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The Iceman Cometh is a play written by American playwright Eugene O'Neill in 1939. First published in 1940 the play premiered on Broadwaymarker at the Martin Beck Theatre on 9 October 1946, directed by Eddie Dowling where it ran for 136 performances to close on 15 March 1947.


  • Barry Hope – proprietor of a saloon and rooming house
  • Ed Mosher – Hope's brother-in-law, former circus man
  • Pat McGloin – former police lieutenant
  • Willie Oban – a Harvard Law School alumnus
  • Joe Mott – a former proprietor of a Negro gambling house
  • General Piet Wetjoen – former leader of a Boer commando
  • Captain Cecil Lewis – former Captain of British infantry
  • James "Jimmy Tomorrow" Cameron – former Boer War correspondent
  • Hugo Kalmar – former editor of anarchist periodicals
  • Larry Slade – former Syndicalist-Anarchist
  • Rocky Pioggi – night bartender
  • Don Parritt - teenager, son of former Anarchist
  • Pearl – street walker
  • Margie – street walker
  • Cora – street walker
  • Chuck Morello – day bartender
  • Theodore "Hickey" Hick – a hardware salesman
  • Moran - police detective
  • Lieb - police detective

Plot summary

The Iceman Cometh is set in Barry Hope's decidedly downmarket Greenwich Villagemarker saloon and rooming house, in 1942. The patrons, who are all men except for three women who are prostitutes, are all dead-end alcoholics who spend every possible moment seeking oblivion in each others' company and trying to con or wheedle free drinks from Harry and the bartenders. They tend to focus much of their anticipation on the semi-regular visits of the salesman Theodore Hick, known to them as Hickey. When Hick finishes a tour of his business territory, which is apparently a wide expanse of the West Coast, he typically turns up at the saloon and starts the party. As the play opens, the regulars are expecting Hick to turn up soon and plan to throw Harry a surprise birthday party. The entire first act introduces the various characters and shows them bickering amongst each other, showing just how drunk and delusional they are, all the while waiting for the arrival of Hickey.

Joe Mott is the only African American member of the group and is the former owner of a black casino. He insists he will soon re-open the casino.

Cecil "The Captain" Lewis is a former infantryman of the British Army who fought with Piet "The General" Wetjoen, a Boer during the Boer War. The two are now good friends. The two insist they'll soon go back to their nations of origin.

Barry Hope is the proprietor of the bar and, though he is constantly saying otherwise, has a tendency to give out free drinks. He has not left the bar since his wife Bess's death 20 years ago. He promises that he'll take a walk around the block on his birthday, the next day.

Pat McGloin is a former police lieutenant who was convicted on criminal charges and kicked out of the force. He says he is hoping to appeal, but is waiting for the right moment.

Rocky Pioggi is the night bartender, but is paid little and makes his living mostly off of allowing Pearl and Margie stay at the bar in exchange for all the money they make. He despises being called a pimp.

Ed Mosher is Barry's brother-in-law, Bess's brother. He is a former circus box-office man and con-man who prides himself on his ability to give incorrect change. He kept too much of his illegitimate profits to himself and was fired, but says he will get his job back someday.

Hugo Kalmar is a former anarchist who often quotes the Old Testament. He is drunk and passed out for a majority of the play and is constantly asking the other patrons to buy him a drink.

James "Jimmy Tomorrow" Cameron is a former British newspaper correspondent. He is constantly procrastinating getting a job, hence his nickname.

Chuck Morello is the day bartender and Cora's boyfriend. He says that he will marry her tomorrow.

Pearl and Margie are two prostitutes who work for Rocky.

Cora is a third prostitute and is Chuck's girlfriend.

Finally Hick arrives and his behavior throws the other characters into turmoil. He insists, with as much charisma as ever, but now together with the zeal of a recent convert, that he sees life clearly now as never before, because he is sober. Hick wants the characters to cast away their delusions and embrace the hopelessness of their fates. He takes on this task with a near-maniacal fervor. How he goes about his mission, how the other characters respond, and their efforts to find out what has wrought this change in Hickey take over four hours to resolve.

During and after Barry's birthday party most seem to have been somewhat affected by Hickey's ramblings. Larry pretends to be unaffected but, when Don reveals he was the informant, Barry rages at him; Willie decides McGloin's appeal will be his first case and Rocky admits he is a pimp.

