve as her double.
As noted earlier, Hickey and Hope share a relation with the beloved defined by ambivalence. Hope's ambivalence becomes explicit here when Hickey boldly laughs off his sighs over Bess. Though we have yet to see Hickey's fully developed, its unveiling is certainly prefigured in his calm indifference to Evelyn's death. He feels no grief over his wife. Indeed, he feels free, no longer caring about whether or not he is good enough according to some pipe dream. As we will see, this sense of peace lies in his violent liberation from his wife's judgment. In the final scene he will finally reveal his murderous hatred for his wife, a hatred doubled in the figure of Parritt.
The seating arrangement also indicates evokes Hickey's messianic/prophetic function in the play as well. Cyrus Day identifies a number of correspondences between the Hope's birthday celebration and the scene of The Last Supper. These 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. Day reads this evocation of the Last Supper as evidence that Hickey is a sort of "Anti- Christ," foretelling an apocalypse to come.
Similarly does Larry identify 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. The vessel recalls the pipe dream when described in the play as a doomed ship or schooner. 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. In delivering the drunken guests to judgment, Hickey similarly foretells the kingdom's ruin. Note here the rhetoric of obviousness. The characters have to be blind not to read the writing on the wall, the obviously illusory nature of their pipe dreams.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Iceman Cometh!