in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh

Chapter 14, Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp.  221-235.


Just as Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard have become classic cases of critical blundering because the plays deviate from normal genre expectations, so too has Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh become a playground for critical hobby-horse riding. In O’Neill’s case, the eccentricities of the author, the abnormalities of his upbringing, and the psychological theories of his times all become suitable by-paths down which criticism can wander without ever coming to grips with the pattern and design of the script itself. The phenomenon is not much different from Stanislavski’s inability to understand Cherry Orchard because he was too easily caught up in its social relevance to a radically changed Russia or from modern criticism’s tendency to elevate Shylock to the role of tragic hero to defend Shakespeare from a charge of vicious anti-Semitism. In all these cases, the author’s experimentation with dramatic form is difficult to penetrate unless the critic looks for the unifying effects of total patterning in accordance with the dictates of properly defined comedy. Without that proper definition, criticism wanders into irrelevance and impertinence.

In The Iceman Cometh we find a social comedy analogous to that of Twelfth Night. As in all social comedy, Iceman does not depend on a hero or other single, central role. Its pattern can be fully understood only as sombre comedy; that is, the pattern not only demonstrates human survival but also emphasizes the continual cost of such survival. Without the guidance of these two generic distinctions, critics of The Iceman Cometh have routinely distorted the import of the play or moved into areas of critical investigation tangential to the central direction of the play.

We can resist these tangential paths by recognizing them for what they are. We can be interested in O’Neill’s own personality and its possible portrayal in Larry and Willie Oban, but only if we refuse to let that become the meaning of the play itself.  We can be interested in O’Neill’s theme of prostitutes and its embodiment in Pearl, Margie, and Cora, but only if we recognize that, whatever psychological aberration or insight it represents in O’Neill, that aberration or insight is not the play. We may examine the love-hate relationships that motivate virtually every character in this “psychologistic” play without confusing the love-hate theme with the meaning and direction of the play itself. All of these interests may be accommodated in the analysis of the total pattern of the play, but none of them is the pattern in itself.

As often happens for experimental plays, the practical criticism of The Iceman Cometh has often focused on the question, Which is the central role of the play? This question is always good for provoking hours of discussion among intelligent theatregoers and equally incapable of final solution. In Merchant of Venice, there were at least four possible solutions to this problem:  Portia, Bassanio, Antonio, and Shylock. In Twelfth Night, there may be almost a dozen. In The Cherry Orchard, we can choose between Lyubov and Lopakhin with perhaps a few votes for the young lovers, Trofimov and Anya. Now in The Iceman Cometh, one finds critics nominating Hickey, Larry, or even Parritt for the star and normally tragic role of the play. The insistence on a star role is, of course, a carryover from the nineteenth century, when poor lighting except for the limelight created a need to define plays as basically one-character affairs with supporting roles played in the shadows. It was the kind of star-oriented theatre that Eugene O’Neill’s father represented, the kind of theatre that O’Neill himself did so much to transform or destroy. Yet the practice of asking the question goes on.

Eric Bentley’s remarks in his preface to Eugene O’Neill for Major Writers of America typify the usual answer to the question of central role:


Our story would normally be dramatic so long as we think of our men—Hickey and Parritt—as seeking punishment as we understand punishment and, after all, one of them is heading for what we take as the very embodiment of punishment under its usual definition: the electric chair. But if life is not a blessing, death is not a punishment: in which case The Iceman has a happy ending!

