The Hairy Ape as a Social Satire on American Life

The Hairy Ape as a Social Satire on American Life

The Hairy Ape as a Social Satire


O’Neill is a critic of post-war American society as a whole; his plays study man not in relation to fate and God, but in relation to his social environment. In one play after another he shows that the social environment is soulless and mechanical, and that it causes frustration, disillusionment and a sense of alienation. Not only is O’Neill a critic of society as whole, but he also studies the psychological and philosophical implications of life in that society. It is for this reason that says Winther,

“his plays cannot be classed with a type of social drama which solves a problem and points away”.

Condemnation of the Status Quo

The various facts of O’Neill’s social criticism are well brought out by a study of The Hairy Ape. As Doris Alexander points out, the play presents an extremely negative view of the state of mechanized America, where the worker best adjusted to the system is a “hairy ape”, and where the “Capitalist class” is even more terribly dehumanized, for it has lost all connection with life, is simply “a procession of gaudy marionettes”. Both government and religion are treated as devices for maintaining the status quo. The church substitutes political conservatism for Christianity, substitutes bazaars, methods of making money, for concern with the meaning of life and death. The Government is equally at the service of the marionettes. On the legislative side, it is exemplified by the windy oratory of Senator Queen, glorifying the status quo and denouncing with ignorant terror any threat to it like the I.W.W. On the executive side, it is exemplified by the police who function to keep the workers from disturbing the wealthy. On the whole, the state, as pictured in The Hairy Ape, is a device for dehumanizing its citizens, and for preventing change.

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Yank’s Initial Acceptance

O’Neill presents his own reaction to the modern state through his central character Yank, for Yank is, according to O’Neill, “every human being”. O’Neill faces Yank with three possible attitudes towards modern society. The first is his own at the beginning of the play: complete acceptance of industrialized society, identification with speed and power. As Yank puts it, “I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles.” This attitude becomes impossible for Yank the moment he sees how he appears to a cultivated sensibility, and more important, realizes that he is owned and controlled by the mer. who own the steel.

Paddy’s Yearning for the Past

The second attitude toward modern society is represented by Paddy, who longs for the days before society became industrialized, the days with,

“sun warming the blood of you, and wind over the miles of shiny green ocean, like strong drink to your lungs. Work aye, hard-work-but who’d mind that at all? Sure, you worked under the sky and ’twas work wid skill and daring to it.”

Yank does not object to the idea of returning to the past, but he is contemptuous of it as an impossible “dope dream”. Retells Paddy,

“All dat tripe yuh been pullin’-Aw, dat’s all right. On’y it’s dead, get me?”

Long: The Attitude of the Radicals

The third attitude towards modern society with which O’Neill faces Yank is that of Long, the radical. O’Neill gives a clear account of what Long (as well as the 1.W.W.) thinks is wrong with society and what he considers to be the remedy. Long starts with the same assumption that underlies the whole play; the structure of society is rotten. The cause of this rottenness, for Long is the economic system: “They dragged us down till we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship sweating burnin’ up, eatin” coal dust! Hit’s them’s ter blame-the damned Capitalist clarss !” Since the basic evil is capitalism, the workers, according to Long, must be educated to a knowledge of the economic structure of society. As he tells Yank,

“I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness. Then yer’ll see it’s ‘er clarss yer’ve got to fight, not’er alone”.

Long fights with strictly legal means. He tells Yank,

“Remember force defeats itself. It ain’t our weapon. We must impress our demands through peaceful means-the votes of the onmarching proletarians of the bloody world!”

Shattering of Yank’s Faith: Yank’s Final Attitude

O’Neill, through Yank, agrees with Long’s diagnosis of the social problem, but not with his solution to it, nor with his method of achieving a solution. The one idea of Long’s that Yank accepts is the idea that he is enslaved by capitalism. To Long’s comment on Mildred’s father,

“Er old man’s a bleeding millionaire, a bloody capitalist !… ‘Emakes arf the bloody steel in the world! ‘E owns this bloody boat! And you and me, Comrades, we’re is slaves!”

Yank replied, not with his usual contempt for Long, but with bewilderment,

“Is all dat straight goods ?”

By the end of this scene, Yank shows that he has accepted Long’s statement, by saying,

“She grinds de organ and I’m on de string, huh?”

Yank’s final analysis of his relationship to Mildred’s father is entirely in line with Long’s:

“Sure-her old man- president of de Steel Trust-makes half de steel in de world-steel-where I tought I belonged-driven trou- movin’-in dat-to make her and cage me in for her to spit on! Chirst!”

In diagnosis, at least, Yank agrees with Long and the I.W.W.

Why, then, doesn’t he accept the rest of their program? A partial answer lies in an interview O’Neill gave on The Hairy Ape, where he looked back, even as Paddy, to the old days of the sailing ships. Then, as he saw it, men were controlled by “love of the ship”. This feeling, by the way, does not exist so strongly now. Labour leaders have organized the seamen and have got them to thinking more about what is due to them than what is due from them to the vessel. This new type of sailor wants his contract, all down in black and white: such and such work, so many hours, for so many dollars.

