Eugene O'Neill and Overcoming the Problem of Nihilism: Reading "The Iceman Cometh" as Nietzschean Comedy

Publication Date

Fall 12-9-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts in English (MA)



Committee Chair

Jonathan Murphy

Committee Member

Manuel Broncano

Committee Member

Charlene Summers

Committee Member

Alison Hadley-Hilburn


This thesis examines The Iceman Cometh (1946) by Eugene O’Neill in light of the epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the political theory of Karl Marx and the anarchist Errico Malatesta. Nietzsche has long been considered a major influence on O’Neill’s drama. However, the present study demonstrates the ways in which the Ideology of the School, defined by Louis Althusser as the presentation of a purported objectivity which effaces the role played by educational apparatuses in the reproduction of capitalist ideology, has led O’Neill scholars to avoid considering Nietzsche’s critical influence on The Iceman Cometh. As a result of this systemic resistance, the political themes in O’Neill’s play have been underdeveloped and even inverted so as to suggest that O’Neill was not critical of capitalism in any way. Moreover, O’Neill’s tragicomedy has been almost exclusively interpreted as a tragedy, resulting in a general neglect of its comic aspects. Through a consideration of the way in which O’Neill integrates elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy into the play, the present study shows how the play can be read as a comedy. The resulting interpretation of The Iceman Cometh is that it is both a critique of capitalism and a model for overcoming ethical nihilism.

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