We suffer some confusion of the feelings as to the direction, happy or unhappy, in which the main characters are traveling, but, in a very clever play, O’Neill does something very clever about this: Hickey’s punishment is over before the cops arrive; Parritt’s punishment is over before he kills himself. By that token, their punishment takes place before our eyes during our whole evening at the theatre.[i]


The insistence that Hickey and Parritt are the main characters—our men—is never backed beyond the mere assertion. From there, it is merely a matter of figuring out how these men can be the main characters and how we as audience can still have the appropriated emotional reaction. The awkwardness in such a solution is that it leaves out so much of the play. So much, in fact, that a paragraph later Bentley is covering some of his tracks:


The worst fate of all is to lose your illusions and live on. This fate is reserved for Larry Slade—whom, on this interpretation as on others, we find to be the central figure in the composition.[ii]


Thus, we find both “main characters” and a “central figure” in Bentley’s interpretation. This, of course, leaves little room in the limelight for other characters. The crew at Harry Hope’s dive—a crew that takes up perhaps 75 percent of the stage time—is thus relegated to the role of chorus. With a bow to Aristotle, Bentley is even willing to allow this chorus to have some of the characteristics of a character: “Aristotle said that the chorus should be regarded as a character in the play.”[iii] If it then seems to us that we don’t react to all these individuals, individually drawn, as a chorus, Bentley is prepared generously to admit: “That the average spectator at The Iceman is not forced to think of a ‘chorus’ at all but can just think of men shows something good about the play.”[iv]

There is little sense or enlightenment in these suggestions that the main characters are not central, that the central figure is not among the main characters, the wife-killers and stool pigeons are “our men” in the play, and that a chorus that no average audience could consider a chorus makes an outstanding chorus nevertheless. This is nothing more than piecemeal interpretation, interpretation that has failed to see an overall design and reacts instead to individual characters in a largely subjective manner. We can start from a much simpler and sounder base if we consider the pattern of the whole play, which embraces greater and lesser roles and is greater than any of the roles themselves.

If we make such an assumption, we can proceed step by step through Iceman with little need for star roles and extraordinary assertions about the relative importance of the roles. In Act I, we are introduced at great length to the normal situation at Harry Hope’s hotel. (Indeed, the reader is given a great deal more of an introduction than the theatregoer, who is spared the copious stage notes.) It is quickly apparent that we are watching people at the depths of drunken depravity, men totally given to booze and to pipe dreams on which to live until the next moment, the next hour, or the next drink. Only Larry Slade stands out as somewhat different than his fellows; only he is seen awake at the opening curtain; only he takes a philosophic, detached, and pitying view of the lives sinking into oblivion around him.

This particular morning in the summer of 1912 is exceptional for two reasons. First, a new boarder has arrived at Harry Hope’s, Don Parritt, an acquaintance of Larry’s from his former life as a member of an anarchistic movement on the West Coast. Second, all the denizens are awaiting the arrival of Theodore Hickman (Hickey), a well-to-do salesman who always manages to time his periodical binge to coincide with Harry Hope’s birthday, now only a day away. Hickey’s binges are a high point in the year at Harry Hope’s, and all await his arrival and the ensuing flood of free drinks.

Beneath the tedious start of the play, O’Neill is attempting to make an important but easily overlooked point. This dive is the lowest in New York, but its people survive. Their survival doesn’t seem like much, and it may even escape our notice until we have spent four hours in the theatre watching it. At that point, we may decide that O’Neill is not simply trying to drive his audience “bughouse” with a play that needs savage cutting. He may instead be meticulously asserting that the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s do survive from day to day in a mysterious way. If we are kept in our seats during this seemingly interminable performance, it is largely because we are fascinated to see a society that can exist and, in a sense, even flourish, at the bottom of the sea. It becomes clear that this society has not only managed to survive the twenty years since Bess Hope’s death, but also that it has developed its own particular ambience and is attracting more and more of the world’s down-and-outers. It has recently acquired three relics from the Boer Wars and is picking up a new generation, epitomized in the two barkeeps, the girls, and Willie Oban.

Don Parritt at first seems to be just another addition to Hope’s down-and-out society, but he rapidly proves himself incapable of that role. For the rest of the play, he is ignored or disdained by everyone in the bar except Larry Slade, the man who most wishes to ignore him. Hickey, on the other hand, represents another accommodation the group is willing to make—the addition of a part-time “periodical” to their general society.

