The Iceman Cometh

Monday, January 14, 2013

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."

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classics plays throughout the year, at least one each month. Here's my master post


Nikki Steele said...

This one sounds really fascinating. I'm finding that these same themes are really relevant today, not with the same severity as the Depression, but in the general disillusionment. Will have to put on my TBR list.

Jenners said...

I have just made a mental note to go see this if I ever have a chance. I had no idea what it was about but it sounds fabulous.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Nikki - I felt like the themes have really circled back around. With the whole country dealing with debt and lack of jobs, it's a similar time to the 1930s depression and those lost American dreams are so relevant again.

Jenners - It's so different to see the play live. I really hope I get the chance to see this one eventually.

Jeanne said...

My son just directed a local production of Ah, Wilderness and I was reminded of my Eugene O'Neill period. Sounds like I need to re-read this one as an adult.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - That's awesome! This was actually my first O'Neill, so I definitely need to read more of his work.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Reading this suddenly reminds me of The Great Gatsby.... :)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Fanda - It's been far too long since I read that. I think it's time for a re-read. It does have a similiar disillusioned vibe.