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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 0


Stumbling Amid the Ruins:
Yank’s Absurd Inheritance
The Hairy Ape

J. Chris Westgate
University of California, Davis

It is intriguing how Eugene O’Neill stages the audience for The Hairy Ape. When the curtain opens upon the forecastle of the transatlantic liner, the audience is immediately beset by Yank’s seemingly unassailable sense of identity. “Everyting else dat makes de woild move, somep’n makes it move. It can’t move without somep’n else, see? Den yuh get down to me. I’m at de bottom, get me!” (261). Yank trumpets himself, in effect, as the prime mover of the industrial world. He “belongs” because that world, like its metonym the ocean-liner, depends upon him to function: “I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines . . . Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel—steel—steel!” (261). It is undoubtedly easy for an audience to be swept up by the conviction of Yank’s speech. Nevertheless, O’Neill’s expressionistic imagery, which emphasizes confinement and impotence, almost certainly exposes “Yank’s rhetoric” to be what Marden J. Clark describes as “a frighteningly blind hubris” (373). What Yank sees as evidence of his subjectivity—his association with commodities—is, in actuality, confirmation of his objectivity. In effect, O’Neill creates an explicit discrepancy between dialogue and mise-en-scène, thereby not only demanding the intellectual contribution of his audience to interpret this incongruity but also distancing that audience from Yank through dramatic irony.

But O’Neill does more than rely upon irony to distance the play’s spectators and stimulate their critical participation. He draws upon Brechtian alienation techniques to emphasize Yank’s brutish nature in the opening scene. Yank is given to outbursts of violent threats against his fellow stokers, incidents of petty theft, and utterances of alarming misogyny: “Dey’re all tarts, get me? Treat ‘em rough, dat’s me” (255). When the “alienation effect intervenes,” notes Brecht in his discussion of Chinese acting, it does not inhibit the spectators’ emotions but instead disengages those emotions from their implicit connection to character so that they “need not correspond to those of the character portrayed” (Willett 94). It is not so much that O’Neill’s audience, at the beginning of the play, reacts with Yank, as it is that his audience reacts to Yank. O’Neill, then, stages his audience to be as critical towards, as they are sympathetic to, both Yank’s ideology in this opening scene and to his struggle to belong in the scenes that follow.

It is clear that O’Neill intends Yank, at least in part, as a modern day Everyman. In an interview for the New York Herald Tribune in 1924, he described Yank as “a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature.” But Yank is not exclusively symbolic, for later in the same interview O’Neill admits, “I personally do not believe that an idea can be readily put over to an audience except through characters” (110). It is, instead, that Yank is an allegorization of humanity—both “an abstract expressionistic symbol” and “a concrete dramatic character,” to borrow Peter Egri’s terminology (98). But if Yank is an Everyman whose struggles allegorize those of humanity, then he is clearly an Everyman made strange. The reason why O’Neill distances his audience undoubtedly derives from what he considers to be the duty of the modern dramatist. In a 1928 letter to George Jean Nathan, O’Neill wrote that “the playwright must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it— the death of the old God and the failure of Science and Materialism to give any satisfying new One for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find meaning for life” (qtd. in Kehl 42). What O’Neill is describing, of course, is thein heritance of the modern writer; it is the Yeatsean prophecy come to fruition: The old ideologies that once afforded humanity its identity have fallen apart, and the new ideologies that have been erected in their place have done little to suggest that the center can, or ever could, hold.

Recognizing the pervasiveness of this attitude among modern dramatists, from Ibsen to O’Neill, Robert Brustein has codified what he describes as a “theatre of revolt,” a deliberate, dramatic response to the “spiritual disintegration” that plagues the modern world (4). It is hardly surprising, then, that The Hairy Ape undertakes the repudiation of old and the interrogation of new ideologies. In fact, it is not difficult to recognize O’Neill’s ventriloquism at work in Yank’s early diatribe: “De Bible, huh? De Cap’tlist class, huh? Aw nix on dat Salvation Army-Socialist bull. Git a soapbox! Hire a hall! Come and be saved, huh? Jerk us to Jesus, huh? Aw g’wan!” (256). What O’Neill is allegorizing through Yank’s quest to belong, then, is humanity’s struggle for identity in a world of crumbling ideologies. What is intriguing, though, is that O’Neill situates his audience, through the aforementioned dramatic techniques, to question the feasibility, even as they sympathize with the possibility, of that struggle.

That struggle does not begin, however, until after Yank’s confrontation with Mildred Douglas. Whatever Mildred may signify (from Jungian anima to “a representative of ‘er class,” as Long contends), what Yank’s encounter with her denotes is the estrangement of Yank from the ideology to which he had subscribed so completely at the play’s opening (284). That ideology is founded on Yank’s assumption that physical strength translates directly to social influence. The stokers are not “slaves,” as Long argues, because of the labor they endure; rather, that labor that they produce is evidence that they “run de whole woiks” (261). When Yank launches his tirade against the engineer’s whistle, it is just this ideology that he is reiterating—that it is he, and not the engineer, who is “runnin’ dis game.” But when Yank turns to discover Mildred standing right behind him, his “mouth falls open, his eyes grow bewildered,” according to O’Neill’s stage direction (273). Yank attempts to rationalize his reaction, both to his fellow stokers and himself, by arguing that he “tought she was a ghost” (277). Nevertheless, this bewilderment suggests a devastating epiphany.