Looking closely, we see that the social ambiance is based on several smaller groupings. These groups are represented in part by their placement on stage at the opening curtain—Larry with Hugo; Cecil, Piet, and Jimmy Tomorrow together at another table—and partly by the social relationships which are revealed to us—the symbiotic relationship between Rocky and Pearl and Margie, Chuck’s romantic involvement with Cora, Harry’s in-law relationship with Mosher, and Mosher’s con-artist relationship with McGloin. A few members of the society have no immediately apparent relationship to the rest and seem to be drifters from one conversation—if it can be called that—to another. Willie Oban is thought of as the “Prince” and is superior in education and intelligence. Joe Mott, the one-time proprietor of a Black gambling house, is separated by race.

By the end of Act I, we have not only seen this full society and its various subgroups, we have also seen the mechanics that keep it going and even growing in its own peculiar way. We find that every denizen of Harry Hope’s lives on a combination of rotgut liquor and pipe dream. Of the two, it is the pipe dream that is indispensable. Rotgut is effective only if constantly administered. Hugo Kalmar is the most thoroughly dependent on a continual comatose alcoholic existence, but even he needs pipe dreams in those moments when intelligence fights through inebriation.

It is not enough, however, for each character to invent a pipe dream. A pipe dream is unconvincing if it does not have outside verification. Thus, each of the boarders looks to others to corroborate his or her dream. Sometimes, this corroboration is a natural process of one pipe dream reinforcing and authenticating another. This is how the subgroups are formed. Thus, Harry Hope looks primarily to Mosher and McGloin for verification, and they look to him. If Harry can take a walk in the ward, his old accustomed place, then Mosher can apply for a job back in the circus and McGloin can ask to be reinstated in the police force. Rocky looks to Pearl and Margie to authenticate his pipe dream that he can live off them and still be a self-respecting barkeep; they look to him to prove that, because he is a barkeep and not a pimp, they are “tarts” and not “whores.” Piet looks to Cecil and Cecil to Piet to authenticate dreams in the future and in the past. Each looks to the other to authenticate the Boer Wars as a great international epic struggle rather than a grim little colonial squabble and for the proof that they can and will leave Harry Hope’s any day now for respectable jobs and a journey back to the home country. Jimmy Tomorrow is also in this group. He reinforces both Cecil and Piet and is himself comforted by them.

It would be a mistake to accept Larry Slade’s estimate of himself as outside this pattern. Larry is naturally related to Hugo, an ironic juxtaposition, since the two are at the extremes of inebriated unconsciousness and unimpaired sensitivity. Nevertheless, they are similar, having been part of the Movement on the West Coast. Hugo needs reassurance that the Movement, which finally dissociated itself from him, is in the wrong. And Larry needs the assurance that in dissociating himself from the movement, there was a perfectly defensible, philosophic justification. These two, then, reinforce each other’s’ dreams with hardly a word spoken. Larry reassures Hugo that when “The Revolution” comes, it will be Hugo’s Revolution, even though he will not be leading it. Hugo reassures Larry that there is a place for him in the “grandstand,” condemning the inadequacies of everyone while still pitying those immediately before him.

There remain a few characters, Willie and Joe, who do not belong to any of the groups because their dreams are not symbiotic with those of the other characters. Willie Oban, the brilliant, legally trained son of a convicted bucket-shop operator, dreams of establishing an independent legal career. This in some sense relates him to McGloin, who needs a lawyer to get reinstated on the police force. But no one wants to have a convict’s son arguing for his reinstatement. Thus, Oban and McGloin are not closely related, though sometimes McGloin does deign to reinforce Oban anyway. Joe’s pipe dream is to regain the Black gambling establishment he lost and to be truly “white,” a man too feared and respected for his race to be held against him, at least in the slums of the West Side. Because Joe’s pipe dream can be reinforced by any of the white boarders, he moves between groups, more subservient than the rest, enjoying a unique position in which he must give general aid and be generally reinforced.

