This is the play that started O’Neill’s last period, the tragically brief period in which he became the world-class dramatist many thought he already was. As such, The Iceman Cometh is a vital work. It is also a great play but not exactly as perfect as the other plays in the late period. It doesn’t have their lilting poetry or coherent structure. There are too many characters, some of whom are not well fleshed out. The dialogue can sound forced and there is too much of it at times. I say this being someone who usually relishes long, tangled dialogue in plays. The word “messy” is frequently unavoidable while reading The Iceman Cometh.
That being said, it is a play of enormous power. The many flaws just melt away in the presence of O’Neill’s movingly explored themes of addiction and self-deception. The false prophet Hickey is probably one of the most challenging roles in American dramatic literature. Recently, I read a critic explain away an actor’s failure to pull off Hickey’s final speech by declaring the speech long-winded and melodramatic. Funny, it doesn’t read that way to me AT ALL. Maybe the speech just asks something of actors not many of them can give. The other central characters are also strong, juicy roles, especially Hickey’s nemesis Larry Slade. Larry embodies the play’s impotent but needed compassion for humanity. The verbal jousting between Hickey and Larry is some of the play’s, and O’Neill’s, most intriguing writing. The themes they battle over are eternal and an entire class could probably be structured around their arguments. This is not how O’Neill usually writes, even in his late period, but it sure is great. Bottom line, this is a somewhat chaotic work. It does not have the immaculate qualities of O’Neill’s other late plays. Actually, some readers might prefer that. Either way, everyone should read The Iceman Cometh and accept it for what it is: a great play of immense depth and force. 


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