The Hairy Ape
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
EUGENE O’NEILL 1922
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape was first produced on March 9, 1922, by the Provincetown Players, a theatrical group that he co-founded. The work was staged in New York City at the company’s own Provincetown Theatre. Publication of the play occurred that same year. By this time O’Neill was already an established playwright, having won two Pulitzer Prizes. The Hairy Ape represented something of a departure for him, being an exploration into a more expressionistic style than his previous plays.
The Hairy Ape had been written rather quickly in 1921, and the first production left little time between the final draft and the start of rehearsals. There is some dispute as to who actually directed the first production, with evidence that a triumvirate of Anthony Hopkins, James Light, and O’Neill contributed to the stage direction.
Alexander Woollcot reported in the New York Times that this Provincetown production was “a bitter, brutal, wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion.” Other critics agreed, finding the play to be a powerful commentary on the human toll exacted from America’s bumpy transition from an agrarian to industrial nation. Audiences also identified with O’Neill’s characters, who represented, in some form, people from their everyday life.
The Hairy Ape’s strong condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization made it Page 99 | Top of Articleappealing to many labor groups and unions, who seized upon its concepts to further their cause for better working conditions. The play also attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which had kept a file on O’Neill. The organization’s report on the playwright stated that “The Hairy Ape could easily lend itself to radical propaganda, and it is somewhat surprising that it has not already been used for this purpose.”
The Hairy Ape’s New York production faced more concrete bureaucratic interference: an attempt was made by the mayor to close the play down for fear that it would provoke labor disputes or riots. Despite the fears of local and federal governments, the play never became a threat in that sense. Rather audiences and critics embraced it as thought-provoking entertainment. Although Woolcott found fault with the play’s initial production, he also concluded his review by stating that he found The Hairy Ape to be “a turbulent and tremendous play, so full of blemishes that the merest fledgling among the critics could point out a dozen, yet so vital and interesting and teeming with life that those playgoers who let it escape them will be missing one of the real events of the year.” In the years since its debut the play has become one of O’Neill’s better-known works and a distinctive exploration of a pivotal period in American society.
O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in New York City, the son of a successful touring actor. His early life was spent on the road, a difficult life for a child. He later criticized the family’s constant travelling, suggesting that the stress led to his mother’s addiction to drugs as well as heavy drinking by the other family members. O’Neill started his college education at Princeton University, but that came to an abrupt end when he was dismissed for a prank. He married Kathleen Jenkins in 1909, producing a son, but divorced her only three years later. He then spent two years working as a sailor and manual laborer in South American ports.
In 1912 O’Neill was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium. Forbidden any strenuous physical activity, he resolved to get serious about his writing. During his recuperation, he became interested in playwrights, in particular the works of August Strindberg (Miss Julie). His contact with such literary works convinced him that he wanted to be an artist; he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began studying at Harvard. He stayed there for a year and then moved on to Greenwich Village in New York. From there, he went to Provincetown, Massachussetts, and met a group of artists and writers that included playwright Susan Glaspell (Trifles) and radical journalist John Reed. With these writers, O’Neill started the Provincetown Players, an amateur theater company dedicated to producing independent works. O’Neill’s first play, the one-act Thirst, was produced in 1916.
O’Neill wrote and was produced regularly throughout his life, earning a worldwide reputation as a premier playwright. He is noted not only for the quality of his work but for the considerable volume of his creations; during his nearly forty years as a professional playwright he produced over fifty works for the stage. Many of his plays are today considered hallmarks of American drama, including The Hairy Ape (1922), Desire under the Elms (1924), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (1946), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1957). Of the many accolades bestowed upon him, he received four Pulitzer Prizes—for Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957)—and, in 1936, a Nobel Prize for literature.
O’Neill’s stature is such that he is regarded as one of America’s greatest dramatists, although there were periods during which his work was not held in such high regard. Critical and popular opinion turned firmly to the positive with the 1956 debut of Long Day’s Journey into Night, an autobiographical work that frankly examines the dysfunction of the O’Neill family. Due to the sensitive nature of the material, the playwright stipulated in his will that the play not be produced until after his death. The emotional power of Long Day’s Journey prompted a re-examination of O’Neill’s earlier work, earning him newfound appreciation among theatergoers and critics.
Despite the great number of works he saw produced during his life, O’Neill died with a number of unfinished or unproduced plays, including a cycle he was completing at the time of his death. A great number of his latter writings—like Long Day’s Journey—were of a personal nature, and O’Neill ordered them destroyed before his death. A handful of these plays were spared, however, and the collections The Unknown O’Neill (1988) and Ten “Lost” Plays (1995) resurrected the play-wright’s
unpublished work for future reading and production.
O’Neill remarried twice in his life, in 1918 to writer Agnes Boulton (a union that produced two children) and in 1929 to the actress Carlotta Monterey. He died from complications of pneumonia on November 27, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts.
The play opens in a ship’s forecastle, the quarters for the crew located in the forward part of the boat. The firemen of the large ocean-going ship are all happily drinking, although there is discernible tension, indicating that the men are capable of violence at a moment’s notice. One of the firemen, Yank, declares that beer is sissy and that he only drinks the “hard stuff.” Paddy sings a song about whiskey. Yank yells at them, insisting that they are “dead.” He says he wants quiet because he’s trying to think. Someone sings a sentimental song about home and Yank launches into a verbal attack of home, of emotional connections, and of women.
Long claims they are all really living in hell and blames their miserable conditions on the people in first-class, “the damned Capitalist class.” Yank doesn’t have the time or attention span for Long’s talk of politics. He calls Long yellow and declares that all of the workers are better men than the people in first-class. “Dem boids don’t amount to nothing.” He gets the group riled up, drowning out Long’s speech. Paddy reminisces about the old days, before boats had engines, when man and the sea and the ship became one. Yank says he’s crazy, dead even. It takes a real man to work in hell he claims. Yank sees his energy as what drives the ship. “I’m steel,” he says, ridiculing the idea that they are slaves. He dismisses Paddy as an outcast, a leftover from a previous age.
On the promenade deck, young Mildred Douglas reclines in a deck chair with her aunt. They engage in small talk and little arguments. Her aunt chides Mildred about her forays into social service and attempts to help the poor. Mildred says she wants “to touch life somewhere,” although she has enjoyed the benefits of the wealth produced by her family’s steel business.
The aunt points out that Mildred is really quite artificial and that her efforts in helping the poor are actually thinly veiled attempts at some kind of social credibility. Mildred, however, is intent on visiting the stokehole of the ship, to mingle with the common workers and experience their lifestyle. She has received permission from the ship’s captain by claiming she had a letter from her father, the chairman of the ship line, who requested that she inspect the vessel. The second engineer escorting her to the stokehole questions her white dress, since she might rub up against dirt or oil; Mildred replies she will throw it out when she comes back up because she has plenty of dresses.
In the stokehole, the men are bare-chested, sweaty, and dirty as they shovel coal into the massive furnace that propels the ship’s engines. The heat appears to be oppressive, close to unbearable. Paddy is exhausted. Yank ridicules him and brags about his own ability to face the furnace without tiring. He rallies the men as they put their energy into stoking the furnace.
“He ain’t got no noive (nerve)” Yank says of Paddy, and the men respond to his encouragement Page 101 | Top of Articleas he calls on them to feed the baby (the furnace). At the height of their brute physical activity, Mildred enters in her lily-white dress. The whistle sounds, signaling the end of the work shift. The men notice Mildred and are shocked by her incongruous presence. Yank is oblivious to her and continues to work, shaking his shovel at the whistle.
