Although O'Neill finished "The Iceman Cometh" in 1940, he postponed production until after the war, when it enjoyed a run of 136 performances in 1946 after receiving mixed reviews. Three years after O'Neill's death, Jason Robards starred in a revival, resuscitating the play and launching his own career as O'Neill's master interpreter. In the half century since, it has gained somewhat in stature, and some drama critics and theatergoers consider it his best work.
There's not much of a plot and there is little in the way of action. A throng of professional drunks and dreamers crowd the seedy bar in a flophouse that is also home to many of the patrons. The more notable characters are Larry Slade, the cynical priest-figure who subjects the "pipe dreams" of the bar's denizens to a weary scrutiny; Rocky Pioggi, a bartender and a tough who doubles as a pimp to a pair of floozies; Don Parritt, a newcomer who (we soon learn) has ratted out his own mother, an anarchist who used to be Slade's lover; and Harry Hope, the club's ornery proprietor, who is preparing to celebrate his birthday.
They, and nearly a dozen other patrons, await the arrival of Hickey, a traveling salesman who occasionally goes on a bender, but always appears before Hope's birthday to get the festivities rolling and fuel the party with the bounty of his recent earnings. This year, Hickey is late--and the club's denizens will eventually find out why. And, unlike his appearance in previous years, Hickey's presence has the effect of choking the life out of the party. An apparently reformed man, he's on a mission, a reformed zealot who intends to rescue his fellow debauchers from their own escapist fantasies: For years, the residents have been "keep[ing] up the appearance of life with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows." Yet there's no chance of breaking the inertia as long as they are rooted to their barstools, and Hickey's cure is to hector each of them until they put up or shut up. (O'Neill featured similar themes and the same saloon setting, focusing on one of the play's minor characters and containing a similar ending, in "Tomorrow," his only published short story, which appeared three decades earlier, in 1917.)
O'Neill masterfully fleshes out the lead characters, avoiding the melodramatic flourishes that pepper his earlier work and employing a fine ear for barroom dialect and drivel. The play's weakness (and on this, others certainly disagree with me) is with the Greek chorus of New York City stereotypes of assorted immigrants and lowlifes: the Irish police lieutenant, the French anarchist editor, the British infantry captain, the streetwalkers, and so on--all of whom have fallen to the bottom of the barrel through the neck of a bottle. On the one hand, the cumulative effect of these portraits conveys the warm and oddly comforting camaraderie that survives the depressing hopelessness of these dilapidated lives and their delusional hopes. On the other hand (in both performance and while reading), it's hard to tell these scoundrels apart, they rarely rise above type, and none of them serve as much more than subjects for Hickey's ostensibly altruistic mission and of Slade's self-centered cynicism.
Because of its demands on the actors, this play (four hours long) can be insufferable in amateur hands, and you'll want to read it simply to get an inkling of what you should have seen. Even if you're fortunate enough to enjoy a well-done production, it's worth reading the original text because O'Neill's detailed stage directions and character descriptions add much more than can be shown on a stage. Although O'Neill's fans may disagree on whether "The Iceman Cometh" is his best, it's certainly among his most powerful.