Probably some abuses have been corrected by this new order of things. But under it the old spirit has been lost. It was more like the spirit of medieval guilds than anything that survives in this mechanistic age-the spirit of craftsmanship, of giving one’s heart as well as one’s hands to one’s work, of doing it for the inner satisfaction of carrying out one’s own ideals, not merely an obedience of orders. But the gain is over-balanced by the loss.

“Obviously, O’Neill does not take the idea of progress for granted. He sees no great hope for mankind in improved methods of production. Nor does he see any correlation between a man’s satisfaction in his work and the material rewards he gets from it. Rather, he assumes that poor food and overwork are not sufficient to dim the sailor’s love for his work, whereas an over-concern for -(Doris Alexander) his own physical needs is”.

Psychological Implications of the Machine Age

This implies that O’Neill is more concerned with the psychological and philosophical implications of the machine age, and herein lies his originality as a social critic. The Hairy Ape is such a moving play, and so universal in its appeal because it is a dramatisation of the tortured and anguished soul of Yank, the Everyman. His example shows that,

“The truly vicious effects of the capitalist state are not physical, but spiritual”. (Doris Alexander)

The smoke and heat of the stokehole have no power to make Yank question the justice of the status quo. He is infuriated by Long’s complaint at “sweatin”, burnin’ up,” in the stokehole.

“Yuh ain’t got no noive” he tells Long, “Yuh’re Yellow, dot’s what. Yellow, dat’s you.”

Nor does O’Neill present this idea simply as the naive comment of a complacent stoker. Undoubtedly O’Neill too shares the idea that an objection to poor working conditions stems from weakness, for he characterizes Long throughout the play as a weakling, a coward. Nothing could be more paralyzing to the impulse for social reform than the attitude, that there is a kind of manly virtue in enduring poor food and low pay, or at least in not being concerned with the quality of one’s food or the amount of one’s pay. For O’Neill, only the non- material satisfactions of work matter. As Yank puts it,

“Disting’s is your inside, but it ain’t your belly”.

Of course, Long too is concerned with non-material values, as his indignation at Mildred’s “hinsults to our dignity as ‘onest workers” shows. But he sees a solution of the spiritual problem in a solution of the physical problem. He believes that if you “change the unequal conditions of society” you will solve the problem, or achieve the necessary conditions for a solution of the problem. In his concern for the spiritual answer, Yank, however, has rejected entirely any hope in an alternation of the physical conditions. Although he is against the organization of the state and the economic system as it is, he is contemptuous of any hope in a changed social or economic system. In his final comment on the I. W. W. Yank rejects any hope of bettering man by bettering society:

“Dey’re in de wrong pew-de same old bull-soap- boxes and Salvation Army-no guts! Cut out an hour out of de job a day and make me happy! Gimme a dollar more a day and make me happy! Tree square meals a day and cauliflowers in de front Yard-ekal right-a woman and kids a lousy vote-and Tarn all fixed for Jesus, huh? Aw, hell! What does dat get yuh?”

Force as Means of Social Reform: Its Futility

Thus Yank rejects the solution to his problem offered by Long and the I.W.W. and he also rejects their method of attaining it. Both Long and the I.W.W. believe in using legal means to abolish the old order and establish the new. Yank sees no new society he wants to establish and can see only one way of getting rid of the old-dynamite. Once he has realized that Mildred’s father, President of the steel trust, owns him, Yank reasons:

“He made dis-dis cage! Steel! It don’t belong, dots’s what! Cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars- dat’s what it means !-holdin’ me down with him at de top! But I’ll drive trou! Fire, dat melts it! I’ll be fire-under de heap-fire dat never goes out-hot as hell-breakin’ out in de night.”

Later he explains to the leader of the I.W.W. his program for social change.

“Dynamite! Below it off en de oith-steel-all de cages-all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails-de Steel Trust and all dat makes it go.”

Yank’s advocacy of wholesale destruction of the status quo is extreme. He wishes to destroy the “grimy galeons of commerce,” although he sees nothing with which to replace them, except the beautiful sea.

“His attitude is anarchistic-individualist anarchism that sees the structure of society as evil, assumes therefore that any social structure will be evil, and so sees salvation in purely destructive terms.”

(Doris Alexander)

Yank, O’Neill’s Everyman, never goes beyond his desire to destroy what is. His last decision is his offer to the gorilla:

“We’ll put up one last star bout dat’ll knock’em offen deir seats!”

O’Neill gives Yank no other solution than this. Nor does he have faith in the possibility of this solution. He wishes to destroy the status quo, but he sees no hope for doing so. The only answer Eugene O’Neill can find for “every human being” is death.


“The Hairy Ape, then, presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy which rejects entirely the status quo, but sees no answer for man in a better society, and no hope for destroying the existing society.” (Doris Alexander).

This might be a negative attitude, still as Winther stresses, it serves to focus attention and to make the problem real. The play provokes thought, dramatises a problem, stresses its evil, promotes understanding and this in itself constitutes a step towards its solution.

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