The Hairy Ape as an Expressionist Play
Table of Contents
Expressionism: Its Nature and Function
Expressionism is a dramatic technique which enables a dramatist to depict ‘inner reality’, the soul or psyche of his personages. The emphasis shifts from the external to the inner reality. The action moves backward and forward freely in space and time in harmony with the thought-processes of the character concerned. There is a deeper and deeper probing of the sub- conscious, action is increasingly internalized, and what goes on within the soul becomes more important than the external action. Instead of a dramatic sequence of events, there is a concentration on the stream of consciousness, the surface of life becomes disjointed, scattered, as in a dream, to suggest the inner reality which lies beneath the surface. Not concerned with externals, the expressionist explores the idea, the source of conduct, until reality becomes subconscious, and character mere abstraction. Scenes are often brief: they sometimes succeed one another without time-sequence; they have neither. order nor unity, and they suggest, as they alternate between reality and fantasy, between objective action and analysis, the disorderly, disconnected features of the human-psyche. There is thus a close approximation with thought-processes.
As J.W. Marriott rightly points out, “a realistic play is based upon superficial observation of detail-a mere photography: but expressionism has been likened to an X-ray photograph.” Expressionistic method is used when the dramatist aims at a probe into the subconscious, even the unconscious. In naturalistic or realistic plays, speech and action are used to give an idea of the working of the mind, but the method is inadequate because speech does not invariably and truly reveal what goes on within the mind. Speech many a time is used to conceal rather than reveal the thought. No human being wants to be seen for what he really is. That is why an expressionistic playwright depends for correct understanding of human psyche on slips of tongue, dreams, and informal moments of the character. In order to help the audience to understand the inside of the character, the expressionist uses symbols, metaphors, fables and allegories. He produces blurred figures on the darkened stage to personify good or bad motives. Even unseen voices are heard to express the secret thoughts of the character.
“Eerie noises, flickering lights and recurrence of the same sound are used to depict the conflicts of wills, and struggles between the dark desires. In short, the expressionist uses the disconnected distorted and fantastic form of a dream in order to approximate as closely as possible to the stream of consciousness of the given character.”
Realism as the Basis of O’Neill’s Expressionism
O’Neill began his career as a writer of realistic plays, but in The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape he has adopted non-realistic methods. The realistic techniques have not been entirely abandoned but they have been used to serve non realistic purposes. Thus in the opening scene of The Hairy Ape the setting has been realistically given. But the dramatist warns us, “The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic. The effect sought after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship, imprisoned by white steel.” Thus the realistic setting is intended to create an impression-here the impression of overcrowding-in the manner of an expressionist. The stokers have also been realistically described
“hairy- chested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes. All the civilized white races are represented, but except for the slight differentiation in colour of hair, skin, eyes, all these men are alike. Yank, the central figure of the play, is seated in the foreground. He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest. They respect his superior strength-the grudging respect of fear. Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression- the very last word in what they are their most highly developed individual.”
Thus Yank is the representative of a class; he serves to create the impression of man as hairy ape: he symbolizes the primitive, the animal-like in man. Equally realistic as well as equally symbolic is the scene ii. Both Mildred and her aunt are symbolic of the artificiality and enervation caused by the contemporary mechanized and materialized urban life. The description of the inhabitants of the Fifth Avenue in scene V is equally expressionistic.
“The crowd from church enter from the right, sauntering slowly and affectively their heads held stiffly up, looking neither to right nor left, talking in toneless, simpering voices. The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed, overdressed to the nth degree. The men are in tail coats, tall hats, spats, canes, etc. A procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein in their detached, mechanical unawareness.”
In the description we get the exaggerated distortion of reality so characteristic of an expressionistic play. By this time, Yank’s self-confidence has already been shaken, he is already obsessed with the idea that he does not ‘belong’ and the description is expressive of his sense of bewilderment, fear and horror.
In an expressionistic play, the number of characters is cut down to the minimum. The attention is focused on ‘the central figure’, and the other characters are not individualized. They serve merely as a background to throw into sharp relief the central figure. Thus in The Hairy Ape, the other stokers are merely a chorus of voices. Except Paddy and Long, they have not even been given any names. Similarly, the prisoners in the prison-scene are mere nameless voices. The denizens of the Fifth Avenue are presented merely as a mechanical procession and the Secretary of the I.W.W., and the other people in its office, are equally lacking in individuality. This enables the dramatist to focus on the obsession of Yank and what goes on within his soul.
Interaction of Characters: No Elaborate Development
As Clifford Leech points out the dramatic personages in an expressionistic play may be juxtaposed, but there is no elaborate development of their relationships. Thus Yank and Mildred confront each other only for a moment, but that one moment is enough to play havoc with the soul of Yank. “With the smallest number of characters expressionistic plays manage to create relationships and situations required for the communication of the central psychological attitudes. Mildred and Yank face each other only once but the impact of the one on the other and on the audience is complete. Similarly, just one scene is enough to present Paddy in The Hairy Ape as a sentimental, nostalgic character out of tune with his present. The secretary of the I.W. W., the policeman, the gorilla all appear for a few moments, but they leave indelible impressions on the mind.”
