You know a guy is interesting when the majority of the first act features other people just talking about him. Hickey is the one that everybody waits for to get the party started. The arrival of Hickey promises fun and a change of pace. He’s like a Vince Vaughn character but with a really dark past. Hickey shows up very late in Act I, but everything before his arrival builds up to his entrance, and everything after his arrival happens because of it. So, what makes this middle-aged traveling salesman and would-be evangelist one of the most fascinating characters in American drama? Let’s break him down, and see what we find.
Hickey’s father served as a preacher to the small town folk of Indiana, and he passed his zeal for speaking and his ability to communicate with people onto his son:
Hell, this begins to sound like a damned sermon on the way to lead the good life. Forget that part of it. It’s in my blood, I guess. My old man used to whale salvation into my heinie with a birch rod. He was a preacher in the sticks of Indiana, like I told you. I got my knack of sales gab from him, too. (1)
This speech, in a lot of ways, holds the key to Hickey. The skills he picked up from his dear old dad and then perfected over the years enable him to read people like an open book. If this weren’t a realistic play set in 1912, you might start to think of him as having some kind of superpower. That’s how good he is at what he does. We get the sense that Hickey could sell just about anything to anyone, making the product seem like a spiritual necessity. These skills also enable him to see the lies a person tells himself. It’s this skill in particular that lets him work his magic on the regulars at Harry’s. Harry, a man who hasn’t stepped outside in twenty years, walks out the door after only one day in Hickey’s presence. That’s some serious Jedi mind trick stuff.
When Hickey preaches about change and talks about salvation, it’s easy to see why he’s thought to be the Christ figure of the play. Of course, when it comes to O’Neill, it can’t be that simple. He takes the idea of the Messiah and turns it on its head.
The patrons of the bar await Hickey’s arrival like followers awaiting Jesus: “Let us join in prayer that Hickey, the Great Salesman will arrive bringing the blessed bourgeois longreen!” (1). For Willie, who speaks this line, and the others, Hickey represents salvation in the form of free-flowing booze and release from perpetual boredom. O’Neill even elevates Hickey (for comic effect) to the level of the Divine by capitalizing “Great Salesman.”
It’s all good to point out the ways in which Hickey serves as a Christ figure in the play, but it’s far more important to realize that Hickey brings no salvation. At all. He ends up like a guy who promises you a cool glass of water and then accidentally hands you some hydrochloric acid. His attempt to bring peace to the regulars of the bar by getting them to give up their pipe dreams fails, and it is only when they can return to the exact way they were before Hickey arrived that they can feel any kind of happiness again. Hickey as a failed and greatly flawed Messiah serves to illustrate the point that in The Iceman Cometh no one provides salvation or redemption. The patrons of the bar simply find solace in the same old purgatorial existence within the four walls of Harry’s.
From the minute he makes his way into the bar, Hickey appears to be a guy who can convince these people to change. Maybe he can get them to follow their pipe dreams and accomplish everything they say they want to accomplish, right? Not exactly. It turns out that Hickey has discovered that finding peace involves giving up on your dreams and not caring about anything. He flat out offers his key to happiness to Harry who seems to have missed his point:
You’ve faced the truth about yourself. You’ve done what you had to do to kill your nagging pipe dreams. Oh, I know it knocks you cold. But only for a minute. Then you see it’s the only possible way to peace. And you feel happy. Like I did. (3)
Hickey approaches his attempted conversions of the regulars at Harry’s with unrivaled zeal, and he doles out a whole lot of tough love. At times, this guy comes off like a daytime TV talk show host. He says he has all the answers, but then just makes people yell at each other a lot. Most importantly, though, Hickey turns out to be a murderer.
He claims he killed his wife Evelyn to “give her peace and free her from the misery of loving me” (4), but really he just had to destroy her pipe dream. Hickey cheated on his wife, lied to her, and broke his promises, but she kept on loving him and believed he could become a better man. Hickey hated her for that even if he’s unwilling to admit it or if he blames it on being insane.
There’s something to be said for Hickey’s charms. Though they turn against him throughout the play, the regulars at Harry’s side with Hickey in the end. Now that they realize they can live their lives just like they used to, they shout out words of support to Hickey as the cops drag him off to jail. It’s a testament to Hickey’s command of the language, his love of a good joke, and his willingness to shell out money for drinks that, despite everything that’s happened, he’ll be remembered fondly.