Eventually, they all return and are jolted by a sudden revelation. Hick, who had earlier told the other characters that his wife had died and that she was murdered, admits that he is the one who actually killed her. The police arrive, apparently called by Hick himself, and Hick justifies the murder in a dramatic monologue, saying that he did it out of love for her.

When Hick was a child his father made a living as an evangelist, which led Hickey to become a salesman. He met his wife, Evelyn, and Evelyn's family forbade her to associate with Hickey, which she ignored. After Hick left to become a salesman he promised he would marry Evelyn as soon as he was able. He became a successful salesman, then sent for her and the two were very happy until Hick got tired of his wife always forgiving him for his whore-mongering and began to feel guilty. He next recounts how he taunted her and, in realizing he said this, realizes that he went insane and that people need their empty dreams to keep them going. The others agree and decide to testify for insanity during Hick's trial despite Hickey begging them to let him get the death sentence.

The others all go back to their empty promises and pipe dreams except for Don. He runs up to his room with the intention of jumping off the fire escape. Barry grimaces and listens at the window with his eyes closed. Don jumps and Barry at first seems to be relieved.

Political content

The play contains many allusions to political topics, particularly anarchism and socialism. Hugo, Barry and Don are former members of an anarchist movement. Barry, who is now a bitter man who claims to be waiting for death, is approached by his ex-girlfriend’s son, Don, at the beginning of the play, and Don remains at the bar.Don admits that he informed the police of the illegal activities of his mother and other anarchists. He gives several reasons for this but later admits that they are not the real ones. He claims that he did it out of patriotism and then that he wanted the money, but finally admits that he did it because he hated his mother, who was so obsessed with her own freedom that she became too self-centered and often either ignored or dominated him. The conversations between Don and Larry are among the most emotional in the play. Some of these conversations also often involve Hickey, whose actions somewhat parallel Don’s.

Two other characters are veterans of the Second Boer War. One is British and one is Dutch. They alternately defend and insult each other, and there are many allusions to events in South Africa. Both wish to return to their home countries, but their families do not want them there.

There is also an African-American character named Joe, who gives several speeches about racial differences.


The play is certainly O'Neill's most ambitious work, and bears the impression of having been written from a perspective of profound despair. It expresses the playwright's disillusionment with the American ideals of success and aspiration, and suggests that much of human behavior is driven by bitterness, envy and revenge. Despite the emotional difficulty of this play which may have decreased its popularity, fans of the play believe that all the characters are so well explored, with measured doses of wry humor, that the best productions are compelling. The suspense of discovering the true meaning and intentions of Hickey's character usually maintains the audience's interest.

This massive undertaking is seldom staged. Even when O'Neill was alive, he delayed its performance on Broadway for seven years, fearing American audiences would reject it. O'Neill was at the height of his fame when he relented in 1946, and the production was a commercial success, though it received mixed reviews. The realistic, seedy language of some of its ne'er-do-well characters was a departure for O'Neill, who was known for writing plays with high-flown and melodramatic dialogue. This play tends to preserve O'Neill's typical passion and intensity while losing some of its aestheticism in the language, and risks a certain amount of redundancy as a result, so it is not surprising that some critics did not fully embrace it at first.

Another problem may have been the performance of James Barton as Hick. Barton was reportedly not up to the massive emotional and physical demands of such a titanic part, sometimes forgetting his lines or wearing out his voice. Interestingly, the young Marlon Brando was offered the part of Don Parritt in the original Broadway production, but famously turned it down. Brando later claimed to have read only a few pages of the script the producers gave him, and to have started an argument at the audition about the worth of the play and O'Neill's writing style – which ended with his rejecting the part, apparently in order just to seem consistent – rather than admit to his laziness.

The play was mounted again Off-Broadway in 1956, after O'Neill's death. This production, starring Jason Robards as Hick and directed by José Quintero, was massively acclaimed, and the play was accepted as a true masterpiece. Robards won multiple awards for his performance, and went on to distinguish himself throughout his life as the leading interpreter of O'Neill's great male roles. He was most widely known for his film roles but repeatedly devoted his most serious energies to theatrical roles, and especially to O'Neill.

