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The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh (1946) by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill is one of the most iconic examples of modern tragedy in American drama. The play tells the story of a group of drunks who are thrown into disarray when one of their numbers appears sober and encourages the lot of them to change their ways. However, attempting to face reality reveals the sad…

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The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh

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The Iceman Cometh (1946) by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill is one of the most iconic examples of modern tragedy in American drama. The play tells the story of a group of drunks who are thrown into disarray when one of their numbers appears sober and encourages the lot of them to change their ways. However, attempting to face reality reveals the sad state of the men's lives, and they quickly revert to numbing their pain with alcohol and pipe dreams.

The sad rabble of drunks that populates the play, desperately holding on to their hopes for tomorrow, continues to intrigue audiences today.

The Iceman Cometh: A Play by Eugene O’Neill

The Iceman Cometh is a tragedy written by American playwright Eugene O’Neill. As one of O’Neill’s later works, the play was written in 1939 and first published and performed on Broadway in 1946.

It tells the story of a rabble of drunks in the backroom of a New York City boarding house and saloon run by Harry Hope. Each patron nurses a pipe dream—a clearly unachievable fantasy that each holds onto in order to maintain hope in the future. When Hickey, a traveling salesman, arrives, he insists that the men confront their pipe dreams and accept their impossibility in order to find peace.

The play has a run time of nearly four hours when staged and was also adapted for film in 1973. It is regarded as one of O’Neill’s most important plays.

The Iceman Cometh: A Summary

The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill is a play in four acts.

Act I

Act I of The Iceman Cometh opens in the bar of Harry Hope’s saloon and boarding house in Greenwich Village, New York City. It’s a summer morning in 1912, and the bar is strewn with patrons, most in their 50s or 60s and asleep, passed out from a night of drinking.

Larry Slade, an ex-Anarchist, is one of the few patrons still awake. He accepts a whiskey from the bartender, Rocky, and muses about his fellow drunks. They still have hope for the future, he remarks, unlike himself, who has accepted the unreality of his pipe dreams.

The Iceman Cometh, whiskey glass, VaiaThe Iceman Cometh takes place in a bar. Pixabay.

While Larry contemplates, Don Parritt, a younger former Anarchist, enters. Members of Parritt’s anarchist group, including his mother, have been arrested, and he hopes Larry, who used to be his mother’s lover, will give him some advice.

As the patrons begin to awaken, each reminisces and talks enthusiastically about their hopes and plans for the future. Harry Hope, the bar’s owner, has not left the bar in twenty years. However, he is convinced that he will manage a walk around the block the following day, his birthday. Other patrons talk about how they will reclaim lost jobs, marry women they love, open businesses, or return to their home countries.

The men are awaiting the arrival of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman who can always be counted on to buy everyone drinks and start a good party. When Hickey arrives, however, the patrons are shocked to learn that he has become sober.

Hickey insists that he has finally found happiness and clarity in his sobriety. He tries to make the other patrons see that their pipe dreams will never be fulfilled if they do not take action.

Act II

As Act II begins, the patrons are preparing to celebrate Harry Hope’s birthday, and Hickey continues on his mission to turn the group of hopeless drunks around with varying degrees of success. Finally, one of the men asks Hickey about his wife, and he announces that she is dead.


Act III begins the following morning on the day of Harry’s party. Hickey continues on his mission of reforming his drunk friends. Harry finally leaves the bar yet returns quickly, claiming to have been almost hit by a car.

Meanwhile, Don Parritt admits to having ratted out his anarchist group, including his own mother. This sends Larry into a rage, most of which he takes out on Hickey, blaming him for disrupting the group’s peace and asking how Hickey’s wife died.

Hickey doesn’t answer at first, but Act III closes with his confession that he killed his wife.

Act IV

Act IV begins later in the night following the party. The group is in varying states of distress after making failed attempts to achieve their pipe dreams.

