Eugene O’Neill The Hairy Ape (1922) Play

Need of belonging: alienation, sense of not belonging to any group. His identity is identified with being the leader of the ship’s firemen because he is strong. In addition he feels at home. However he has an identity crisis when Mildred, somebody from a different world sees him from a different perspective and doesn’t see him as the best but as a “filthy beast”. This is called the mirror effect: you thought you were the best and suddenly one day you look at the mirror and start with doubts about yourself. It is a question of self-knowledge, who is he, he doesn’t know. He tries to find his place with those in Fifth Avenue, higher class, rich people, and he tries to call their attention but they ignore him. They don’t try to fight; they reject him at the top of the society. Then, the International Workers of the World. But again he is rejected, he looks suspicious he might be a spy and in addition he is too violent. The suddenly doesn’t belong to the working class and so he calls the policemen so they arrest him. “I’m guilty of being born” he says, he is guilty of his own existence “existentialism”. He feels like an alien. This idea is contemporary, the need of belonging to a group. But the end of the story is opened, “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs”.

Does Mildred belong to the higher class? Why does she go down? Maybe curiosity, maybe she is looking for her identity, but she is afraid of being beyond, of becoming really involved, maybe she lacks the vitality to do this and in fact the working classes there might feel even worse after seeing her.

Social drama, political issues, need to fight: it has political and social message, the impact of the industrial revolution on workers at the beginning of the 20th century (1922). This story denounces the conditions of working class people, in particular, human being are depicted as animals. So the industrial revolution dehumanizes society. This harmony with nature has been lost, this is Paddy’s complaint. Poor people are depicted as gorillas, as apes. Rich people as marionettes, people without feelings, artificial. This is the idea and the irony: it is an industrial and advanced society and people have to work as animals, as gorillas. So what kind of progress is this one? Some characters defend to fight against the classes, revolution, talking about Marxism (Long’s socialist message)

Illusion vs. reality: mainly a male based story in which the main character has the illusion of belonging to a group but in reality he is not.

Characters:  Yank (Yankee, Hans in the film) is called Robert Smith in reality, another point in identity issues. He is not a really complex character but there is a very symbolic transformation, since he loses his physical power and gain spiritual quest. He is trying to guess who he is. He left home at a very early age because his parents argued and he was physically punished. Long again a symbolic name (longing for socialism, for class strivel, for a new world where workers may be facing better living conditions, idealistic and peaceful). Yank thinks that Long’s message is wrong, he rejects Long for Yank is a man of action and Long a man of words.

 Paddy, another sailor who represents the past, the old times, when life was different, with harmony with nature, fresh air. He is the classical wise old character talking about the past, nostalgic. Mildred, she is not really flat, we see her longing to help but at the same time being afraid of going too far, being involved and change her clothing.  Mildred’s aunt does not face an identity crisis, she belong to the upper class, she doesn’t want to mix with these workers. She is a flat character.

Formal devices: setting, irony, acts, scenes, stage directions, language, comedy/play  Setting: from a structural point of view there is a clear separation between the stockyard where the workers work and sleep and the deck where the upper class people and officers are.    Integration of polarities (modernist feature) since a character of the upper class goes down to see how they live, where the climax of the story takes place. Similar polarities when we look at Yank. From the beginning of the play he is strong but as the story goes on the character searches for identity, so the physical side of the story will be relegated to secondary role and we have this spiritual quest looking for identity. The irony is that gorillas are not supposed to think. Again an integration of animal ingredients and rational elements. We might talk about other dualities in terms of setting: on the deck we have natural light, in the stockyard we only have this darkness and the fire coming from the dock there. We might think about the millionaires and the international workers of the world, both social classes appear at the same time even in terms of colours.

If we analyse the formal sight of the play, no acts, we brake with traditional patterns/divisions for it is a modernist play. We do have 8 scenes. So it is not a conventional play, sort of experimental modernist theatre.

We have to pay attention to the stage directions. In the play the idea is that men cannot stand upright, they have to be inclined as gorillas. Expressionism, an exaggeration of reality, deform reality in order to portray in a symbolic way the image/feeling.

Symbols: the cage is a symbol of oppression, a place where you put animals. We also have the stockyard which is described as a cage and as a prison, too hot, so it is like hell. Then, there is another interesting symbol linked both to the cage and the industrial revolution, and even the company that owns the ship: steel. It is a powerful symbol of industrialization, oppression, technology and we have individuals trapped by steel and also gorillas in the cage trapped by steel.  Language is also exaggerated. We have gorillas in the stockyard and marionettes in Fifth Avenue. We have sexual language, Yank talking about the ship in a sexual way: “Let her have it!”, The language is not conventional standard English, it is a very colloquial register, slang, representing the way different classes speak, even vulgar, tabu words and people using inappropriate words. One of the main handicaps to understand the language is that in most cases we have a modernist common feature, sentences are unfinished, there is fragmentation. -Is the play a tragedy of a classical perspective? The end is tragic, but the story itself it is not. What is Yank’s flaw/main handicap? He doesn’t know himself, his lack of self-knowledge. But is modernism, so we cannot define it as a classical tragedy. There is no a hero, greatness, facing moral issues. Everything goes to fast and there is no proper development of the characters. Even the subtitle of the play The Hairy Ape: a Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life. O’Neil plays with the audience/reader. So it is difficult to define it in a classical way.