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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 1


Yank’s Consciousness of Alienation in
O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape

Elizabeth Oldman

Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape focuses upon Yank Smith, leader among the stokers in the seething furnaces of a transatlantic oceanliner.  Throughout the play, Yank's feeling of "belonging" at the apex of the new order, the abundance of pride he derives from his work,  degenerates when he is delivered a word of social contempt and realizes the paltry nature of his manual labor in the eyes of the world.  His work loses its meaning and he becomes a pitiful creature--a "hairy ape" who dies literally crushed by the hand of this animal by the play's end.

In this paper, I argue that The Hairy Ape reveals a prevalent Marxist tract which harkens back to O'Neill's abandoned socialist impulse.  Like Marx, O'Neill is interested in the bourgeoisie and proletariat as antitheses--both present the same mode of human alienation. His character of Mildred, weak and superficial in her altruism towards those of the "lesser" classes, contrasts with Yank's natural strength and enthusiasm.  Similar to Marx, O'Neill suggests that the dominant classes are unknowingly  producing their own gravediggers. More specifically, I consider Yank himself as a potentially Gramscian organic intellectual who O'Neill avoids filling with the responsibility of disseminating class consciousness.  Rather than posit Yank's regression in an existentialist vacuum, I demonstrate that the cause for Yank's demise is his discovery via Mildred of his own ideological embeddedness which instigates his consciousness of absolute alienation.  Through the technique of repetition-- echoes, doubles, duplicate selves--O'Neill allows for the opening up of unfathomable substance within his work.  Such an entity is Mildred as Yank's own specter.  She leads Yank to his inevitable embrace of the hard kernel of the Lacanian Real, the unbearable truth about his own subjugation to the hegemonic structure. In my reading of the second half of the performance, I trace Yank's traverse through the Void.  I explore Yank's inaccessibility to himself, and ultimately, burdened with absolute self-(k)nowledge, his belonging-in-ideology only in death.

At the start of Scene 1 of The Hairy Ape, Yank believes he possesses an unshakable unity with industrial civilization.  The stage directions describe that "Yank is seated in the foreground.  He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest.  They respect his superior strength--the grudging respect of fear.  Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression, the very last word in what they are, their most highly developed individual." [1]  As these workers loiter about the stokehole of this transatlantic oceanliner an hour after it has departed from New York, Yank's leadership among them is emphasized.  When he requests a drink, "several bottles are eagerly offered" (188) by his fellow stokers. O'Neill highlights Yank's embeddedness in his workplace by revealing that the realm of this furnace functions as a full-time residence for him--"(D)is is home" (191) explains Yank.  More than his childhood dwelling, from which he ran away to avoid physical abuse, the stokehole comprises his symbolic structure, establishes his point of entry into culture.  Here, Yank is master over his environment--"he belongs" (193).  He considers himself an integral part of the ship's mechanization:

'I'm de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I'm steam and oil for de engines; I'm de ting in noise dat makes yuh hear it; I'm smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles . . . And I'm what makes iron into steel!  Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I'm steel--steel--steel!  I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it.'  (198)

Flaunting his enthusiasm, Yank incites the workers into action and commands over them with ease throughout the play.  Following this passionate soliloquy, the men are "roused into a pitch of frenzied self-glorification" (198).

