The Iceman Cometh (1939)
by Eugene O’Neill
The sensations one can have from smoking an opium pipe is one way to escape reality. There are many more strategies we can employ to distract ourselves from the harsh experience of P-B but they all involve the core behaviors of engaging in denial, lying and the keeping of secrets. They also often result in the painful emotional suffering called guilt, shame and regret. In Harry Hope’s saloon on Manhattan’s lower East Side in the summer of 1912 several refugees fleeing their false-self identities gather to commiserate and to seek mutual support in their pipedreams. The key lubricant in making their self-deception “go down smoothly” is not opium but alcohol.
Most of the characters in O’Neill’s play are described as being in their 50s or 60s. The harsh reality from which they are all trying to escape is the belief that they have “failed” in life. The pipe dream for each is that they will pick themselves up, get off the booze, and succeed “tomorrow.” In this dingy saloon there seems to be a time warp because “tomorrow” never comes. The guy who always comes, however, is the always generous (buying drinks for everyone), always a load of laughs, traveling salesman Hickey. He has never failed to show up on Harry Hope’s birthday for a party where everyone drinks till they pass out and tomorrow is effectively postponed.
Harry Hope, the proprietor threatens to turn over a new leaf by making the bums who live upstairs pay their rent and pay for their drinks. Larry Slade reveals the attitude of the others concerning the end of free-loading. “I’ll be glad to pay up—tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They’ve all a touching credulity concerning tomorrow. It’ll be a great day for them, tomorrow—the Feast of All Fools, with brass bands playing! Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!”
Larry Slade was once involved in the “Movement” to overthrow the oligarchs and establish justice in America. After Rocky the bartender teases him about being “‘De old anarchist wise guy dat knows all de answers!’ he replies: ‘Forget the anarchist part of it. I’m through with the Movement long since. I saw men didn’t want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they’d have to give up greed, and they’ll never pay that price for liberty. So I said to the world, God bless all here and may the best man win and die of gluttony! And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance.’”
Rocky is the night bartender and his guilt stems from acting as a pimp for streetwalkers Margie and Pearl and he protests loudly at that label and rationalizes his role in their lives. “I’m a bartender. Dem tarts, Margie and Poil, dey’re just a side line to pick up some extra dough. Strictly business, like dey was fighters and I was deir manager, see? I fix the cops fer dem so’s dey can hustle widout gettin’ pinched.”
The underlying fear in Harry’s saloon, as it is in the global village of today, is being faced with change and choice. Many of us don’t want to take responsibility for our choices nor acknowledge that we have the power to change. As Larry puts it: “No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s a great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about yesterdays and tomorrows.”
The motley crew often passed out in Hope’s saloon have one thing in common, their state of consciousness. They are all contained in the same fundamental narrative as defined by their beliefs, attitudes and values. That story determines for each the same basic false-self identity which in turn drives their self-destructive behavior as they strive to escape their existential suffering. What are their pipedreams?
Joe Mott, a Negro, ran a successful gambling house and only needs to find someone to stake him to a return to power and prosperity.
James Cameron (“Jimmy Tomorrow”) is waiting for business conditions to get better so when his former boss offers him his old position in the publicity department he can negotiate for a better salary.
Cecil Lewis (“The Captain”) is a former English army officer who is still fighting the Boer War with Piet Wetjoen.
Piet Wetjoen (“The General”) will soon leave the saloon with his former enemy. He will book passage for South Africa and Lewis will sail to England. Both paint rosy pictures of returning to the welcoming arms of friends and relatives.
Harry Hope is an ex-Tammany politician who dreams of trolling the neighborhood for votes and becoming a ward-healer.
Pat McGloin a former police lieutenant caught up in an investigation revealing widespread graft was fired from the force. He thinks that he has friends in high places that could pull strings to return him to his old beat.
Ed Mosher once worked for the circus in the ticket wagon and imagines that he will one day return to his friends and get his old job back.