What Yank recognizes in Mildred’s horrified reaction, I would argue, is the frailty of his ideology. Suddenly, he is confronted by his own objectivity, as if he were nothing more than one of Long’s “bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie” (276). Though Yank is clearly unable to articulate this realization at the moment, he does eventually admit, after being thrown out of the I. W. W., that “Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me” (303). Yank’s encounter with Mildred, then, divests him of his ideology; it reveals that he does not least not in the way he had always believed. Moreover, Yank recognizes, even if only subconsciously, the absurdity—to borrow Martin Esslin’s terminology—of his condition: “Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost” (23). Outraged and dismayed, Yank roars “God damn yuh!” and hurls his shovel at Mildred and the retreating engineers (273).

Initially, Yank’s throwing of the shovel would seem to be little more than an extension of the brutish behavior that characterizes him for much of the first half of the play; or, at best, corroboration of Mildred’s judgment that he is a “filthy beast.” But this outburst becomes, over the course of the play, much more revealing in regards to Yank’s struggle to belong. The influence of Nietzsche on O’Neill is widely recognized, and when “Nietzsche declared the death of God, he declared the death of all traditional values as well,” as Robert Brustein noted: “the only alternative to nihilism lay in revolt” (8). It is hardly surprising, then, that Yank reaches a similar, if less eloquent, conclusion. “Steel! It don’t belong, dat’s what! Cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars—dat’s what it means! . . . But I’ll drive trou! Fire, dat melts it! I’ll be fire—under the heap— fire dat never goes out—hot as hell—breakin’ out in de night” (295).

It is only while incarcerated on Blackwells Island (when he is confined by steel, not incidentally) that Yank is able to admit that his ideology has fallen apart. But the moment he makes this admission, he immediately hits upon a strategy to combat the alienation and disillusionment that have plagued him since the moment he looked into Mildred’s face. He will revolt against his former ideology; he will define himself through “fire.” Yank’s throwing of the shovel, then, instigates and embodies this strategy of revolt, even though it certainly is more instinctive than deliberate in Scene Three. His throwing of the shovel becomes, in essence, a Brechtian gest, a defining act of rebellion that is recapitulated in slight variations throughout the rest of the play. When he is outraged by the sale of monkey fur on Fifth Avenue, Yank flies into a rage and assaults the passersby. When he learns that Mildred’s father is the president of the Steel Trust, he schemes to blow up “all de cages—all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails” (300-301). In effect, revolt becomes his new ideology, one that he seeks to embrace when he intends to join what one of his fellow prisoners on Blackwells Island calls “the Industrious Wreckers of the World”: “Wreckers, dat’s de right dope! Dat belongs! Me for dem!” (293).

Yank’s ideology of revolt, however, is just as fragile and absurd as the other ideologies that he dismissed early in the play, largely because his rebellions are impotent. When Yank throws the shovel, it clangs against the bulkhead and falls harmlessly to the floor because Mildred and the engineers have already made their escape. His act of revolt, here, is ineffectual at best and feeble at worst, as Paddy emphasizes when he recalls the incident: “And the loving way Yank heaved his shovel at the skull of her, only she was out the door! ‘Twas touching, I’m telling you!” (277-278). In his study of the semiotics of the “clenched fist” throughout O’Neill’s drama, Ulrich Halfmann argues that, most often, “the gesture stems from the desperate-impotent rage of a person who cannot make out the target of his rage, and so cannot get at it” (110). Discussing The Hairy Ape in particular, Halfmann describes Yank’s throwing of the shovel as “an extension of his fist” which he bears in frustration so often within the play (114).

The “desperate-impotent rage” that underlies and characterizes Yank’s revolt is compounded in the scenes that follow. When Yank tries to assault the passersby on Fifth Avenue, it is he who is buffeted and driven back, and the best Yank can accomplish, after punching a gentleman in the face, is to make him miss his bus. Later, when he attempts to enlist in the I. W. W. (which he believes is devoted to sabotage), he is easily subdued by the Wobblies and tossed out into the street so that he, instead of the shovel, falls to the ground harmlessly (293). Unfortunately for Yank, revolt proves to be just as hollow an ideology as religion, politics, or social parties. In effect, Yank only subscribes to a more radical version of “de same old bull—soapboxes and Salvation Army” that he dismissed in Scene One (302). As an ideology, revolt does nothing to reaffirm that Yank belongs; in fact, it only endorses the very alienation that he is seeking to assuage: “So dem boids don’t tink I belong, neider. Aw, to hell wit ‘em!” (302).

