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Eugene O’Neill was the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He completed The Iceman Cometh in 1939, but he delayed production until after the war, when it enjoyed a long run of performances in 1946 after receiving mixed reviews. Three years after O'Neill's death, Jason Robards starred in a Broadway revival that brought new critical attention to O’Neill’s darkest and most nihilistic play. In the half century since, The Iceman Cometh has gained enormously in stature, and many critics now recognize it as one of the greatest plays in American drama. The Iceman Cometh focuses on a group of alcoholics and misfits who endlessly discuss but never act on their dreams, and Hickey, the traveling salesman determined to strip them of their pipe dreams.
One of O'Neill's most compelling plays and one that helped establish O'Neill as one of America's leading dramatist.
Copyright © 1946 Eugene O'Neill
All right reserved.
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 it from the bar. At rear, this curtain is drawn back from the wall so the bartender can get in and out. The back room is crammed with round tables and chairs placed so close together that it is a difficult squeeze to pass between them. In the middle of the rear wall is a door opening on a hallway. In the left corner, built out into the room, is the toilet with a sign "This is it" on the door. Against the middle of the left wall is a nickel-in-the-slot phonograph. 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.
There are three rows of tables, from front to back. Three are in the front line. The one at left-front has four chairs; the one atcenter-front, four; the one at right-front, five. At rear of, and half between, front tables one and two is a table of the second row with five chairs. A table, similarly placed at rear of front tables two and three, also has five chairs. The third row of tables, four chairs to one and six to the other, is against the rear wall on either side of the door.
At right of this dividing curtain is a section of the barroom, with the end of the bar seen at rear, a door to the hall at left of it. At front is a table with four chairs. Light comes from the street windows off right, the gray subdued light of early morning in a narrow street. In the back room, LARRY SLADE and HUGO KALMAR are at the table at left-front, HUGO in a chair facing right, LARRY at rear of table facing front, with an empty chair between them. A fourth chair is at right of table, facing left. HUGO is a small an in his late fifties. He has a head much too big for his body, a high forehead, crinkly long black hair streaked with gray, a square face with a pug nose, a walrus mustache, black eyes which peer near-sightedly from behind thick-lensed spectacles, tiny hands and feet. He is dressed in threadbare black clothes and his white shirt is frayed at collar and cuffs, but everything about him is fastidiously clean. Even his flowing Windsor tie is neatly tied. There is a foreign atmosphere about him, the stamp of an alien radical, a strong resemblance to the type Anarchist as portrayed, bomb in hand, in newspaper cartoons. He is asleep now, bent forward in his chair, his arms folded on the table, his head resting sideways on his arms.
LARRY SLADE is sixty. He is tall, raw-boned, with coarse straight white hair, worn long and raggedly cut. He has a gaunt Irish face with a big nose, high cheekbones, a lantern jaw with a week's stubble of beard, a mystic's meditative pale-blue eyes with a gleam of sharp sardonic humor in them. As slovenly as HUGO is neat, his clothes are dirty and much slept in. His gray flannel shirt, open at the neck, has the appearance of having never been washed. From the way he methodically scratches himself with his long-fingered, hairy hands, he is lousy and reconciled to being so. He is the only occupant of the room who is not asleep. He stares in front of him, an expression of tired tolerance giving his face the quality of a pitying but weary old priest's.
All four chairs at the middle table, front, are occupied. JOE MOTT sits at left-front of the table, facing front. Behind him, facing right-front, is PIET WETJOEN ("The General"). At center of the table, rear, JAMES CAMERON ("Jimmy Tomorrow") sits facing front. At right of table, opposite JOE, is CECIL LEWIS ("The Captain").
JOE MOTT is a Negro, about fifty years old, brown-skinned, stocky, wearing a light suit that had once been flashily sporty but is now about to fall apart. His pointed tan buttoned shoes, faded pink shirt and bright tie belong to the same vintage. Still, he manages to preserve an atmosphere of nattiness and there is nothing dirty about his appearance. His face is only mildly negroid in type. The nose is thin and his lips are not noticeably thick. His hair is crinkly and he is beginning to get bald. A scar from a knife slash runs from his left cheekbone to jaw. His face would be hard and tough if it were not for its good nature and lazy humor. He is asleep, his nodding head supported by his left hand.
PIET WETJOEN, the Boer, is in his fifties, a huge man with a bald head and a long grizzled beard. He is slovenly dressed in a dirty shapeless patched suit, spotted by food. A Dutch farmer type, his once great muscular strength has been debauched into flaccid tallow. But despite his blubbery mouth and sodden bloodshot blue eyes, there is still a suggestion of old authority lurking in him like a memory of the drowned. He is hunched forward, both elbows on the table, his hand on each side of his head for support.
