Alienation and Despair as seen in Yank

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890

On the surface The Hairy Ape might seem to be a fairly political play. There is the marked contrast of the sweaty fireman whose brute strength propels the ship that provides diversion and pleasure to those privileged class denizens who inhabit the upper decks. There is obvious reference to exploitation of the workers. But The Hairy Ape, although laced with references to capitalism, socialism, and other concepts, is really about the existential condition of man, namely that humans rarely feel like they fit in, that they are essentially always alone and separate.

This play, which was a foray into expressionism for the playwright, presents a number of characters who are in essence only stick figures. There is Mildred, the precious princess who cannot face reality, although she flirts with the idea of social activism and charity. Despite her social posturing, her true self is readily apparent: ''Be as artificial as you are," her aunt advises. Ultimately, artificial is all Mildred is—although she is well-intentioned and appears to have a good heart. Then there is Long who mouths socialist gospel but has no personality or soul to speak of. And Paddy, a relic from the past, is painted without dimension. It is only Yank, the swarthy, beastly king of the stokehole, who is a multidimensional character. And it is Yank who personifies O'Neill's examination of the human condition.

"Yank ... is the only character who really lives, all the others merely serve as background against which he stands out," claimed Andrew Malone in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O 'Neill.

In the course of the play Yank goes from the cocky leader of the mighty firemen to a heap of a human being, crushed physically and morally. In the sweaty stokehole, Yank possesses a comfortable worldview. He shows disdain for the upper classes that Long criticizes. Yet these supposed oppressors are inconsequential in Yank's view. "They don't belong," he rants again and again. He roars out his defiance toward them, believing his mastery of the furnace defines and raises him above all others.

"In the stokehole, Yank belongs. His credo—that he is the force at the bottom that makes the entire mechanized society move—is right. He is such a force until the meeting with Mildred causes him to doubt himself and sends him out in a frenzied effort to destroy the God of power he has served in his furnace altar," wrote Travis Bogard in Contour in Time.

Yank's sense of place is tenuous at best. In what others label as hell, he feels a connection. But this feeling of connection does not extend beyond the stokehole, which for him is the center of the universe, even the pinnacle.

The fateful encounter with Mildred puts his world on edge. He is a man beside himself when her look of horror and revulsion emblazons itself on his psyche. His worldview is shattered as he realizes he is not the king of anything. And he sets out roaring like a wounded beast. Now his only connections are with steel—he has in fact called himself steel: "I'm steel—steel—steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!"—with the fire of the furnace, and with the animals in the zoo (the other hairy apes). He is forced to admit his lack of connection with other humans; he is alienated from society. This alienation is one that O'Neill underscores throughout the play by employing a number of symbols. The steel, whether it's the clanging door of the furnace, the shovel that is an extension of Yank's arm, or the bars of...

(This entire section contains 1890 words.)

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the prison and the gorilla cage at the zoo, is hard and ultimately isolating. It reinforces the idea of separation. Even Mildred the unwitting muse (or tormentor) of Yank, represents the metal: she is the daughter of a steel magnate, the offspring of the cold, isolating substance.

Mildred wears white. It is a cold color, one without warmth or hue. Her white dress does not connote pureness or welcome but coolness and distance. The color underscores the gulf between her world and that of the soot-black firemen—and it is Yank who revels in the soot, refusing to wash it off his skin after his work is done. Heightening the contrast, Mildred's complexion, when confronted with the filthy beast-like Yank, turns pale and white.

The sea, which is one of the backdrops for this drama, again reinforces the idea of dislocation. Long a fascination for O'Neill (he worked for a time as a merchant seaman), the sea is always creating distance. The sailors on the ship are disconnected from family and home. Yank himself, drinking with the other firemen, pronounces the lack of importance of home. It was just someplace to get away from for him. ''On'y too glad to beat it, dat was me. Home was lickings for me, dat's all." This statement explains his outburst "t'hell wit home."

"No one has understood better than Eugene O'Neill that the soul at war with itself belongs nowhere in this world of realities. The soul that denies or seeks to escape from its own creative powers sinks in misery below the beast," stated Richard Skinner in Eugene O 'Neill: A Poet's Quest.