Thus, we find not only that the boarders live on pipe dream, but that their survival is dependent on a social understanding and upon social reinforcement. In this sense, there is less distance between The Iceman Cometh and Twelfth Night than between Twelfth Night and Volpone.  Still, we must go one step further, in understanding the survival and “prosperity” of the boarders. Inevitably, expected reinforcement is sometimes denied.

In O’Neill’s work, this refusal to give natural reinforcement is itself one of the most natural of phenomena. For in O’Neill, everyone is motivated by opposing sentiments of love and hate, both for himself and for everyone else. When hate dominates, natural reinforcement immediately metamorphoses into the most bitter and underhanded forms of attack. And for the boarders at Harry Hope’s, reasons abound for love to suddenly change to a disgusted hate, both of oneself and one’s fellows who have allowed one to sink so low.

In other words, there is a normal, daily, even hourly threat to the ambience at Harry Hope’s. In Act I, it is Harry himself who is a grouch and who turns savagely on one boarder after another, asking to be paid up for all the back rent. Because this demand threatens all the boarders, it would seem natural that they would unite against Harry’s attack. In fact, Mosher and McGloin try to form a united front for quite a while, showing that this simple solution sometimes works in this society. To argue that this mutual assistance is the ultimate answer, however, is far too simple an assertion for this play. Rather, O’Neill forces us to realize that Harry’s grouchiness can strike a sympathetic chord of self- and mutual-hatred in other characters. Thus, when hope attacks Cecil, we hear:


HOPE:                    You can’t joke with me! How much room rent do you owe me, tell me that?

LEWIS:                   Sorry. Adding has always baffled me. Subtraction is my forte.

HOPE (snarling):    Arrh! Think you’re funny! Captain, bejees! Showing off your wounds! Put on your clothes, for Christ’s sake! This ain’t no Turkish bath!

                             Lousy Limey army! Took ‘em years to lick a gang of Dutch hayseeds!

WETJOEN:              Dot’s right, Harry. Gif him hell!

HOPE:                    No lip out of you, neither, you Dutch spinach! General, hell! Salvation Army, that’s what you’s ought t’been General in! Bragging what a        shot you were. . . .[v]


In such situations when hatred threatens to destroy the whole fabric of the society at Harry Hope’s, drink does not offer protection because it takes too long and is too unpredictable. Immediate action needs to be taken to preserve the fragile shell of society. The boarders at Harry Hope’s have perfected two strategies to neutralize such threats. The first, exemplified in the above exchange, is that the attacker does not follow up his attack when reinforced, but rather turns on his own reinforcer. Thus, when Wetjoen enters on Harry’s side, Harry quickly leaves off badgering Lewis and turns on his new ally instead. This device is essentially a safety valve, allowing any vicious swipe at a pipe dream to be quickly forgotten in the swirling action of changing  sides and traded insults.

The problem with this device is that it does not end confrontation but only prolongs it and robs it of its full impact. To get back to real accord, the society needs a second technique—pitying intervention. When things get really bad, someone always supports the attacked character and calls for pity on the part of the attacker. Because all the characters are finally dependent on one another’s pity for reinforcement, this argument is the strongest possible and usually brings an almost immediate reconciliation. In Act I, this strategy is unnecessary. Everyone knows that Harry is a paper tiger. In some ways, they even enjoy his attacks, if only because they make the time pass and, perhaps more important, they allow the quick switching between love and hate that none of the characters can consistently repress. Later in the play, however, after Hickey has put everyone on edge and the society of Harry Hope’s is really threatening to disintegrate, the technique of pitying intervention becomes one of the society’s few available defenses.

