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The Iceman Cometh - Essay Example

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The Iceman Cometh

They are simultaneously united by their friendship, which originated in their mutual participation in an exhibition on the war. That which separates them paradoxically joins them, suggesting the principle of complementary opposition uniting yin and yang. The relationship of Harry Hope and Jimmy Tomorrow is more complex; for the focus on past and future they respectively symbolize takes us closer both to the pipe dreaming that is the thematic core of Iceman and to the Taoist manner in which O'Neill structures the play's thematic oppositions.
In a sentimental monologue halfway through act one, Harry Hope remembers the time he almost ran for alderman, and vows to renew his political involvement; moments later Jimmy Tomorrow, in counterpoint, dreams about regaining his former position in public relations. For both, however, pipe dreams for the future rest on self-deceit about the past. With no chance of winning twenty years ago, Harry used his wife's death as an excuse to withdraw from the race and the world; Jimmy conveniently forgets being fired for drunkenness. The close proximity of their speeches, however, allows Larry Slade to articulate their symbolic connection. Harry's maudlin reminiscences about Bessie prompts Larry's remark, "Isn't a pipe dream of yesterday a touching thing?" And when Jimmy vows to spruce up his appearance for a future interview, Larry sardonically comments, "The tomorrow movement is a sad and beautiful thing, too." While Hope focuses on illusions about the past and Jimmy leads the "tomorrow movement," they actually form another complementary couple who represent the interdependence of false memories and empty ambitions--the neurotic state of mind that afflicts virtually all the barroom derelicts. As Larry laughingly crows to Jimmy, "Worst is best here, and East is West, and tomorrow is yesterday. What more do you want" The identity of "yesterday" and "tomorrow," apparent opposites, again resembles that of yin and yang: past and future interpenetrate at Harry Hope's saloon.
Iceman also mingles another pair of opposites--life and death-in a similarly Taoist fashion. Hickey, the "iceman" of the title, is of course the clearest representative, and agent, of death in the play. But Hickey has been awaited as a bringer of life, and in act one the men recall happily the parties he has thrown. Moreover, after they dismiss his behaviour as insane in act four, riotous life erupts in the bar. Nor is this interpenetration of life and death limited to Hickey, for it recurs in various contexts, involving both minor and major characters. Wetjoen and Lewis, for instance, engage in a "happy dispute over the brave days in South Africa when they tried to murder each other"; their current camaraderie results from deadly past encounters. References to Rosa Parritt betray a similar ambivalence. "She'll get life" in prison, Parritt states, knowing it will resemble death, for spiritually "she is dead and yet has to live." The equation of life and death also applies to the "End of the Line" saloon itself. "Dis dump is like a morgue wid all dese bums passed out", Rocky observes in act one. But the setting simultaneously represents elemental life: adequate shelter and food, companionship, and sufficient drink to maintain illusions. When Hickey exposes their pipe dreams and "takes the life out" of their alcohol, the men shift toward death and only return to life after Hickey's departure. Even Larry ...Show more

Summary

In The Iceman Cometh, the Taoist dynamic operates most obviously in the relationships of two of the play's numerous couples. For Lewis and Wetjoen, and Harry Hope and Jimmy Tomorrow, form complementary pairs that resemble yin and yang in their dynamic. …
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