The characters express themselves briefly, often in monosyllables. Their conversation is symbolic of their attitudes and revelatory of what is passing within their souls, their agitation, bewilderment, confusion, obsession, etc. The dialogues are pared down-the language is clipped-so that they become symbolic not only of particular mental attitudes but also of the basic feelings of man in the mass. “Certain expressions are frequently repeated, not only to emphasize lack of sophistication, but also to derive home to the audience the obsession of these characters. Such expressions as “I belong”. “I’ll fix her” “I’m the end”. “That’s me”, etc., work like motifs to establish the fact that basically Yank’s unsophisticated mind is guided by only a few ideas”.
Scene-Patterning: Its Expressionistic Nature
Further, the scenes are short and the number of scenes is cut down to a minimum, each scene being a further stage in the deeper and deeper probing of the central figure’s consciousness. These scenes are not logically related nor sketched with the completeness of a realistic play. Much is left to the imagination of the audience, and the connections between the scenes are emotional and not logical. In this way the action is speeded up; this explains why an expressionistic play is much shorter than a realistic one. According to Clifford Leech, “Both The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape take eight scenes each to complete the play, story part of the drama not being important. The question of the development of the plot or character does not arise. It is only the gradual intensification and deepening of the obsessive feeling of the central character that is aimed at. Consequently the scenes form a series in which incidents are singly displayed. It is just like staccato effect, which sometimes become monotonous and deadening.” This also accounts for the shortness of The Hairy Ape as of other expressionistic plays.
Use of Interior Monologue
The entire action of the play is focused on the consciousness of Yank, the central figure, the only living personage in the play. The dramatist has exploited the technique of the, “interior monologue”, to lay bare the suffering, anguished soul of Yank. The long monologue of Yank after he has been. thrown out of the I.W.W. office is a clever piece of psycho-analysis. Yank is bewildered and confused, and his mental confusion has been skillfully rendered. He had come to the I. W. W. with the conviction that he belonged to it; now his conviction receives a rude, shattering shock, a shock which is too much for him. He finds that the I.W.W. is the conventional woman’s stuff, which would like to feed and dress his body and give him shorter hours of work. But the thing which hurts him is not in his belly, it is deep down at the bottom, and the I.W.W. cannot touch him. In other words, his suffering-and that of the modern worker-is spiritual and not physical, and it is the spirit which is being ignored in the modern mechanized age. Man has been degraded and de-humanised. He has been reduced to a machine, merely to a thing of steel. The full bewilderment of Yank is thus expressed:
“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?”
He belongs neither to earth, nor to heaven. The proper place for him might be Hell. He might belong there.
The Long Monologue and the End
The eighth scene of the play, is one long monologue, the gorilla in the cage being the only interlocutor. It is an admirable study of Yank’s thought-processes and it fully brings out the disintegration of Yank’s personality. Carried away by his obsession, Yank sees himself as a hairy ape. He addresses the gorilla as a ‘brother’ and thinks that they both belong to the same club, the club of ‘the Hairy Apes’. Obsessed with the idea of revenge, he is no longer capable of any reasoning or rational thought. His mind has been thrown completely off the balance. The gorilla at least belongs to nature, but Yank does not belong even to that beautiful world. He belongs to the world of man, but he has been rejected and thrown out by that world. He would like to have his revenge on that rejecting world. He lets the gorilla out of the cage, shakes hand with it, intending to take him to the Fifth Avenue and with his help have his revenge on the class to which Mildred belongs. But the gorilla crushes him to death, and as he dies he mutters in deep anguish, “Even him did not tink I belonged. Crist, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in ?” Alienation and isolation, is the common lot of man in the modern industrialized and urbanized society, and the full horror of the contemporary predicament has been forcefully expressed by the use of the technique of the “interior. monologue”, a technique which has been exploited with such advantage by modern novelists, like James Joyce.
O’Neill’s Sanity and Balance
The Hairy Ape is an expressionist play, but O’Neill’s expressionism is based on reality. The play does not have the complete formlessness of the expressionistic plays of the contemporary German and Scandinavian dramatists. There is no total decay of plot and character. As noted above, there is realism in the delineation both of setting and character. According to Clifford Leech there is, “as stern a logic in the order of the scenes in The Hairy Ape as we found in The Emperor Jones. First Yank sees the rich in their Sunday clothes; then he is a prisoner, then he moves outside society’s institutions and seeks refuge with the anarchists, the declared enemies of society; then he goes to the zoo. All the time he is moving further away from the world of Mildred Douglas who rejected him; if not there, he must find a lower place where he may “belong”.
As Isaac Goldberg puts it, “O’Neill had yielded to neither the formlessness nor the incoherence of the more extreme expressionists, even when his contact with external reality seems least firm, he yet maintains his grip upon the roots of things.” Though he has used the speed technique of the German expressionists, “he has not telescoped time and place”. The action does not move backward and forward in time, nor does it range far and wide in space, but follows a continuous forward movement, each scene being a well-defined stage in the psychological retracing in Yank’s consciousness of the various stages in human evolution. O’Neill has skillfully avoided the extremes of expressionism and maintained the coherence and integrity characteristic of a realistic play. As O’Neill himself once asserted, he has used the expressionistic technique in the play, “but the character of Yank remains a man and everyone recognizes him as such.”