Mildred observes Yank’s animal-like force and is appalled by it. Suddenly Yank sees her, sending a venomous, hateful glare at her. She swoons with fear, nearly fainting into her escort’s arms. She asks to be taken away, labeling Yank a filthy beast. He is enraged at the insult and throws his shovel at the door through which she has exited.
Yank, unlike the other fireman, has not washed himself after their shift. The men are off-duty and entertaining themselves, while Yank sits, his face covered in coal soot, trying to figure out the previous events in the furnace room. The other men tease him, suggesting he’s fallen in love with the stokehole’s strange visitor. No, he counters, the feeling he has for Mildred is hate.
Long complains that the engineers put them on exhibition, like they were monkeys. He mentions that Mildred is the daughter of a steel magnate. Paddy suggests her visit was like a visit to the zoo, where they were pointed out as baboons. Paddy says it was love at first sight when she saw Yank, like she had seen a great hairy ape escaped from the zoo. He makes fun of how Yank threw the shovel at her exit.
Yank seems to like the label “Hairy Ape” and imagines that his encounter with Mildred resulted in violence to her. Long says he would have been punished for such an act, but Yank continues this fantasy, feeding his anger over the disparity in his and Mildred’s social standing. As Yank shows signs of losing his temper and control, the others pile on him and hold him down. Paddy advises them to give Yank time to cool down before letting him up.
It is some time after the ship’s return to port, and Yank and Long walk down Fifth Avenue in New York, talking. Long is once again offering his political rhetoric about the working class while Yank, oblivious to his companion’s words, speaks of his growing obsession with teaching the upper class—specifically Mildred—a lesson about human worth. At the same time Yank complains that he doesn’t fit in or belong anywhere. They see the jewelry and the furs in the windows of the store and are infuriated at the prices, which are far beyond the means of common men such as themselves. Yank sees a group of wealthy people coming out of a church where they have been making relatively insignificant contributions to the needy. Yank verbally attacks this group saying they don’t belong and bragging about his physical prowess, how people like him are the ones who make things work. He challenges them to a fight. Before he can commit any physical violence, however, Yank is restrained by police, who arrest him.
Yank is in jail, angry at being caged like an animal in the zoo. The other prisoners mock him. They ask him what crime he committed, suggesting a domestic argument. Yank explains the root of his anger—Mildred’s visit to the stokehole—and his subsequent attack on the rich people. During his rant, he mentions Mildred’s last name. The prisoners inform him that her father is president of the Steel Trust. One inmate suggests that Yank join a group of labor activists, the Wobblies, whose efforts are aimed at exacting revenge upon upper class denizens such as Mildred and her father. The inmate gives Yank information about the union. Yank gets very excited that a tangible solution to his problems has presented itself. He talks about the steel bars that are restraining him, imagining himself as a fire that will burn through them. His fervor becomes so intense that he bends the bars and has to be subdued by the guards.
Yank shows up at the Wobblies (the nickname for the International Workers of the World) local union office. He asks to join but has to stop and think when they ask him his real name. The union members are happy to find a fireman from the shipping line who is willing to join their cause. They express an interest in organizing the line’s other workers. They want to know why Yank is joining. They ask whether he wants to change the inequality of the world with “legitimate direct action—or with dynamite.” He responds that dynamite is the answer and indicates his desire to blow up the Douglas Steel Trust and its president. Quickly sensing that Yank is mentally unstable and dangerous, the union rejects his application. Out on the street, Yank becomes agitated, repeating his belief that there is no place where he truly belongs. A pair of policemen chastise him, believing him to be a drunk.
Yank visits the monkey house at the zoo. He talks to the animals about his experiences in the city. One gorilla responds by pounding on his chest, and Yank decides that they are members of the same club, the Hairy Apes. He wonders how the animals feel, having people look at them in a cage and make fun of them. Pondering the similarities in his and the animals’ situations, Yank is so moved that he pries the cage door open. As the gorilla exits, Yank tries to exchange a secret handshake with his newfound friend. The gorilla grabs him in a crushing hug. Yank drops to the ground and, as he dies, realizes that he doesn’t even belong with the hairy apes. The monkeys jump and chatter about the stage.
Mildred is a vision in white, appropriate for the upper class promenade deck which she inhabits. She is young and idealistic and at the same time oddly aware that her idealism is without real impact or significance. She has a history of social activism and empathy for the lower class in spite of the wealth accumulated by her steel tycoon grandfather and father, whose millions were made by the sweat of workers such as Yank. There is a hint of guilt in her inquiry into the state of the workers, but her interest lacks, as her aunt has criticized, vitality. She shrinks back from the brutal sight of the stokehole and Yank, the quintessential fireman.
His role is to keep the prisoners in line. He is faced with Yank, a very strong and surprisingly out of control prisoner.
Criticized by Yank for his Socialist leanings, Long still has much in common with Yank. He also sees the dehumanization that is occurring and ties it to the importance of the machine. He agrees with Yank when he sees the people in first class, who represent the ruling class, as being the people who have enslaved the workers by putting them in front of the brutal furnace. While Yank goes off to glory in his position with the furnace, Long proposes socialist solutions to the problem of dehumanization and enslavement. His propositions are rejected by Yank.
The aunt is accompanying Mildred on the ship and obviously has little sympathy with her niece’s charitable tendencies. This lack of sympathy exhibits itself in banter between the two women when the aunt criticizes her niece for being insincere, suggesting that artificiality is a much more natural pose for Mildred.
Paddy is a worker on the ship and the voice of the past. He spends his time in reverie, remembering the pleasure he derived from sailing in the old days, when he could feel the wind and the waves; he longs for the simplicity of a time gone by. He has only reluctantly gone on to the new mechanized form of water travel. He is old and tired and wants time to reflect, to sit with his pipe. Paddy acts as a counterpoint to Yank’s brute strength and calls to mind an earlier day before industrialized society wrought dehumanized creatures such as Yank and inhuman working conditions such as those found on the ship.
The Second Engineer takes Mildred to the stokehole, while cautioning her about the dirt she may encounter. He suggests that she change her outfit.
The Secretary greets Yank with open arms but then is suspicious about his reasons for joining the union. He baits him with questions that Yank is too stupid to circumvent and then throws the brute out, suspecting that he is a plant from the police or the secret service.
Yank is a foot soldier in the industrial revolution, a fireman (one who tends the massive furnaces that power the ship) who boasts that he loves the hellish heat of the stokehole in which he works. He is a caricature of masculinity, the ultimate macho man—he disdains anything soft or “sissy” and makes fun of anyone he sees as being less than his Page 103 | Top of Articleideal of a strong man. It is his physical strength that sustains him, the only thing on which he can depend, his only source of pride.
Yank starts the play feeling superior to others because of his physical prowess though he slowly comes to realize that this strength makes him seem like an animal. When he is first introduced to the idea of being a hairy ape he likes it, but he soon finds that the label causes him trouble. He eventually strives to rise above that role, struggling to understand the world and his place in it. For all his efforts at higher thinking, however, he’s not successful at figuring it out; his resulting confusion often sends him into uncontrollable rages. Unable to clearly see himself, Yank projects his own doubts and faults on others. When he says others don’t belong in society, he is really announcing his own alienation. He only begins to realize his true state as he dies.
Yank is the epitome of the lower class, the working poor. He has the brawn but not the brain. He and his peers put their shoulders to the wheel and make the great capitalist machine run; they provide the sweat and muscle that will push America to the forefront of the industrial age. The system exploits these efforts, reaping great profits for those who own the machines but offering little reward for those who operate them.