Robards's energetic performance was repeated for a 1960 television production of Play of the Week for CBS. Director John Frankenheimer cast a more malevolent, coarse Lee Marvin in his 1973 film version that had a 239-minute running time . One actor appeared in both versions is Tom Pedi, as Rocky the bartender. Some reviews at the time were unfavourable to Marvin, as he was generally associated with tough guy roles. The 1973 film was also notable for being Frederick March's last screen role.

Comparisons to Gorky's 'The Lower Depths'

The Iceman Cometh is often compared to Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, from which it has been suggested to have been inspired .


Robards starred in a 1960 live television version of the play, and returned to it in a 1985 Broadwaymarker production again directed by Quintero and featuring a cast that included Barnard Hughes as Harry Hope and Donald Moffat as Larry Slade.

Other noteworthy actors to play the role of Hick include Lee Marvin, in a 1973 film adaptation directed by John Frankenheimer; James Earl Jones, in a 1973 revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre that was edited for length and criticized for the weakness of its supporting cast; and Kevin Spacey, who was lauded for his 1998-1999 stage rendition of the part on London's West End and then on Broadway. The play is now widely considered to have the dimensions of a true tragedy, whereas many of O'Neill's earlier works would be more accurately characterized as melodrama.

The 1973 film version featured many notable character actors besides Lee Marvin, including Fredric March as Harry, Robert Ryan as Larry, Jeff Bridges as Don, George Voskovec as General Wetjoen and Moses Gunn as Joe.

Awards and nominations

  • 1956 Vernon Rice Award for Best Production (Drama Desk Awards)
  • 1999 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Revival of a Play
  • 1999 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play

==References==The Iceman Cometh is also referenced in the game Bioshock by a character named Martin Finnegan who dwells in the frozen tunnel. Finnegan is a former disciple of Sander Cohen, both can be found in Fort Frolic.

Popular culture references

  • In the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" Mrs. Meers makes an allusion to "The Iceman Cometh" when addressing Alice(one of the Priscilla girls).
  • In the show, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie creates a play called, "The Nightman Cometh", based on the name of this play.
  • In the Batman film Batman & Robin, Mr. Freeze quotes the title of the play "The Iceman Cometh".
  • On Rifftax of Batman & Robin, Bill Corbet replide to the line as "The aduence goeth".
  • During an episode of The Golden Girls, Dorothy Zbornak eats at a fancy restaurant that serves such things as "The Crepes of Wrath", "Edgar Allan Poe-tatoes", and "The Ice Water Cometh".
  • In the video game Bioshock, a vengeful character who has developed ice powers says menacingly, "The iceman fucking cometh."
  • In the animated cartoon series Totally Spies, an episode with a particularly vindictive enemy is entitled "The Iceman Cometh". Alcoholism is not a forceful theme in this piece of work though.
  • The play is referenced numerous times in The King of Queens.
  • The play appears in the US sitcom Will & Grace (season 6) in the episode 'Me & Mr Jones', starring James Earl Jones, in which James Earl Jones is criticised for not acting enough, an ironic reference to the 1973 production in which the supporting cast was criticised for its weakness.
  • In the movie Paycheck, the character Shorty announces "The birdman cometh." at the end of the movie when he appears holding two caged birds.
  • In the show Tales from the Darkside, a third season episode was titled "The Milkman Cometh."
  • In the Preacher Comic, an issue is titled "The Meatman Cometh"
  • In the video game Demigod a character who uses ice powers proclaims "the ice man cometh" when ordered to move.
  • In a season 2 episode of Leverage entitled "The Ice Man Job", Hardison goes undercover as a diamond merchant named "The Iceman" and uses the phrase "The Iceman cometh" in one scene upon entering the room.
  • In season 4 of Eureka, Fargo uses the phrase "The Iceman Cometh" in episode 17, "Have an Ice Day" upon the appearance of an arctic explorer.
  • In the first season of Courage the Cowardly Dog there is an episode entitled "The Snowman Cometh."
  • In the movie The Producers, "The Iceman Cometh" is mentioned as a weird title for a play
  • A song on Spitfire's "Self-Help" album is entitled "Comfort (The Iceman Cometh)"
  • In the "In Living Color" Episode Where Fire Marshall Bill Visits the UN Space Station, He accidentally freezes his hand in liquid nitrogen, then smashes it with a hammer and exclaims " Voila, The Ice Man Cometh HAHAHAHA"
  • The play's title is used as a lyric in by the Descendents's song "Iceman".

Further reading

External links

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