The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill: Critical Analysis

The Hairy Ape, written by Eugene O'Neill in 1921, faced initial challenges upon its first production by the Provincetown Players on March 9, 1922, in New York. The play did not achieve immediate success, and it was deemed obscene, immoral, and vulgar by the censors. However, its true greatness was soon recognized, and since then, it has been staged not only in America but also in various countries across Europe, consistently drawing packed houses. It has rightfully earned its place as one of the most popular plays, if not one of the greatest, by the esteemed dramatist.

The Genesis of The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill himself provided insight into the genesis of the play. He recounted an encounter with a stoker named Driscoll, one of the furnace-room workers at Jimmy, the Priest's place. Driscoll, a Liverpool Irishman, served as the inspiration for the character in the play. O'Neill explained that Driscoll met a tragic end by committing suicide, and it was the reason behind his act that sparked the germ of the idea for The Hairy Ape. O'Neill stated, "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 Hairy Ape

The play progresses through eight short and abrupt scenes, with Yank as the central figure. Yank is a stoker on a transatlantic liner, robust in physique but lacking in verbal eloquence. He takes pride in his strength and sees himself as the energy that the ship and its passengers depend upon. Mildred Douglas, a wealthy but frail young woman, obtains permission to visit the stokehole. Terrified by the scene and particularly by the towering and sweaty Yank, she becomes the key incident that sets off the chain of events in the play.

The subsequent scenes depict Yank's loss of the sense of "belonging" that he had in the stokehole. As he broods over the perceived wrongs done to him, he becomes increasingly isolated from his fellow workers. Yank's frustrations intensify when he encounters the well-dressed and indifferent Sunday walkers on Fifth Avenue, representing the affluent class. He finds himself in prison, where he learns about the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) and directs his anger towards the wealthy. However, his offer to blow up Mildred Douglas's father's factory is rejected by the I.W.W. Yank's search for belonging leads him to the zoo, where he attempts to befriend a gorilla. Tragically, he is crushed to death when he accidentally sets the gorilla free. The play concludes with the gorilla ominously disappearing into the darkness, serving as a symbolic warning for a negligent society.

Scathing Social Criticism

The Hairy Ape provides a realistic portrayal of contemporary American society, emphasizing its highly commercialized nature, decadence, artificiality, and class tensions. It depicts a world where the rich continue to amass wealth but find little happiness or tranquility in their comfortable and luxurious lives. On the other hand, the poor laborers, exemplified by Yank and the stokers, toil hard and are exploited and insulted. The play explores three possible alternatives to address the societal problems pervasive in industrialized societies worldwide.

The first alternative is a nostalgic return to a golden age, as dreamt by Paddy, one of the stokers. The second is a call for change within the existing system, with Long, another stoker, suggesting that exercising the right to vote can bring an end to social inequality and injustice. The third alternative, personified by Yank, advocates for violence and destruction through dynamite and assassination. However, none of these options are feasible. The first two alternatives are romantic illusions that offer little hope, while the third path chosen by Yank leads only to death and self-destruction. The "garden of Eden" that was once America has transformed into a cultural and spiritual wasteland, where humanity is on the verge of reverting back to the primitive state of the ape. The play serves as a scathing critique of contemporary Western industrialized society.

Psychological Impact of the Machine Age

While addressing social conflicts, social inequality, and social injustice, The Hairy Ape's true focus lies in exploring the psychological implications of the machine age. O'Neill highlights the disease within an acquisitive society, emphasizing the detrimental effects of modern industrialization on the psychological well-being of individuals. The playwright contends that work is an essential part of a person's identity and personality, providing a sense of purpose and connection to the world. However, modern industry erodes this psychological aspect of work, leaving workers feeling discontented, irritable, and disconnected. Yank personifies such a worker who has lost his sense of belonging and yearns for a job that gives meaning to his existence.

The Real Theme: Social Alienation and the Search for Identity

The central theme of The Hairy Ape revolves around social alienation and the search for identity. Yank's journey highlights the loss of harmony with nature and the inability to establish connections with fellow human beings. His work, once a source of pride, has become soulless and mechanistic, leaving him feeling lonely, isolated, and insignificant within a vast machine. Yank's desire to belong and find his place in the world is shattered, and he spirals into disillusionment. The play portrays the disintegration of Yank's identity and his ultimate regression from being a man to becoming a hairy ape. Despite attempting to find solace by identifying with the gorilla, Yank's disillusionment remains absolute. The Hairy Ape depicts the tragedy of an individual caught in the web of social alienation and the desperate search for a sense of self in a modern industrialized world.

Symbolism in The Hairy Ape

Symbolism plays a crucial role in The Hairy Ape, enriching the play and infusing it with deeper significance. Yank symbolizes the proletariat, the working class, and the marginalized have-nots in an industrial society. His character represents Everyman, as his experiences mirror the struggles faced by countless individuals in the modern age. Mildred Douglas, too, is not merely an individual character but represents the decadent rich class. The confrontation between Yank and Mildred symbolizes the clash between capital and labor, a classic conflict with potentially destructive consequences for modern civilization. The gorilla, shuffling off menacingly into the darkness, serves as a symbol of the mysterious and cataclysmic forces threatening a negligent society.

Expressionism and Psychological Realism

The Hairy Ape employs expressionistic techniques to delve into the soul of Yank and reveal his spiritual loneliness, frustration, and disintegration. The focus remains on Yank's inner turmoil, and the play reduces the number of individualized characters to a minimum. The other stokers serve as a chorus of voices, emphasizing Yank's central role. The dialogue is concise, allowing the attention to remain on Yank's internal struggles. While the play includes action and dramatic thrills, the primary action lies within Yank's spiritual regression from a man to a hairy ape. The language and dialogue capture the raw emotions of the characters, while the stage directions create specific impressions. The play combines expressionistic techniques with psychological realism to effectively portray the inner workings of Yank's mind.

A Great Modern Tragedy

The Hairy Ape can be considered a modern tragedy. Unlike the ancient Greek tragedies that depicted the struggle between man and gods, the modern man has lost faith in the supernatural and the concept of destiny or fate. Instead, the modern tragedy focuses on the individual's struggle with feelings of frustration, loneliness, and alienation. The protagonist seeks a sense of belonging and purpose but ultimately meets a tragic end. The play presents a tragic spectacle, showcasing the waste of human potential represented by Yank. The audience is moved and awed by the unfolding tragedy, much like in the Greek tragedies of old.

No Unrelieved Pessimism

Although The Hairy Ape deals with profound themes and portrays a sense of disillusionment, it does not embody unrelieved pessimism. The subtitle of the play, "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life," suggests that the forces at play are not insurmountable. The possibility of a better society and an amelioration of human conditions through human efforts is present. The play's focus on social critique and exploration of alternative paths demonstrates that change is possible. While the play may present a harsh depiction of society, it also offers the hope that through understanding, kindness, and a sense of brotherhood, the tragic fate of Yank and the contemporary world can be transformed into a comedy of life.

In conclusion, The Hairy Ape, despite facing initial challenges, has emerged as a popular and significant play in the repertoire of Eugene O'Neill. It addresses social conflicts, social inequality, and social injustice while delving into the psychological impact of the machine age. The play explores themes of social alienation and the search for identity, employing symbolism and expressionistic techniques to portray the protagonist's inner struggles. The Hairy Ape stands as a modern tragedy, offering a critique of contemporary Western industrialized society while suggesting the potential for change and the importance of human connection.

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