Nevertheless, several factors serve to problematize Yank's eager work ethic in this initial scene.  The opening stage directions, for instance, emphasize a sense of enclosure, a sort of claustrophobic threat. "The effect sought after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship . . . The ceiling crushes down upon the men's heads.  They cannot stand upright" (186).  O'Neill manufactures a compressed, potentially explosive energy within the stokehole--a tense containment of smoldering heat and hard labor.  In addition, the workers' admiration of Yank is tested by their propensity to challenge his simple enthusiasm.  Paddy, an old Irish sailor, expresses an elegiac yearning for his former job on a sailboat, where he preferred the smaller division of labor and his unity with nature. "Oh, to be back in the fine days of my youth . . . Oh, there was fine beautiful ships them days--clippers wid tall masts touching the sky--fine strong men in them---men that was sons of the sea as if 'twas the mother that bore them" (194).  Yank argues that Paddy extols former beauty because he is old--he is a relic from the past himself.  Similarly, an antagonism develops between Yank and Long when the latter reveals a sentiment of social awareness. Long insists that the first cabin passengers--"the damned Capitalist clarss" (192)--should be blamed for "dragg(ing them) down 'til (they)'re on'y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin', burnin' up, eatin' coal dust" (192).  At this point, Yank refuses to allow any aspect of his work to be minimized.  He brands Long's speech "Salvation Army-Socialist bull" (192) and coaches the other men to receive it with hisses and boos.  It is significant that the prelapsarian nostalgia and class consciousness expressed by Paddy and Long are the very means by which Yank attempts to overcome the abiding structure during the course of the drama.  This scene ends as eight bells sound, "vibrating through the steel walls as if some enormous brazen gong were imbedded in the heart of the ship" (200), and all the men, despite their display of strength and independence, "jump up mechanically, file through the door silently close upon each others' heels in what is very like a prisoners' lockstep." Yank himself cannot help "fighting some queer struggle within himself" (197) by the conclusion of this episode. In this way, O'Neill suggests an objective counterpoint--an overriding superstructure revealed in the impersonal power of the gong, in the prisoner's lockstep of the men--which challenges the stokers' subjective pronouncements and attitudes.

At the beginning of the play, furthermore, O'Neill postulates a solution to underclass hegemony in the form of the intellect, at the same time that he problematizes the potential range of human consciousness.  This complex relation is enacted mainly in terms of Yank, who adopts the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker" throughout the performance to counter the "natural stooping (Neanderthal Man) posture which shoveling coal" (186) has given him.  Adopting this pose of contemplation, Yank says to the workers "Take it easy, see.  Give us a rest.  Nix on de loud noise . . . Can't youse see I'm tryin' to t'ink?" (190).  In response, Yank's fellow stokers repeat "Think!" with a tone of cynical mockery, and with a "general uproar of hard, barking laughter," they advise Yank, "Don't be cracking your head wit ut . . . Drink, don't think" (190).  Begrudgingly, it appears, Yank allows himself to be suppressed by the others.  Significantly, O'Neill avoids conceiving of Yank as a Gramscian "organic intellectual" at the same time that his character appears to specifically embody this philosopher's highly original use of the term.  That is, it is not merely that "all men are philosophers" [2] which enables Gramsci's theory of the establishment of an alternative hegemony which works to liberate the proletariat from political subservience.  Moreover, it is the ability of the organic intellectual to "direct . . . the ideas and aspirations of the class to which they organically belong" [3]--to perform "organisational and connective" [4] functions--which characterizes his ultimate significance.  In her book Gramsci's Politics, Anne Showstack Sassoon indicates that

The organic intellectual of the working class is a builder, an organizer, a permanent persuader so that he is able to engage in all aspects of the struggle.  He is aware of the complexities of production, he is able to wage the cultural struggle for hegemony, and he is also able to prepare the political struggle which will culminate in the seizure of power. [5]

Furthermore, Showstack Sassoon explains that the closer to the sphere of production, the more organic the functions of the intellectual become. [6]   Yank encourages his fellow stokers to "(g)it into de game" (211), to work "(a)ll togedder now."  He comments at length about the details of their production, to the extent that he feels that he himself embodied their very efforts. In this way, Yank emerges as a paradigm of the "new" intellectual.  He seems to have the ability to organize their extrication from subordinate positions.

