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


Lawrence Dugan


Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh has repeated references to a radical movement that can be identified with certainty as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), often called the Wobblies, a labor organization that was founded in 1905 in Chicago and that reached its peak of influence in the 1910s. The play is set in 1912 and as the plot develops it is apparent that two characters, Larry Slade and Don Parritt, know each other through IWW connections and that their experience with the organization, which had an anarcho-syndicalist approach to society and labor, has been demoralizing, especially in their relationships with Rosa Parritt, an anarchist, who is Don Parritt’s mother and Slade’s former partner. Details of O’Neill’s development of Slade’s character suggest that O’Neill, who was quite familiar with the IWW, may have known the career history of Thomas Hagerty, an IWW founder and former Catholic priest, who was well known in radical and labor circles until he disappeared in the 1920s. The play’s nihilism has several possible sources, and Hickey’s destructiveness seems unconnected with any political associations; but Slade’s bitter indifference and Parritt’s despair seem irrevocably bound to their radical past.

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