A Story is a Promise & Deep Characterization


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is a Promise

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The Iceman Cometh -- A Review

by Bill Johnson
A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill is a brilliant play that explores a very painful emotional terrain: what people tell themselves to get through another day. Although the characters in this play are singularly broken humans, their clinging to a dignity that exists in a better tomorrow always one day away speaks profoundly to how many people get through their lives.

This review explores how O'Neill constructed his play, using the Vintage paperback edition. Page numbers correspond to that version of the play.

The Review

The play opens in a back room of Harry Hope's saloon. It is the last stop before utter destitution and death for a number of men and women. Harry, the owner, is an irascible alcoholic who warmly tolerates a collection of borders who don't pay for their rooms and live for the free drinks he offers. Both of his bartenders double as pimps, but the bartenders, Rocky and Chuck, claim only to be hard-working men protecting "tarts," the women who work as prostitutes and turn over their money to them.

The play opens with Rocky offering a drink of Harry's rotgut whiskey to Larry, the philosopher in residence. Rocky, speaking about Harry's most recent tirade about no free drinks,

"Not a damned drink on the house," he tells me, "and all dese bums got to pay up deir rent. Beginnin' tomorrow," he says.

Larry,

I'll gladly pay up--tomorrow. And I know my fellow inmates will promise the same. They've all a touching credulity concerning tomorrows."

Larry, in his next exchange with Rocky,

"The lie of the pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober."

What Larry refers to here goes to the heart of these characters -- how they manage to get by day to day by lying to themselves about who they are and the promise the future holds for them. It also goes directly to the heart of setting up what's going to be the story's story question:

Can Hickey, expected soon to celebrate Harry's birthday, compel these men to give up their pipe dreams and admit they'd been lying to themselves about who they are?

Because this issue is at the heart of his story, O'Neill sets it up as soon as the play opens, i.e., the opening doesn't revolve simply around introducing characters, it revolves around setting out the story's promise.

In terms of structure, there is a second point that should be noted. By beginning with most of the characters on stage unconscious, O'Neill found a way to introduce them through Rocky and Larry. This makes identifying each character and their issue and how they tie into the story's overall promise easier to follow. We know from our introduction to Rocky and Larry, then, that this will be a story about pipe dreams, that Rocky cheerfully is cocooned inside his, and that Larry sees himself as a man who's given up his particular pipe dream, unlike the others. The dramatic question this sets up,

What will it take to pry Rocky and Larry from their pipe dreams? The author sets up this question without directly stating it as a question.

Larry again,

"I took a seat in the grandstand of philosophical detachment to fall asleep (wait for death) observing the cannibals do their death dance."

Story note, O'Neill doesn't use dialogue to allude to the kind of man Larry is. He doesn't use dialogue to make a veiled reference to it. He doesn't use dialogue to create a symbol or a metaphor about Larry. He uses dialogue to make who and what Larry is stand out in bold relief. That quickly orients the audience to what's at stake for Larry's character. Like many great writers, O'Neill cuts to the chase.

The play continues with another character coming conscious for just a few moments to accuse Rocky of owning "slave girls." This gives Larry an opening to get another drink by assuaging Rocky that he's a bartender, not a pimp. It also sets up the expected arrival of Hickey, a traveling salesman due for a drunken binge to celebrate Harry's birthday. Again, the continuing measured pace that introduces characters and issues in a way that moves the story forward. Since Hickey is the one who will challenge the others about their pipe dreams, his introduction comes ahead of introducing the characters already on stage but unconscious.

The play continues with its measured, brisk introduction of characters, setting out each character's particular pipe dream. Introduced through Joe, a denizen of the bar, is that a young man, Parrit, has arrived and taken a room above the bar. Larry knows Parrit from his days in the leftist movement, but denies he's any kind of friend. He then reveals he long ago one of Parrit's mother's lovers, and she is a radical arrested recently for a bombing that killed several people. When Rocky asks Larry for more information, Larry responds,

"I'm telling you I don't know and I don't want to know. To hell with the Movement and all connected with it! I'm out of it, and everything else, and damned glad to be."

Parrit then makes an appearance and lies about the fact he has money.

Story note, Parrit's arrival begins to create dramatic pressure around Larry getting by with his pipe dream of being in the grandstands of life. O'Neill doesn't wait for the end of his introduction of the story's characters to begin escalating the story's drama around this question of what it will take to compel Larry to give up his pipe dream.

Parrit asks Larry to explain what kind of place Harry's saloon is. This explanation offers the audience background information about the bar, its denizen, and Hickey.

Story note, O'Neill sets his story strongly into motion first, then offers background information. Struggling writers invert the process, offering background information, character detail and setting up their plot, only then beginning their story.

