A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Iceman Cometh

"The Iceman Cometh" was revived in London and brought to Broadway last season, with Kevin Spacey as Hickey. "Iceman" may seem to run a lifetime, but then it does encompass life and death   In Harry Hope's bar earlier this century, the seedy inhabitants have only their illusions, or "pipe dreams,"  to keep them alive.  With the help of liquor and companionship,  each recalls a meaningful  past  and resolves upon action -- but in the future.  In the present, however, they wait.  As the play opens, they await the arrival of salesman Hickey offering  stale jokes (including the one about the wife and the iceman) and free drinks.

   Interviewed before the play's initial opening in 1946, O'Neill described the first act as a "hilarious comedy....a big kind of comedy that doesn't stay funny very long...the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on."  He attempted to explain his approach to Theater Guild producer Laurence Langner:   "There are moments in it that suddenly strip the soul . . . stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself.  These moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more that can possibly be said."

Hickey's visit is less and more than the denizens of the saloon expected.  This time he is selling them salvation by destroying their illusions as he has destroyed his own about his wife.  Hickey has killed his wife, he reveals, to destroy her pipe dream that he was a good man, worthy of her forgiveness. His pipe dream is that he loved his wife, until he confesses that as he killed her he told her, "You know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch."  Immediately, Hickey retracts this slip: "I couldn't have said that.  I loved Evelyn."  He departs  with the police, still holding onto the pipe dream of loving his wife.

  Goaded by Hickey,  the men and women in the bar accept their hopelessness, and are plunged into the despair they have kept at bay --  the liquor has no "kick" and  the bar seems "a morgue."  Each goes forth to face reality -- with disastrous results -- and each returns to the sanctuary of the saloon to offer a "face-saving version of his experience when he went out to confront his pipe dreams."  With the help of liquor, they recover their illusions .  All but Larry in a memorable performance by Tim Piggott-Smith.  Larry, who knows that "the lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten lot of us," has clung to the illusion that he is uninvolved, detached.  But by the end, he has sent Don Parritt to his death.  Facing the truth about himself, a truth that means death,  Larry acknowledges that he is "the only convert to death Hickey made here."

In a remarkably skillful performance, Kevin Spacey intelligently built the character of salesman Hickey from the anticipated joviality  to the evangelical sales pitch for the biggest sale of his life:   selling the group on reality.  Their conversion spells destruction for the fragile inhabitants of   "the No Chance Saloon . . . Bedrock Bar, the End of the Line Cafe. . . the last harbor." (Larry's description)  Spacey avoided the temptation to make Hickey likable; even  his first speeches had a sinister motif that finally became the major theme.  With great attention to detail, British director Howard Davies  achieved the necessary ensemble effect for the inhabitants of the bar; this is a play which demands focus on both the group as a whole and the individuals, an effect Davies brought off to perfection.  What a pity O'Neill could not live to see this "Iceman."  He often complained about  the productions of his plays, including the l946 "Iceman," with Eddie Dowling directing and James Barton miscast as Hickey.  Of the final scene in this production, O'Neill remarked, "If our American acting and direction cannot hold this scene up without skimping it, then to hell with our theater."