Although Yank initially envisions himself above the first-class passengers on the ship—reassuring himself with the knowledge that without people like him the ship would not run—he comes to realize that the rich are getting richer from his efforts while his own rewards remain paltry. It is Mildred’s father who owns the steel works and the ship line. And it is people like Mildred who can afford the furs and diamonds on Fifth Avenue. They are living the good life by exploiting the workers.
It is this realization that he is only a cog in the machine and not the center of the industrial universe that plants the first seeds of Yank’s disillusion. Before Mildred’s appearance in the stokehole, Yank had not been directly exposed to the upper class. While his perception of himself was one of elevated status, he is confronted with the fact that the true mark of high status—money—is in the hands of
others. His illusions of importance in question, Yank begins to ponder his exact place in society.
Meaning in Life
Although it is a pose at direct odds with his mental capacities, Yank is seen several times throughout the play in the pose of the “Thinker” (a famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin depicting a man in deep, contemplative thought). What provokes these ponderous episodes is his struggle to understand his role in life. It is a role that he thought he understood. He worked hard, providing the human energy that enabled the massive ship to run its engines. For these efforts he felt he should be viewed as a kind of superhuman, a creature upon whom the rest of society depended. Yet when Mildred nearly faints at his brutish appearance, he is confronted with the possibility that others do not see him in this light.
While his initial reaction to being called an animal—a hairy ape—is one of pleasure, he comes to realize that the distinction is not a positive one. Far from being considered a superman, he is an outcast and an oddity. He is not like his fellow workers and he is certainly not like the first-class passengers.
His first realization that he does not have the social standing he believed provokes growing self-reflection in Yank. Prior to Mildred’s visit, he had a firm ideal of his place in society, the meaning of his life. Learning that others do not see him as he sees himself poses the question: where does he fit in? Lacking even the most basic social tools, Yank is an outcast even among the other firemen. Where he
had previously seen this alienation as proof of his superiority, he now begins to question his place among humanity. At the start of the play, Yank is happy—or at least content—with his station in life. The knowledge that reality is far from his perception marks the start of his downfall, his search for a place to belong, and eventually his death.
Socialism and Society in the Industrial Age
While the FBI feared that The Hairy Ape would be used as a propaganda tool for those with socialist/communist agendas, the play came to be known more for its study of human nature than for its politics. Socialism, as voiced by the character of Long, argues that the only fair economic system is one that allows ownership by the workers and a more even distribution of wealth among all citizens. While The Hairy Ape makes some arguments in favor of better working conditions and an equitable share of profits (it is clear from the play that the firemen are not well compensated for toiling under extreme conditions), it does not aspire, like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, to present an overview of the injustices wrought on the working class.
What O’Neill sought to illustrate was how America’s rapid evolution into an industrial nation created personality types that were suited for the necessary tasks. In a form of Darwinian adaptation, those with physical prowess became the workers while those with a sense for money and planning became the upper class. This evolution also created rigid ideals for each social class. O’Neill’s interest lay in the development of an extreme social persona such as Yank. Yank’s strength and skill as a menial worker allowed him to develop and excel at one thing—stoking an engine furnace. Yet his advancement as a firemen came at a cost to his humanity. He has evolved to an ultra-refined state in which he is as much a machine as human. He can no longer interact with his peers. Beyond criticizing or embracing one system, the play condemns a society—socialist, capitalist, or other—that would allow such an extreme disassociation to take place in the name of progress.
Scene vs. Act
Unlike many traditional plays that utilize the act format, O’Neill designed The Hairy Ape to be broken up as eight scenes. An act is a demarcation of action in a play that is often comprised of several scenes. Scenes are typically shorter than acts and limited to one or two locations. By structuring his play’s action around short episodic scenes, O’Neill is able to encompass a variety of settings that depict Yank’s disassociation with both his peers and members of the upper class. The scene format also allows the action of the play to flow quicker, creating a tension that builds to Yank’s death in scene 8.
Expressionism and Realism
The Hairy Ape is often categorized as expressionist theater. O’Neill’s writing did not exclusively center on this style—in fact, only a handful of the Page 105 | Top of Articleplaywright’s work fits the definition of expressionistic theater. Dramatic expressionism is a theatrical movement that is largely credited to August Strindberg (author of Miss Julie and a significant influence on O’Neill). Within this genre, a playwright can show a very subjective viewpoint on life, one that can be interpreted on a number of levels (which explains why The Hairy Ape has variously been viewed as both pro-socialist propaganda and anti-socialist criticism).
With expressionism, the playwright depicts life not as it really is but as he (or his characters) perceives it to be. Often expressionism has found itself connected with social concerns. It also frequently addresses itself to a future, which may or may not ever be experienced in the work (such as Long’s utopia of a worker-owned state). The approach is often seen as pessimistic in that it commonly finds society to have serious flaws, yet most expressionistic theater offers some hope for improvement—although a character such as Yank does not reap the benefits of such improvement.
Within the theater, the expressionistic approach opened up the space well beyond the stage and offered the possibility of involving the audience in a much more intimate way. The structure of the play does not have to concern itself as much with a strict chronology of time and sequence, so the playwright has more opportunity to make use of imagination; O’Neill’s intent is less concerned with establishing a clear narrative path than painting an impression of Yank’s character and dislocation. The playwright can express his views, make use of theatrical devices such as lighting and sound effects, and can distort or exaggerate characters (while realistic in some sense, the hyperbolic Yank is a good example of an extreme expressionist character).
While The Hairy Ape has distinct expressionist tendencies, O’Neill infused realistic elements to set off the more extreme action and define his message. The structure of the play is somewhat disjointed and has its surreal moments (particularly the scenes set in the hellish stokehole), yet O’Neill has populated his play with a variety of recognizable character types and settings. Part of the play’s success in reaching its audience lies in the familiarity of the people and situations it portrays. By allowing his viewers to identify with facets of his play, O’Neill is able to drive home the more subjective, expressionist aspects of the play. Set against relatively normal characters such as Long and Mildred, Yank appears even more grotesque and out of step with society. Likewise, the relative normalcy of the first-class deck contrasts with the fiery, otherworldly stokehole, emphasizing the vast differences between the classes.
There are some significant and important symbols throughout The Hairy Ape. The symbols are employed to reinforce the playwright’s ideas and intentions behind the play. Mildred, with her pure white dress, is a symbol of naivete, an unspotted, pure life. This innocence sinks into the depths of the ship, disrupting the equilibrium that had existed among the firemen.
The fire of the furnace is tied into the animal energy of the fireman, who are harnessed to a fever pitch when they feed the ship’s engines. The stokehole also symbolizes the hellish nature of the men’s lives. It is an underworld that is uncomfortable to all except Yank, who has, symbolically, sold his soul to the ideal of work.
Steel comes up often in the play. Yank claims he is steel. Mildred is the daughter of a man who makes steel. The bars of the prison are steel as are the bars of the gorilla’s cage in the zoo. Within the play steel represents that hard and irresistible fact of separation and enslavement. Yank mistakenly sees himself as made of steel but it is the steel of society that holds him apart from the rest of humanity.
The ape is a symbol of the animal and basic nature of man, the evolutionary beginnings of the human race. Yank is a kind of missing link between socialized humans and the wilder animals. His persona is one that is to be harnessed or put behind bars; as evidenced by his attack on the high society group in scene 5, it is something that is not safe out on the streets. Yank’s primal state is far from the world of Mildred, who nearly faints when she sees his raw, brutish strength and frightening, ape-like appearance.
The 1920s, the decade in which The Hairy Ape first appeared, represented an exciting and tumultuous period in American history. It was the age of the flappers (young female socialites intent on dancing and partying), Prohibition, and a massive influx of wealth, often due to stock market speculation. Although the working class saw little change in
their quality of life during this period, there was a growing affluent class who could afford to indulge themselves in such leisure activities as a sea cruise to Europe, as Mildred and her aunt do in O’Neill’s play.