Parrit then tells Larry how grateful he is that he's found Larry, that Larry is someone who'll understand. When Larry asks, "understand what?" Parrit becomes evasive. The audience is cued that there's an issue here for Parrit, but it will come out in a later revelation.

Story note, Parrit is designed to be a character who forces Larry to see that he's not in the grandstands of life, that that's his pipe dream. That's Parrit's dramatic purpose in the play. Hence, he is on the scene quite quickly after Larry's introduction.

Larry and Parrit continue to talk about their lives. Larry also offers Parrit some background information about the other men passed out around the barroom. Again, O`Neill keeps to a measured pace of introducing his story and his characters in a way that it's easy to assimilate who they are.

The play continues as characters drift out of hangovers to consciousness. Each talks about their life in a way that sets out their particular pipe dream.

When Rocky's two girls arrive, it's just in time for many of the other denizens in the bar to drift back to sleep. A natural way to turn over the stage to the new players to introduce them and their issues. Like the men, the women live in their pipe dreams. Pearl, one of Rocky's girls, accidentally refers to him as a "pimp," which threatens to set off Rocky, but the girls live and let live. Rocky's not a pimp, they're "tarts," not prostitutes.

Chuck and Cora, whose pipe dream is marriage and a farm in "Joisey," are the next denizens to arrive. They also bring news. They've seen Hickey, and he can be expected shortly. With the news of Hickey's imminent arrival, everyone starts coming to. Hickey's arrival means the beginning of a week-long bender.

Story note, now that O'Neill has set his story into motion and introduced his characters, he quickly brings Hickey onto the scene.

Hickey comes in to a rousing greeting that quickly turns to incredulity when he announces he no longer drinks. The reason, according to Hickey, is he's finally killed the pipe dream that has ruled his life and for the first time has found real peace. Hickey soon lets on that his purpose in coming to see Harry and the others is to help them get over their pipe dreams and find the same peace he's discovered. The others are incredulous, unsure, uneasy.

When Larry challenges Hickey, Parrit joins in with Hickey in protesting that Larry also lives a pipe dream, one that he's in denial about.

Hickey falls asleep, and one of the denizens comes up with a story that seems to explain Hickey's odd behavior. It lightens the moment, until Act One ends with Hickey waking long enough to say,

"...all I want is to see you happy."

Act One ends with the others looking uneasily at Hickey.

All the issues of this story have been put into play in this first act and it ends on a note designed to powerfully pull the story's audience back.

What the story itself is about -- how and why people manage to live in denial being challenged by Hickey -- is fully into play. What's left open as a question is what exactly Hickey plans to do to bring people out of their denial. This is a major issue because struggling storytellers withhold what their story's about to create a revelation to climax each act of their play. O`Neill, on the other hand, sets out quite concretely what his story's about. What's set out to create a revelation is what exactly Hickey intends to do to bring this "peace" he's discovered to the others. It's an escalation of the drama around the course and outcome of the story, not a late revelation about the dramatic purpose of the story. It's an escalation because these particular characters have all found a measure of "peace" through clinging to their particular pipe dreams, and Hickey threatens that.

Act Two

Act Two opens with the surly denizens of the bar preparing for Harry's birthday party with a large cake and flowers bought by Hickey. The denizens are surly because Hickey has spent the day going around pushing them to actually act on their pipe dreams and find out who they are.

Story note, O`Neill leaves out Hickey going around to everyone and pointing out to them their true situation in life because the play isn't about that, it's about what happens when people are forced to actually resolve the lies -- the pipe dreams -- they created to get by. That's the dramatic purpose of the second act, so that's where it opens with these characters, when they are in the heat of the moment of confronting who they really are, not the build-up to that moment.

As each of the bar's denizens protest they really are going to go out the next day and fulfill their pipe dreams, the others derisively point out the absurdity of what they're talking about, while still maintaining that they themselves will follow through on their pipe dreams. It's a whole series of angry, evocative, sharp exchanges that highlight in bold relief just how desperate these people are to live in the denial that supports their lives.

Several times the bars denizens come to near blows as they each reveal the raw wounds Hickey's prodding has brought to the surface. It's Larry who points out that Hickey himself seems afraid of something, something he's not talking about. This is good plot work that foreshadows a later element of the play.

Story note, the exchanges that open Act Two don't revolve around setting up a revelation about Hickey's secret. That is merely another element to the story. It would skew the work if the exchanges revolved only around setting up a revelation for later in the story. Instead, the revelation is the depth to which these people cling to their denial. That's the dramatic purpose of the second act.

Hickey continues to insist that he's going to help Larry and the others find peace. Larry and Hickey spar about this "peace" he's bringing everyone until Parrit arrives. To Hickey's calculations, Parrit is the one who will force Larry to make a value judgment that shows Larry is not sitting in the grandstands of life at all.