Yank first starts to sense this point when he sees Mildred faint at the sight of him. The disturbance that starts to brew in him leaves him confused, trying to think while his drinking companions grow far away from him. The dawning awareness of his disassociation from society comes to a head when Yank is on shore, wandering down Fifth Avenue, gaping at the unattainable luxuries in the glass windows. "De don't belong no more'n she does," he announces. He heckles a group of wealthy church goers exiting a service. He approaches the group, proclaiming that they don't belong. Emphasizing his own place in society (as much for his own benefit as theirs), he shouts: "Look at me, why don't youse dare? I belong, dat's me.'" Yank's behavior becomes more erratic as the wealthy people ignore his remarks. Eventually he becomes so violent that the police arrive and arrest him.

Incarcerated, Yank laments his state and obsesses about the woman he believes is responsible for his present condition. "I'll show her who belongs," he vows. But then he explodes with the knowledge that her father has made the steel in the cell that holds him. The guards must come and hose him down, like a wild animal.

Once released from prison, Yank searches out the Wobblies, hoping to find a place in the labor movement, one that will calm his anger and exact the revenge he desires. He's a natural, it seems. A worker with leadership among other workers. But his alienation extends even to this arena as he is ousted by the union. His ideas about blowing up the steel mills are correctly interpreted by the union as a sign of his instability.

Finally, it dawns on Yank that despite his claims of belonging, just the opposite is true. ''Now I ain't steel, and de woild owns me. Aw hell! I can't see—it's all dark, get me? It's all wrong.''

The only place Yank can think to go is the zoo, where he feels an affinity for the gorillas. After all, he is the hairy ape isn't he? Yank struggles to understand what he's been through. He resigns himself to the animal kingdom, believing this is the one place where he will belong. Yet once again, and with tragic finality, he discovers that he doesn't fit in anywhere—even with the animals.

The longing that Yank carries in his breast, this quest for connection and belonging, is, according to some critics, a mystical yearning. Even though it is played out in the arena of social politics, Yank's dilemma, the focus of the play, is ultimately a quest for spiritual fulfillment. While it is ambiguous (in the case of Yank) as to whether the search involves a concrete religion and God, the spiritual theme is one that O'Neill pondered throughout his work.

Explaining the importance O'Neill placed on the spiritual, he once said, "I suppose that is one reason why I have come to feel so indifferent toward political and social movements of all kinds. Time was when I was an active socialist, and, after that, a philosophical anarchist. But today I can't feel that anything like that really matters." While this statement does not explicitly name God, other critics have interpreted the playwright's words to mean that religion in life has far greater weight and import than such trivial and transitory things as social politics. In Eugene O'Neill: A World View, Virginia Floyd wrote, "For O'Neill the quest for the meaning of life, of existence, proves to be religious in nature. His concern is not the relation between man and man but the relation between God and man and between man and his divided soul, seeking, as the playwright himself, for a faith to make it whole."

Throughout The Hairy Ape, we see that Yank's animal nature, which is one of the few things that offers him connection to his world (the stokehole), is grotesque and, ultimately, the cause of his death. He proudly adopts the title of hairy ape and glories in the raw strength of it. But it is Mildred who recognizes the true nature of Yank's brute animal center, and, as a representative of civilized society, the one who rejects and recoils from such traits.

"I have tried to dig deep in it, to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive side," O'Neill wrote. That animal or primitive side, which is so near the surface in Yank, is the source of his alienation. Yet, in the final scene, when he makes actual contact with an animal that he believes to be like himself, he is crushed to death, dying with the realization that even among the apes he does not belong. Floyd stated that the final words of the play, which come in the stage directions, are some of the most bitter O'Neill ever wrote. As Yank's lifeless body slumps to the bottom of the gorilla cage, O'Neill writes, "And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs." Only in complete surrender to alienation and isolation from humanity—which is ultimately death—does Yank find what he wants--to belong to something.

With these enigmatic words concluding his play, O'Neill leads us to assume that the problem of the human condition, the problem of alienation, is one that is never truly solved in life. While some cope with it better than others, no one is exempt. By stating that, in his death, Yank "at last belongs," many have read O'Neill's meaning to be a religious one. While humankind must endure alienation in corporeal life, all will be a part of the heavenly kingdom in their eternal life. Those reading the playwright's intent from a pessimistic point of view, however, have adopted a more organic interpretation of O'Neill's final words regarding Yank. His lifeless form slumped to the ground, it is the earth to which the hairy ape now truly belongs, his decomposing body becoming one with the soil.