For many decades up to and beyond the 1920s, as the upper classes were amassing considerable wealth from its advances, the Industrial Revolution was creating a more demanding and intense work environment for both skilled and unskilled laborers. As scientific technology created more powerful means of industry, such as the steam engine used to power ocean liners and railroads, more workers were needed to maintain the machines, often with little regard for their safety or mental well-being. As the pitch of the revolution became more intense and the need for faster and faster means of production arose, workers were pushed to often unbearable extremes to foster industrial growth.
As working conditions worsened, unions arose. These organizations sought to ensure that laborers were fairly paid for their work—and that work conditions met with safety requirements. The union movement was viewed by business owners with suspicion. The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies represented in the play) represented a growing movement of workers dissatisfied with the status quo who demanded equity. Often this movement was connected with socialism or the communist party, which attained power in Russia with the Page 107 | Top of Articlerevolution of 1917. Socialism argues for community ownership of the means of production, with all classes sharing equally in the profits.
While unions enjoyed significant growth in the 1920s, it was also a difficult period in which union organizers were opposed, often violently, by business owners. A basic tactic of the unions was the strike, in which workers would uniformly walk off the job, stalling production, and, hopefully, forcing the owners to meet their demands. Management retaliated by sending in strikebreakers (often these were thugs hired to intimidate union leaders and brutalize workers) and replacement workers (often called “scabs”). Clashes between striking workers and the management’s replacements often turned violent.
The 1920s was the lull between the storms. The world had survived World War I. But it had not yet dealt with the side effects of a burgeoning economy. The 1930s would see an economic depression that impacted the world and the lives of both rich and poor.
By 1922, however, World War I had ended, nations were stabilizing, and the industrial machine built to support the war effort was now put into the service of consumerism. Times were very good for the nations on the winning side of the war. Yet in the nations defeated in WWI, this period marked the rise of fascism, particularly the regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. The impact of these dictatorships would come to the fore in the next two decades as the world headed toward a second global battle.
In addition to lubricating the machines of the industrial age, modern science was making significant inroads in human health care. Discoveries in the treatment of diabetes with animal insulin and microorganisms connected to the advent of the antibiotic penicillin gave humankind greater stability and control of its environment. Crippling diseases that once represented a serious impediment to advancement now seemed surmountable; man was learning to control his world.
As the 1920s brought newfound affluence to many parts of society, people had more time and money to spend on arts and leisure. As a result the decade saw the motion picture industry reach its first zenith of commerce and creativity, and there was a surge in significant new music, art, and literature. Novelist James Joyce published the completed version of his landmark work Ulysses in 1922. Although the book would never make any bestseller list, Joyce’s account of one day in the life of Molly and Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland, was destined to have a significant impact on how fiction (and other literature forms) was written. Joyce’s unique stream of consciousness approach eventually influenced the Beats of the 1950s, which included poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.
In music, Jazz came into its own in the 1920s. A distinctly American musical form with roots in numerous styles, Jazz originated in New Orleans and eventually found mass popularity in New York nightclubs such as the Cotton Club. Although embraced to some extent stateside, Jazz music became wildly popular in Europe, where race proved less of an obstacle for the predominantly black musicians.
This expatriatism came to affect a variety of artists in the 1920s, as a significant number of important Americans left the U.S. to live and work in Europe. This group included writers such Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While these white writers and artists were sitting in sidewalk cafes in Paris, France, African American writers who had migrated to America’s northern cities began to express their anger at racism (notably the recent history of slavery and civil rights abuses that followed Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation) and to forge an identity for themselves. This movement was called the Harlem Renaissance and includes writers such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston.
O’Neill himself acknowledged that The Hairy Ape straddles a number of styles. “It seems to run the gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism—with more of the latter than the former,” he wrote in 1921. The initial response to productions of The Hairy Ape focused on the skill of the play’s staging and its forceful impact on a viewer. Describing O’Neill’s skill with the voice of the working men, Alexander Woollcoot of the New York Times said, “Squirm as you may, he holds you while you listen to the rumble of their discontent, and while you listen . . . it is true talk, all of it, and only those who have been so softly bred that they have never really heard the vulgate spoken in all its richness would venture to suggest that he has exaggerated it.”
The playwright’s intentions in depicting the world of the ship laborers was graphic: O’Neill intended the stokehole as a depiction of Hell. For Yank this isn’t a problem. According to Richard Skinner in Eugene O‘Neill: A Poet’s Quest, “There is both splendor and terror at Yank’s pride at being at the bottom.” This pride, however, takes him through a number of episodes, culminating in the face to face meeting with a real hairy ape. In Yank’s monologue directed to the gorilla, Skinner found “the most profound problem of the disjointed and divided soul.” The critic continued, “Man is searching for peace in mere animal instinct and finding that then he can not throw off his manhood. The answer? Escape even from thought.”
Although many dubbed it a challenging piece of theater, the majority of critics termed The Hairy Ape as a success. What the play is about, however, has been a topic of discussion. Some have claimed it is about the capitalist oppression of the masses (the workers) while others have termed it an examination of alienation in human society.
Alienation is a topic on which many critics have focused, the sense of dislocation that affects the firemen. Yank and his peers may believe themselves to be in touch with the world, better than the rich folks on the upper decks. The workers may echo Yank’s sentiment that it is they who drive the world. But as Edwin Engel wrote in The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill, Yank enjoys “a false sense of belonging to something, of being part of steel and of machinery, whereas he is actually their slave.” This enslavement is one that dawns on Yank slowly as he realizes he doesn’t really belong anywhere.
The realization dawns with Mildred’s visit to the stokehole. “Mildred has laid him bare,” stated Thierry Dubost in Struggle, Defeat or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity, “He does not know where he fits into a world that has become incomprehensible to him, which is the reason for his wandering, his pathetic quest for community where he could be accepted and could at last be himself.”
Although Yank was content in the secluded underworld of the stokehole, Mildred’s visit shattered that insularity. After her appearance he starts referring to himself as the hairy ape. Despite Yank’s tragic end, many critics have not viewed O’Neill’s final message as one of permanent despair. “‘The Hairy Ape’ was to be only a symbol of the dark despair that sometimes sweeps over the soul to disappear later in a triumph of sheer will,” stated Skinner.
Where does The Hairy Ape fit into the body of works that have prompted many to proclaim O’Neill as the most important American dramatist? O’Neill thought this play was very important, and it may be his most obvious exploration into how human beings are lost from their past and present. How they cope when any semblance of importance is removed from their lives. While The Hairy Ape is not considered in the same league as O’Neill’s widely regarded masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, it is noted as one of the playwright’s more significant dramatic works and a highly effective example of expressionist theater.
Worthington is a playwright and educator. In this essay she examines O’Neill’s sense of alienation and despair as seen through the experience of Yank.
On the surface The Hairy Ape might seem to be a fairly political play. There is the marked contrast of the sweaty fireman whose brute strength propels the ship that provides diversion and pleasure to those privileged class denizens who inhabit the upper decks. There is obvious reference to exploitation of the workers. But The Hairy Ape, although laced with references to capitalism, socialism, and other concepts, is really about the existential condition of man, namely that humans rarely feel like they fit in, that they are essentially always alone and separate.
