The Iceman Cometh is often deemed Eugene O’Neill’s magnum opus. It is a towering, profound, and lengthy work that manages to conjure up the universal and existential amidst the conversations of bums, derelicts, and dreamers at a rundown bar in 1912 New York City.
O’Neill based the play on his own experiences in 1912. He had just returned to the city from Argentina and spent the year holed up drinking in seedy bars. One of these bars was Jimmy “The Priest’s” on Fulton Street, where he boarded, and he also frequented two others - the Garden Hotel’s taproom and the Hell Hole (or Golden Swan). Many of the men he encountered and befriended provided the templates for characters in the play. Despite O’Neill’s nostalgia for this time, however, it was also a traumatic one: at Jimmy’s O’Neill attempted suicide by overdosing on Veronal (barbital) but was saved by a friend. In the subsequent years O’Neill experienced happy familiar relationships and better health, but would plumb his year of distress for literary means. He began working on Iceman, explaining, “I felt like I had locked myself in with my memories” and that the play was intended to be “a denial of any other experience of faith in my plays.” At this point many assumed that O’Neill’s career was dead, though he’d won the Pulitzer in 1936. Iceman revived his career and was the last play of his to be staged while he was still alive.
O’Neill initially planned to call the work Tomorrow after his first short story published in 1916, but changed it to more easily reference Hickey’s bleak joke about his wife and the iceman. He was immensely proud of his work, writing to a friend, “There are moments in it that suddenly strip the secret of the soul of a man stark naked, not in cruelty or moral superiority, but with an understanding compassion which sees him as a victim of the ironies of life and of himself. Those moments are for me the depth of tragedy, with nothing more than can possibly be said."
O’Neill completed the play in 1940 but WWII and O’Neill’s fear that the theme of pipe dreams would seem unpatriotic precluded its Broadway premiere until 1946. It was held at the Martin Beck Theatre and was directed by Eddie Dowling; it ran for 136 performances. This staging was often considered weak, but the 1956 Off-Broadway version with Jason Robards and the 1999 revival with Kevin Spacey presented the play in all of its starkness and profundity. In August of 2017 it was announced that Denzel Washington would play Hickey in another Broadway revival.
Initially, critics generally praised the work though some found it erratic and were frustrated by the redundancies in the dialogue. Its appeal has grown over the decades, however, and The Iceman Cometh is now considered one of the greatest works of 20th century American drama.