The Iceman Cometh
is a play in four acts by Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O'Neill. Written in 1939 and first published in 1946, it premiered on Broadway that same year. Set at Harry Hope's Greenwich Village bar and boarding house during the summer of 1912, it tells the story of a group of aimless patrons and boarders whose empty lives underscore the eternal human need for dreaming—no matter how hopeless and untenable those dreams may be.
As the curtain rises, nighttime bartender Rocky Pioggi is setting up for his shift at Harry's saloon. The hapless denizens who live and drink away the hours at Harry's begin to wake up and fill the bar, having effectively slept off their hangovers from the night before. Larry Slade, a onetime anarchist who seems to be giving up on life in general, informs Rocky that he will pay his bar and room tab tomorrow. However, this is something Rocky has heard before, and will again throughout the course of the play.
With more of the group rejoining their friends in the bar, they discuss the imminent arrival of Theodore "Hickey" Hickman. Hickey is a traveling salesman assigned to the eastern seaboard, and twice a year during his business trips to the region, he stops in at Harry's, much to the delight of the barflies who routinely gather there. Hickey's impending visit coincides with Harry's birthday. The patrons look forward to Hickey's presence because he always brings the party with him, buys them all top-shelf booze, and spreads a note of optimism around the otherwise bleak bar.
Before Hickey shows up, however, a young man named Don Parritt enters the bar, looking for Larry. Don is the son of a former anarchist with whom Larry was once in love. Don needs Larry's help because Don's mother is now in jail.
Hickey arrives, but this is not the same Hickey so beloved by all the men at the bar. He has changed dramatically. Though he is still as magnetic as ever, gone is the fun-loving, freewheeling roustabout who was always up for a drink and laugh. Now, Hickey is sober, and he makes it his mission to show the others how their delusions and broken dreams are keeping them all from growing, from evolving and moving on, from succeeding; in short, keeping them from life itself.
As Hickey evangelizes to each of his friends, attempting to open their eyes, he impresses almost all of them by the changes he has made. However, they each have not-insignificant problems of their own. Among them is Joe Mott, a former casino owner who had to close his gambling house, who is adamant that he will soon reopen for business. Captain Cecil Lewis, a former English military captain, and General Piet Wetjoen, a former leader of a Boer military unit, who once fought against one another in the Boer War, are now good friends, though each man is anxious to return to his homeland. Pat McGloin, a former police officer thrown off the force after being charged with a criminal complaint, plans to get his old job back. Chuck Morello, Harry's daytime bartender, plans to marry the prostitute Cora. Ed Mosher, Harry's brother-in-law, is a conman who couldn't even keep his job conning. Harry hasn't left his bar since his wife Bess's death twenty years ago. Hugo Kalmar, another ex-anarchist, spends the bulk of the play passed out, drunk.
The only one not impressed with Hickey's turnaround is Larry. Larry demands to know why Hickey has changed his life so drastically. Hickey confesses the death of his wife, Evelyn, who died under mysterious circumstances, compelled him to sober up.
Hickey's proselytizing and zealous encouragement causes turmoil in the bar. The patrons lash out against him and against one another. Old recriminations bubble to the surface, scabbed-over wounds are picked afresh, and the gross unfairness and inequities of life come rearing up.
At last, with Hickey's charismatic urging, the men each set off to try to take charge of their lives. However, virtually as soon as the last man has left, they're coming back through the saloon doors again. Each of their individual plans fizzles, forcing them to realize that their plans were never anything more than pipe dreams. Yet, strangely, this was Hickey's point all along. He wanted them to see the uselessness of the goals they had set so they could live more fully in the joy of the present. The men do not respond well to this revelation; they feel their lives are in shambles, and even booze no longer eases the pain.
Meanwhile, Larry continues to pressure Hickey into talking about Evelyn's death. Finally, Hickey admits that he killed her. He claims he killed her because his nonstop womanizing and drinking were too painful for her to bear. He confesses the murder to the cops.
Hickey's confession inspires Don to make a confession of his own. He reveals that he was the one who turned his mother into the police, for no other reason than that he hated her and hated how she neglected him in favor of her political activism. Buried under his suffocating guilt, Don goes to an upper-floor fire escape at Harry's and throws himself off it to his death.
The police come and take Hickey to jail. As he is carted off, the bar patrons are in good spirits—literally and figuratively. They tell him they love him, while secretly telling one another that they only followed his push to leave the bar and pursue their dreams out of an attempt to humor him. Now, with his arrest, they know he was crazy all along, and his suggestions that they change their lives were the ravings of a madman/killer. Nevertheless, Larry knows that Hickey was right. That life is
a futile gesture; the only moment worth anything is the present one. Larry seems to ask himself, is that enough?