Source: Etta Worthington, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Worthington is a playwright and educator.

Eugene O'Neill at Full Tilt

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

The little theatre of the Provincetownsmen in Macdougal Street was packed to the doors with astonishment last evening as scene after scene unfolded in the new play by Eugene O'Neill. This was The Hairy Ape, a bitter, brutal, wildly fantastic play of nightmare hue and nightmare distortion. It is a monstrously uneven piece, now flamingly eloquent, now choked and thwarted and inarticulate. Like most of his writing for the theatre, it is the worse here and there for the lack of a fierce, unintimidated blue pencil. But it has a little greatness in it, and it seems rather absurd to fret overmuch about the undisciplined imagination of a young playwright towering so conspicuously above the milling, mumbling crowd of playwrights who have no imagination at all.

The Hairy Ape has been superbly produced. There is a rumor abroad that Arthur Hopkins, with a proprietary interest in the piece, has been lurking around its rehearsals, and the program confesses that Robert Edmond Jones went down to Macdougal Street and took hand with Cleon Throckmorton in designing the eight pictures which the play calls for. That preposterous little theatre has one of the most cramped stages New York has ever known, and yet on it the artists have created the illusion of vast spaces and endless perspectives. They drive one to the conclusion that when a stage seems pinched and little, it is the mind of the producer that is pinched and little. This time O'Neill, unbridled, set them a merry pace in the eccentric gait of his imaginings. They kept up with him.

O'Neill begins his fable by posing before you the greatest visible contrast in social and physical circumstance. He leads you up the gangplank of a luxurious liner bound for Europe. He plunges you first into the stokers' pit, thrusting you down among the men as they stumble in from the furnaces, hot, sweaty, choked with coal dust, brutish. Squirm as you may, he holds you while you listen to the rumble of their discontent, and while you listen, also, to speech more squalid than even an American audience heard before in an American theatre. It is true talk, all of it, and only those who have been so softly bred that they have never really heard the vulgate spoken in all its richness would venture to suggest that he has exaggerated it by so much as a syllable in order to agitate the refined. On the contrary.

Then, in a twinkling, he drags you (as the ghosts dragged Scrooge) up out of all this murk and thudding of engines and brawling of speech, to a cool, sweet, sunlit stretch of the hurricane deck, where, at lazy ease, lies the daughter of the President of the line's board of directors, a nonchalant dilletant who has found settlement work frightfully interesting and is simply crazy to go down among the stokers and see how the other half lives aboard ship.

Then follows the confrontation—the fool fop of a girl and the huge animal of a stoker who had taken a sort of dizzy romantic pride in himself and his work as something that was real in an unreal world, as something that actually counted, as something that was and had force. Her horrified recoil from him as from some loathsome, hairy ape is the first notice served on him by the world that he doesn't belong. The remaining five scenes are the successive blows by which this is driven in on him, each scene, as written, as acted and as intensified by the artists, taking on more and more of the nightmare quality with which O'Neill seemed possessed to endow his fable.

The scene on Fifth Avenue when the hairy ape comes face to face with a little parade of wooden-faced church-goers who walk like automata and prattle of giving a "Hundred Per Cent. American Bazaar" as a contribution to the solution of discontent among the lower classes; the scene on Blackwell's Island with the endless rows of cells and the argot of the prisoners floating out of darkness; the care with which each scene ends in a retributive and terrifying closing in upon the bewildered fellow—all these preparations induce you at last to accept as natural and inevitable and right that the hairy ape should, by the final curtain, be found dead inside the cage of the gorilla in the Bronx Zoo.

Except for the role of the girl, which is pretty badly played by Mary Blair, the cast captured for The Hairy Ape is an exceptionally good one. Louis Wolheim, though now and then rather painfully off the beat in his cooperation with the others, gives a capital impersonation of the stoker, and lesser parts are well managed by Harry O'Neill as an Irish fireman dreaming of the old days of sailing vessels, and Harold West as a cockney agitator who is fearfully annoyed because of the hairy ape's concentrating his anger against this one little plutocrat instead of maintaining an abstract animosity against plutocrats in general.

