The Hairy Ape as a Modern Tragedy

The Hairy Ape, written by Eugene O'Neill, is a great tragedy that deviates from conventional tragedies in the Aristotelian tradition. While the play shares similar subject matter and themes with traditional tragedies, its form is distinctively modern. The Hairy Ape exemplifies the characteristics of a modern tragedy through its exploration of the protagonist's downfall in a contemporary context. O'Neill delves into the social and psychological implications of the modern industrialized society, creating a tragedy that resonates with the struggles of the common man.

Yank as a Tragic Hero: Not a Man of High Rank

In traditional tragedies, the hero is typically an exceptional individual of high rank, such as a king or prince. However, Yank, the tragic hero of The Hairy Ape, is a humble stoker who shovels fuel into the ship's furnace. He lacks intellectual prowess and can only rely on physical strength. Despite his lowly position, Yank stands out among the stokers due to his superior physicality and his deep sense of belonging. He embodies the ideal stoker and represents the pinnacle of their profession.

Yank's lack of high rank and intellectual capacity sets him apart from traditional tragic heroes. However, his downfall is not due to a personal tragic flaw. Instead, Yank's tragedy stems from his conflict with the social forces that surround him. The catalyst for his downfall occurs when Mildred, a young woman from a privileged background, insults and belittles him as a "filthy beast." This encounter shatters Yank's sense of belonging and exposes the harsh reality of his servitude to the ship's owners. Yank's gradual regression and descent into disillusionment ultimately lead to his tragic demise in the gorilla's cage.

The Action: Not External but Internal

While traditional tragedies emphasize external action and plot, The Hairy Ape focuses on internal action. The play unfolds through eight short and abrupt scenes, with each scene representing a step in the disintegration of Yank's personality. Rather than external events, it is Yank's internal struggle and transformation that drive the action. The real antagonist in the play is not a god, fate, or a specific character, but the soulless and mechanical social forces that overpower Yank. His conflict with an environment that rejects and dehumanizes him propels the tragedy forward.

The internal action of the play showcases the psychological implications of the modern social order. Yank's loss of faith and belief in himself and the world mirrors the alienation experienced by many individuals in the industrialized society of the time. The play highlights the detrimental impact of a soulless, mechanized existence on the human psyche. Yank's regression from a proud and confident stoker to a disillusioned and dejected figure symbolizes the devastating effects of societal disconnection and dehumanization.

A Harrowing Tragedy: Its Defective End

The tragedy of Yank in The Hairy Ape is emotionally intense and harrowing due to his inherent nobility, capability, and usefulness, despite his lack of social standing. However, some critics argue that the play's ending may appear melodramatic and lacking in emotional appeal. Yank's identification with a hairy ape and his subsequent death in the gorilla's cage might be seen as theatrical rather than genuinely tragic. The audience's connection with Yank weakens in the final scene, which diminishes the overall impact.

It is important to note that O'Neill's intention might have been to employ symbolism to underscore the alienation and ultimate destruction of Yank. The dramatic death in the gorilla's cage serves as a metaphor for the dehumanizing nature of the modern industrialized society. It represents the culmination of Yank's disillusionment and his ultimate rejection from both the human and animal worlds. However, the symbolic nature of the ending may not resonate as strongly with all viewers, leading to a potential decrease in emotional impact.

While the ending may be subject to interpretation and critique, it does not detract from the overall power and significance of The Hairy Ape as a modern tragedy. The play effectively captures the struggles, disillusionment, and tragedy experienced by individuals in a rapidly changing and dehumanizing world. It serves as a critique of the social and psychological implications of the machine age, highlighting the loss of human identity and the search for belonging and meaning in an increasingly mechanized and impersonal society.

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