Both Eugene O'Neill and Søren Kierkegaard identify the same source of tragedy inherent in the human condition: anxiety that arises in people as they evaluate the stories they tell themselves about who they are. O'Neill presents four visions of tragedy in The Iceman Cometh, each involving a crisis of the self. All four are understood more clearly by considering Kierkegaard's ideas about anxiety and despair. The residents of Harry Hope's display tragedy as denial and diversion; Hickey, tragedy as a loss of self; Larry Slade, tragedy as a confrontation with one's own phoniness; and Parritt, an anguished passage through tragedy to absolution, a movement similar to Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical. Slade is the first of a series of characters O'Neill uses to explore confrontations with phoniness in his later plays. The relationship of tragedy to the teleological suspension of the ethical is explored by American dramatists following O'Neill.

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