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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Denial and Illusions in The Iceman Cometh

Letting go of illusions (or "pipe dreams") is part of the challenge of being a middle-aged adult.  It's usually a time of coming to terms with what's possible, what's not possible and how you want to live the rest of your life (see my articles: Midlife Transitions - Part 1: Reassessing Your Life  and Midlife Transitions - Part 2: Living the Life You Want to Live).  But this is not the case for the characters in Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh, who maintain and reinforce each other's denial and illusions.

Denial and Illusions in The Iceman Cometh

The Play: The Iceman Cometh
Written in 1939 and first published and performed in 1946, O'Neill's play centers around down-on- their-luck alcoholics who spend most of their time at Harry Hope's bar in Manhattan reminiscing about their past and how "one day" they'll regain the lives they once had.

Although the play was written almost 80 years ago, the psychological themes in this play, illusions and denial as a defense against dealing with reality, are timeless.

The Characters in The Iceman Cometh
Each of the characters is bound to his illusion about how he will get back on his feet.  Even though they're all at lowest point in their lives, these illusions and a heavy dose of denial keep them going.

Some of the characters include:
  • Harry Hope: The bar owner who hasn't walked outside his bar since his wife died 20 years before.   He maintains the illusion that he has been unable to go outside because he's still grieving for the wife he loved so much.    He believes that, somehow, he will able to go outside again one day and reconnect with his old Tammany Hall friends that he hasn't seen since his wife died.
  • Larry Slade: Nicknamed the Foolasopher, he was once part of the US anarchist movement before he became disillusioned with it, believes himself to be done with life and he is waiting to die.  He sees through the illusions of the other characters, but he doesn't see his own illusions.
  • Don Parritt: At age 18, he is the youngest character.  He seeks out Larry Slade, Parritt's mother's former lover when they were both part of the anarchist movement.  He confesses to Slade about selling out the movement, which resulted in his mother's incarceration.  Even though he has longstanding resentments against his mother for neglecting him, he tries to convince Slade (and himself) that he didn't know that his mother would be incarcerated.  Eventually, he will face his self deception.
  • Pat McGloin: The former police lieutenant, who was fired from the police force, and who believes he will one day get his job back.  
  • James Cameron: Nicknamed "Jimmy Tomorrow," he was fired from his job in publicity due to his alcoholism, and he believes he will one day get his job back.
  • Joe Mott: The only African American in the play, he once ran his own gambling house, and dreams of the day when he will one day run another gambling house.

The Role of Hickey in Confronting the Others About Their Illusions and Denial
All of the characters are eagerly waiting for Theodore Hickman (nicknamed "Hickey"), a traveling salesman who comes to the bar a few times a year, including on Harry Hope's birthday.  In their eyes, Hickey is a lively, funny and generous guy who tells funny stories and buys them drinks.

But when Hickey finally shows up on Harry Hope's birthday, he is a changed man--much to the shock and dismay of the other characters.

Challenging Illusions and Denial
Not only has he stopped drinking, but he tells them that he has let go of his illusions and that this has freed him.  He challenges the others to let go of their pipe dreams, so they can be free as well.

As someone who knows them well and who is also good at reading and manipulating people, Hickey confronts each character about his particular illusions.

With his forceful and persuasive personality, he gets each character to face his fantasies and fears now instead of continuing to believe that they will do it "one day."

Hickey lets them know that the Old Hickey used to be an alcoholic and a philanderer who regularly cheated on his wife.  He had tremendous guilt because his wife always forgave him.  In the past, he vowed over and over not to hurt her again, to no avail.  But the New Hickey has seen the light.  Rather than feeling guilty and disappointed in himself for continuously hurting his wife, he made changes in his life.

Hickey comes across as someone who has discovered the truth and who is now preaching the "gospel" to the others.  But all the while he is harboring a deep secret.

Of course, none of the characters are able to confront their fears and fantasies, which has served to keep them going.  And as a result, they must each face that they've become like zombies, and life has no meaning for them without their illusions.

Then, Hickey reveals his secret...

The Benefits of Reading The Iceman Cometh
Without giving away the dramatic ending, I believe that The Iceman Cometh is a fascinating play with universal psychological themes.

Although it would be easy to dismiss these characters' stories because they're severe alcoholics who have lost their way, the story highlights how easy it is for anyone to hold onto illusions and the personal repercussions involved.

If you haven't read The Iceman Cometh, I highly recommend that you read it and consider the psychological roles of illusion and denial (see my article: The Benefits of Reading Literature).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.







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