Hickey announces that he plans to turn himself in for the murder of his wife. He explains that he killed her in her sleep because he was so ashamed of constantly disappointing her and still being forgiven. His wife nursed a pipe dream of her own, believing that one day Hickey would change his ways and become a good husband. He insists that he killed her so that she could live in peace, free from the hopeless dream that they would one day be happy together.

Don Parritt joins in on Hickey’s confession. He says he turned in his group because he hated his mother for loving the anarchist movement more than she loved him.

Hickey is led away by police officers, begging for the electric chair. Parritt asks Larry once again for his help, and Larry suggests that the young man kill himself. Parritt exits, and the birthday party resumes. The patrons begin drinking again and returning to the safety of their pipe dreams.

Larry sits apart from the others, and he covers his face when he hears the thud of Parritt jumping from his upstairs room.

The Iceman Cometh: Setting

Two windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them, are in the left wall, looking out on a backyard. 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 as dirty. The floor, with iron spittoons placed here and there, is covered with sawdust. Lighting comes from single wall brackets, two at left and two at rear." (Act I)

The Iceman Cometh is set in New York City in the summer of 1912. The characters discuss the outside world, and some come and go from the bar, but the only setting where the action takes place is Harry Hope's saloon. O'Neill describes the bar as dirty and unkempt; it has seen better days, much like the men who inhabit it. Perhaps Harry intends to clean the bar or repaint, but this too is a pipe dream, something that has clearly been put off for tomorrow many times.

The bar is very much a home for the patrons, but there is nothing homey or comfortable about the place. However, the men feel safe there, possibly because they are completely isolated from the outside world. The windows are so dirty that you cannot even see out of them, and if you could, you would see only the bar's backyard. This feeling of estrangement from the outside world makes Harry's bar the perfect place for the patrons to sustain the fantasy of their pipe dreams.

The Iceman Cometh, dirty windows, VaiaThe windows of Harry Hope's saloon are so dirty that the outside world can't be seen. Pixabay.

At this time in New York City, the Raines Law was in effect. This law intended to reduce the consumption of alcohol in the city. Because of the law, bars could not sell alcohol on Sundays unless they were hotels and served complimentary meals with the alcohol. To get around the law, many saloon owners quickly added a few furnished rooms to their establishments. Some fulfilled the requirement of serving food by providing prop sandwiches that were either very old or completely fake.

The Iceman Cometh: Quotes and Analysis

The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill is a complex play with many different themes. Three important themes for analysis are dreams, disillusionment, and mortality.

Pipe Dreams

I know you become such a coward that you’ll grab at any lousy excuse to get out of killing your pipe dreams. And yet, as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did." (Act III)

The idea of the pipe dream is the central theme in The Iceman Cometh. The patrons of Harry’s boarding house are drunks who squander their lives while constantly telling themselves that tomorrow is the day they will get a job, marry their sweetheart, start their business, and so on. The characters use their pipe dreams to hold onto hope for the future.

In this quote, however, Hickey arrives and insists that the patrons must kill their false hopes for the future. They have to accept that these dreams are fantasies in order to find peace.

A pipe dream is a plan or hope that is unattainable or illusory. The phrase comes from the 1800s when individuals would smoke opium from a pipe to the point of hallucination. These hallucinations were known as pipe dreams. The phrase later came to refer to unattainable hopes and dreams in a more general sense—ideas that are so fanciful they might as well be hallucinations.


And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance." (Act I)

Most of the characters in The Iceman Cometh hold onto the fantasy of their pipe dreams to combat disillusionment with their life. The seeming exception is Larry Slade, the cynical and disillusioned former anarchist. Larry spends most of the play observing his fellow drunks and ridiculing their pipe dreams. However, Larry’s feigned disillusionment is the pipe dream that protects him from his crushing fear of death.

