An Analysis of The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

An Analysis of The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill

 The Hairy Ape Analysis

The Hairy Ape: Its Publication and Popularity

The Hairy Ape was written in 1921 and first produced by the Provincetown Players on March 9, 1922, in New York. It was not quite a success on its first performance and the censors pronounced it as obscene, immoral and vulgar. But its real greatness was soon recognised, and since then it has been staged not only in America but also in most countries of Europe, and it has always drawn packed houses. It is certainly one of the most popular plays, if not one of the greatest, of our dramatist.

The Hairy Ape: Its Genesis

Its genesis has been explained by Eugene O’Neill himself. In this connection he once told the reporters of the American Magazine, “I shouldn’t have known the stokers, if I hadn’t happened to scrape an acquaintance with one of our own furnace-room gang at Jimmy, the Priest’s. His name was Driscoll, and he was a Liverpool Irishman…..the synonym for a tough customer-Driscoll…..came to a strange end. He committed suicide by jumping overboard in mid-ocean…..why? It was the why of Driscoll’s suicide that gave me the germ of the idea…..” Later on, in an introduction to the play, O’Neill wrote: “The search for an explanation of why Driscoll, proud of his animal superiority and in complete harmony with his limited conception of the universe, should kill himself, provided the germ idea for The Hairy Ape.”

The Story of the Play, The Hairy Ape

“The action of the play moves forward rapidly through eight, short, abrupt scenes. Its central figure Yank is a stoker on a transatlantic liner, barely articulate, splendidly muscular, dominant in the stokehole. He is proud of his strength in the craft he plies, and asserts that it is his energy on which the ship and the passengers ultimately depend. Mildred Douglas, a rich anaemic girl, gets permission to visit the stokehole; terrified by the scene, she is even more terrified by the huge and sweating Yank This key-incident in the play could easily seem absurd, and in production must always be difficult. But O’Neill has given it finely in his dialogue and stage-directions.

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This is the end of the third scene; the remaining five scenes show Yank robbed of the sense of “belonging” which, as a near-animal in the stokehole, he securely had. Now he feels cut off from his fellow-workers as he broods over the wrong done to him: he takes up the exact attitude of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker, as brooding thought comes to torment him. He is enraged by the sight of the well dressed, indifferent Sunday walkers on Fifth Avenue (the locality where the rich live); he finds himself in prison, where he learns of the organisation called I.W.W., (Industrial Workers of the World) and rages against the rich; he is rejected by the I.W.W., when he naively offers his services to blow up the factory belonging to Mildred Douglas’s father; he goes to the zoo, tries to make friends with the gorilla, and is crushed to death when he lets it out of its cage. The gorilla, ‘shuffles off menacingly into the darkness at left-a symbolical warning for a negligent society.”

Scathing Social Criticism

The play gives us a realistic picture of contemporary American society. It is a highly commercialized world, decadent and artificial and torn by class tensions. It is a world in which the rich become richer and lead an artificial, mechanical life of comfort and luxury, which, however, brings them little happiness or tranquility. On the one hand, there are the rich, represented by Mildred Douglas and her aunt, and, on the other hand, there are the poor labourers, Yank and the other stokers, who sweat and work hard, and who are exploited and insulted for their pains. Three possible alternatives are suggested for the evils which beset the contemporary industrialized society all the world over. There is the way of returning to a golden age in the past of which Paddy, one of the stokers, dreams; there is the way, suggested by Long another stoker, of changing the present system and putting an end to social inequality and injustice through the exercise of the right to vote; and third is the way of Yank, the way of the dynamite and assassination. But none of these ways are practicable. The first two ways are mere romantic illusions not likely to lead anywhere, and the third way, the way of Yank, leads only to death and self-destruction. The American, ‘garden of Eden’ has changed into a cultural and spiritual wasteland, a desolation, “where man, God’s masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape.” The play is thus a scathing criticism of contemporary Western, industrialized society.

Psychological Impact of the Machine Age

But criticism of the class-conflict, social inequality or social injustice is not the real theme of the play. The playwright is more concerned with, “the psychological implications of the machine age.” Says Winther in this connection, “The importance of O’Neill as a social critic lies in the fact that he emphasizes the psychological aspect of the modern social order. He points out the disease of our acquisitive society. He does not merely stress the fact that workers are exploited to create wealth for the few, but shows how in our modern machine-made world they are deprived of the sense of harmony and mental well-being that comes from doing something that seems important and necessary. Man’s work is a necessary part of his personality; it is an extension of his ego; it makes him feel that he is a necessary part of the life of the world in which he lives. Modern industry tends to destroy this psychological counterpart of work, and in so far as it does so, it leaves the worker a nervous, irritable and dissatisfied misfit. Yank was such a worker, and at the same time, conscious of the thing he had lost. He didn’t want a job simply because it would be a means of earning a living; he wanted a job in which he could live.”

The Real Theme: Social Alienation and Search for Identity

In other words, the real theme of the play is social alienation and search for identity. Man has lost the sense of harmony in nature, he is unable to establish harmony with his fellowman, his work has grown soulless and mechanical and he feels lonely and isolated, a mere insignificant part of a big machine, and not a human being busy in creative, purposeful activity. As Eugene O’Neill himself explained, “The Hairy Ape was propaganda in the sense that it was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth or in heaven, he’s in the middle, trying to make peace, taking the ‘worst punches from lot of ’em….. ‘Yank can’t go forward, and so he tries to go back. This is what his shaking hands with the gorilla meant. But he can’t go back to ‘belonging’ either.”

The first scene presents Yank, as having a great faith in himself; and as having an equally great sense of “belonging” to the stokehole and the engine. He identifies himself with the steam and smoke and steel: “I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles,…And I’m what makes iron into steel; Steel dat stands for the whole thing! And I’m steel,-steel-steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!”

