The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
Cecil Lewis and Piet Wetjoen
These two fought on opposite sides of the second Boer War, but now they’re good friends who spend their days and nights drinking at Harry’s. Lewis was a British Captain and Wetjoen was a Boer commando. What’s that? The Boer Wars not big in your history class this year? No problem. You can learn more about them from the BBC.
Chuck and Cora
If people told the truth in this play, Chuck would call himself a pimp and Cora would admit she’s a prostitute. Eventually, they do get around to owning up to their professions, but they quickly go back to being a bartender and a “tart” respectively. These two share a pipe dream. They say they’re going to get married and go live on a farm in New Jersey. They almost go through with it, but then don’t actually make it onto the boat to Jersey.
Ed Mosher and Pat McGloin
These dudes know how to brown-nose. They tell Harry everything he wants to hear so they can keep living off his money and booze. Ed is Harry’s brother-in-law and a former circus man (yep, the circus was big back in the day). McGloin used to be a cop but lost his job when they found out he was crooked.
The drunkest of the drunk. Hugo spends most of the play passed out. When this former anarchist does pop up for a spell, he usually yells things about capitalists and swine and drinks. He’s also fond of singing French revolutionary tunes.
What makes him stand out is the refrain of “The days grow hot, O Babylon!” that he bursts into throughout the play. At times, it seems like a mantra or the lead of a choral chant, but at other times the image turns into a nightmare for Hugo. In the end, his song rings out loud and proud during the final celebration at Harry’s.
James Cameron, a.k.a. Jimmy Tomorrow
You think “Harry Hope” lacks subtlety, how about “Jimmy Tomorrow”? While Harry spends his days stuck in the past and his former glory, Jimmy continually has his sights set on tomorrow, when he’s going to turn everything around.
The pipe dream is strong with this one. Jimmy just knows that once he cleans himself up and gets his good clothes on, he’ll be ready to get his old job back. Even after Hickey has managed to help Jimmy sober up (relatively speaking) and gotten him dressed in the finest threads, Jimmy still proclaims, “Tomorrow! I will tomorrow! I’ll be in good shape tomorrow!” (4).
This character allows O’Neill to show us just how easy it is for a person to ignore the present. For Jimmy, the present will never be the right time to do anything. Luckily for him, there’s always tomorrow.
The others make no qualms about signaling Joe out for being the only African American in the bunch. He deals with racism in a racist time, but that’s not Joe’s main focus until the end of the play. He does side jobs for Harry and gets drunk in the bar while he bides his time until he can open and run a casino like he did the old days.
Eventually, Joe’s anger at how he’s treated and how he’s forced to hide his true feelings takes over. He ends up almost getting into a majorly violent altercation with Rocky and Chuck. Now, some of what O’Neill does in this play would not pass the racial sensitivity test today, but he hits on some of the race issues that plagued the country at the time this play is set.
Margie and Pearl
Like Cora, Margie and Pearl work as prostitutes but they demand to be called “tarts”. For some reason, this word distinction makes them feel much better about themselves. Rocky serves as their pimp, but he stays respectable by being a nighttime bartender. They argue with Rocky good-naturedly, but after Hickey arrives, the arguments turn ugly.
Margie and Pearl, at times, serve as focal points for Hickey and Parritt. Hickey relies on them to help him set up Harry’s birthday party, and he says he picked up the champagne for the party with them in mind, which makes them very happy. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, they’re loathed by Parritt. He blames women for all of his troubles, and these girls do not escape his wrath.
The fact that the only female characters in the play are prostitutes can lead to some interesting questions regarding gender in the work of O’Neill. However, he establishes Harry’s as a place that no upstanding woman of the time would attend. Also, he populates the play with men who are drunks, traitors, and pimps. He even throws in a murderer for good measure, so it’s safe to say that neither gender comes off in a positive light in The Iceman Cometh. Still, that doesn’t mean gender is an issue that should be ignored. Here’s an interesting place to start if you want to learn more about gender and O’Neill.
Rocky serves as the nighttime bartender at Harry’s, but there’s more to him than that. He works as a pimp for Margie and Pearl, and Harry leaves him in charge of handling the drunks when they get out of line. Unlike Chuck, he also plays the classic bartender “listener” role. He’s there for Larry and some of the others to complain to.
While questions of race concerning the play generally focus on Joe, it’s important to note that O’Neill doesn’t shy away from the fact that Rocky is an Italian American. Characters throw racial slurs Rocky’s way throughout the play, but unlike Joe, Rocky seems unconcerned with race or any issues the others might have with it.
Like the other drunks at Harry’s, Willie has a pipe dream of his own. Once a great law student, he talks of the day when he’ll go to the D.A. and land a big time lawyering job. Unlike the others, though, Willie gives off the air of an aristocrat. His father gained fame and fortune through some good old fashioned stock swindling, and Willie’s background is mined for comedic effect at times.
His style of speech, which stands out as being somewhat absurd in the environment of Harry’s, also proves to be a comic standout in a play that can get a little depressing at times to say the least. Here’s how Willie responds when Parritt claims he doesn’t have any money:
Broke? You haven’t the thirsty look of the impecunious. (1)
Where the others would simply say, “You don’t look broke,” or something else straight forward, Willie manages to add a bit of panache to the decay of Harry’s.
The Cops (Moran and Lieb)
The cops don’t show up to drag Hickey to jail until almost the end of the play, and they have very small parts. The one interesting thing to note about them is that they actually get drawn into Hickey’s story about why he killed his wife. This goes a long way to demonstrate just how good Hickey is at talking.