Although The Hairy Ape teases with the possibility, O'Neill nevertheless chooses to suppress the stokers' revolutionary potential via Yank.  The background for his writing of this play sheds some light upon this decision.  In an interview with a staff member of The New York Herald Tribune conducted in March 1924, O'Neill explained that

The Hairy Ape . . . was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth nor in heaven, he's in the middle, trying to make peace, taking the 'woist punches from bot' of 'em.'  This idea was expressed in Yank's speech. The public saw just the stoker, not the symbol, and the symbol makes the play either important or just another play.  Yank can't go forward, and so he tries to go back . . . The subject here is the same ancient one that always was and always will be the one subject for drama, and that is man and his struggle with his own fate . [7]

O'Neill, it seems, wishes to attribute Yank's dilemma to a cosmological determinism, to his resorting to a regressive gesture because he is caught between "heaven and earth."  By contrast, in her study Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension, Doris V. Falk grounds the action of The Hairy Ape in more practical circumstances.  She reveals that O'Neill developed the short story from which the play originated from his friendship with an Irish stoker for a transatlantic oceanliner. For no apparent reason, this stoker--who O'Neill had encountered while rooming at a dilapidated flophouse-salon--committed suicide by jumping overboard mid-ocean. The play, with these facts in mind, emerges as a search for why this individual--"proud of his animal superiority and in complete harmony with his limited conception of the universe"-- should kill himself. [8] I would argue however that the performance, with its focus upon class difference and hegemonic relations of domination and submission, attempts to account for the unexplained suicide--to explain how the old "harmony" was lost--as a cultural phenomenon rather as a vague manifestation of fate or existential demise.

Furthermore, O'Neill's general theories about playwriting suggest why he would de-emphasize this play's indisputably political content.  In his introduction to the drama, Lionel Trilling explains that O'Neill "developed th(e) idea . . . play after play, (that) the intellect . . . is a dangerous thing.  Mind is the cause of the separation of man from man and man from himself.  As soon as Yank Smith begins to think he is lost.  Self-consciousness may bring power but it is just as likely to dry up the vital impulses--its outcome is sterility and death."[9]  This explanation sheds light on O'Neill's avoidance of Yank as a model Gramscian organic intellectual, even though he furnishes his character with this potential.  Furthermore, Yank's progressive disempowerment throughout the drama is linked to O'Neill's insistence upon man's perpetual condition of adversity.  According to Moleski and Stroupe in their article "Jean Anouilh and Eugene O'Neill:  Repetition as Negativity," O'Neill believes that man cannot live, however miserably, outside the forms established by society. [10] In 1917, O'Neill wrote

The tragedy of Man is perhaps the only significant thing about him.  What I am after is to get an audience leaving the theatre with an exultant feeling from seeing somebody on stage facing life, fighting against the eternal odds, not conquering, but perhaps inevitably being conquered.  The individual life is made significant just by the struggle. [11]

I would argue that it is Yank's knowledge of his position within society--his sudden, abrupt internalization of a hegemonic ideology--which ensures both his total self-consciousness and his inevitable downfall.  O'Neill may insist that "(m)an's very 'lostness,' his need to belong, is the key to his humanity," [12] but his work itself, we may say, supports a "lostness" which bears a cultural, and not merely existential, contingency.

And yet, in his essay "What Theatre Means to Me," O'Neill plainly reveals his intention to divorce himself from politics:

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. It is rather amusing to me to see how seriously some people take politics and social questions and how much they expect of them. [13]

It seems to me that the political agenda of The Hairy Ape is fostered by O'Neill's repression of the significance of the superstructure in which Yank is embedded. Consequently, as I will go on to discuss, Yank bears a terrible weight of self-consciousness which is exacerbated through the course of the drama.  It would appear, then, that claustrophobic enclosure of the men during the first scene, trapped in by excessive toil and heat, is further aggravated by O'Neill's attempt to exclude them from a political content in which they are nevertheless fully implicated. The stokers ultimately sweat under the strain, we may say, of O'Neill's repressed recognition of ideological ascendancy.  O'Neill wishes to claim that "(man) is . . . free from all outside authority in the determination of his fate . . . He has nothing on which to lean for support but himself . . . To seek asylum from this responsibility for his own destiny by accepting some established institution . . . is to escape from the self and from fears of its inadequacy.  All man can really hope to belong to is himself." [14]  And yet it is precisely the weight of some established institution or outside authority--that is, the hegemonic power of ideology--which instigates the separation of the self from symbolic structure, from culture itself, within the play.

