The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
These people like to talk. These people really like to talk about themselves and each other. Readers and audiences gain most of the information about characters in the play from the characters themselves. Take Hickey for example. By the time he finally arrives on the scene, we think we already know a lot about him:
HARRY HOPE: Always got a million funny stories […] I’d like a good laugh with Hickey. (1)
In that simple line from Harry, we learn a lot about good old Hickey. He’s a great story teller and he’s fun to be around. We also learn a little something about Harry. He’s looking forward to something different. By his description of Hickey, he implies that the regulars in the bar don’t possess the same gifts.
Hickey lives up to part of Harry’s description at least. He loves to tell stories. This time around, though, he might not be a whole lot of laughs. He tells us flat out that he’s a different man than he used to be, saying, “You’ll have to excuse me boys and girls, but I’m off the stuff. For keeps” (1). This minor confession tells us that Hickey used to like the drink, and the added “For keeps” hints at the fact that he’s probably tried to stop drinking in the past, but this time he really means it. This time, he’s made a life decision.
The play offers almost every character the opportunity to confess something at some point or another. In many ways, the play is about people telling things about themselves. Inaction remains a character trait of almost everyone at the bar. There’s no car chases or shootouts. There’s not even a lot of moving around and doing things. Mostly, it’s people talking about themselves and talking about the others around them in order to get something they want.
Apparently to have a successful restaurant it’s all about location, location, location. The same could be said for establishing the characters of a play. Setting up the location properly can tell you almost everything you need to know about the people on stage from the moment the light go up.
The decay that hangs on Harry Hope’s place tells us that the people inside aren’t concerned with the better things in life. They’re happy (or at least resigned) to be in a dark, dank place that allows them to get drunk in peace. From the look of Harry’s, we know that it’s a place that time has passed by, and it welcomes people in the same state. Here’s just a snippet of how O’Neill describes Harry’s:
The walls and ceiling once were white, but it was a long time ago, and they are now splotched, peeled, stained, and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty. (1)
That description of the setting could be translated almost directly into a description of the majority of characters in this play. Before anyone even utters a line of dialogue, O’Neill tells us what type of people we can expect to see on stage.
What’s in a name? For two of the characters in the play, names mean a whole lot. Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope bear names that sum up the state of most everybody in the bar. These are people who constantly look to tomorrow or yesterday for hope. Of course, O’Neill names these two with a full dose of irony. As we see at the end of the play, there is no hope and tomorrow will never really come, but for these two guys that might actually be okay.
The names also say a lot about the gentlemen they belong to. Jimmy gained his name by always claiming things like “Tomorrow, yes. It’s high time I straightened out and got down to business again” (1). Harry talks just the same way when he sees a little hope for the future. “So I’ve made up my mind I’ll go out soon. Take a walk around the ward, see all the friends I used to know” (1).
From just the names O’Neill gives these two characters, we know the things they cling to. Or, at least we know the things they use to keep themselves going.