In short, the boarders at Harry Hope’s are the survivors in the comedy of The Iceman Cometh. Their survival is dependent, ironically, on a number of ugly premises about human nature and a number of equally ugly methods of making time pass in a nightmare world of pipe-dream fantasy and inebriated reality. For all the ugliness, however, the comedic assertion is still there: The denizens of Harry Hope’s do survive and will survive throughout the virtual future of the play. What impresses us and what creates such darkness in the mood of the play is just how little that survival is worth. It is contingent on an acceptance of degeneracy in human nature, and of continual maneuvering and inebriation to avoid the pain of reality.

Our close attention to these characters should not imply that they are somehow the central or main characters of the play, nor should it imply that they are the sympathetic characters of the play; any normal audience must be repelled by as well as attracted to their portrayal. But since these characters are constantly onstage throughout all four acts, we must recognize their importance to the total design.

O’Neill turns our attention to other characters only after a half-hour of presenting the regular denizens of Harry Hope’s. In the first act Parritt is onstage, but his psychology is barely discernible. By the end of Act I, Hickey has arrived and, to the dismay of all the boarders, is in a far different frame of mind than has been expected. Rather than supporting everyone’s pipe dream, he has an evangelist’s zeal to get all the borders to face reality. He is convinced that until the boarders give up their dreams, they will never be free from the guilt they feel for their degenerate lives. Only when they have given up every “lying pipe dream” will they be free, according to Hickey, to live beyond guilt and beyond the pain of constant self-deception.

From Act I to Act IV, a tension is maintained between the social ambience established at Harry Hope’s and Hickey’s proposed messianic salvation.  Because Hickey is a man of exceptional social talent and because he has thoroughly analyzed all the boarders at Harry Hope’s, he is indeed a formidable adversary. With infinite patience, he uses the love-hate relationships among the boarders to force them to act out their pipe dreams and to see whether they live in a world of fantasy corroborated by fellow winos, or in a world of objective, self-corroborating reality. Harry is beguiled into taking his walk through the ward; McGloin into going down to ask for reinstatement in the police force; Mosher into asking for his old job at the circus; Chuck and Cora into getting married and going to Jersey.

By the end of Act III, it is clear that Hickey’s solution has not worked; he has not been able to guarantee the peace he promised. Hickey has destroyed the old ambience without bringing peace to take its place. Harry Hope’s complaint, “What did you do to the booze, Hickey? There’s no damned life left in it.” presents us with the clearest symbol of this destruction of the old life without replacement by a new one.

 By the start of Act IV, it seems that Hickey has destroyed the fragile social structure of Harry Hope’s dive beyond all hope of resurrection.  But in Act IV, we see that this conclusion is premature. Hickey, who is so convinced that he can live with reality without guilt, pipe dream, or rotgut, finds that he cannot live with other people who refuse to accept his solution to life. In fact, he has never had a solution for living at peace with the world.  Before he shot his wife, Evelyn, he existed with pipe dreams of a tomorrow when he would reform and live up to Evelyn’s expectations. After, he has lived with the pipe dream that he has faced reality and found the answer to peaceful living.

When it turns out that the crew at Hope’s cannot find Hickey’s promised peace and cannot reinforce his pipe dream, HJickey finally accepts reality and calls the police to take him away. Hickey has found that it is not possible to live in the real world. He recognizes how terrible he has been to his wife. He recognizes his defeat in bringing peace to the boarders. Hickey is not capable of living for very long with these realities.


I remember I heard myself speaking to her, as if it was something I’d always wanted to say: “Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!” (He s tops with a horrified start, as if shocked out of a nightmare, as if he couldn’t believe he heard what he had just said. He stammers) No! I never—! . . . No! That’s a lie! I never said—! Good God, I couldn’t have said that! If I did, I’d gone insane! Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life! (He appeals brokenly to the crowd) Boys, you’re all my old pals! You’ve known old Hickey for years! You know I’d never— (His eyes fix on Hope) You’ve known me longer than anyone, Harry. You know I must have been insane, don’t you, Governor?[vi]


Harry Hope justifies his names of Hope and Governor by recognizing the opportunity to resurrect the old world that Hickey has disturbed. Hickey is not strong enough to live in the real world. Hope offers to corroborate Hickey’s new pipe dream in exchange for Hickey’s assertion that forcing the boarders to go out and confront their dreams was, itself, insane.


