The Iceman Cometh (1973)
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by John Frankenheimer
You are not alone if you’ve felt increasing anxiety over world events in the last few years. Additionally, this is not the first time in human history that societal shifts have led people to become fixated on watching it unfold, standing on the sidelines, unsure of what to do. Eugene O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh between June and November 1939 while living in Danville, California. During this time, the Nazis invaded Poland, the Great Depression ravaged American workers’ lives, and Southeast Asia became fertile ground for the next salvo of the coming world war. O’Neill, in a letter to his daughter Oona said about this period, “The war news has affected my ability to concentrate on my job. With so much tragic drama happening in the world, it is hard to take theater seriously.” O’Neill had an understanding that he’d written something personal with The Iceman Cometh but also touched on universal anxieties of the era. He delayed production of the play until World War II ended because the playwright understood he had written something that spoke to people living in the wake of devastation.
Harry’s Hope is a saloon & rooming house in Greenwich Village where a group of patrons gathers. They are all burnouts of one degree or another: anarchists, military veterans, prostitutes, and just your run-of-the-mill alcoholics. Life means nothing anymore to these people, and they drown themselves in the drink, so the days rush by in a blur. However, they have one thing they look forward to, the annual visit from Hickey (Lee Marvin), a traveling salesman who always has a bunch of new jokes and manages to pep them up just a bit.
Among the patrons, you have The Captain and The General, soldiers from either side of the Boer War who now seem to be a (romantic?) couple that spends their days bickering back and forth. Pat is a former police lieutenant who was kicked off the force after getting caught committing crimes. Willie is a lawyer whose life has fallen apart. Joe Mott, the only Black patron, used to run a casino and is sure he’ll get it going again one day. Rocky is the night bartender moonlighting as a pimp to three sex workers. The day bartender Chuck is set to marry one of the women. Harry Hope (Frederic March), the tavern owner, hasn’t left the joint since his wife died twenty years ago. Finally, Larry (Robert Ryan) and Hugo are former anarchists who became disillusioned.
Before Hickey shows up, Don (Jeff Bridges) stays with Larry. Don’s mother is a former lover of Larry’s, and the old man was always a father figure to Don. However, he comes with bad news, telling Larry his mother was rounded up by the cops after someone informed them about her anarchist group’s activities. Don is carrying a lot of guilt with him; why might that be? For the first third of the play, we meet these characters, giving them space to talk and tell us what they are about. Larry spends a lot of time talking about the delusion of pipe dreams he used to have, and these drunkards still nurse every night. He’s become jaded and misanthropic. His once hopeful anarchist youth has morphed into bitter, resentful old age.
Word of Hickey comes from Cora, one of the prostitutes who says she just saw him around the corner, but he’s different somehow; she can’t quite articulate it. Rocky rushes out and brings Hickey in as the mood has gotten too morose. Everyone assumes Hickey is playing a joke on them by showing up late and refusing a drink. Hickey states that he has “finally had the guts to face myself and throw overboard the damned lying pipe dream that’s been making me miserable.” Hickey clearly isn’t asking them to give up the booze. Instead, he wants them to abandon their dreams. It’s those hopes that are holding them back from becoming something.
Over the next day, Hickey speaks with each patron, and many get angry with him and his bleak outlook. They decide to try and make a go at their dreams, but nothing turns out right. It’s during a party for Harry’s birthday that Hickey finally lets loose the truth about what caused him to have this epiphany. Hickey murdered his wife after coming to resent her for looking past his many abuses over the years. The play goes down some truly dark paths to explore our relationship with our hopes & dreams, as well as the guilt & anger we often develop towards people who show us love.
Eugene O’Neill knew these characters well, and they came from his experiences as a drunk in New York City in the 1910s. He knew them personally or heard about their stories from a distance. Despite the downtrodden nature of the patrons, there is a sense of family or at least shared misery. These people need each other, and in a way, they protect each other from the harsh reality that lies outside that door. The 20th century saw the explosion of an existential dread that is still rippling through history to our present day. It’s a horror that morphs & changes over the decades, but it is firmly rooted in a feeling of hopelessness. When someone manages to carve out a little speck of dream to cling to, what sort of people would be to try and take that away?
It may not seem like it on the surface, but there is a sense of wistful nostalgia here for O’Neill. It’s about remembering and being honest with yourself about those memories while not letting their pain drag you down. Hickey’s arrival presents a dangerous turn. He asks these people to face life without hope. Just accept the lot you have and give up on those hopes. You’re going to fail anyway, he tells them. O’Neill called this “hopeless hope,” which is a perfect name. The Iceman in the title comes from a joke Hickey tells but is also a metaphor for death, as the Iceman comes for everyone sooner or later.
In that space between birth & death, the time we call life, we ask people to endure the most devastating circumstances. Look at the States currently. Every day brings news of another unhinged person going on a shooting rampage or growing hate toward marginalized people. The people are giving up their pipe dreams and settling further into a shared sense of rancor toward life. The fact that this work came out of O’Neill’s anxieties listening to reports of the war in Europe makes sense. He saw himself at a crossroads in society. Like all artists attuned to humanity, O’Neill could foresee the psychic impact of this conflict, how it would sprawl beyond its presence in time and eat away at the collective spirit. He was entirely right. The play was his way of looking for how you keep living in the face of such hopelessness. Who was more hopeless than those drunks he used to hang with back on the East Coast? How did they keep going when life kept kicking their legs out from underneath them?
I end with this quote from O’Neill during an interview with his biographer Croswell Bowen as it shows that existential struggles of our age are nothing new; we have comrades that were wrestling with these ideas before we were even a thought in our parents’ minds:
“Of course, America is due for a retribution. There ought to be a page in the history books of the United States of America of all the unprovoked, criminal, unjust crimes committed and sanctioned by our government since the beginning of our history and before that, too. There is hardly one thing that our government has done that isn’t some treachery—against the Indians, against the people of the Northwest, against the small farmers. . . . This American Dream stuff gives me a pain. . . . Telling the world about our American Dream! I don’t know what they mean. If it exists, as we tell the whole world, why don’t we make it work in one small hamlet in the United States? If it’s the constitution they mean, ugh, then it’s a lot of words. If we taught history and told the truth, we’d teach school children that the United States has followed the same greedy rut as every other country. We would tell who’s guilty. The list of the guilty ones responsible will include some of our great national heroes. Their portraits should be taken out and burned. . . . [And] the big business leaders in this country! Why do we produce such stupendous, colossal egomaniacs? They go on doing the most monstrous things, always using the excuse that if we don’t the other person will. It’s impossible to satirize them, if you wanted to”
One thought on “Movie Review – The Iceman Cometh”
Great article on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. It offers a thoughtful exploration of universal anxieties that O’Neill addresses through complicated and engaging characters. The play’s message, that we need hope as much as we need survival, is still relevant today.
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