Willie Oban, a Harvard and Law School grad, turned to the bottle to escape the pressure and control of an overbearing father.
Rocky the night bartender, and his “ladies of the pavement” live on the third floor. Margie and Pearl, as already noted are in Rocky’s “stable.”
Chuck, the day bartender has promised to marry Cora and they will both move to New Jersey and buy a farm. Rocky sees through this pipedream. “Jees, can you picture a good barkeep like Chuck diggin’ spuds? And imagine a whore hustlin’ de cows home!”
When Hickey finally shows up everyone is suspicious and ill-at-ease to learn that he is on the wagon. He tries to ease their anxiety by buying everyone drinks as he had always done. He can’t postpone the dreaded bad news, however, Hickey has changed. “If you knew how free and contented I feel now, I’m like a new man. And the cure for them [the end of their pipedreams] is so damned simple, once you have the nerve. Just the old dope of honesty is the best policy—honesty with yourself, I mean. Just stop lying about yourself about tomorrows.”
One by one Hickey convinces members of the Tomorrow Movement that they will leave the saloon the next day and with his help accomplish what they have long postponed. And thanks to his masterful salesmanship each hopeful, damaged and fragile false self, some with an unconvincing bravado, stroll through the saloon doors the following day and enter “tomorrow.” And as Hickey knew all along, one by one they return with the realization that their pipedreams were just that, self-delusion. The pseudo-reality of one version of P-B has replaced the “tomorrow” version of P-B. They can now return to the bottle and the saloon without the unfulfilled “torture” of longing for the tomorrow that never comes. That is Hickey’s theory at any rate.
“Oh, I know how you resent the way I have to show you up to yourself. I don’t blame you. I know from my own experience it’s (OK) bitter medicine, facing yourself in the mirror with the old false whiskers off. But you forget that, once you’re cured. You’ll be grateful to me when all at once you find you’re able to admit, without feeling ashamed, that all the grandstand foolosopher bunk and the waiting for the Big Sleep stuff is a pipedream. You’ll say to yourself, I’m just an old man who is scared of dying. So I’m keeping drunk and hanging on to life at any price, and what of it? Then you’ll know what real peace means, Larry, because you won’t be scared of either life or death anymore. You simply won’t give a damn! Any more than I do!”
There is something not quite right about Hickey’s insight into the workings of the neurotic functioning of the false-self identity. Looking more closely at his argument we might spot what that is. “Don’t you know you’re free to be yourselves, without having to feel remorse or guilt, or lie to yourselves, about reforming tomorrow now? You’re rid of it forever! You’ve killed it! You don’t have to care a damn about anything anymore! You’ve finally got the game licked, don’t you see that?”
Revealing his underestimation of the nature of the false self, Hickey’s promise to his erstwhile friends fails to convince them. They remain victims of their cravings and aversions and have only to wonder what was behind Hickey’s enigmatic behavior.
At this point in O’Neill’s play Hickey shocks the assembled crew of down-and-outers with how he personally has escaped the tyranny of his guilt, shame and regret, the haunting of his never-realized “tomorrows.” Evelyn, his angelic wife always forgave Hickey his drinking and philandering saying she had faith in his ability to reform his behavior. She was the always faithful and loving wife. Her response only served to intensify Hickey’s punishing guilt and he finally decided on a way out, he murdered Evelyn to spare her further suffering and seemed to welcome the electric chair as his final escape from the never-ending torment of his conscience.
Hickey’s killing his wife was ostensibly to save her from suffering but if that were true his compassion would have been expressed in his ceasing to engage in philandering and drinking. His act of mercy was to escape the suffering occasioned by his own guilt, shame and regret. Nor was he genuinely concerned for his fellow sufferers at Harry Hope’s saloon but only in creating an elaborate charade of compassion to rationalize his own failure. His false self had Hickey by the throat and controlled his every move and thought. In P-B we can all expect to experience the arrival of the iceman and sooner than we would like.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.