HOPE (At first with the same defensive callousness—without looking at him): Who the hell cares? (Then suddenly he looks at Hickey and there is an extraordinary change in his expression. His face lights up, as if her were grasping at some dawning hope in his mind. He speaks with a groping eagerness) Insane? You mean—you went really insane? (At the tone of his voice, all the group at the tables by him start and stare at him as if they caught his thought. Then they all look at Hickey eagerly, too.)


Hickey is enough of a psychologist to see Hope’s intent and enough an evangelist to fight the destruction of his work.


Now, Governor! Up to your old tricks, eh? I see what you’re driving at, but I can’t let you get away with —[vii]


But Hickey is no long able to live in the light of reality and quickly submits:


(Then as Hope’s expression turns to resentful callousness again and he looks away, he [Hickey] adds hastily with pleading desperation) Yes, Harry, of course, I’ve been out of my mind ever since! All the time. I’ve been here! You saw I was insane, didn’t you?[viii]


And Harry, the natural politician, comes quickly to the saving solution:


. . . if you’d heard all the crazy bull he was pulling about bringin’ us peace—like a bughouse preacher escaped from an asylum! If you’d seen all the damned-fool things he made us do! We only did them because— (He hesitates—then definitely) Because we hoped he’d come out of it if we kidded him along and humored him. (He looks around at the others.) Ain’t that right, fellers? (They burst into a chorus of eager assent: ‘Yes, Harry!” “That’s it, Harry!” “That’s why!” “We knew he was crazy! “Just to humor him.”)[ix]


It is clear, a few pages later, that Harry has restored the old order. The booze does again begin to inebriate; the boarders go back to their old pipe dreams, their old mutual reinforcement, and their old daily confrontation with the pain and tension of a “normal,” ongoing, love-hate relationship with themselves and everyone around them. However much we agree with Hickey’s diagnosis of the degenerating lives at Harry Hope’s, the structure of the entire play compels us to realize that Hickey is a comedic blocking figure or villain, a man who must be removed, because he brings only death. Within the structure of Iceman, such a figure cannot remain on stage; he must be ritually punished and expelled so that the proven viable pattern of society can be reasserted. That pattern is not the frail thing we had thought it to be. Rather, it is one of the strongest of human survival patterns, retreating in the face of uncompromising reality, but always ready to reassert itself when reality becomes unbearable and when attacking figures like Hickey find themselves in need of the reinforcement that only shared fantasy can provide.

Thematically, one of the most interesting things about Iceman is the implicit comparison between Hickey and Christ. O’Neill’s is a world without a real hope beyond the grave, equally without the hope of supernatural strengthening during the present life. The human race is left weak and purposeless. The social structure of Harry Hope’s hotel is an authentic response to such ultimate realities. However self-distorting, it is one of the few conceivable ways for people to face both their weakness and their meaningless existences. Hickey enters the social structure with the promise of a better life, a salvation bringing peace and comfort. O’Neill presses the parodic analogy to Christ’s ministry throughout the play, down to such small details as Hickey bringing the champagne, reminiscent of Christ providing the best wine at the marriage of Cana. But O’Neill is careful to show that Hickey’s evangelistic faith has just the opposite effect of Christ’s ministry. While Christ brings “life and that more abundantly,” Hickey brings death to the society, which Hope must later resurrect. In the Gospel account the majordomo asked the bridegroom at Cana, “Why have you saved the best wine for last?” In Iceman Hope asks Hickey,” What did you do to the booze, Hickey? There’s no damned life left in it.” The parodic messianic theme, however, is not the play or even the meaning of the play. The theme is only a consistent part of the total patterning, a patterning that demonstrates the survival quality of the denizens’ pipe dreams while it shows the inadequacies of Hickey’s solution and the continuing cost of such survival.