As each character tries to achieve his pipe dream under Hickey’s encouragement and subsequently fails, a sense of disillusionment overtakes the patrons. To hide from this disillusionment once again, they return to the refuge of their drinks and pipe dreams.


I’m afraid to live, am I?--and even more afraid to die! So I sit here, with my pride drowned on the bottom of a bottle, keeping drunk so I won’t see myself shaking in my britches with fright, or hear myself whining and praying: Beloved Christ, let me live a little longer at any price! If it’s only for a few days more, or a few hours even, have mercy, Almighty God, and let me still clutch greedily to my yellow heart this sweet treasure, this jewel beyond price, the dirty, stinking bit of withered old flesh which is my beautiful little life!…You think you’ll make me admit that to myself?" (Act III)

Mortality is an important theme in The Iceman Cometh as the characters use their pipe dreams to keep themselves alive. They use their fantasies to cling to life and to numb their pain and disappointment instead of just awaiting death.

Hickey, on the other hand, initially suggests that death is preferable to living a lie of false hope. He kills his wife to free her from the pipe dream that Hickey will become a good husband and the two will live happily together. However, he later reverses his position. He begs for death himself when the police come to take him away, claiming now that he has no pipe dream, he has no more reason to live.

The Iceman Cometh: The Meaning of the Iceman

Why should I kick as long as yuh lay off it and don’t do no cheatin’ wid de iceman or nobody?" (Act I)

At first glance, the iceman is a symbol of infidelity and betrayal. The men joke about their various wives and girlfriends cheating on them or running away with the iceman. However, by the end of the play, we come to understand that the iceman is, in fact, death. Hickey kills his wife in her sleep; she does not run off with the iceman as the other men taunt and as Hickey himself has joked in the past. The iceman, the thing that takes his wife away for good, is death.

The Iceman Cometh - Key takeaways

  • The Iceman Cometh is a tragedy by American playwright Eugene O’Neill that was written in 1939 and first performed in 1946.
  • The play is set in New York City in the summer of 1912, and all the action takes place in the bar or back room of Harry Hope’s saloon and boarding house.
  • The Iceman Cometh tells the story of a group of useless drunks who spend their days drinking and nursing their pipe dreams for tomorrow.
  • The iceman in The Iceman Cometh is a symbol of death.
  • Some of the play’s key themes include dreams, disillusionment, and mortality.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh is about a group of deadbeat drunks who hold on to their pipe dreams, or their plans for the perpetual tomorrow, as a way to maintain hope in the future.

The Iceman Cometh was written by American playwright Eugene O’Neill.

The iceman is not a character in The Iceman Cometh. Rather, the iceman is repeatedly invoked first as a symbol of infidelity and betrayal and later as a symbol of death.

In The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill examines the necessity of fantasy in creating human happiness.

At the end of The Iceman Cometh, Hickey admits to killing his wife and is led away by the police, begging them to give him the death penalty. After Hickey is taken away, Don Parritt kills himself following Larry’s suggestion.

Final The Iceman Cometh Quiz

The Iceman Cometh Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What year did The Iceman Cometh premiere on Broadway?

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Show question


Which is NOT a key theme in The Iceman Cometh?

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Ghosts and the supernatural

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Who owns the saloon and boarding house in The Iceman Cometh?

Show answer


Harry Hope

Show question


Why are the patrons of the saloon initially surprised when Hickey arrives?

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Because he is now sober

Show question


In what year does The Iceman Cometh take place?

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Show question


What law discouraged the sale of alcohol in New York during the period in which The Iceman Cometh is set?

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Raines Law

Show question


Why does Don Parritt come to the boarding house?

Show answer


He wants advice from Larry Slade after members of his anarchist group have been arrested.

Show question


Why did Hickey kill his wife?

Show answer


To free her from the pipe dream that he would change and they would live together happily.

Show question


How many acts does The Iceman Cometh have?

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Show question


Who commits suicide at the end of The Iceman Cometh?

Show answer


Don Parritt

Show question


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