What Dreams May (Never ) Come: Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

IcemanComethI can only think of three texts I’ve ever read more than once, and one of them is Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh.

This play centers around a dozen or so people who hang around a bar all day, obsessing over their pipe dreams. They are all sure that their lives are going to change as soon they actually take action…tomorrow. But of course, tomorrow never comes (one character later literally says, “Don’t you see, there is no tomorrow!” long before Apollo Creed shouted those words at Rocky Balboa in Rocky III). In fact, one of the characters is nicknamed Johnny Tomorrow, although the nickname could apply to any of them. But their pleasant delusions are shattered when an old friend named Hickey, who previously was just like them, returns a changed man. He actually has changed his life, but not by fulfilling his pipe dream. No, he’s abandoned all hope in his pipe dream and sees that it has only ever held him back. And he’s eager to bring the same peace he feels now to all his friends.

But O’Neill understands that you can dream away life for so long that you forget how to live. More than that, you might find dreaming life is much more fulfilling than living it, especially when dreaming is all you have.

Reading this text (or watching it on stage or on film, like this version on youtube that I’d highly recommend) is a profound experience. On the one hand, The Iceman Cometh is deeply American. The pipe dreamers are each bound by their private version of the archetypal American dream, and the fact that they themselves are their only obstacle adds an absurd, almost Beckettian quality to the whole play. But while you could read the play as a critique of the American dream, it resonates just as deeply today, when far more people are suspicious of such grand narratives about progress. That’s because this story isn’t fundamentally about society but individuals and their dreams, which is a relationship that everyone can understand, regardless of time or place. It’s a theme that was explored in many of Dostoevsky’s works, including Notes from Underground (the subject of this blog post) and O’Neill’s play frequently achieves the same level of intensity as Dostoevsky’s novels. In fact, while doing research on this play, I twice came across people who called him “the American Shakespeare.” That’s quite a title, but of the many adjectives I’d use to describe this play, Shakespearean is certainly one of them, especially when it comes to Hickey’s famous final speech.

That speech doesn’t just sum up the central warning of the play – it’s also a haunting analysis of a man tormented by unfulfillable dreams (Dostoevsky called this kind of character “the dreamer”). Frankly, I would recommend reading or watching this play just for that speech alone. But there is far more here as well, as every single character is grappling with their own struggles, and they remind us that everyone is the main character in their own lives. Even the bums here who do nothing but drink and sit around a bar have stories worth telling. And, lucky for us, Eugene O’Neill tells these stories in an unforgettable and riveting way.

So go read it. Now.

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