This patterning brings us to Parritt and Larry. Parritt embodies what could have happened to all the boarders if they had accepted Hickey’s solution of living without a pipe dream. Parritt has struggled, ever since he turned his mother in to the police, to live with the reality of what he has done. By the time he gets to Harry Hope’s, he is rejecting the pipe dream that denies the reality of what has happened. He quickly abandons the alternate pipe dream that he has not really been involved in his mother’s arrest. It is harder for him to discard the pipe dream that he really didn’t mean to hurt his mother and that hatred had no part in motivating his action. But Parritt is a man driven to look reality in the face, and he has come to Larry with the subconscious, self-hating desire for Larry to expose his true motivations and pass judgment upon him. In this sense, Parritt serves a function exactly opposite that of Hugo Kalmar. Hugo reinforces Larry’s pipe dream that he can sit on the sidelines as a pitying spectator who refuses to act and to condemn. Parritt continually challenges Larry’s spectator stance, continually asks Larry to see through the disguise and to pass moral judgment.

When Larry finally does pass moral judgment, of course, Parritt has no choice but to commit suicide. The comedic point is obvious. People, at least very exceptional ones like Parritt or Hickey, may briefly have the strength to look at reality but will not have the strength to live with such a reality; they will only prove human weakness by dying when they face the truth.

Larry too is an exceptional man, forced to look at the truth, at least for a moment. He decides that Parritt needs judgment and that the judgment calls for death. In so doing, he separates himself forever from the other denizens of the hotel:


(In a whisper of horrified pity) Poor devil! (A long-forgotten faith returns to him for a moment and he mumbles) God rest his soul in peace. (He opens his eyes—with a bitter self-derision) Ah, the damned pity—the wrong kind, as Hickey said! Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstand—or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! (With an intense bitter sincerity) May that day come soon! (He pauses startledly, surprised at himself—then with a sardonic grin) Be God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here. From the bottom of my coward’s heart I mean that now![x]


Larry, of course, has made a profession of looking forward to death, which Hickey considers the most sophisticated of pipe dreams. It is possible that here, in the final page of the script, Larry is returning to that pipe dream. Bur O’Neill’s stage directions are probably his sincerest attempt to tell us that that is not the case. Larry has really been won over to the pursuit of death. He really is a coward, afraid to make any moral decision while aware that things often need condemnation and afraid to seek death as Parritt and Hickey have sought it. Ironically, as such he is not fit company for the rest of the boarders, who are courageous enough to accept the pain of continual self-delusion.

Thus from a technical point of view, Parritt is a fool, a man incapable of learning the accepted means of survival. Larry, technically, unlearns survival and becomes something of a fool himself. As so often happens in sombre comedy, we respond to neither of these characters in the normal, insensitive way with which we respond to the fools of light comedy. And while fools are often carried along in the reconciliation of a light comedic ending, with only the suggestion that they will remain outside full inclusion in the society, Parritt kills himself, and Larry indicates that his place in the structure of society has been destroyed. There may come a time when there are enough such characters from enough sombre comedies to justify new terms to represent them as much deeper characters than those who survive. To understand O’Neill’s genius, however, it will still be necessary to recognize them as only a part of a much larger pattern, and to recognize O’Neill’s implied statement. In our weak, degenerate condition, the human race is capable of survival only through constant pain, self-delusion, and the creation of a sustaining society that corroborates our self-sustaining fantasies.


See alsoSombre Comedy:  Comedy in a New Mood, Chap. 3, page 6. 


[i] Eric Bentley, “Eugene O’Neill,” Major Writers of America, edited by Perry Miller (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), p. 574.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid, p. 573.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid. p. 589.

[vi] Ibid. p. 636.

[vii] Ibid. pp. 636-37.

[viii] Ibid. p. 637.

[ix] Ibid. p. 640.

[x] Ibid.