In Macdougal Street now, and doubtless headed for Broadway, we have a turbulent and tremendous play, so full of blemishes that the merest fledgling among the critics could point out a dozen, yet so vital and interesting and teeming with life that those playgoers who let it escape them will be missing one of the real events of the year.

Source: Alexander Woolcott, ''Eugene O'Neill at Full Tilt'' (1922) in On Stage: Selected Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, p. 27.

Tragic Effect in The Hairy Ape

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3589

The Hairy Ape has been widely praised and widely reprinted. Most reviewers and critics have agreed that it has unusual power and unusual ability to project its sense of tragedy. But critics have disagreed on where that sense of tragedy comes from and, in consequence, on basic matters of interpretation. Early critics saw its power in its brutal naturalism, for a long time hardly noticing the expressionistic techniques—and disregarding O'Neill's explicit instructions that the treatment of the scenes ''should by no means be naturalistic." More recently commentators have recognized some of the complex ways in which this comparatively direct and simple play works. I like much of Doris V. Falk's analysis in psychoanalytic and existential terms. She seems especially germane when she suggests that Yank in his "belonging" "has abdicated his manhood, has ceased to be an 'existent' and becomes a passive, vegetative being at the mercy of forces outside himself and beyond his control." [Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension, New Jersey.] However we interpret "belonging," we miss O'Neill's play if we interpret it as good. Yet as late as 1947 Joseph Wood Krutch, perhaps the most sensitive and appreciative of O'Neill's critics, was able to describe Yank as "a man who, however brutalized, remains a man until he loses his sense of 'belonging,' and thereby inevitably becomes an animal.'' [American Scholar, Summer, 1947] The truth, I am convinced, is almost diametrically opposite this. I would describe Yank as a man who, by glorying in his merely belonging, contributes to his own brutalization, who remains a brute until he gets jarred out of that sense of belonging and then inevitably moves toward becoming a man, in the process inevitably destroying himself.

To see this as the direction of the action, we need merely ask at what stage we admire Yank more: when he is the brutal mechanistic ape shoveling coal into the hell-fires to drive faster the mechanism he is part of and exploited by, or when he is talking to himself and to the real ape outside the cage. Yank's movement from the cage and hell of the stokehole to the actual cage involves several different complementary and overlapping threads of action, all but one of them leading downward.

All these threads begin from the dramatic and jarring confrontation of Yank and Mildred in Scene III. Yank has already shown himself not only belonging, but belonging so completely that he neither knows nor needs to know what he rejects in so belonging. He comments "with a cynical grin" on the activity that is to become so important to him: "Can't youse see I'm tryin' to t'ink?" His mates echo the cynicism when they echo the word ''Think'' and then work it up into almost a chant, "Drink, don't think. Drink, don't think." He has neither a past (like the lost romance and beauty of Paddy's clipper ships) nor a future (not even like the one implied in Long's cheap attacks that look forward to the overthrow of the "damned Capitalist Class"). Yank is all present: ''Sure, I'm part of de engines! Why de hell not! Dey move, don't dey? Deyre speed, ain't dey!... Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I'm steel—steel—steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!" Yank's rhetoric defines a frighteningly blind hubris. He not only belongs to all this; he is all of it—crew, ship, motion, steam, money, steel....

Yank not only belongs completely at the beginning of the play, he dominates both his society and the setting. In a way, we admire his sometimes goodnatured, sometimes brutal domination of his mates in the stokehole. But O'Neill carefully controls our response. Though Yank shows a kind of intellect in arriving at the fancy that he is steel, his hubris is hardly an intellectual one: witness the ridicule of his own ''trying to t'ink." The first three scenes dramatize the contrast between Yank's pretensions and the reality behind them. That reality is the meaningless stokehole life of the present contrasted with Paddy's clippership life of the past. That reality is the engineer's whistle, a mere sound, which runs Yank. That reality is the money represented by Mildred and her aunt—crass materialism. That reality is Mildred herself, fainting at the sight of "the filthy beast" and being carried up on a stretcher, ironically just as Yank had predicted if one of "dem slobs" came down into the hole. Like that of most tragic heroes, Yank's hubris, especially in the third scene, carries a fine dramatic irony, not too subtle here but powerful. To the first whistle he responds with his ''exultant tone of command." To the second he responds "contemptuously": "Take it easy dere, you! Who d'yuh tinks runnin' dis game, me or you? When I git ready, we move. Not before! When I git ready, git me!" To the third he responds with the fierce gestures and curses that Mildred sees and hears. In this scene O'Neill carefully emphasizes Yank's ape-like qualities. All the men shovel "in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas." As Yank curses the engineer, "he brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest with the other, gorilla-like." As he becomes conscious of the men watching something behind him, he "whirls defensively with a snarling, murderous growl, crouching to spring, his lips drawn back over his teeth, his small eyes gleaming ferociously." The height of his hubris exactly coincides with the depths of his animality.

