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Commentary
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

This play, though at first not well received by the critics, was a success with the audience, and it represents O'Neill's most interesting play, technically, since The Emperor Jones. It contains elements of experimentation which range from naturalism through symbolism to expressionism. The first part of the play, on board the ship, is realistic and bears a resemblance to the earlier plays of the S.S. Glencairn group. The name of Yank reappears, and the character of Paddy seems to be a repetition of Driscoll in the earlier plays. Paddy may also be a study of O'Neill's own acquaintance from Jimmy-the-Priest's (James J. Condon's) bar in New York, the fireman named Driscoll who committed suicide, and O'Neill here may have been seeking an explanation for his action. Overall, the scenes in the stokehole and the forecastle are realistic in their execution but expressionistic in their use of scenery. The cage motif of the forecastle and the inferno motif of the stokehole are well defined. So, too, is the frequently misunderstood attitude of Rodin's "The Thinker." This statue is often considered an optimistic, even uplifting sculpture, but one must not forget that it was designed for the central piece of the monumental work, "The Gates of Hell." Perhaps that motif is a trifle overdone in The Hairy Ape, but nonetheless it does underline both Yank's psychological and intellectual difficulties. Significantly, the pose appears only after Yank's confrontation with Mildred when he starts to discover the hell of his own existence.

Actually, the only truly expressionistic scene in the play is the Fifth Avenue scene, for there O'Neill refracts all the happenings through the distorted mental processes of Yank. The manifest impossibility of Yank's banging without result into the representatives of wealth and power is indicative of the approach employed. This scene is also notable as being the first occasion in an O'Neill play that masks were used. Here they are a means of signifying the stereotypical anonymity of the capitalist characters; O'Neill was later to use this technique more fully and more originally in Lazarus Laughed, The Great God Brown, and Days Without End. Finally, the last scene of The Hairy Ape operates on a symbolic rather than an expressionistic level, but again the treatment is realistic. O'Neill is endeavoring to break new ground by his fusion of techniques, but this is not a truly expressionistic play—and there is no reason to regret the fact. One does, however, wonder whether the conclusion actually communicates the final words of the stage direction, with their singular pessimism. Of all the plays O'Neill had written so far, The Emperor Jones comes closest to The Hairy Ape, with its repetitions of motifs—the cages, the "loud barking laughter" like the sound of a phonograph, the reduction of human beings to automata, the praise of steel, and Yank's final attempt to get to the very bottom of the question of human existence. Both Brutus Jones and Yank try to find out where they belong, but Jones's conclusion, in which he rejects his old gods, is less pessimistic than that of Yank, who is shown as accepting kinship with the primates.

The Hairy Ape was considered by some critics to be propagandistic and polemical, but this does not necessarily have to be the case. The characters should be taken as symbolic rather than realistic. Yank is symbolic of any victim of modern industrial civilization. At first he believes that he is an essential part of it; he accepts its premises and, like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he lives by them. It is only when his dream is destroyed, when his "saving lie" is revealed to him as a falsehood, that Yank starts to question.

Mildred's intrusion into the world in which Yank is king brings about his own psychological destruction, and similarly, Yank's intrusion into the world in which the gorilla is king also brings about his physical destruction. Yank, then, is not simply representative of the oppressed working classes, the victim of the capitalistic system, but is a symbol of the displacement of modern man in general. This is a theme which O'Neill often treats: the place of a human being with reference to his function and his dreams. In the S.S. Glencairn plays, Driscoll speaks of the old oneness of man and sea, a theme that Paddy echoes here. Industrialization has destroyed the old certainties, but it has not yet provided new ones; and as in The Emperor Jones, one is forced to question the so-called benefits of modern civilization.

The play was written quickly, in just a few weeks, and O'Neill rightly saw it as a great advance. Indeed, it remained, for a long time, one of the most popular of all his plays, up to the arrival of the autobiographical dramas which were produced at the end of his life and posthumously. It is extraordinary how O'Neill manages to make the inarticulate Yank communicate important concepts, and this is where his symbolic and expressionistic techniques are important. But they exist on the groundwork of a solid realism born of the playwright's own observation of life in the stokehole. One curious footnote to the original production of The Hairy Ape is that when it was moved uptown, the part of Mildred was played by Carlotta Monterey, who met O'Neill then for the first time. There was some talk of making this play into an opera, and Eric Coates, the British composer, was interested, but nothing came of the proposal. Judging by Coates's "London" suite, he would have been a good choice, for his music makes interesting use of the dissonances and noises of a great city. Note: The use of masks in the Fifth Avenue scene came from a suggestion by the costumer, Blanche Hays, not the playwright.

 

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