For many, “Iceman” conjures images of a freeze-happy member of the X-Men or an awesome Top Gun fighter pilot played by Val Kilmer. While nothing like that turns up in Eugene O’Neill’s classic play The Iceman Cometh, there are plenty of anarchists, prostitutes, and military heroes to keep things interesting.
Written in 1939, first performed on Broadway in 1946, and set in 1912, O’Neill’s drama focuses on a group of down-and-outers who spend their time drinking, sleeping, dreaming of “tomorrow,” and waiting for a man named Hickey to arrive and brighten up their lives. As is often the case with the works of O’Neill, though, the characters discover that the thing they hoped for never turns out quite like they thought it would.
The Iceman Cometh, along with his other works like A Long Day’s Journey into Night, garnered Eugene O’Neill the title of the Father of American Drama, and he remains one of the most respected American playwrights ever. In his time, he earned a Pulitzer Drama and the Nobel Prize for literature. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of college and roamed the seas for a while.
For its part, Iceman inspired movie and TV adaptations, Broadway revivals, and countless regional productions. While its four-hour running time has nothing on the LOTR trilogy, it’s still pretty long for a non-Wagnerian play, and therefore rarely staged. Theater companies gutsy and/or crazy enough to perform it nonetheless often find that its haunting view of the American Dream plays as well with modern audiences as it did with the audiences of the 1940s.
Yep, the play continues to draw in audiences with its warts-and-all look at a group of down-and-out drunks desperately trying to find something to keep them going. Plus, it features what many consider one of the most unique, fascinating, crazy characters in American theater in the form of the traveling salesman Hickey. And, believe it or not, it’s also really funny at times. How could you not want to take a look?
There’s just something about anticipation, right? There’s something about the kiss that hasn’t happened yet, the unopened birthday present, or even watching the trailer for the summer movie you can’t wait to see. In your mind, all those things to come will be perfect. The kiss will achieve legendary status, the birthday present will be the one thing you really wanted, and the movie will totally blow every other movie out of the water. Sadly, the things we anticipate and dream about don’t always live up to the hype.
At its core, The Iceman Cometh explores the idea of anticipation and the disappointment that follows when expectations aren’t met. O’Neill’s characters cling to their one pipe dream, and are kept alive by their deluded visions of how things will play out in the future or how great things were in the past.
This play is for anyone who has ever hoped for anything and has been let down. It’s for anyone who still holds onto dreams even when everyone else has written them off. It’s for anyone who knows that there is something special about antici—(say it! say it!)—pation.