Confronted thus with Mildred, from the unknown world behind his own and so diametrically different from him, Yank ''feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride." He of course can only feel the insult, not rationalize it, but he feels rightly: it has hit the very heart of his pride. That pride, so intimately associated with his bruteness, is at once the least human and the most human thing about Yank, at once the least and the most promising, at once the least and the most admirable. It carries many of the ambiguities and ambivalences of classical hubris. We admire the energy, the confidence, the positiveness. We shudder for the blindness, the swagger, the presumption. Even in associating Yank's pride with his bruteness, O'Neill manages to suggest something of the classical potential for positive development and terrible destruction that can come from hubris, from the all-too human presumption of the godhood that will destroy.

From this confrontation, the movement downward from hubris begins. Also from here, and most important to the tragic effect, the complementary movement upward begins, upward from the depths of Yank's animality. We see the beginnings of his change immediately in the next scene. Still reeling under the impact of Mildred's revulsion, Yank is now "The Thinker"; he shows no self-ridicule, only resentment at interruption when he's ''tryin' to tink." O'Neill emphasizes the ironic contrast by having the men echo the word "Think" again, as they did in Scene One. Thinking is nearly always painful; it is especially difficult for this man-brute who has just been shocked out of what was most brute in him. But thinking is a human function: the brute has started to think, and in so doing has started moving toward manhood. A quest also, even for vengeance or for something to belong to, is a human journey. Yank takes that journey, blindly as all men must. Blindly, gropingly, hopelessly (though only at the end can he know that). But his quest aims at the wrong things, is still dictated by the shattered remains of hubris: revenge, he feels, can restore his pride.

Yank may have ''fallen in hate,'' as he insists to Paddy, but his own self, not merely Mildred, is the object of his hate: he cannot stand the self Mildred has revealed to him. But he can sense this only dimly. His "thinking" still remains on the most elementary level. His contemptuous dismissal of "Law," "Government," "God," comes simply from the pragmatic awareness that none of these can solve his problem. And what thinking he has done dissolves into rage as he recognizes Paddy's truth that Mildred had looked ''hairy ape" at him even if she had not said the words. The rage subsides momentarily into bewilderment that brings on questions: "Say, who is dat skoit, huh? What is she? What's she come from? Who made her? Who give her de noive to look at me like that? Dis ting's got my goat right. I don't get her. She's new to me. What does a skoit like her mean, huh?'' Elementary questions, to be sure, but questions that Yank could not have asked before confronting Mildred. And perhaps not even so elementary. For Yank is really groping toward one of the most fundamental of religious-philosophical questions: the source and meaning of opposites, of Yank and Mildred, of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, of the black animal human and the white effete human, even (though this may seem a big jump) of good and evil. But at this stage Yank can respond only emotionally. His new image of their relationship—"She grinds de organ and I'm on de string, huh''—adds a fine touch to O'Neill's pattern of ironic contrasts between man and ape. With the loss of his hubris, Yank's image of himself shrivels. No longer even the "filthy beast" Mildred had seen, the hairy ape she had ''looked'' though not said, but just a weak, jabbenng monkey on a string. No wonder the image sets off his new "frenzy of rage" and sends him rushing for immediate revenge.

But of course he cannot—and should not—live with the new image of himself. The Fifth Avenue scene shows Yank desperately trying to regain the old image by revenge if not on Mildred herself then on the society she represents. He shows little of his new-found thinking here. But the scene effectively demonstrates the hopelessness of physical revenge and, by implication, of any revenge as a means of restoring the old Yank. The old Yank cannot be restored. But Yank does not know that.

