The Iceman Cometh

O'Neill, Eugene

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Aug-17-2001


This study of the anatomy of alcoholism, its spectrum and individual manifestations, is set in a skid row bar/hotel in 1912. The bar is peopled by a collection of society's failures: drifters, pimps, police informers, former anarchists, failed con-artists, ex-soldiers, and prostitutes. The patrons, in various stages of inebriation, await the annual arrival of the big-spending, happy-go-lucky salesman binge drinker, Hickey, whom the pipe-dreaming losers anticipate will treat them to hours of merriment and free-flowing liquor on the occasion of his birthday.

Hickey does, in fact, arrive, a bit late and very sober. He claims to have seen the light and to desire to help his old drinking buddies dump their pipe-dreams and return to productive lives. The reaction of the folks, the results of their attempts to buy into Hickey's sales-pitch, and an unanticipated homicide and surprise suicide, round out the drama.


This may be one of the most comprehensive views of the spectrum of down and out drunks. Some of the exchanges are comic in their underlying tragedy, others very astute in the examination of motivations and outcomes of end-stage alcohol consumption. Among the characters are those the reader could honestly urge to go forth and try life again as well as those it is very easy to give up on.

The effects of alcohol on relationships is presented in a variety of frames: spousal, parent-child, old friendships and ancient cultural animosities. For the reader who is interested in examining possible variants on the theme of alcoholism in the early 20th century in urban American, this play is a good place to begin.


Originally copyrighted, 1940; first published: 1946.


Vintage International

Place Published

New York



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