This play, which was a foray into expressionism for the playwright, presents a number of characters who are in essence only stick figures. There is Mildred, the precious princess who cannot face reality, although she flirts with the idea of social activism and charity. Despite her social posturing, her true self is readily apparent: “Be as artificial as you are,” her aunt advises. Ultimately, artificial is all Mildred is—although she is well-intentioned and appears to have a good heart. Then there is Long who mouths socialist gospel but has no personality or soul to speak of. And Paddy, a relic from the past, is painted without dimension. It is only Yank, the
swarthy, beastly king of the stokehole, who is a multidimensional character. And it is Yank who personifies O’Neill’s examination of the human condition.
“Yank . . . is the only character who really lives, all the others merely serve as background against which he stands out,” claimed Andrew Malone in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill.
In the course of the play Yank goes from the cocky leader of the mighty firemen to a heap of a human being, crushed physically and morally. In the sweaty stokehole, Yank possesses a comfortable worldview. He shows disdain for the upper classes that Long criticizes. Yet these supposed oppressors are inconsequential in Yank’s view. “They don’t belong,” he rants again and again. He roars out his defiance toward them, believing his mastery of the furnace defines and raises him above all others.
“In the stokehole, Yank belongs. His credo—that he is the force at the bottom that makes the entire mechanized society move—is right. He is such a force until the meeting with Mildred causes him to doubt himself and sends him out in a frenzied effort to destroy the God of power he has served in his furnace altar.” wrote Travis Bogard in Contour in Time.
Yank’s sense of place is tenuous at best. In what others label as hell, he feels a connection. But this feeling of connection does not extend beyond the stokehole, which for him is the center of the universe, even the pinnacle.
The fateful encounter with Mildred puts his world on edge. He is a man beside himself when her look of horror and revulsion emblazons itself on his psyche. His worldview is shattered as he realizes he is not the king of anything. And he sets out roaring like a wounded beast. Now his only connections are with steel—he has in fact called himself steel: “I’m steel—steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!”—with the fire of the furnace, and with the animals in the zoo (the other hairy apes). He is forced to admit his lack of connection with other humans; he is alienated from society.
This alienation is one that O’Neill underscores throughout the play by employing a number of symbols. The steel, whether it’s the clanging door of the furnace, the shovel that is an extension of Yank’s arm, or the bars of the prison and the gorilla cage at the zoo, is hard and ultimately isolating. It
reinforces the idea of separation. Even Mildred the unwitting muse (or tormentor) of Yank, represents the metal: she is the daughter of a steel magnate, the offspring of the cold, isolating substance.
Mildred wears white. It is a cold color, one without warmth or hue. Her white dress does not connote pureness or welcome but coolness and distance. The color underscores the gulf between her world and that of the soot-black firemen—and it is Yank who revels in the soot, refusing to wash it off his skin after his work is done. Heightening the contrast, Mildred’s complexion, when confronted with the filthy beast-like Yank, turns pale and white.
The sea, which is one of the backdrops for this drama, again reinforces the idea of dislocation. Long a fascination for O’Neill (he worked for a time as a merchant seaman), the sea is always creating distance. The sailors on the ship are disconnected from family and home. Yank himself, drinking with the other firemen, pronounces the lack of importance of home. It was just someplace to get away from for him. “On’y too glad to beat it, dat was me. Home was lickings for me, dat’s all.” This statement explains his outburst “t’hell wit home.”
“No one has understood better than Eugene O’Neill that the soul at war with itself belongs nowhere in this world of realities. The soul that denies or seeks to escape from its own creative powers sinks in misery below the beast,” stated Richard Skinner in Eugene O’Neill: A Poet’s Quest.
Yank first starts to sense this point when he sees Mildred faint at the sight of him. The disturbance that starts to brew in him leaves him confused, trying to think while his drinking companions grow far away from him. The dawning awareness of his disassociation from society comes to a head when Yank is on shore, wandering down Fifth Avenue, gaping at the unattainable luxuries in the glass windows. “De don’t belong no more’n she does,” he announces. He heckles a group of wealthy church goers exiting a service. He approaches the group, proclaiming that they don’t belong. Emphasizing his own place in society (as much for his own benefit as theirs), he shouts: “Look at me, why don’t youse dare? I belong, dat’s me!” Yank’s behavior becomes more erratic as the wealthy people ignore his remarks. Eventually he becomes so violent that the police arrive and arrest him.
Incarcerated, Yank laments his state and obsesses about the woman he believes is responsible for his present condition. “I’ll show her who belongs,” he vows. But then he explodes with the knowledge that her father has made the steel in the cell that holds him. The guards must come and hose him down, like a wild animal.
Once released from prison, Yank searches out the Wobblies, hoping to find a place in the labor movement, one that will calm his anger and exact the revenge he desires. He’s a natural, it seems. A worker with leadership among other workers. But his alienation extends even to this arena as he is ousted by the union. His ideas about blowing up the steel mills are correctly interpreted by the union as a sign of his instability.
Finally, it dawns on Yank that despite his claims of belonging, just the opposite is true. “Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong.”
The only place Yank can think to go is the zoo, where he feels an affinity for the gorillas. After all, he is the hairy ape isn’t he. Yank struggles to understand what he’s been through. He resigns himself to the animal kingdom, believing this is the one place where he will belong. Yet once again, and with tragic finality, he discovers that he doesn’t fit in anywhere—even with the animals.
The longing that Yank carries in his breast, this quest for connection and belonging, is, according to some critics, a mystical yearning. Even though it is played out in the arena of social politics, Yank’s dilemma, the focus of the play, is ultimately a quest for spiritual fulfillment. While it is ambiguous (in the case of Yank) as to whether the search involves a concrete religion and God, the spiritual theme is one that O’Neill pondered throughout his work.
Explaining the importance O’Neill placed on the spiritual, he once said, “I suppose that is one reason why I have come to feel so indifferent toward political and social movements of all kinds. Time was when I was an active socialist, and, after that, a philosophical anarchist. But today I can’t feel that anything like that really matters.” While this statement does not explicitly name God, other critics have interpreted the playwright’s words to mean that religion in life has far greater weight and import than such trivial and transitory things as social politics. In Eugene O’Neill: A World View, Virginia Floyd wrote, “For O’Neill the quest for the meaning of life, of existence, proves to be religious in nature. His concern is not the relation between man and man but the relation between God and man and between man and his divided soul, seeking, as the playwright himself, for a faith to make it whole.”
Throughout The Hairy Ape, we see that Yank’s animal nature, which is one of the few things that offers him connection to his world (the stokehole),
is grotesque and, ultimately, the cause of his death. He proudly adopts the title of hairy ape and glories in the raw strength of it. But it is Mildred who recognizes the true nature of Yank’s brute animal center, and, as a representative of civilized society, the one who rejects and recoils from such traits.
“I have tried to dig deep in it, to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive side,” O’Neill wrote. That animal or primitive side, which is so near the surface in Yank, is the source of his alienation. Yet, in the final scene, when he makes actual contact with an animal that he believes to be like himself, he is crushed to death, dying with the realization that even among the apes he does not belong. Floyd stated that the final words of the play, which come in the stage directions, are some of the most bitter O’Neill ever wrote. As Yank’s lifeless body slumps to the bottom of the gorilla cage, O’Neill writes “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.” Only in complete surrender to alienation and isolation from humanity—which is ultimately death—does Yank find what he wants: to belong to something.
With these enigmatic words concluding his play, O’Neill leads us to assume that the problem of the human condition, the problem of alienation, is one that is never truly solved in life. While some cope with it better than others, no one is exempt. By stating that, in his death, Yank “at last belongs,” many have read O’Neill’s meaning to be a religious one. While humankind must endure alienation in corporeal life, all will be a part of the heavenly kingdom in their eternal life. Those reading the playwright’s intent from a pessimistic point of Page 112 | Top of Articleview, however, have adopted a more organic interpretation of O’Neill’s final words regarding Yank. His lifeless form slumped to the ground, it is the earth to which the hairy ape now truly belongs, his decomposing body becoming one with the soil.