In jail, Yank is "The Thinker" again. He has been given "Toity days to tink it over." But as he says, ''Tink it over? Christ, dat's all I been doin' for weeks!'' Yank ends this scene with his ''appalling'' new awareness that Mildred's "old man—president of de Steel Trust—makes half de steel in de world—steel—where I tought I belonged—drivin' trou—movin'—in dat—to make her—and cage me in for her to spit on!" We, of course, have seen all this long before, but it is painful new knowledge for Yank. It leads him first to the new image of himself as fire melting steel, "breakin' out in de night—," then to the resultant trouble as he bends the bars and gets the appropriate punishment for fire that has broken out: the fire hose "full pressure."

His encounter with the actual I.W.W., not the demagogue's version, closes the door on the final possibility for revenge. His mad idea to "blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to the moon" can "belong" no place except in his own wild mind, certainly not in so banal an organization as Yank finds. But being thrown out sets off the thinking again. He sees that the I.W.W. are "in the wrong pew." They want to solve all problems by giving men a dollar more a day and an hour less: "Tree square a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousy vote—and I'm all fixed for Jesus huh?" Bitter irony, this. But Yank has already been forced into a far deeper awarenes of the complexity of human problems, especially his own, than these men will ever reach:

Dis ting's in your inside, but it ain't your belly. Feedin' your face—sinkers and coffee—dat don't touch it. It's way down—at de bottom. Yuh can't grab it, and yuh can't stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole world stops. Dat's me now—I don't tick, see?—I'm a busted Ingersoll, dat's what Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain't steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can't see—it's all dark, get me. It's all wrong! (He turns a bitter mocking face up like an ape gibbering at the moon.) Say, youse up dere, Man in de Moon, yuh look so wise, gimme de answer, huh? Slip me de inside dope, de information right from de stable—where do I get off at, huh?

I'm not sure that O'Neill plays quite fair with his character here—at the moment of his simple, eloquent rhetoric and his most intense questioning, to describe him as like an ape gibbering at the moon. But the description reinforces the fundamental ironies in the contrasting lines of symbol and action: When most an ape Yank feels himself most a man; now having moved a long way toward manhood he looks most the ape. O'Neill pushes the irony in the brief encounter with the policeman. Yank has two responses, both telling: "Sure! Lock me up! Put me in a cage! Dat's de ony answer yuh know." Underline ''yuh'' and we get the force of this. Yank shows a new kind of unconscious superiority here: he at least knows that the policeman's answer, society's answer, is not enough. And when the policeman asks what Yank's been doing, Yank answers, with a new kind of ironical awareness: "Enuff to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure dat's de charge." Born, to life in the cage. When Yank asks, "Say where do I go from here?" the policeman, giving him a push—with a grin, indifferently, answers, "Go to hell." The policeman is the last human we see other than Yank. The contrast is telling: the man who has his one answer giving the ape with all his questions a push on the way to hell.

The hell of Yank's finish contrasts tellingly also with the original hell of the stokehole. The zoo is the home of the real ape. As we might expect here, where Yank has come home to belong, he begins by admiring the gorilla's chest and shoulders, the ''punch in eider fist dat'd knock 'em all silly," his ability to "challenge de whole woild." But almost immediately he recognizes that he is seeing in the ape what Mildred saw there in the stokehole: "On'y outa de cage—broke out—free to moider her, see? ... She wasn't wise dat I was in a cage, too—worser'n yours—sure—a damn sight—'cause you got some chanct to to bust loose—but me—(He grows confused) Aw, hell! It's all wrong, ain't it?'' Yes, it is all wrong, on a social and philosophical level. Yank should not have been given the ability to think, without the ability to find some way out for himself. Yank is right on the psychological level, too: he can never find a way out of the cage of himself. At least never so long as he tries merely to belong. But he is wrong about himself on the human, the tragic level. For he has busted out of the cage. He has begun to think, the distinctively human function. He has even begun to sense beauty, the beauty Paddy had told him of: "Sure, I seen de sun come up. Dat was pretty, too—all red and pink and green. I was lookin' at de skyscrapers—steel—and all de ships comin' in, sailin' out, all over de oith— and dey was steel, too. De sun was warm, dey wasn't no clouds, and dere was breeze blowin'." Here steel no longer cages him in. And he has come to a fine awareness of his own dilemma. All of that is pretty, but he couldn't belong in that: ''It was over my head." And so he has hurried over to see the gorilla.

