The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
O’Neill goes to great lengths describing the physical and psychological traits of Larry before a word is even uttered in the play. Here’s how the guy who created him describes him:
Larry Slade is sixty. He is tall, raw-boned with coarse straight white hair, worn long and raggedly cut[…]his clothes are dirty and much slept in […] he is lousy and reconciled to being so. (1)
So, what does O’Neill’s description tell us about Larry other than it’s probably really hard to cast an actor who fits every physical trait he assigns to the character? This is a man who’s cool with having lice and wearing the clothes he sleeps in. Just in case you read over that quickly, let’s reiterate that Larry is totally okay with the fact that he has lice.
Larry stands as the picture of a man who has all but given up on living, and in fact that’s what he wants people to believe. He says he’s given up on Anarchism, a movement he dedicated much of his life to. He listens to others talk of their pipe dreams, but he claims he’s given up on dreams of his own. “I haven’t any left, thank God,” he says (1). Just in case we missed the point, he goes on later to proclaim, “All I know is I’m sick of life! I’m through!” (2).
Larry appears content commenting on the goings on in Harry’s, accepting the others’ dreams for what they are, drinking, and occasionally philosophizing. He even makes a joke or two. If Larry were a Muppet, he’d be Statler or Waldorf. Then again, if Larry were a Muppet, this would be a really weird play.
While the façade Larry has constructed might hold up every other day in the bar, it can’t withstand the arrival of the young stranger Parritt or the traveling salesman Hickey. In different ways, these two men crack through the lie Larry has struggled so hard to convince himself of—that he’s done with life and he’s simply waiting to die. Hickey calls him out early and claims he’ll “make an honest man” out of Larry (1).
Hickey proves to be right. At the end of the play, Larry faces the truth. He’s been fooling himself just like everyone else. The difference is he’s unable to go back to the way things were. Larry realizes that he actually does care—that he hadn’t truly given up on life until this very moment. Unfortunately, he knows he’s too cowardly to do anything about it:
Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstand—or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! (4)
This exclamation marks the only real lasting change experienced by a character in the show (at least of the characters who don’t die or go to jail). Throughout the play, Larry understands better what is happening than anyone else. Larry knows Hickey’s change is real, and he knows that that change stems from a traumatic event. It’s Larry’s intelligence that leads him to his sad fate. While the others can easily convince themselves that life can go on as normal, Larry knows that that’s not the case.
In this way, O’Neill uses Larry to stand in for the audience. He connects us to Larry, and through him we come to see O’Neill’s world as a bleak representations of our lives. Yep, O’Neill manages to make us feel like we’re the guy with lice and stinky clothes.Larry Slade's Timeline