Source: Etta Worthington, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
In this review, which was originally published on March 10, 1922, Woolcott states that despite the usual flaws that one comes to expect in the work of O’Neill, The Hairy Ape is a stunning piece of theatre with at least “a little greatness” to it.
The little theatre of the Provincetownsmen in Macdougal Street was packed to the doors with astonishment last evening as scene after scene unfolded in the new play by Eugene O’Neill. This was The Hairy Ape, a bitter, brutal, wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion. It is a monstrously uneven piece, now flamingly eloquent, now choked and thwarted and inarticulate. Like most of his writing for the theatre, it is the worse here and there for the lack of a fierce, unintimidated blue pencil. But it has a little greatness in it, and it seems rather absurd to fret overmuch about the undisciplined imagination of a young playwright towering so conspicuously above the milling, mumbling crowd of playwrights who have no imagination at all.
The Hairy Ape has been superbly produced. There is a rumor abroad that Arthur Hopkins, with a proprietary interest in the piece, has been lurking around its rehearsals and the program confesses that Robert Edmond Jones went down to Macdougal Street and took hand with Cleon Throckmorton in designing the eight pictures which the play calls for. That preposterous little theatre has one of the most cramped stages New York has ever known, and yet on it the artists have created the illusion of vast spaces and endless perspectives. They drive one to the conclusion that when a stage seems pinched and little, it is the mind of the producer that is pinched and little. This time O’Neill, unbridled, set them a merry pace in the eccentric gait his imaginings. They kept up with him.
O’Neill begins his fable by posing before you the greatest visible contrast in social and physical circumstance. He leads you up the gangplank of a luxurious liner bound for Europe. He plunges you first into the stokers’ pit, thrusting you down among the men as they stumble in from the furnaces, hot, sweaty, choked with coal dust, brutish. Squirm as you may, he holds you while you listen to the rumble of their discontent, and while you listen, also, to speech more squalid than even an American audience heard before in an American theatre. It is true talk, all of it, and only those who have been so softly bred that they have never really heard the vulgate spoken in all its richness would venture to suggest that he has exaggerated it by so much as a syllable in order to agitate the refined. On the contrary.
Then, in a twinkling, he drags you (as the ghosts dragged Scrooge) up out of all this murk and thudding of engines and brawling of speech, to a cool, sweet, sunlit stretch of the hurricane deck, where, at lazy ease, lies the daughter of the President of the line’s board of directors, a nonchalant dilletant who has found settlement work frightfully interesting and is simply crazy to go down among the stokers and see how the other half lives aboard ship.
Then follows the confrontation—the fool fop of a girl and the huge animal of a stoker who had taken a sort of dizzy romantic pride in himself and his work as something that was real in an unreal world, as something that actually counted, as something that was and had force. Her horrified recoil from him as from some loathsome, hairy ape is the first notice served on him by the world that he doesn’t belong. The remaining five scenes are the successive blows by which this is driven in on him, each scene, as written, as acted and as intensified by the artists, taking on more and more of the nightmare quality with which O’Neill seemed possessed to endow his fable.
The scene on Fifth Avenue when the hairy ape comes face to face with a little parade of wooden-faced church-goers who walk like automata and prattle of giving a “Hundred Per Cent. American Bazaar” as a contribution to the solution of discontent among the lower classes; the scene on Blackwell’s Island with the endless rows of cells and the argot of the prisoners floating out of darkness; the care with which each scene ends in a retributive and terrifying closing in upon the bewildered fellow—all these preparations induce you at Page 113 | Top of Articlelast to accept as natural and inevitable and right that the hairy ape should, by the final curtain, be found dead inside the cage of the gorilla in the Bronx Zoo.
Except for the role of the girl, which is pretty badly played by Mary Blair, the cast captured for The Hairy Ape is an exceptionally good one. Louis Wolheim, though now and then rather painfully off the beat in his co-operation with the others, gives a capital impersonation of the stoker, and lesser parts are well managed by Harry O’Neill as an Irish fireman dreaming of the old days of sailing vessels, and Harold West as a cockney agitator who is fearfully annoyed because of the hairy ape’s concentrating his anger against this one little plutocrat instead of maintaining an abstract animosity against plutocrats in general.
In Macdougal Street now and doubtless headed for Broadway, we have a turbulent and tremendous play, so full of blemishes that the merest fledgling among the critics could point out a dozen, yet so vital and interesting and teeming with life that those playgoers who let it escape them will be missing one of the real events of the year.
Source: Alexander Woolcott, “Eugene O’Neill at Full Tilt” (1922) in On Stage: Selected Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 27.
Marden J. Clark
Clark delineates the dramatic elements of O’Neill’s play that qualify the work as a tragedy. Central to the discussion is the main character Yank’s transition from an uncomprehending brute to an aware thinker.
The Hairy Ape has been widely praised and widely reprinted. Most reviewers and critics have agreed that it has unusual power and unusual ability to project its sense of tragedy. But critics have disagreed on where that sense of tragedy comes from and, in consequence, on basic matters of interpretation. Early critics saw its power in its brutal naturalism, for a long time hardly noticing the expressionistic techniques—and disregarding O’Neill’s explicit instructions that the treatment of the scenes “should by no means be naturalistic.” More recently commentators have recognized some of the complex ways in which this comparatively direct and simple
play works. I like much of Doris V. Falk’s analysis in psychoanalytic and existential terms. She seems especially germane when she suggests that Yank in his “belonging” “has abdicated his manhood, has ceased to be an ‘existent’ and becomes a passive, vegetative being at the mercy of forces outside himself and beyond his control.” [Eugene O’Neill and the Tragiz Tension, New Jersey.] However we interpret “belonging,” we miss O’Neill’s play if we interpret it as good. Yet as late as 1947 Joseph Wood Krutch, perhaps the most sensitive and appreciative of O’Neill’s critics, was able to describe Yank as “a man who, however brutalized, remains a man until he loses his sense of ‘belonging,’ and thereby inevitably becomes an animal.” [American Scholar, Summer, 1947] The truth, I am convinced, is almost diametrically opposite this. I would describe Yank as a man who, by glorying in his merely belonging, contributes to his own brutalization, who remains a brute until he gets jarred out of that sense of belonging and then inevitably moves toward becoming a man, in the process inevitably destroying himself.
To see this as the direction of the action, we need merely ask at what stage we admire Yank more: when he is the brutal mechanistic ape shoveling coal into the hell-fires to drive faster the mechanism he is part of and exploited by, or when he is talking to himself and to the real ape outside the cage. Yank’s movement from the cage and hell Page 114 | Top of Articleof the stokehole to the actual cage involves several different complementary and overlapping threads of action, all but one of them leading downward.
All these threads begin from the dramatic and jarring confrontation of Yank and Mildred in Scene III. Yank has already shown himself not only belonging, but belonging so completely that he neither knows nor needs to know what he rejects in so belonging. He comments “with a cynical grin” on the activity that is to become so important to him: “Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to t’ink?” His mates echo the cynicism when they echo the word “Think” and then work it up into almost a chant, “Drink, don’t think. Drink, don’t think.” He has neither a past (like the lost romance and beauty of Paddy’s clipper ships) nor a future (not even like the one implied in Long’s cheap attacks that look forward to the overthrow of the “damned Capitalist Class”). Yank is all present: “Sure, I’m part of de engines! Why de hell not! Dey move, don’t dey? Deyre speed, ain’t dey! . . . Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel—steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!” Yank’s rhetoric defines a frighteningly blind hubris. He not only belongs to all this; he is all of it—crew, ship, motion, steam, money, steel. . . .