More fundamentally, though, Yank’s revolt fails as an ideology because he misapprehends the nature of his dilemma. It is not just that Yank is commodified, reduced to the “flesh and blood wheel of the engines” that he insolently embraces, even though a few directors have, similarly, distorted O’Neill’s intent from an “attack on humanity to an attack on the American establishment” (Massa 46). It is not merely social oppression that O’Neill’s expressionistic and ubiquitous imagery of “cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars” communicates, though the play certainly addresses this issue, most overtly during the conversation between Mildred and her aunt in Scene Two (295). Yank’s true dilemma is, instead, both the legacy of Darwinism and the inversion of Sartre’s classic definition of existentialism. It is the possibility that Yank, denied an ideology that could afford him any sense of identity, is nothing more than a “filthy beast,” a “brainless ape,” or at best, a Neanderthal heaving coal into the belly of the ocean-liner and knuckle-dragging through life—that his existence is his essence. It is the reality that Yank is imprisoned by biology, not social forces, and ruled over by a deterministic universe, not the “slobs in de foist cabin” (256).

Just after Yank is thrown out of the I. W. W. Local 57, he finally recognizes (or admits, since his many attempts to “tink” suggest a subconscious desire to transcend his physical existence) the nature of his dilemma: “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” (302-303). The “hunger” that Yank feels—in his mind, not in his belly—is the hunger for self-determination, the need to revolt against his existential condition and define his own essence. As Yank ultimately realizes, though only after all of his revolts have failed, feeding this “hunger” has nothing to do with the body. In fact, the more Yank revolts through the body in an effort to “belong” to his ideology of “fire,” the more he reaffirms the very determinism that he hungers to transcend. But, perhaps frightened by the implications of this epiphany, Yank dismisses it almost as quickly as he has it: “Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong!” (303).

The question that O’Neill situates his audience to ask, through the distancing techniques discussed earlier in this essay, would seem to be this: Does Yank’s quest for identity, for selfhood, fail because it is fundamentally flawed from the beginning? In his study of “O’Neill’s enormous effort to come to grips with the plight of alienation,” Peter Egri argued that “The Hairy Ape is fundamentally a dramatic statement of ‘belonging’ lost and a powerful plea for ‘belonging’ to be regained” (104). Yet Egri’s reading would seem to ignore both the play’s self-conscious questioning of ideologies as well as Yank’s final epiphany:

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 a breeze blowin’. Sure, it was great stuff. I got it aw right—what Paddy said about dat bein’ de right dope—on’y I couldn’t get in, see? I couldn’t belong in dat. [original emphasis] (305)

What Yank finally realizes is that all his attempts to reaffirm his identity through belonging have been futile because all ideologies are equally fragile and absurd. He cannot “get in” to either his former ideology of steel, nor to Paddy’s ideology of the past, 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” (259). What becomes clear is not just that Yank cannot belong to this ideology but also that this ideology was, most likely, just as illusory as all the others. It is Yank’s absurd inheritance—a world where darkness has already dropped and rough beasts have long since slouched toward Bethlehem. If O’Neill’s play is a “plea for ‘belonging’ to be regained,” as Egri contends, then it is simultaneously an interrogation of “belonging” as a means of defining oneself and giving one’s life meaning, just as Yank is simultaneously stoker and symbol. What The Hairy Ape seems to be dramatizing, then, is that the real struggle in the modern world is to articulate one’s own existential identity despite the crumbling ideologies. The real quest is to be, not to belong.

It would seem, then, that Yank’s quest is indeed futile from the beginning. He spends the entire play struggling to belong, and when he finally realizes that there is nothing to belong to, he seeks out his own destruction in the gorilla, an externalization of his most deterministic self. “Yank can’t go forward,” as O’Neill notes, “so he tries to go back” (110). Yet Yank’s struggle, I suspect, is never reduced to mere parody for O’Neill. In 1922, O’Neill said, in regards to The Straw, “The point is that life in itself is nothing. It is the dream that keeps us fighting, willing,—living! Achievement, in the narrow sense of possession, is a stale finale . . . A man wills his own defeat when he pursues the unattainable. But his struggle is his success!” [original emphasis] (qtd. in Halfmann 118). It hardly matters to O’Neill, it would seem, that Yank “wills his own defeat” by pursing that which he can never achieve; his struggle, however futile, reveals the almost necessarily tragic essence of humanity. Still, it is difficult not to imagine Yank as the allegorization of humanity, stumbling amid the ruins of a fallen civilization, searching desperately for some artifact of a comforting mythology. But the only artifacts amid the rubble are nothing more than the unrecognizable shards or undecipherable hieroglyphs of forgotten civilizations. They can do nothing to alleviate the disillusionnıent of humanity that Yank expresses to the gorilla in the closing moments of the play: "I ain't got no past to tink in, nor nothin' dat's coming, on'y what's now-and dat don't belong" (306).


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