JAMES CAMERON ("Jimmy Tomorrow") is about the same size and age as hugo, a small man. Like HUGO, he wears threadbare black, and everything about him is clean. But the resemblance ceases there. JIMMY has a face like an old well-bred, gentle bloodhound's, with folds of flesh hanging from each side of his mouth, and big brown friendly guileless eyes, more bloodshot than any bloodhound's ever were. He has mouse-colored thinning hair, a little bulbous nose, buck teeth in a small rabbit mouth. But his forehead is fine, his eyes are intelligent and there once was a competent ability in him. His speech is educated, with the ghost of a Scotch rhythm in it. His manners are those of a gentleman. There is a quality about him of a prim, Victorian old maid, and at the same time of a likable, affectionate boy who has never grown up. He sleeps, chin on chest, hands folded in his lap.
CECIL LEWIS ("The Captain") is as obviously English as Yorkshire pudding and just as obviously the former army officer. He is going on sixty. His hair and military mustache are white, his eyes bright blue, his complexion that of a turkey. His lean figure is still erect and square-shouldered. He is stripped to the waist, his coat, shirt, undershirt, collar and tie crushed up into a pillow on the table in front of him, his head sideways on this pillow, facing front, his arms dangling toward the floor. On his lower left shoulder is the big ragged scar of an old wound.
At the table at right, front, HARRY HOPE, the proprietor, sits in the middle, facing front, with PAT MCGLOIN on his right and ED MOSHER on his left, the other two chairs being unoccupied.
Both MCGLOIN and MOSHER are big paunchy men. MCGLOIN has his old occupation of policeman stamped all over him. He is in his fifties, sandy-haired, bullet-headed, jowly, with protruding ears and little round eyes. His face must once have been brutal and greedy, but time and whiskey have melted it down into a good-humored, parasite's characterlessness. He wears old clothes and is slovenly. He is slumped sideways on his chair, his head drooping jerkily toward one shoulder.
ED MOSHER is going on sixty. He has a round kewpie's face-a kewpie who is an unshaven habitual drunkard. He looks like an enlarged, elderly, bald edition of the village fat boy-a sly fat boy, congenitally indolent, a practical joker, a born grafter and con merchant. But amusing and essentially harmless, even in his most enterprising days, because always too lazy to carry crookedness beyond petty swindling. The influence of his old circus career is apparent in his get-up. His worn clothes are flashy; he wears phony rings and a heavy brass watch-chain (not connected to a watch). Like MCGLOIN, he is slovenly. His head is thrown back, his big mouth open.
HARRY HOPE is sixty, white-haired, so thin the description "bag of bones" was made for him. He has the face of an old family horse, prone to tantrums, with balkiness always smoldering in its wall eyes, waiting for any excuse to shy and pretend to take the bit in its teeth. Hope is one of those men whom everyone likes on sight, a softhearted slob, without malice, feeling superior to no one, a sinner among sinners, a born easy mark for every appeal. He attempts to hide his defenselessness behind a testy truculent manner, but this has never fooled anyone. He is a little deaf, but not half as deaf as he sometimes pretends. His sight is failing but is not as bad as he complains it is. He wears five-and-ten-cent-store spectacles which are so out of alignment that one eye at times peers half over one glass while the other eye looks half under the other. He has badly fitting store teeth, which click like castanets when he begins to fume. He is dressed in an old coat from one suit and pants from another.
In a chair facing right at the table in the second line, between the first two tables, front, sits WILLIE OBAN, his head on his left arm outstretched along the table edge. He is in his late thirties, of average height, thin. His haggard, dissipated face has a small nose, a pointed chin, blue eyes with colorless lashes and brows. His blond hair, badly in need of a cut, clings in a limp part to his skull. His eyelids flutter continually as if any light were too strong for his eyes. The clothes he wears belong on a scarecrow. They seem constructed of an inferior grade of dirty blotting paper. His shoes are even more disreputable, wrecks of imitation leather, one laced with twine, the other with a bit of wire. He has no socks, and his bare feet show through holes in the soles, with his big toes sticking out of the uppers. He keeps muttering and twitching in his sleep.
As the curtain rises, ROCKY, the night bartender, comes from the bar through the curtain and stands looking over the back room. He is a Neapolitan-American in his late twenties, squat and muscular, with a flat, swarthy face and beady eyes. The sleeves of his collarless shirt are rolled up on his thick, powerful arms and he wears a soiled apron. A tough guy but sentimental, in his way, and good-natured. He signals to LARRY with a cautious "Sstt" and motions him to see if HOPE is asleep. LARRY rises from his chair to look at HOPE and nods to ROCKY. ROCKY goes back in the bar but immediately returns with a bottle of bar whiskey and a glass. He squeezes between the tables to LARRY.
In a low voice out of the side of his mouth.
Make it fast.
LARRY pours a drink and gulps it down. ROCKY takes the bottle and puts it on the table where WILLIE OBAN is.
Don't want de Boss to get wise when he's got one of his tightwad buns on.