Yank not only belongs completely at the beginning of the play, he dominates both his society and the setting. In a way, we admire his sometimes goodnatured, sometimes brutal domination of his mates in the stokehole. But O’Neill carefully controls our response. Though Yank shows a kind of intellect in arriving at the fancy that he is steel, his hubris is hardly an intellectual one: witness the ridicule of his own “trying to t’ink.” The first three scenes dramatize the contrast between Yank’s pretensions and the reality behind them. That reality is the meaningless stokehole life of the present contrasted with Paddy’s clippership life of the past. That reality is the engineer’s whistle, a mere sound, which runs Yank. That reality is the money represented by Mildred and her aunt—crass materialism. That reality is Mildred herself, fainting at the sight of “the filthy beast” and being carried up on a stretcher, ironically just as Yank had predicted if one of “dem slobs” came down into the hole. Like that of most tragic heroes, Yank’s hubris, especially in the third scene, carries a fine dramatic irony, not too subtle here but powerful. To the first whistle he responds with his “exultant tone of command.” To the second he responds “contemptuously”: “Take it easy dere, you! Who d’yuh tinks runnin’ dis game, me or you? When I git ready, we move. Not before! When I git ready, git me!” To the third he responds with the fierce gestures and curses that Mildred sees and hears. In this scene O’Neill carefully emphasizes Yank’s ape-like qualities. All the men shovel “in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas.” As Yank curses the engineer, “he brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest with the other, gorilla-like.” As he becomes conscious of the men watching something behind him, he “whirls defensively with a snarling, murderous growl, crouching to spring, his lips drawn back over his teeth, his small eyes gleaming ferociously.” The height of his hubris exactly coincides with the depths of his animality.
Confronted thus with Mildred, from the unknown world behind his own and so diametrically different from him, Yank “feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride.” He of course can only feel the insult, not rationalize it, but he feels rightly: it has hit the very heart of his pride. That pride, so intimately associated with his bruteness, is at once the least human and the most human think about Yank, at once the least and the most promising, at once the least and the most admirable. It carries many of the ambiguities and ambivalences of classical hubris. We admire the energy, the confidence, the positiveness. We shudder for the blindness, the swagger, the presumption. Even in associating Yank’s pride with his bruteness, O’Neill manages to suggest something of the classical potential for positive development and terrible destruction that can come from hubris, from the all-too human presumption of the godhood that will destroy.
From this confrontation, the movement downward from hubris begins. Also from here, and most important to the tragic effect, the complementary movement upward begins, upward from the depths of Yank’s animality. We see the beginnings of his change immediately in the next scene. Still reeling under the impact of Mildred’s revulsion, Yank is now “The Thinker”; he shows no self-ridicule, only resentment at interruption when he’s “tryin’ to tink.” O’Neill emphasizes the ironic contrast by having the men echo the work “Think” again, as they did in Scene One. Thinking is nearly always painful; it is especially difficult for this man-brute who has just been shocked out of what was most Page 115 | Top of Articlebrute in him. But thinking is a human function: the brute has started to think, and in so doing has started moving toward manhood. A quest also, even for vengeance or for something to belong to, is a human journey. Yank takes that journey, blindly as all men must. Blindly, gropingly, hopelessly (though only at the end can he know that). But his quest aims at the wrong things, is still dictated by the shattered remains of hubris: revenge, he feels, can restore his pride.
Yank may have “fallen in hate,” as he insists to Paddy, but his own self, not merely Mildred, is the object of his hate: he cannot stand the self Mildred has revealed to him. But he can sense this only dimly. His “thinking” still remains on the most elementary level. His contemptuous dismissal of “Law,” “Government,” “God,” comes simply from the pragmatic awareness that none of these can solve his problem. And what thinking he has done dissolves into rage as he recognizes Paddy’s truth that Mildred had looked “hairy ape” at him even if she had not said the words. The rage subsides momentarily into bewilderment that brings on questions: “Say, who is dat skoit, huh? What is she? What’s she come from? Who made her? Who give her de noive to look at me like that? Dis ting’s got my goat right. I don’t get her. She’s new to me. What does a skoit like her mean, huh?” Elementary questions, to be sure, but questions that Yank could not have asked before confronting Mildred. And perhaps not even so elementary. For Yank is really groping toward one of the most fundamental of religious-philosophical questions: the source and meaning of opposites, of Yank and Mildred, of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, of the black animal human and the white effete human, even (though this may seem a big jump) of good and evil. But at this stage Yank can respond only emotionally. His new image of their relationship—“She grinds de organ and I’m on de string, huh”—adds a fine touch to O’Neill’s pattern of ironic contrasts between man and ape. With the loss of his hubris, Yank’s image of himself shrivels. No longer even the “filthy beast” Mildred had seen, the hairy ape she had “looked” though not said, but just a weak, jabbering monkey on a string. No wonder the image sets off his new “frenzy of rage” and sends him rushing for immediate revenge.
But of course he cannot—and should not—live with the new image of himself. The Fifth Avenue scene shows Yank desperately trying to regain the old image by revenge if not on Mildred herself then on the society she represents. He shows little of his new-found thinking here. But the scene effectively demonstrates the hopelessness of physical revenge and, by implication, of any revenge as a means of restoring the old Yank. The old Yank cannot be restored. But Yank does not know that.
In jail, Yank is “The Thinker” again. He has been given “Toity days to tink it over.” But as he says, “Tink it over! Christ, dat’s all I been doin’ for weeks!” Yank ends this scene with his “appalling” new awareness that Mildred’s “old man—president of de Steel Trust—makes half de steel in de world—steel—where I tought I belonged—drivin’ trou—movin’—in dat—to make her—and cage me in for her to spit on!” We, of course, have seen all this long before, but it is painful new knowledge for Yank. It leads him first to the new image of himself as fire melting steel, “breakin’ out in de night—” then to the resultant trouble as he bends the bars and gets the appropriate punishment for fire that has broken out: the fire hose “full pressure.”
His encounter with the actual I.W.W., not the demagogue’s version, closes the door on the final possibility for revenge. His mad idea to “blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to the moon” can “belong” no place except in his own wild mind, certainly not in so banal an organization as Yank finds. But being thrown out sets off the thinking again. He sees that the I.W.W. are “in the wrong pew.” They want to solve all problems by giving men a dollar more a day and an hour less: “Tree square a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousy vote—and I’m all fixed for Jesus, huh?” Bitter irony, this. But Yank has already been forced into a far deeper awarenes of the complexity of human problems, especially his own, than these men will ever reach:
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Dis ting’s in your inside, but it ain’t your belly. Feedin’ your face—sinkers and coffee—dat don’t touch it. It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole world stops. Dat’s me now—I don’t tick, see?—I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me. It’s all wrong! (He turns a bitter mocking face up like an ape gibbering at the moon.) Say, youse up dere, Man in de Moon, yuh look so wise, gimme de answer, huh? Slip me de inside dope, de information right from de stable—where do I get off at, huh?
I’m not sure that O’Neill plays quite fair with his character here—at the moment of his simple, eloquent rhetoric and his most intense questioning, to describe him as like an ape gibbering at the moon. But the description reinforces the fundamental ironies in the contrasting lines of symbol and action: When most an ape Yank feels himself most a man; now having moved a long way toward manhood he looks most the ape. O’Neill pushes the irony in the brief encounter with the policeman. Yank has two responses, both telling: “Sure! Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat’s de ony answer yuh know.” Underline “yuh” and we get the force of this. Yank shows a new kind of unconscious superiority here: he at least knows that the policeman’s answer, society’s answer, is not enough. And when the policeman asks what Yank’s been doing, Yank answers, with a new kind of ironical awareness: “Enuff to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure dat’s de charge.” Born, to life in the cage. When Yank asks, “Say where do I go from here?” the policeman, giving him a push—with a grin, indifferently, answers “Go to hell.” The policeman is the last human we see other than Yank. The contrast is telling: the man who has his one answer giving the ape with all his questions a push on the way to hell.