Story note, because Larry speaks a voice of reason amidst the chaos, he becomes a kind of everyman. Through Larry, O'Neill sets out to prove that it's not only alcoholics and the dispossessed who lie to themselves; it's a condition that afflicts much of humanity.

Parrit goads Larry unmercifully, slowly dragging out of Larry his condemnation of Parrit's action in setting up his mother to go to prison. It turns out that Hickey has all the denizens of the bar turning on each other to point out everyone else's pipe dreams, or their fear of what will happen to them if Harry drops his pipe dream about not being afraid to leave the saloon.

Harry's birthday party, orchestrated by Hickey, turns into a disaster of bad feeling.

Story note, what was set up to be met with so much anticipation by the denizens of the bar -- Hickey's arrival and the blowout for Harry's party -- has turned to ashes in their mouths. A great example of foreshadowing.

Hickey takes the floor and swings into a long speech about the method behind his madness in trying to bring his friends to give up on their pipe dreams. Larry calls him on the fact that since Hickey always made jokes about the Iceman having sex with his beloved wife, perhaps that's what has brought on Hickey's odd behavior. Hickey feels forced to reveal a truth he's withheld, that his wife is quite recently deceased. At first the others offer Hickey their sympathy, but the act ends with Hickey replying,

"But now she is at peace like she always wanted to be. So why should I feel sad? She wouldn't want me to feel sad. Why, all that Evelyn ever wanted out of life was to make me happy."

This throws the denizens of the bar into a state of bewildered confusion and is the end of Act Two.

Story note, this is a story about the kind of denial people use to get by in life. The plot of the story revolves around Hickey showing up determined to bring everyone out of denial. The story's dramatic purpose has been clearly and potently set up around this issue of why people need to be in denial, as presented through Larry. In this way, the information about the death of Hickey's wife serves as both a revelation for the story's plot while it also advances the story along its story line.

In this second act O'Neill has clearly escalated the dramatic pressure around every character. The story has advanced from characters cheerfully living in denial to characters snarling at each other like cornered animals as they confront facing their pipe dreams.

Act Three

This act opens with Parrit continuing to force his life and his issue about what to do to resolve his guilt about betraying his mother onto Larry. Larry gives ground but can seemingly find no way to stop Parrit from intermeshing his life with Larry's.

For the others in the bar, this act revolves around their being compelled by Hickey to confront their pipe dreams. Harry, the owner of the saloon, grudgingly prepares to go for that walk around the neighborhood he hasn't taken in the twenty years since his wife died. Everyone sullenly and with vicious hangovers goes out to fulfill their pipe dreams. But as soon as Hickey gets Harry out the door, he admits to Rocky the bartender,

"Of course he's coming back. (Speaking of Harry fearfully returning to the bar). So are all the others. By tonight they'll all be here again. You dumbbell, that's the whole point."

When Harry returns to the bar with a report of a phantom automobile that almost ran him over, Hickey responds,

"Now, now Governor. Don't be foolish. You've faced the test and come through. You've rid yourself of all that nagging dream stuff now. You know you can't believe it any more."

Story point, Hickey believes that if he can bring eachdenizen of the bar out of denial about their particular pipe dreams, they'll find this peace he's promised.

But instead of finding peace, Harry says,

"Stay passed out, that's the right dope. There aren't any cool willow trees--except you grow your own in a bottle."

Larry taunts Hickey about this "peace" he's brought to Harry, but Hickey can't let go of the idea that at some point soon, Harry will be at peace with himself. Instead, Harry finds a new problem in his life: his rotgut booze no longer seems to have any effect. He drinks, but can't get drunk. He blames the effect on Hickey.

Story note, a great twist that Hickey has not only failed to bring peace, he's taken away what peace Harry could find in a bottle. Great story movement, this confounding of the confident Hickey's expectations.

It comes out that Hickey's wife was murdered. And now Larry fears that the real truth will come out, that Hickey murdered her. Parrit, beside Larry, finally admits that he sold out his mother to the authorities. The Third Act ends with a bewildered Hickey trying to understand why Harry has not yet found the peace Hickey has found with the death of his wife.

Story note, the looming note about the truth of how Hickey's wife died ends the act on a powerful note that literally compels the return of the story's audience.


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The full review of The Iceman Cometh can now be downloaded from Smashwords for .99 as a PDF, Kindle, or html. The review is part of a collection that includes reviews of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, The Heidi Chronicles, and Death of a Salesman.

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Information about Bill's plays.

I've created a site on YouTube called Oregon Writers Speak. It includes two clips by Elizabeth Lyon speaking about writing query letters and writing with voice and myself speaking about deep characterization, and playwright John Donnelly speaking about the craft of writing for the stage.