Academic journal article Comparative Drama

O'Neill and the Wobblies: The IWW as a Model for Failure in the Iceman Cometh

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

O'Neill and the Wobblies: The IWW as a Model for Failure in the Iceman Cometh

Article excerpt

"Wobblies? What de hell's dat?"

--Yank in The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and The Hairy Ape contain a number of allusions to the Industrial Workers of the World--the Wobblies. 1905 through 1917 were the heyday of the IWW, the period in which the organization showed considerable power as an industrial labor movement in the United States, and these years also provide the setting for many of O'Neill's plays, including the earliest, dated during that period, and the latest, which were written about that period--most notably 1912, the date accepted for Long Day's Journey into Night and The Iceman Cometh. Margaret Loftus Ranald lists a play, no longer extant, about the IWW that was entitled G.A.M., performed at Harvard c. 1915-16. (1) Yet neither Atkinson's bibliography nor the catalogue of the O'Neill collection at Yale's Beinecke Library has any mention of it. (2)

The Iceman Cometh provides only slight mention of the IWW, but anyone seeing the play or reading it becomes quickly conscious of something called "the Movement," which becomes part of the atmosphere in the back room at Harry Hope's Saloon. It is a repeated, almost musical theme, like the fog in Long Day's Journey, its companion period piece. I shall outline those actual references to the IWW and describe the importance of the class divisions in Harry Hope's Saloon as well as the history of the IWW in order to suggest their relevance to the theme of failure in the play, with the history of the Wobblies functioning as a movement parallel to much of the failure in the characters' lives. It will also be noted that this background provides a touchstone to the world of 1912. O'Neill's knowledge of the subtleties of the international anarcho-syndicalist movement is shown by the way he delineates the political profiles of his characters. Yet his awareness of the IWW as a movement is barely acknowledged by his biographers, including Louis Sheaffer and Arthur and Barbara Gelb. (3) Social historians such as Christine Stansell have noticed the IWW's pervasive presence in the world of O'Neill and pre-World War I bohemia of New York, far from the movement's origins in the American West. Stansell, for instance, mentions Emma Goldman's career as a possible influence on Iceman, although she does not suggest a direct link between the play and the IWW. (4) It should also be noted that Doris Alexander pays very close attention to the role of the IWW in The Hairy Ape, which is to my knowledge the only such careful consideration of the Wobblies in O'Neill scholarship. (5)


In The Iceman Cometh O'Neill is careful to let us know that "the Movement" of which his characters speak in the back room of Harry Hope's Saloon is in fact the IWW, and he does this by naming the organization three times and by identifying characters, including Larry Slade and Don Parritt, as former Wobblies. In act 1, Parritt, explaining to Larry Slade why he has shown up at the saloon from the West Coast where his mother has been arrested, says: "I hung around pool rooms and gambling joints and hooker shops, where they'd never look for a Wobblie [a variant spelling, `Wobbly' being the more common form], pretending I was a sport" (27). (6) Later in the same act Harry Hope berates Slade: "Crazy is right! Yah! The old wise guy! Wise, hell! A damned old fool Anarchist I-Won't-Worker!" (54). (This was a popular and deliberate misinterpretation of the acronym IWW along with "I Want Whiskey") In The Hairy Ape Senator Queen in a demogogic speech also calls them "Industrious Wreckers of the World" (215). Later in act 1 of The Iceman, immediately after Hickey's entrance, Hope says again to Slade: "You bughouse I-Won't-Work harp, who asked you to shove in an oar?" Here again he is identifying and making fun of Slade's IWW past (87).

Covert allusions begin to appear early in act 1. Larry Slade says of James Cameron that "[h]is nickname here is Jimmy Tomorrow. …

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