The hell of Yank’s finish contrasts tellingly also with the original hell of the stokehole. The zoo is the home of the real ape. As we might expect here, where Yank has come home to belong, he begins by admiring the gorilla’s chest and shoulders, the “punch in eider fist dat’d knock ‘em all silly,” his ability to “challenge de whole woild.” But almost immediately he recognizes that he is seeing in the ape what Mildred saw there in the stokehole: “On’y outa de cage—broke out—free to moider her, see? . . . She wasn’t wise dat I was in a cage, too—worser’n yours—sure—a damn sight—‘cause you got some chanct to to bust loose—but me—(He grows confused) Aw, hell! It’s all wrong, ain’t it?” Yes, it is all wrong, on a social and philosophical level. Yank should not have been given the ability to think, without the ability to find some way out for himself. Yank is right on the psychological level, too: he can never find a way out of the cage of himself. At least never so long as he tries merely to belong. But he is wrong about himself on the human, the tragic level. For he has busted out of the cage. He has begun to think, the distinctively human function. He has even begun to sense beauty, the beauty Paddy had told him of: “Sure, I seen de sun come up. Dat was pretty, too—all red and pink and green. I was lookin’ at de skyscrapers—steel—and all de ships comin’ in, sailin’ out, all over de oith—and dey was steel, too. De sun was warm, dey wasn’t no clouds, and dere was breeze blowin’.” Here steel no longer cages him in. And he has come to a fine awareness of his own dilemma. All of that is pretty, but he couldn’t belong in that: “It was over my head.” And so he has hurried over to see the gorilla.
The gorilla (at least Yank has moved back from the monkey-on-a-string image) Yank senses as the only image of himself left after the shock waves set up by the encounter with Mildred have worked themselves this far. Both are, as he puts it, “members of de same club—de Hairy Apes.” But especially here with the unthinking gorilla Yank moves gropingly higher in his questioning, toward an increasingly intelligent understanding of himself, though “tinkin’ is hard.” The gorilla is better off than Yank because he can’t think; he can “sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and de rest of it.” Then he can belong, even though he’s in a cage. But Yank “ain’t got no past to tink in, nor nothin’ dat’s comin’, on’y what’s now—and dat don’t belong.” Here Yank reaches the high point of his “tinkin”:
But I kin make a bluff at talkin’ and tinkin;—a’most git away with it—a’most!—and dat’s where de joker comes in. (He laughs.) I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in de middle tryin’ to separate ‘em, taken’ all de worst punches from bot’ of ‘em. Maybe that’s what dey call hell, huh?
Maybe it is. But it’s a new kind of hell, in sharp contrast to the hell of the stokehole. And the policeman who gave him a push toward hell was only repeating in miniature the mighty push given him by Mildred and the lesser shoves by the Fifth Avenue crowd, the guards in prison, and the I.W.W.
And so here is Yank in his hell, without a past to think in or a future to move toward, caught between heaven and earth and trying with his unprepared intellect and emotions to separate them but taking the worst punches from both. And aware of it, able to define it: this is the point. For Yank has moved so far from his original hubris as the figurative steel but the actual human brute that now he is asking, in his own simple language and simple way, the pro-foundest of questions and defining the profoundest of human dilemmas. For Yank’s questions about why he is, what he is, and where he is, are the same questions man has always raised when faced with Page 117 | Top of Articlesuffering and injustice and unfulfilled aspirations. His final definition of his situation rings with echoes from the psalmist, from Job, from the Preacher, from Euripides, from Shakespeare. And the Yank that speaks here is a brute-become-man, speaking now with a knowledge earned and tempered in his own demonstrated suffering—a brute reborn a man through the suffering that he has partially brought on himself by denying at first his own humanity.
Such a picture of the new Yank leaves a final question: Why does Yank destroy himself? O’Neill handles this carefully. The new Yank destroys himself, as Sophocles would have him do, by the very fact of his new-found humanity. For the human traits that lead him to the questions also make him despair of answers, and his past has given him no equipment to cope with a universe for which he can find no answers. He releases the gorilla so that together they can “knock ‘em often de oith and croak wit de band playin’.” Thus release of the ape is a kind of suicide for Yank, an embracing of the animal “brother” or self, which as brute destroys him: the literal hairy ape literally crushing the man, as the symbolic ape had earlier crushed the man in Yank. A kind of suicide, but arrived at not from mere despair, but surely more from his thinking, from having defined his situation and, though finding no other way out, from seeking this as the positive end.
Tragedy is where we find it—even when its author calls it a comedy. I would hardly argue that Yank is noble or tragic in the classical sense. He is no Oedipus caught in a trap the gods have apparently set, no Job craving ultimate understanding, no Lear raving his defiance at the universe and coming to know his own humanity as a result. But I would argue that he is a little bit of all these, reduced at first to the lowest level that still can be called human and forced suddenly to confront on his level the breakup of his universe as all of these had had to confront the breakup of theirs. That the experience should call forth from the brute his humanness, that that humanness should call forth from us our understanding and sympathy and respect, that we should re-experience in Yank’s new-found dignity our own sense of human dignity in the face of the inexplicable—these are the sources of the tragic effect in The Hairy Ape. And they are sources that reaffirm the power and pertinence and meaning and dignity of tragedy in our age. Even without the mighty heroes of the past, even with heroes reduced to the lowest levels of humanity, man is still man and tragedy still tragedy. And tragedy still speaks to us from the deepest levels of our troubled universe and our troubled spirits. O’Neill and Yank have helped us know all this.
Source: Marden J. Clark, “Tragic Effect in The Hairy Ape” in Modern Drama, Volume 10, no. 4, February, 1968, pp. 372-82.
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Cargil, Oscar, Editor. O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, New York University Press, 1961.
Dubost, Thierry. Struggle, Defeat, or Rebirth: Eugene O’Neill’s Vision of Humanity, McFarland, 1997.
Engel, Edwin A. The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill, Harvard University Press, 1953.
Floyd, Virginia, Editor. Eugene O’Neill: A World View, Ungar, 1979.
Shaughnessy, Edward L., Down the Nights and Down the Days: Eugene O’Neill’s Catholic Sensibility, University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.
Skinner, Richard Dana. Eugene O’Neill: A Poet’s Quest, Longmans, 1935.
Wainscott, Ronald H. Staging O’Neill: The Experimental Years, 1920-1934, Yale University Press, 1988.
Day, Dorothy, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, Knopf, 1983.
Day was a friend of O’Neill’s in the 1920s and they had a strong influence on each other. The woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement can be experienced through this collection of her writings over the years.
Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown As a Stage: Provincetown, the Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O’Neill, Parnassus Imprints, 1994.
This book recounts the story of the artistic life of Provincetown where O’Neill was nurtured and rose to prominence. This is a scholarly work that, at times, offers tidbits of gossip courtesy of some excerpts from Carlotta O’Neill, the playwright’s last wife.
Moorton, Richard F., Jr. Eugene O’Neill’s Century: Centennial Views on America’s Foremost Tragic Dramatist, Greenwood Press, 1991.
With essays by thirteen writers, this book looks at specific plays and at special themes in O’Neill’s work, including the concept of searching for a home.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692900017