The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O'Neill
This sad saga chronicles a group of drunks who meet up at a local saloon. They are full of big dreams for the future, but anyone who knows them knows that they are all talk and no action. Each man has glossed over the story of his life in his own mind, leaving out the bad bits and chalk any failures up to someone else’s fault or a tragedy that befell him.
The patrons look up to a salesman named Hickman ("Hickey") who stops in when he can. During the first half of the play everyone gathers at the saloon for a birthday party and just waits for Hickey to arrive. When he finally gets there something is different about him and immediately everyone is concerned. He has lost his happy-go-lucky attitude. Hickey forces each of the individuals to reevaluate their lives and ask themselves whether they are truly trying to improve it.
The owner of the saloon, Harry Hope, watches the drama unfolds in his establishment. He is concerned by the direction in which Hickey’s “ideas” are steering everyone. In this world people embrace only the possibility of a better life, they never intend to take the steps that would actually lead to one, but it's that hope that keeps them going.
It’s hard to explain why this was such a powerful story to me. I think part of it is the context in which it was written. It was published in 1940, and written during the Great Depression, a time of disillusionment in America. It captures that feeling of hopelessness in such a palpable way. I could see each of the characters thinking about their “one day” plans and truly believing that those dreams were attainable.
BOTTOM LINE: This play paints a beautiful picture of the crumbling American dream. It asks the question, do people really want to reach their goals or is the fact that they have those dreams enough for them? There’s something to be said for having a distant hope, especially for those living such desperate lives.
"I know you become such a coward that you'll grab at any lousy excuse to get out of killing your pipe dreams. And yet, as I've told you over and over, it's exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you've got to kill them like I did."