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The Iceman Cometh and the Anatomy of Alcoholism Thomas B. Gilmore It would be difficult to imagine a work of literature more thoroughly steeped in alcohol than Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh; with few exceptions every character in the large cast is or appears to be a confirmed drunkard. The central character of the play, however—Theodore Hickman, known simply and affectionately as Hickey to his drinking companions at Harry Hope’s skid-row saloon—confuses his friends when he shows up sober instead of drunk to celebrate Harry’s birthday. The fact that Hickey was a periodic drunk who never mixed alcohol with work and went on a spree only twice a year would not have raised doubts about the reality of his alcoholism for O’Neill, who was himself a periodic alcoholic until age thirty-seven when he began an almost totally successful abstinence for the rest of his life.l Although Hickey’s alcoholism may be surpassed in dramatic interest by his underlying psychological problems revealed late in the play, most viewers will be curious about the remarkable change in Hickey from inebriation to sobriety. For he claims to have achieved much more than abstinence; in claiming also the attainment of an unshakable peace or serenity, he seems to be implying that drastic reformation of character deemed essential by Alcoholics Anonymous for alcoholics seeking last­ ing sobriety. As even most laymen know today, Alcoholics Anonymous has been far more successful than any other regimen or method in achieving sobriety. If, therefore, Hickey tends to deviate widely from some of the most fundamental principles THOMAS B. GILMORE, Professor of English at Georgia State University, is working on a series of studies on alcohol in modem literature. Two of these, on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Saul Bellow’s The Victim, have recently been published in Contemporary Literature and Twentieth Century Literature. 335 336 Comparative Drama and practices of AA, the viewer aware of these will have good reasons to doubt his assertions of a happy, peaceful sobriety long before his terrible self-disclosures discredit them. Further­ more, if Hickey’s means of reaching this sobriety is unsound, he can scarcely fulfill his enthusiastic mission of conveying it to his old drinking friends at Hope’s tavern. In short, throughout the play the principles of AA provide an excellent means of analysis for examining Hickey’s salesmanship in order to de­ termine the quality of his new product or “line,” sobriety. Hickey’s practices, ideas, and achievements, closely as some of them may seem to resemble some of AA’s, are inauthentic. In fact, one enlightening way to characterize Hickey is to view his actions as a parody or travesty of genuine adherence to AA principles and procedures. For example, he doubtless succeeds, in a verbal sense, in avoiding “temperance bunk” (p. 79), an avoidance which AA certainly recommends; but his efforts to reform the denizens of Hope’s saloon by persuading them to surrender their pipe dreams are so zealously obsessive that late in the play Harry quite reasonably likens Hickey to “a bughouse preacher escaped from an asylum” (p. 244). But this is one of the least of Hickey’s failures. Not only is his sharing of “ex­ perience, strength, and hope,” a chief AA method for the establishment and maintenance of sobriety,2 extremely incom­ plete until late in the play; it is prompted by reasons which Hickey is apparently unconscious of and which are much less praiseworthy than the motive of helping others get sober. As his impatience with their intractability grows, his proselytizing is diluted by a cynicism that is an older and evidently a more fundamental part of him: he refers to his efforts as “selling my line of salvation” and compares them to the times when he would trick some “dame, who was sicking her dog on me,” into believing that “her house wouldn’t be properly furnished unless she bought another wash boiler” (p. 147). There is something more reprehensible at work here than Harry’s “bughouse preach­ er”; Hickey derives pleasure from his attempt to wield power over his former drinking companions. Instead of bidding them...


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pp. 335-347
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