The gorilla (at least Yank has moved back from the monkey-on-a-string image) Yank senses as the only image of himself left after the shock waves set up by the encounter with Mildred have worked themselves this far. Both are, as he puts it, "members of de same club—de Hairy Apes." But especially here with the unthinking gorilla Yank moves gropingly higher in his questioning, toward an increasingly intelligent understanding of himself, though "tinkin' is hard." The gorilla is better off than Yank because he can't think; he can "sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and de rest of it.'' Then he can belong, even though he's in a cage. But Yank ''ain't got no past to tink in, nor nothin' dat's comin', on'y what's now—and dat don't belong." Here Yank reaches the high point of his "tinkin":

But I kin make a bluff at talkin' and tinkin;—a'most git away with it—a'most!—and dat's where de joker comes in. (He laughs) I ain't on oith and I ain't in heaven, get me? I'm in de middle tryin' to separate 'em, taken' all de worst punches from bot' of 'em. Maybe that's what dey call hell, huh?

Maybe it is. But it's a new kind of hell, in sharp contrast to the hell of the stokehole. And the policeman who gave him a push toward hell was only repeating in miniature the mighty push given him by Mildred and the lesser shoves by the Fifth Avenue crowd, the guards in prison, and the I.W.W.

And so here is Yank in his hell, without a past to think in or a future to move toward, caught between heaven and earth and trying with his unprepared intellect and emotions to separate them but taking the worst punches from both. And aware of it, able to define it: this is the point. For Yank has moved so far from his original hubris as the figurative steel but the actual human brute that now he is asking, in his own simple language and simple way, the profoundest of questions and defining the profoundest of human dilemmas. For Yank's questions about why he is, what he is, and where he is, are the same questions man has always raised when faced with suffering and injustice and unfulfilled aspirations. His final definition of his situation rings with echoes from the psalmist, from Job, from the Preacher, from Euripides from Shakespeare. And the Yank that speaks here is a brute-become-man, speaking now with a knowledge earned and tempered in his own demonstrated suffering—a brute reborn a man through the suffering that he has partially brought on himself by denying at first his own humanity.

Such a picture of the new Yank leaves a final question. Why does Yank destroy himself? O'Neill handles this carefully. The new Yank destroys himself, as Sophocles would have him do, by the very fact of his new-found humanity. For the human traits that lead him to the questions also make him despair of answers, and his past has given, him no equipment to cope with a universe for which he can find no answers. He releases the gorilla so that together they can "knock 'em often de oith and croak wit de band playin'.'' Thus release of the ape is a kind of suicide for Yank, an embracing of the animal "brother" or self, which as brute destroys him: the literal hairy ape literally crushing the man, as the symbolic ape had earlier crushed the man in Yank. A kind of suicide, but arrived at not from mere despair, but surely more from his thinking, from having defined his situation and, though finding no other way out, from seeking this as the positive end.

Tragedy is where we find it—even when its author calls it a comedy. I would hardly argue that Yank is noble or tragic in the classical sense. He is no Oedipus caught in a trap the gods have apparently set, no Job craving ultimate understanding, no Lear raving his defiance at the universe and coming to know his own humanity as a result. But I would argue that he is a little bit of all these, reduced at first to the lowest level that still can be called human and forced suddenly to confront on his level the breakup of his universe as all of these had had to confront the breakup of theirs. That the experience should call forth from the brute his humanness, that that humanness should call forth from us our understanding and sympathy and respect, that we should re-experience in Yank's new-found dignity our own sense of human dignity in the face of the inexplicable—these are the sources of the tragic effect in The Hairy Ape. And they are sources that reaffirm the power and pertinence and meaning and dignity of tragedy in our age. Even without the mighty heroes of the past, even with heroes reduced to the lowest levels of humanity, man is still man and tragedy still tragedy. And tragedy still speaks to us from the deepest levels of our troubled universe and our troubled spirits. O'Neill and Yank have helped us know all this.

Source: Marden J. Clark, ''Tragic Effect in The Hairy Ape'' in Modern Drama, Volume 10, no. 4, February, 1968, pp. 372-82.


Critical Overview