Book Review: The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh, by Eugene O’Neill

I have mixed feelings about this play.  On the one hand, it tells a very compelling story of the way in which alcoholism (and other addictions) helps people preserve the illusions that keep them from despair, even at significant cost to their ability to cope with life and its difficulties.  Likewise, the play has a great deal of interesting dialect and a compelling and complex group of characters, most of whom are barflies.  That said, some of the characterization is heavy-handed even for its period and the ending of the play is a bit disappointing, even if it serves as a bit of a surprise.  This isn’t an enjoyable play, nor is it the sort of play that I would write myself, but it certainly is a plausible demonstration that a group of drunk people is going to be united largely by its love of drink, and the absence of drink will likely make them more miserable in the absence of their own internal motivation to change, which is generally lacking.  At any rate, this is one of the playwright’s most notable plays, which means it gets revived fairly often as people often like a fresh look at a consistent problem and few would be able to get away with writing a play like this nowadays.

Like many plays of its time (and not so many now), this particular play is a four act play where the first act is much larger and the fourth act much smaller than the rest.  The play begins with a sense of anticipation as a lot of people are at Harry Hope’s bar waiting for the appearance of Hickey, a drunk who normally spends a lot of money treating others.  This sense of anticipation is crushed, though, when they find that he is not coming to drink himself, even if he is willing to treat others.  As later scenes happen at midnight (2) and early the next morning (3), the crowd grows increasingly surly without their alcohol, as some people find Hickey intolerable as someone not drinking himself even when he is being generous to others, and others find that without alcohol to lubricate their socializing that they are indeed hostile with each other for reasons of ethnicity and class.  Ultimately, a surprise realization allows the drunks, most of them anyway, to return to their cups and to view Hickey as being crazy, because only a crazy person would give up drinking after all.

Without a doubt, the author is someone who could be judged as an expert on drinking, and this particular play and its action requires having spent enough time around drunk people to realize the way that drinking serves as a way for people to escape the misery and despair of their lives and enjoy time spent with others.  Those of us who do not choose to lubricate ourselves in such a fashion would not think to write a play like this, nor would we necessarily find it an enjoyable sight, as the people here are not a good lot of people.  All of them have hopes and dreams, and their drinking allows them to pretend to hold to these dreams which would wither away in the cold light of reality that they are unwilling to face.  The play is about the human tendency for self-deception, but especially that of the addict, whose visions of themselves and whose real conditions seldom bear any close relationship to each other, unfortunately.  The uncharitable behavior of the drunks towards sober people is not something that is enjoyable to see as well, as it shows the less sociable and less friendly side of drinking towards those who do not partake in it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Iceman Cometh

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    This is my Grandpa’s favorite play. I watched it years ago with him, and some lines still stick with me. “The days grow hot, O Babylon…” “And I will be their god!” “You’re right, Hickey, this dump is a palace of pipe dreams!” “So you’re the big exception!” “It’s as good as done!” Plus, I have long identified with Larry’s rationale for why he never made a good political zealot.

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