It is a basic law of storytelling that in order for an author to capture and maintain the reader’s interest, the author must create “realistic” characters, ones that are relatable, genuine, and plainly likeable. In the works of Eugene O’Neill, he takes that rule of realistic character development and proceeds to warp and twist it into a beautifully mangled paradigm of raw humanity and pessimism. He formulates characters that are utter derelicts to society, each one desperately hanging on to their hopeless dreams, each one hauntingly familiar to us.
O’Neill, one of the more well-known twentieth century American playwrights, borrows from the thinking of Nietzsche to strip away the fluff of human personality, exposing the basic, eternally somber inner workings of the human psyche. In his plays, such as The Ice Man Cometh, O’Neill consistently portrays a classic nihilistic theme that there is no God, one of the first in his field to toy with the idea. He preaches that there is no great reward in life, that even after years, perhaps even a lifetime of suffering, there is no pay off – the only thing you get is the relief that is death.
O’Neill’s The Ice Man Cometh, a play brought to Broadway which went on to celebrated success, is the story of, more or less, drunken slobs. The play’s epicenter is a bar/boarding house where a group of drunken derelicts seem to live. The hotel being named after the owner, Harry Hope, is laughably ironic, seeing as how most all of the bar flies have little or no hope left in there lives, yet they all dream of their tomorrows – paying their bills tomorrow, getting their job back tomorrow, making a fresh start tomorrow.
The plot revolves around the many bar attendees, but sixty year old Larry Slade plays the role of the bitter objective commentator, a person who has decidedly removed himself from the anarchist group called “The Movement” and the responsibilities of mainstream life. He and his companions eagerly await the arrival of their salesman friend Hickey, who comes down twice a year to waste all off his money on buying everyone drinks. However before Hickey arrives, Don Parrit, the son of an ex-lover of Larry’s, a woman who was also in the Movement, comes to Larry seeking help.
Apparently the Movement has nearly collapsed on account of someone selling the group out, resulting in the arrest of Parrit’s mother, Rosa. Shortly afterwards, Hickey arrives, which would usually put the men in good spirits. Hickey has changed though, and instead of being his usual enjoyable self, his is sullen and depressed, evangelically preaching to the others that they should renounce their “pipe dreams” as he has; that it is only when this is done can one truly obtain free will, a doctrine that Larry has already put into effect.
That night, they celebrate Harry’s birthday, but everyone has become irritable and quarrelsome, what with Hickey’s grouchiness and unwillingness to drink. The story reaches its climax when Hickey announces the death of his wife, and all the character become infuriated with Hickey for reminding them of their pathetic grasp on pipe dreams, prompting them all to finally get moving towards turning those pipe dreams into realities. However their dreams fall apart the second they start, and they all return to the bar in the end; however their shreds of hope have been dashed by their confrontations with reality, and they all resent Hickey.
Hickey then tells them that he actually killed his wife out of sheer hatred for constant forgiveness, and Parrit admits that he sold out his mother and the movement for similar reasons. Overcome with guilt, Parrit asks Larry to sentence his punishment, while Harry turns himself into the police, believing himself to be insane. Larry finally confronts his own fear of death by ordering Parrit’s suicide, in the end leaving Larry with his own desire for death.
The characters in The Ice Man Cometh are essentially sad and entirely pathetic; the dynamics that exist between them seem so raw and primitive that it borders on the unreal. Although containing a well-sized cast, the play mainly focuses on the interactions between Larry, Parrit and Hickey (Bogard 51). From the beginning of the play, we are introduced to Larry as a man removed from society, one who cares not to create any more bonds or relationships with the world and its inhabitants. Larry tells us this himself when he says: … So I said to the world, God bless all here, and may the best man win nd die of gluttony! And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance. (O’Neill: Plays of Our time 12)
Larry attempts to play the part of the coolly detached “Ubermensch” or “Overman” as proposed by Nietzsche. Nietzsche describes the Ubermensch as, “the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! (“Towards the Ubermensch”). What Nietzsche basically illustrates is a man who lives in reality, and does not expect anything more from it; he does not expect an afterlife, nor any reward for his life – he is a man living by his own morals, not buying into “slave morality”, the basic set of ethics impressed upon society (Wilcox 13). However it should be noted that Larry attempts to play this role; he successfully does so, up until Don Parrit enters his life and tugs at the few heartstrings Larry has left.
In the past, Larry was a father figure to Parrit, and now Parrit has come back trying to fill that paternal void in his life. After symbolically killing his mother by selling her out to the cops, Parrit yearns to find some semblance of a reliable parent. Although Larry clearly declares his new outlook on life, he is eventually convinced by Hickey to kill that pipe dream of his, his own fear of death, and takes responsibility for Parrit’s betrayal by sentencing him to his suicide. In his line “Go! Get the hell out of life, God damn you, before I choke it out of you!
