Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

Considered one of America’s greatest twentieth century dramatists by scholars and critics alike, Eugene O’Neill was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes, as well as the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. The son of actor James O’Neill, he was educated at private schools and briefly at Princeton; after six months of illness in a tuberculosis sanatorium, he enrolled in George Pierce Baker’s playwriting course at Harvard University, an experience that solidified O’Neill’s determination to be a playwright.

The Hairy Ape, a long one-act play containing eight scenes, was written in 1921 and performed in March of 1922. Its background lies in O’Neill’s own sojourn at sea, and its burly central figure, Yank, is patterned after Robert Driscoll, a stoker acquaintance of O’Neill who was similarly proud of his physical strength. Driscoll’s suicide at sea prompted O’Neill to imagine the factors that might have led to it.

The play explores the place of human beings in the universe. In an increasingly dehumanized modern society, the individual no longer is in harmony with nature. Paddy speaks poetically about in the first scene about the days when “a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one.” The Hairy Ape draws a stark contrast between that idyllic past and the alienated present, asking if modern individuals can find a home in mechanistic, industrial society. O’Neill seems to reject this possibility. Yank’s animal nature, dramatized through his strength and physical appearance, is contrasted with the fragility of the would-be social worker, Mildred. Representing an affluent but insensitive society, Mildred makes a pitiful effort to reach out to those of a lower class, but her ancestry has rendered her weak and lethargic, and she is unable even to stay conscious in Yank’s presence.

The conflict between the individual and society is repeated in Yank’s Fifth Avenue confrontation with the unfeeling, churchgoing marionettes, who infuriate him with their materialistic delight in the monkey-fur coat and their blindness to his existence. In his encounter with the Wobblies, Yank continues his quest to find an identity, but his motives are suspect and he is misunderstood. In his last misguided effort at the zoo, he seeks acceptance in the animal world. He is again rejected and is killed by the gorilla. Although he is an outcast from various segments of society and no longer in harmony with the natural world, Yank’s death underscores the fact that he cannot return to a simian past because he is human.

O’Neill cautions in his stage directions against treating the play naturalistically, but he has created a central figure whose life is determined by his heredity and environment, thus fulfilling one definition of a naturalistic character. Yank’s heredity is weak. He tells the audience in the first scene that home meant beatings to him. He is not very bright; he has difficulty reading the newspaper, and his habit of sitting in the posture of Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) ironically emphasizes his inability to reason. Yank is controlled by his environment: The ship is home until Mildred intrudes; thereafter, he desperately seeks a new environment where he can feel comfortable. Yank is a victim of forces beyond his control; he simply does not belong.

In O’Neill’s lexicon, to belong means to have an identity, to possess self-confidence, and to be a recognized member of a group and worthy of its respect. Yank loses his sense of belonging with Mildred’s horrified cry. His quest to reconcile his humanity with society is unsuccessful, as is his attempt to find his identity in the gorilla. He is a modern, alienated Everyman.

Although the character of Yank may be naturalistic, much of O’Neill’s stylistic method is expressionistic, revealing the influence of August Strindberg’s Ett drömspel (pb. 1902, pr. 1907; A Dream Play, 1912) and Spöksonaten (pb. 1907, pr. 1908; The Ghost Sonata, 1916). The psychological realism of Yank’s behavior contrasts with a number of deliberately nonrealistic visual and auditory devices associated with animal life and imprisonment. In the stage directions for the first scene, O’Neill indicates that the setting is not to be naturalistic. The rows of metal bunks and the uprights crossing them in the forecastle are meant to suggest the steel framework of a cage. The crushingly low ceiling forces the men into a cramped, animal stance. At times, the men respond in chorus to Yank’s speeches with barking, mechanical laughter. When the bell rings, the men form a “prisoners’ lockstep”; they shovel coal rhythmically, like “chained gorillas.” Bells and furnace doors clang, flames roar, engines throb, and monkeys chatter. The cage motif, repeated in the jail on Blackwell’s Island and in the cage at the zoo, suggests that individuals are imprisoned by forces beyond their control.

One of O’Neill’s early plays, The Hairy Ape is a powerful drama that verges on tragedy. In his journery from his confident first appearance to the lonely, broken figure he has become at his death, Yank is a larger-than-life human being whose struggle against his fate is compelling and heroic. O’Neill’s critical portrayal of modern materialism and alienation defined major themes of American drama and foreshadowed the social and political works of playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and Emily Mann.

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