He chuckles with an amused glance at HOPE.
Jees, ain't de old bastard a riot when he starts dat bull about turnin' over a new leaf? "Not a damned drink on de house," he tells me, "and all dese bums got to pay up deir room rent. Beginnin' tomorrow," he says. Jees, yuh'd tink he meant it!
He sits down in the chair at LARRY's left.
I'll be glad to pay up-tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They've all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows.
A half-drunken mockery in his eyes.
It'll be a great day for them, tomorrow-the Feast of All Fools, with brass bands playing! Their ships will come in, loaded to the gunwales with cancelled regrets and promises fulfilled and clean slates and new leases!
Yeah, and a ton of hop!
Leans toward him, a comical intensity in his low voice.
Don't mock the faith! Have you no respect for religion, you unregenerate Wop? What's it matter if the truth is that their favoring breeze has the stink of nickel whiskey on its breath, and their sea is a growler of lager and ale, and their ships are long since looted and scuttled and sunk on the bottom? To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It's irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. And that's enough philosophic wisdom to give you for one drink of rot-gut.
De old Foolosopher, like Hickey calls yuh, ain't yuh? I s'pose you don't fall for no pipe dream?
A bit stiffly.
I don't, no. Mine are all dead and buried behind me. What's before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I'm damned tired, and it can't come too soon for me.
Yeah, just hangin' around hopin' you'll croak, ain't yuh? Well, I'm bettin' you'll have a good long wait. Jees, somebody'll have to take an axe to croak you!
Yes, it's my bad luck to be cursed with an iron constitution that even Harry's booze can't corrode.
De old anarchist wise guy dat knows all de answers! Dat's you, huh?
Forget the anarchist part of it. I'm through with the Movement long since. I saw men didn't want to be saved from themselves, for that would mean they'd have to give up greed, and they'll never pay that price for liberty. So I said to the world, God bless all here, and may the best man win and die of gluttony! And I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance.
He chuckles at his own fancy-reaches over and shakes Hugo's shoulder.
Ain't I telling him the truth, Comrade Hugo?
Aw, fer Chris' sake, don't get dat bughouse bum started!
Raises his head and peers at ROCKY blearily through his thick spectacles-in a guttural declamatory tone.
Capitalist swine! Bourgeois stool pigeons! Have the slaves no right to sleep even?
Then he grins at ROCKY and his manner changes to a giggling, wheedling playfulness, as though he were talking to a child.
Hello, leedle Rocky! Leedle monkey-face! Vere is your leedle slave girls?
With an abrupt change to a bullying tone.
Don't be a fool! Loan me a dollar! Damned bourgeois Wop! The great Malatesta is my good friend! Buy me a trink!
He seems to run down, and is overcome by drowsiness. His head sinks to the table again and he is at once fast asleep.
He's out again.
More exasperated than angry.
He's lucky no one don't take his cracks serious or he'd wake up every mornin' in a hospital.
Regarding HUGO with pity.
No. No one takes him seriously. That's his epitaph. Not even the comrades any more. If I've been through with the Movement long since, it's been through with him, and, thanks to whiskey, he's the only one doesn't know it.
I've let him get by wid too much. He's goin' to pull dat slave-girl stuff on me once too often.
His manner changes to defensive argument.
Hell, yuh'd tink I wuz a pimp or somethin'. Everybody knows me knows I ain't. A pimp don't hold no job. I'm a bartender. Dem tarts, Margie and Poil, dey're just a side line to pick up some extra dough. Strictly business, like dey was fighters and I was deir manager, see? I fix the cops fer dem so's dey can hustle widout gettin' pinched. Hell, dey'd be on de Island most of de time if it wasn't fer me. And I don't beat dem up like a pimp would. I treat dem fine. Dey like me. We're pals, see? What if I do take deir dough? Dey'd on'y trow it away. Tarts can't hang on to dough. But I'm a bartender and I work hard for my livin' in dis dump. You knowdat, Larry.
With inner sardonic amusement-flatteringly.
A shrewd business man, who doesn't miss any opportunity to get on in the world. That's what I'd call you.
Sure ting. Dat's me. Grab another ball, Larry.
LARRY pours a drink from the bottle on WILLIE's table and gulps it down. Rocky glances around the room.
Yuh'd never tink all dese bums had a good bed upstairs to go to. Scared if dey hit the hay dey wouldn't be here when Hickey showed up, and dey'd miss a coupla drinks. Dat's what kept you up too, ain't it?
It is. But not so much the hope of booze, if you can believe that. I've got the blues and Hickey's a great one to make a joke of everything and cheer you up.
Yeah, some kidder! Remember how he woiks up dat gag about his wife, when he's cockeyed, cryin' over her picture and den springin' it on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman?
Excerpted from The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill Copyright © 1946 by Eugene O'Neill. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 17, 2009
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