Study Guide

The Iceman Cometh

By Eugene O’Neill

The Iceman Cometh Introduction

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?

What is The Iceman Cometh About and Why Should I Care?

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.

The Iceman Cometh Resources

Websites

All O’Neill, All the Time
This site gives you everything you ever wanted to know about the man responsible for bringing realism to the American stage. Find history, fun facts, production news, and a whole lot more.

Smart People Talking about Smart People
The Nobel Prize is not the easiest thing to come by. Check out what the Nobel folks have to say about Mr. O’Neill. He snagged the big award in 1936.

The Iceman Cometh… to Chicago
Get a good look at the challenges The Iceman Cometh presents even to veteran actors and directors as they staged a revival of the play at Chicago’s famous Goodman Theatre.

Eugene O'Neill Theater
The man got a Broadway theatre named after him. Find out what’s playing there now.

The Iceman Rideth
It’s cold. It’s tough. It’s got nothing to do with the play. It’s the 29-mile bike race known as the Iceman Cometh Challenge.

Movie or TV Productions

The Iceman on TV (1960)
TV movies used to be big business, and plays used to make great television. The first film adaptation of The Iceman Cometh was made for TV and aired in two parts in 1960. It’s basically a filmed version of the stage play, so it stays true to the source. It starred Jason Robards as Hickey and a young actor named Robert Redford as Parritt. Not everyone knew of Redford at the time, but he was on the brink of becoming one of the most famous actors/directors that Hollywood has ever known.

That Rug Really Tied the Room Together (1973)
The 1973 film version of The Iceman Cometh marks another break-through for a young actor who would go on to do great things. Jeff Bridges (a.k.a. Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, a.k.a. Flynn from Tron) plays Don Parritt. The legendary Lee Marvin plays Hickey, and the equally legendary John Frankenheimer directs. This is a movie with two intermissions. It’s long, bleak, and very faithful to O’Neill’s play.

Articles and Interviews

Acting O’Neill
Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf talk about the trials and tribulations of actors taking on O’Neill.

Stars: They’re Just Like Us.
Interviews with O’Neill aren’t the easiest thing to come by. This 1922 magazine article and interview pre-dates The Iceman Cometh, but it gives great insight into O’Neill’s background.

Television

Smelling Good = The Death of Theater
Can you even stage a decent production of an O’Neill play these days, or will you lose all of your actors because they are dedicated to doing really important work like TV commercials? The Onion explores this question in “Production Of 'Iceman Cometh' Canceled Due To Entire Cast Getting Called Back For Axe Body Spray Commercial.”

Video

Preach On, Spacey!
Video of Kevin Spacey as Hickey in the 1999 Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh. His Hickey is part salesman, part evangelist speaking to his congregation.

Robards Reminisces
Jason Robards, who played Hickey on stage and TV, talks about the beauty and difficulty of acting in O’Neill’s plays in Ric Burns’s Eugene O’Neill documentary.

The Godfather Cometh
This brief video sets up Hickey’s big speech. At about 1:19 into the clip, Al Pacino recites Hickey’s confession to the group.

Hickey vs. Larry
Nathan Lane as Hickey and Brian Dennehy as Larry battle it out at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Behind the Scenes
This video/trailer goes behind the scenes of the Goodman Theatre production.

Audio

O’Neill on Tape
Okay, so this isn’t a clip from The Iceman Cometh, but this is a really rare recording of O’Neill reading his own work. This comes from A Long Day’s Journey into Night.

The Reviews are In
You’ve seen some clips, now hear what the critics have to say about that Goodman Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh. This provides an in-depth take on the show.

The Real Iceman
Take a break and check out this story about a 5,000-year-old iceman mummy found in the ‘90s in the Alps.

Images

The Iceman in London
Kevin Spacey as Hickey with the barflies at the Almeida Theatre in London (1998).

There’s a First Time for Everything
Photo of the original Broadway cast of The Iceman Cometh (1946).

Stop Looking at My Mustache!
Eugene O’Neill might not be the happiest guy you’ll ever see in a photo.

You’re Dangerous
Val Kilmer as “Iceman” in the 1980s classic Top Gun.

First Print
The first publication kept it real gray.

The Sundance Kid
A young Robert Redford as Don Parritt in the TV version of The Iceman Cometh.