Study Guide

The Iceman Cometh Genre

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Drama, Realism, Tragedy

Drama is literature written to be performed, and The Iceman Cometh definitely belongs on the stage. While reading the play offers a great look into the world O’Neill has created and the themes that he’s dealing with, the work is meant to be acted. Hickey’s words jump off the page at times, but when performed live by the right actor, they can be electric.

O’Neill receives much of the credit for bringing realism to the American stage. Inspired heavily by Ibsen and other playwrights tackling the genre, O’Neill shifted from writing what most consider to be melodrama in his early work to the realism of his later work. The Iceman Cometh focuses on the everyday life of down-and-out drinkers hovering on the outskirts of society. That’s pure realism, baby.

Even though it sticks to themes and characters usually associated with realism, there are still elements of a good old Greek tragedy in the play. Several of the drunks serve as a chorus commenting on events as they take place. In fact, they sometimes even speak in unison or chant and yell and bang their glasses on the tables together. A great example of this comes at the very end of the play after the arguments have passed and everyone (except for Larry) feels like a unit again.

HUGO: “The days grow hot, O Babylon!”

They all take it up and shout in enthusiastic jeering chorus. They pound their glasses on the table, roaring with laughter, and HUGO giggles with them. (4)

This celebratory choral moment stands as a big change from how things looked for the group when Hickey was still around:

A chorus of dull resentful protest from all the group[…]HOPE drinks and they mechanically follow his example. He pours another and they do the same. (4)

Hickey can also be seen as a type of tragic hero. (For more on how Hickey functions as the tragic hero, see “Booker’s Basic Seven Plot Analysis”.) Hickey believes he can bring peace to his friends, but his arrogance, anger, and actions get him in the end. Just like any good tragic hero, he brings about his own downfall.

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