Illusion and Reality in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey into Night"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Illusion and Reality in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s
Journey into Night
2.1. Plot summaries
2.1.1. The Iceman Cometh
2.1.2. Long Day’s Journey into Night
2.2. Illusion and Reality in The Iceman Cometh
2.3. Illusion and Reality in Long Day’s Journey into Night
2.4. Hickey in The Iceman Cometh and Mary Cavan Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night – a comparison

3. Conclusion Works cited

1. Introduction

The Iceman Cometh (published in 1940) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (published in 1956 after O’Neill’s death) are widely recognized to be two of Eugene O’Neill’s best plays. Both belong to his late plays and apart from that bear a lot of similarities. The focus of this paper will be to analyze The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night with special regard to the importance of illusion and reality for both the characters and the progress of the play. Furthermore a comparison will be made between Hickey in The Iceman Cometh and Mary Cavan Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night in order to show that they have similar functions in their respective plays. Finally a conclusion will be given which will sum up the argumentation.

The method of this paper will be to provide a close reading of both The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night to develop the argumentation. The argumentation will be supported by secondary sources at important points.

2. Illusion and reality in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night

2.1. Plot summaries

In order to establish some common themes and motifs in The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, two short summaries will be given of the content of both plays.

2.1.1. The Iceman Cometh

The Iceman Cometh deals with the attempt of the hardware salesman Hickey to free his friends and former drinking pals in Harry’s Bar from their “pipe dreams” ( The Iceman Cometh 9). Monika Reif-Hülser gives a very good definition of O’Neill’s concept of pipe dreams in Eugene O’Neill 1988 : “er [der pipe dream] hat die Funktion, die existenzbedrohende Erfahrung des Defizits, der Inauthentizität, durch Projektion von Ganzheit und Autonomie auszubalancieren und so Leben zu ermöglichen” (Reif-Hülser 163).

On the occasion of Harry Hope’s (the owner of the bar where the play takes place) sixtieth birthday Hickey is expected to show up at the bar and to provide a good time for the “gang” (Iceman 19) as he used to do in former times. This time, however, he has a different goal. He wants to free his friends from their pipe dreams: “Just stop lying to yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows” (Iceman 63). Hickey’s attempt is founded in a kind of epiphany in which he seemingly found peace with himself and was able to quit drinking and stop having pipe dreams. His method is simple: He serves as a role model for his former friends and he tries to convince them of his new style of life in face to face conversations. He manages to persuade his old friends to live their pipe dreams (e.g. Harry Hope takes a walk across the street), but all of them come back to the bar and are stripped of their illusions. Unlike Hickey had planned they fall into a state of despair and are only revitalized when Hickey says in the course of his confession (how and why he killed his wife), which explains his epiphany, “I must have been insane” (Iceman 183). This allows the “family circle of inmates” (Iceman 29) to live their pipe dreams once again, since they are able to laugh off the preceding events as another of Hickey’ s games.

2.1.2. Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day’s Journey into Night is the most autobiographical of O’Neill’s plays. Unlike in The Iceman Cometh there is a limited number of characters (5 whereas in The Iceman Cometh there are 19). The ensemble of characters resembles O’Neill’s own family. The central theme, however, is the same. As in The Iceman Cometh the characters in Long Day’s Journey into Night are all subject to their own view of reality and bend the truth according to their needs. A picture of a dysfunctional family is drawn. The father, James Tyrone, and his sons, Jamie and Edmund Tyrone, are addicted to alcohol and try to escape reality in this way. The reality is that the mother, Mary Cavan Tyrone, is addicted to heroin and that all the other family members are in one way or another responsible for that. The mother’s increasing decline into her drug dream world and into madness and the other family members’ reaction to that constitute the plot of the play.

2.2. Illusion and reality in The Iceman Cometh

In The Iceman Cometh all characters are subject to their respective pipe dream from the beginning of the play. These pipe dreams, however, are not connoted negatively in the beginning. Larry is a character different from the rest because he believes himself to be the “grandstand philosopher” (Iceman 163) and as such to see through everything that is going on. He introduces Don Parritt, a newcomer to Harry’s bar, to the concept of pipe dreams and what it means to the people at the “No Chance Saloon” (Iceman 19): “No one here has to worry about where they’re going next, because there is no farther they can go. It’s great comfort to them. Although even here they keep up the appearances of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about yesterday and tomorrows []” (Ibid 19f.). Pipe dreams are described as being “harmless” (Ibid) and even being a help to the people around since they give them inner peace.

In the conversion between Larry and Don Parritt another typical feature of the pipe dreams in The Iceman Cometh is revealed: They are obvious to everyone, but not to the character that has them. When Don Parritt asks Larry about his pipe dream, Larry’s reaction is a defensive one: “Oh, I’m the exception. I haven’t any left, thank God” (Ibid 20). In the first act this fact is the basis for common laughter and it creates a unity among the drinking lads, because they need each other to confirm the validity of their dream: “ROCKY: Hell, yuh’d think I wuz a pimp or somethin’. Everybody knows me knows I ain’t. [] You know dat, Larry. LARRY: A shrewd business man, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to get on in the world. That’s what I’d call you” (Iceman 10f.).

In the course of the play, however, Hickey uses this mutual knowledge for his own purposes. He drives a wedge between all the other characters who now use their knowledge to hurt each other in order to keep up their own identity: “CHUCK: Yuh’d like me to stay paralyzed all de time, so’s I’d be like you, a lousy pimp! ROCKY: Listen! I don’t take dat even from you, see! CHUCK: Wanta make sometin’ of it? ( Jeeringly ) Don’t make me laugh!” (Iceman 126). The atmosphere has completely changed and Hickey uses this change to push his therapy forward. The pinpricks that are set by Hickey are intensified by the quarrels the characters have now. This allows Hickey to achieve his first goal: The characters face their pipe dreams and try to live them. Their complete failure has been anticipated by Hickey and is part of his plan to set them free. The final result of his therapy, however, is not what Hickey had in mind. Instead of achieving inner peace, Hickey’s former comrades fall into apathy which Hickey realizes with great discomfort: “By rights you should be contented now, without a single damned hope or lying dream left to torment you! But here you are, acting like a lot of stiffs cheating the undertaker!” (Iceman 168).


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Illusion and Reality in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey into Night"
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Eugene O'Neill
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
534 KB
Eugene O'Neill, O'Neill, The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, American drama, Illusion, Reality, Late Plays, Literature
Quote paper
B.A. Dennis Alexander Goebels (Author), 2010, Illusion and Reality in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and "Long Day's Journey into Night", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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