In other words, Yank readily accepts man’s new situation in the industrial world. However, he completely fails to realize that this great material progress has been achieved at the cost of spiritual values; thereby sending man back to his primitive cave days, reducing him, in the process, to a hairy ape. Civilization has turned a vicious circle. The mechanical life has led to a loss of human identity. Yank, in his desire to “belong”, identifies himself with smoke, with steel and the like.

Then, suddenly, Yank’s illusion that he is, “part of the engine, the moving force behind it”, is shattered, and he is thoroughly confused.

It is in scene III, when Mildred confronts Yank and calls him “the filthy beast!” that the disillusionment of Yank begins. Rage and bewildered fury rush back on Yank, He feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion, “in the very heart of his pride”. It is from this point onwards that Yank’s questionings and self-doubts begin and he feels that he no longer “belongs”.

The Hairy Ape is thus centred on Yank’s loss of faith and belief in himself as well as in the world in which he lives. Yank, in his search for identity, discovers, firstly, that he is alone, lonely, and the world is impossible to live in, and secondly, that steel is no power within him, but a prison around him. Steel makes the ship, which represents power, but it also makes the cage in which Yank is imprisoned.

Yank had thought that he was the creative element in the ship-the working man-but now “it’s all dark” and groping blindly he asks: “Where do I get off-say, where do I go from here?” Ironically enough, he ends up at the zoo and, creeping close to the gorilla, he asks: “Ain’t we both members of de same club-de Hairy Apes ?” And as Doris Falk suggests, Yank surrenders himself to the, “only self-image of which he can be conscious that symbolized by the ape and the cage.” It is here that his sense of disillusionment is complete. This scene portrays the total and final disintegration of Yank.

Though O’Neill ends by saying “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs,” one is left with the feeling that this species of hairy ape doesn’t even belong to the cage.

Symbolism in The Hairy Ape

The dramatist has used symbolism to universalize his theme, to enrich the play and impart to it a deeper significance. Yank symbolizes the proletariat, the have-not, the worker in an industrial society. He symbolizes Everyman for what happens to him is happening to countless millions in the modern age. Mildred Douglas, too, is not an individual, but the representative of a class, the class of the decadent rich. The confrontation of the two in Scene III, is symbolic of the confrontation of capital and labour, of classic conflict, fraught with such destructive possibilities for modern civilization. The disintegration of Yank is symbolic of the decadence and disintegration of the American dream, of the dream of the garden of Eden, of the possibility of a golden age, through, science and technology. The gorilla, shuffling off, “menacingly into the darkness at left,” is symbolic of the mysterious cataclysmic forces threatening a negligent society.

Expressionism- Psychological Realism

Throughout attention has been focussed on the soul of Yank, and expressionistic technique has been used to reveal his spiritual loneliness, frustration and disintegration. The number of characters has been cut down to the minimum. The other stokers have not been individualized at all. They are merely a chorus of voices, throwing into sharp relief the central figure. Similarly, the frequenters of the Fifth Avenue are merely voices moving about like figures in a dream. The prisoners in the prison-scene are equally without individuality. With every scene, there is a deeper and deeper probing into the soul of Yank, each scene making a forward step in his spiritual disintegration. The final scene is a long piece of interior monologue in which Yank pours out al! his spiritual trouble and agony. There is action, in the drama and also some melodramatic thrills, but the action which really counts is internal rather than external. The real action of the play lies in the spiritual regression of Yank from Man to the Hairy Ape. The language used, the dialogue, is short and snappy. The characters express themselves briefly, so that attention may not be diverted from what goes on in the inside of Yank. The dialogue has been pared down to represent the basic feelings of man. There are, no doubt, elaborate stage directions in the manner of a realistic play of Galsworthy or Shaw, but the details are always carefully selected to create some particular impression. Thus in the very first scene we are told, “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.” Equally Expressionistic is the description of the denizens of the Fifty Avenue in scene V: “The crowd from church enter from the right, sauntering slowly and affectedly, 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 short, in the play Expressionistic technique has been effectively used in the interest of psychological realism.

A Great Modern Tragedy

The Hairy Ape is a modern tragedy. In the ancient Greek Tragedy, there was the struggle between man and the gods, and this struggle sent the tragic hero to his doom. But the modern man has lost faith in the supernatural, in the Destiny or Fate of Greek conception. Hence the use of such a supernatural agency in a modern tragedy would appear unreal and unconvincing. In a modern tragedy there is still struggle, but the struggle is with one’s sense of frustration and loneliness, with his own sense of alienation. Man wants to belong, to have a sense of brotherhood. He struggles to go forward, to find a way of ‘belonging’, and this struggle sends him to his doom, as surely and relentlessly as Fate in the ancient tragedy. And the tragic spectacle, the waste of good human material represented by Yank, is as moving and awe-inspiring as in the tragedy of the Greeks.

No Unrelieved Pessimism

The play has been sub-titled, “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life.” As Clifford Leech points out, it is a comedy in the sense, “the forces contended with are not seen as altogether insuperable.” A little, “loving kindness”, as Thomas Hardy would put it, or a sense of brotherhood and fellow-feeling, would convert the modern tragedy into a comedy. Therefore, we cannot agree with the view of Doris Alexander, that the play is an expression of unrelieved pessimism. He writes, “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 off’ en 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.” But Yank’s tragedy, the tragedy of Everyman in the modern age, is caused by social factors, factors which are man-made. Hence there is always the possibility of an amelioration of human lot through human efforts. The social environment can be modified, and to that extent man’s life can be made better and happier.

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