Expressionism, as a dramatic technique, enables playwrights to delve into the depths of the human psyche and depict the inner reality of their characters. It shifts the focus from external events to the internal world, freely traversing space and time to align with the characters' thought processes. The emphasis lies on the exploration of the subconscious, internalizing the action and giving precedence to the inner workings of the soul over external events. Rather than presenting a linear sequence of events, expressionism concentrates on the stream of consciousness, portraying life's surface as disjointed and dreamlike, revealing the hidden reality beneath. The method aligns closely with the complexities of human thought.
In contrast to realistic plays, where speech and action provide glimpses into the mind, expressionism recognizes the limitations of these means in fully exposing the depths of the human psyche. Speech can often conceal rather than reveal true thoughts, as individuals seldom wish to expose their true selves. Expressionistic playwrights rely on slips of the tongue, dreams, and informal moments to convey a more accurate understanding of the characters' inner world. They employ symbols, metaphors, fables, and allegories to facilitate audience comprehension of the characters' interiority. The use of eerie noises, flickering lights, and recurring sounds adds to the portrayal of conflicts and the struggle between dark desires. Overall, expressionism embraces the disordered, distorted, and fantastic nature of dreams to closely approximate the stream of consciousness.
Realism as the Basis of O'Neill's Expressionism
While Eugene O'Neill initially began his career as a writer of realistic plays, The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape demonstrate his adoption of non-realistic methods. Realistic techniques still find a place in his works, but they serve non-realistic purposes. In the opening scene of The Hairy Ape, O'Neill creates a realistic setting, yet he warns against adhering strictly to naturalism. Instead, he aims to convey the impression of overcrowding in the bowels of a ship, employing expressionistic techniques. The stokers, described as hairy-chested men with immense power, represent various white races, unified in their appearance. Yank, the central figure, stands out with his physical dominance and represents the highly developed individual within the group. Yank serves as a symbol, embodying the primitive and animalistic aspects of human nature. Similarly, scenes featuring Mildred and her aunt symbolize the artificiality and enervation caused by contemporary urban life. The description of the Fifth Avenue inhabitants amplifies the exaggerated distortion of reality, a hallmark of expressionistic plays. This portrayal intensifies Yank's sense of bewilderment, fear, and horror, reflecting his deteriorating self-confidence.
In expressionistic plays, the focus is often on the central figure, while other characters function as a backdrop, enhancing the prominence of the central character. The Hairy Ape exemplifies this approach, with the other stokers serving as a chorus of voices. Apart from Paddy and Long, the stokers are nameless, lacking individualization. The prisoners in the prison scene and the denizens of Fifth Avenue also remain nameless, highlighting the central figure's obsession and the exploration of his psyche.
Interaction of Characters: No Elaborate Development
Interaction between characters in expressionistic plays does not entail elaborate development of their relationships. Yank and Mildred, for instance, confront each other briefly, yet this single encounter wreaks havoc on Yank's soul. Expressionistic plays manage to create relationships and situations with a minimal number of characters, effectively communicating the central psychological attitudes. Paddy's character, for example, is established in just one scene, portraying him as a sentimental and nostalgic figure out of touch with the present. While other characters appear for only brief moments, they leave lasting impressions on both the central character and the audience.
Dialogue in expressionistic plays tends to be brief, often composed of monosyllables. Characters' conversations symbolize their attitudes and provide insights into their agitated, bewildered, and obsessive thoughts. The clipped language serves as a symbolic representation of both specific mental attitudes and the fundamental emotions experienced by individuals en masse. Certain expressions are frequently repeated, functioning as motifs that underscore the characters' obsession. For example, phrases like "I belong," "I'll fix her," "I'm the end," and "That's me" work to establish the unsophisticated mindset guiding Yank.
Scene-Patterning: Its Expressionistic Nature
Expressionistic plays often feature short scenes, minimizing their number and allowing each scene to serve as a deeper exploration of the central character's consciousness. These scenes are not logically connected or presented in the same completeness as in realistic plays. Instead, they leave room for audience imagination, with emotional connections between scenes rather than logical ones. This approach accelerates the pace of the action, resulting in expressionistic plays typically being shorter than realistic ones. In The Hairy Ape, for instance, each scene represents a stage in Yank's psychological journey, intensifying and delving further into his obsessive feelings. The scenes form a series, showcasing incidents individually and creating a staccato effect that can sometimes become monotonous and overwhelming.
Use of Interior Monologue
The entire action of The Hairy Ape revolves around the consciousness of Yank, the central character. O'Neill employs the technique of the interior monologue to expose Yank's anguished and suffering soul. In the monologue that follows Yank's expulsion from the I.W.W. office, his bewilderment and confusion are masterfully conveyed. Yank's conviction that he belongs to the I.W.W. is shattered when he realizes that the organization represents conventional ideas that only address his physical needs, failing to reach the deeper suffering within him. O'Neill highlights the spiritual rather than physical suffering of Yank and the modern worker, emphasizing how they have been dehumanized and reduced to mere machines in an industrialized age. Yank's final moments, as he sees himself as a hairy ape and seeks revenge, reflect his complete descent into irrationality and the disintegration of his personality.
O'Neill's Sanity and Balance
Although The Hairy Ape is an expressionist play, O'Neill maintains a foundation in reality. Unlike the more extreme expressionist works of contemporary German and Scandinavian playwrights, O'Neill does not succumb to complete formlessness or incoherence. His expressionism retains a strong connection to external reality, ensuring a firm grasp on the roots of human experience. While he utilizes expressionistic techniques, he remains grounded in the portrayal of recognizable human characters. As O'Neill himself stated, although the play incorporates expressionistic elements, the character of Yank remains fundamentally human and identifiable.
Eugene O'Neill's expressionistic approach in The Hairy Ape merges elements of realism and symbolism to explore the depths of the human psyche. Through the use of interior monologues, expressionistic dialogue, and scene patterning, O'Neill delves into the inner reality of the central character, Yank, and captures the isolation and alienation of individuals in a mechanized and dehumanizing society. While maintaining a foundation in reality, O'Neill skillfully employs expressionistic techniques to evoke emotional and psychological responses, creating a powerful and thought-provoking theatrical experience.