The Hairy Ape as a Modern Tragedy
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Most of O’Neill’s plays are tragedies. The Hairy Ape is also a great tragedy. But it is not a conventional tragedy in the Aristotelian tradition, but a modern tragedy. Its subject matter and theme is the same, but its form is different. It is a great tragedy with a difference.
Yank as a Tragic Hero: Not a Man of High Rank
Aristotle laid down that the hero of a tragedy must be an exceptional individual, a man of high rank, a king or a prince, so that his fall from his former greatness would arouse the tragic emotions of pity and fear. All Shakespeare’s heroes fulfill this requirement. But Yank, the hero of The Hairy Ape, is not a man of high rank. He is not a king or a prince or some other exalted individual. He is a humble stoker whose business it is to shove fuel into the furnace of the ship’s engine. For long hours, he has to work in the cramped and low-roofed stokehole. He is beastly, filthy, vulgar and coarse. He has no mind. He cannot think; he can use only physical force, like the hairy ape that he is. However, he is superior to the other stokers in the sense that he is more powerful physically than they, and he is more in harmony with their work. He represents their most highly ‘developed individuality’. He belongs’, he can eat coal and smoke; he is steel, is the power which makes the ship go. He is the ideal stoker, an ideal of which the others fall far short off.
No Tragic Flaw
Thus Yank, the tragic hero, is not a man of high estate, a figure of national importance in the Aristotelian sense. Further, Aristotle had held that the hero must fall and suffer owing to some error of judgment or fault of his own. He must have Hamartia or ‘tragic flaw’ in his character. This was considered necessary because the fall from greatness of a perfectly goodman would not be tragic but merely shocking and impious. It would not be Cathartic; it would merely make us doubt the goodness of the gods, or the powers that rule on high. The tragic hero must suffer because of some fault of his own, and not merely because of the hostility of fate or some malignant deity.
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In this respect also, Yank, the tragic hero of O’Neill’s play, differs from the tragic heroes of Aristotle. He does not suffer from any fault of his own; but because he is in conflict with his environment, with certain social forces that are much stronger than he. Yank is driven to his doom by these forces, against which he struggles, and which are too much for him. In the opening of the play he is quite contended and at ease, quite happy and self-confident because he has a sense of belongingness, a sense of identity. But this sense of security, this sense of belongingness, is soon shattered by that, “fool-fog of a girl”, (Mildred), who comes down to the stokehole to look down upon them as on wild beasts in a Zoo. She calls Yank a ‘filthy beast’ and looks upon him as if he were a hairy ape. Yank feels insulted in the very heart of his pride; his confident sense of ‘belonging’ is gone. He realises that he is not steel and steam which make the ship go, but the slave of those who own the ship. Henceforward there is gradual regression in Yank’s personality. As he cannot go up, he goes down, and ultimately ends in the cage of the gorilla who crushes him to death.
The Action: Not External but Internal
Aristotle said that action (or plot) is the soul of tragedy. In the Hairy Ape also there is enough of action and melodrama, but the action which counts is internal. The action develops rapidly through eight short scenes, and every scene is a step in the disintegration of Yank’s personality. If there is any villain in the tragedy, it is not a God or Fate or any human being, but the mechanical forces of the social environment. Society is the real villain of the piece. The forces of a soulless, mechanical-social order, with which he is in conflict, quickly and relentlessly send him to his doom. Everything superfluous has been rigidly excluded. No appeal is made to the love of parents, wife and children, for we are explicitly told that Yank is alone, that he had run away from home early in life. Attention is focused throughout on the spiritual decay of Yank. That he has been called a hairy ape becomes an obsession with him, till he begins actually to see himself as a hairy ape. The delusion carries him step by step to the gorilla-cage, and so to a gruesome death.
A Harrowing Tragedy: Its Defective End
The tragedy of Yank is so harrowing, first because he is superior and noble, efficient and capable, even though he does not occupy any exalted position. His death is the waste of so much that is noble, good and useful. Secondly, the tragedy is so effective because it is the tragedy of Everyman; what happens to Yank is happening to countless millions in the modern age. Loss of a sense of harmony, and creative joy, results in disillusionment, frustration and tragedy for the modern man, as it does for Yank in the play. However, we will have to acknowledge that in the last scene of the play this involvement of the audience with Yank is lacking. Most of us do fail to see ourselves as hairy apes shaking hands with our biological ancestor and so cannot sympathies with Yank as he is crushed by the gorilla.. The end strikes one rather as theatrical and melodramatic than truly tragic. No doubt as Homer E. Woodbridge points out,
“The Hairy Ape is a powerful tragedy, but towards the end symbolism gets out of control of the dramatist and reality and emotional appeal fade away.”
The Hairy Ape: a Great Tragedy of the Proletariat
The Hairy Ape is a play of great significance. Its theme, which is handled with perfect artistic mastery, is quite close to the core of modern life. The Hairy Ape is the tragedy of the proletariat, seized at the point where it is still tragic that is to say, before politics enters in. With politics begin party- struggle and party-interest, and the play of calculation. O’Neill has admitted that he once had a socialistic bent, but that he no longer believes that anything important for mankind can be won by this approach; so he has never written propaganda plays. In the present play he presents the proletarian, so to speak, as he really is (without the admixture of politics) a man who “has lost his harmony with nature and not yet found harmony in his soul”.
The giant stoker Yank is happy and confident in his existence, is proud of his strength, longs for nothing beyond what he possesses. But in a second his self-respect is shattered when he talks with an elegant young lady of the capitalist class. He begins to make comparisons, to fume, to seek revenge. It is characteristic that the final bankruptcy of his self-esteem occurs in the office of the Workers’ party, among proletarians already seasoned in politics, who naturally take this foolish, childish revenge-seeker for a spy and throw him out. He is a child of nature and exactly for that reason he feels the tragedy of the proletarian’s exile from all the charms of nature. A hairy ape they call him, and finally, he ends in the cage of a gorilla, the one being towards which he feels a fraternal kinship. It is this hairy ape who kills him.
“The rejected of man, who ends in an animal’s cage, is a daring and terrible symbol. Yet this symbol is completely alive, thanks to the splendid power with which the eight scenes are constructed. There is no more decisive test of creative ability than the task of making a man without intellect and education speak his own. language, yet withal be alive. This task O’Neill has here performed with a mastery which definitely fixes his rank as playwright”. (Julius Bab)
There is one other play which presents the tragedy of the proletariat with equal clearness and sweep, Wozzek, by the German writer George Buchner, who died in 1837 at the age of twenty-three. But those scenes of the soldier Wozzek, who abused by everybody until “nature come to him” and he turned murderer, were written before the beginning of the proletarian movement.
“It is O’Nell’s triumph that in the midst of our politics-mad age he has created a type which projects the fate of the proletariat with tragic clearness. All the multitude of other dramatists who in all languages have sought to put the worker and his existence on the stage, have failed to rise above speech- making and picture painting.” (Julius Bab)