Go up-! ” Larry is in theory sucked back into the real world by acknowledging that bond he shares with Parrit (O’Neill : Plays of Our time 138). Hickey, like Larry, is another example of the influence Nietzsche had on O’Neill. When Hickey finally returns, he preaches to the rest of the men to give up their dreams, and it is only then can one be totally free. This sudden quest to destroy the American dream is similar to Nietzsche’s rejection of the Judeo-Christian faith and it’s ideals of redemption (Orr 91).
By refusing the notion of an afterlife, one is truly free in that you realize your actions have no real consequence. John Orr goes as far as to describe Hickey as both a Christ and an Antichrist figure to the barflies. His preaching offers no one salvation because they all end up back at the bar, mentally worse off than before, symbolically dead, but he himself is crucified when he turns himself in to the police. Edmund Wilson said, “… [Eugene O’Neill], nearly always, with whatever crudeness, is expressing some real experience, some impact directly from life. ” (382).
And Wilson is right; many, if not all of O’Neill’s plays serve as a personal reflection of his thoughts and experiences in life. In cases like The Ice Man Cometh, Bogard suggests that the characters he writes about mimic the people he encountered while he spent his days in the saloons of New Orleans. As one notices in the early stage directions, the characters are described as specific “types” of people: Joe Mott being “mildly negroid in type; Piet Wetjoen “A Dutch farmer type”; and claiming McGloin has “the occupation of policeman stamped all over him” (51).
There is no doubt these characters were based on people or groups of certain people he has encountered in his life. The motif of alcoholism is obvious in The Ice Man Cometh, and of course, O’Neill had first hand experience with alcohol problems. It was his constant drinking that mollified the shock of learning of his mother’s morphine addiction, and what also got him thrown out of Princeton University. Even O’Neill’s nihilistic rejection of Christianity stems from his early childhood, when he insisted that he no longer attend Catholic school, but instead go to a secular boarding school.
Also, the suicide attempt of Jimmy Tomorrow and the successful suicide of Don Parrit are reflective of O’Neill’s own struggle with suicide back in 1912, ironically the same year The Ice Man Cometh takes place. With this knowledge of O’Neill’s troubled and mentally disturbed past, we are able to discern the basic themes of The Ice Man Cometh. However this in itself is no easy task, the play is multi-layered, dealing with themes that involve dreams of death, and the existence of God; however they all stem from a focal point which is the inner turmoil that exists within man.
In the beginning of the play, Larry describes Hope’s Hotel to Parrit, which coincidentally enough is a perfect metaphor for the mens’ lives: What is it? It’s the No Chance Saloon. The Bedrock Bar, The End of the Line Cafe, The Bottom of the Sea Rathskellar! Don’t you notice the beautiful calm in the atmosphere? That’s because it’s the last harbor. 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 the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows, as you’ll see for yourself if you’re here long. (O’Neill: Plays of Our Time 19). Larry repeats the idea that the hotel is “the end of the line”, that inside it’s walls there lies “no chance”, that it’s “the last harbor”. And so it is, the hotel symbolically becoming a sort of limbo, a hole in the wall place where the burnouts and ruined lives come to kill some time as they subconsciously wait for their deaths.
Even O’Neill describes the hotel in the first few lines of his stage directions as: “The back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope’s saloon on an early morning in summer, 1912. The right wall of the back room is a dirty black curtain which separates the bar…The back room is crammed with round tables and chairs placed so close together that it is a difficult squeeze to pass between them…The walls and ceiling once were white, but it was a long time ago, and they are now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described at dirty. (O’Neill: Plays of Our Time 7).
The hotel exists as a microcosm removed from society; the cramped back room full of dirty furniture and even dirtier people, representing the grim reality of death that lies in the dark recesses of the inhabitants minds. To end up at this bar is to acknowledge your death. However all the hotel’s inhabitants hold on to their pipe dreams, their last great memories of reality, all making empty promises to get back on their feet. However, they still sit, waiting for the relief of death.
Their relief is that they can finally end the suffering of day-to-day existence and leave this earth. Nietzsche pushes the notion that the only world that truly exists is the physical one. There remains no great dramatic ending, no glorious redemption, there is no higher being that any of us must answer to or any grand jury that is weighing our every action, “the ‘apparent’ world is the only one: the ‘true; world is mere added by a lie” (Wilcox 73). These men finally meet their death-bringer when salesman Theodore Hickman, to them known as Hickey, enters the hotel.
Yearly coming by for Harry Hope’s birthday, always a bringer of life and vitality (and especially alcohol), Larry and the others notice a gross change in Hickey. He begins to unnervingly preach the glory of killing your pipe dreams. Hickey convinces the drunkards to forget those great memories of reality, forget those promises to start anew, and accept the fact that they are physically and mentally paralyzed; forever stuck in the limbo of Harry Hope’s hotel until their death (Bogard 54).
Travis Bogard best explained it by saying: “Their dreams hold at least an illusion of life’s essence: movement in purposive action. Action, to be sure, will never be taken, but the dreams reveal a basic human truth: to foster life, man must preserve a minimal dream of movement…showing the dreamers that they will never take action…brings the peace of death. ”