Consequently, the tension created by the play's repressed political content abounds everywhere.  Scene Two, for instance, leads to a world conspicuously different from that of the stokehole.  Two days have passed, and we are now upon the promenade deck of the ship where Mildred Douglas, the daughter of the president of Nazareth Steel, chairman of the board of directors of the line, reclines in a deck chair in the company of her aunt.  Having completed social service work on New York's East Side, Mildred  travels to visit the poor in London to make her "slumming international." [15]  This depiction illustrates Yank's belief that the first-class passengers "don't amount to nothin.  Dey're just baggage"(193).   Indeed, Mildred confesses to her aunt that her various attempts to assist the underclass are thwarted by the fact that

'I'm afraid I have neither the vitality nor integrity.  All that was burnt out in our stock before I was born...I'm a waste product in the Bessemer process--like the millions.  Or rather, I inherit the acquired trait of the by-product, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it . . . (I'm) damned in more ways than one.' (203-4)

Unable to impress her aunt, who believes she should flaunt her inherent fraudulence instead of investing in futile attempts at altruism, O'Neill proves that the "haves" are indeed "incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious" (201).  Mildred, consequently, is "an expression not of life('s) energy but merely of the artificialities that energy had won for itself in the spending" (201-2).  O'Neill's depiction here is keeping with Marx's portrayal of the capitalist as "dead labor" and the worker as the "living."  That is, in his transition from the first to second scenes of the play, O'Neill stresses the titanic structure of the proletariat's political culture as compared with the dwarf-like level of bourgeois politics.  Likewise, in The Grundrisse (1857-8), Marx characterizes labor as "the living, form-giving fire which converts the instruments and materials of production into the body of its soul and thereby resurrects them from the dead." [16] In Capital (the late 1850's), similarly, labor seizes on machines to "awaken them from the dead."[17]  In his initial depiction of Yank as an invaluable cog in the industrial machine and Mildred as false and imminently dispensible, O'Neill's portrayal highlights Marx's prediction that "the bourgeoise has assembled a creature (in the proletariat) whose power . . . will crush its creator:  What the bourgeois therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers." [18]

The confrontation between Mildred and Yank--perhaps the most dramatic moment of the play--occurs in Scene III.  Mildred, who inappropriately wears a white dress, arrives to explore the sooty underworld of the ship.  Chaperoned by two reluctant engineers, she descends into the stokehole confident that she has inherited an immunity to the intense heat from her grandfather, who had begun his own nautical career as a paddler.  Nevertheless, as Mildred spots Yank's "gorilla face" blackened with coal, she cries "Take me away!  Oh, the filthy beast!" (214) and promptly faints.  O'Neill describes that "her whole personality (becomes) crushed, beaten in, collapsed by the terrific impact of this unknown, abysmal brutality, naked and shameless" (214).  Mildred's attitude and remark provoke an unexpected reaction in Yank as well.  Enraged and bewildered, "He feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride" (214).  Yank pitches his shovel after her and yells "God damn yuh!", and Mildred is removed from the stokehole, off the stage, and out of the play. 

Their strange collision triggers an irreparable inner conflict in Yank. We are left with the complex effects of this encounter once Mildred is eliminated from the action.  Having been completely integrated in his world of work as commander of the stokehole, Yank's confrontation with Mildred permanently transforms his self-conception.  Again, the Marxist implications of this encounter are underscored by their respective agitation over the incident.  O'Neill emphasizes that Yank and Mildred appear to counter-balance one another.  Significantly, in The Holy Family (1845), Marx explains that

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation.  But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it has in it a semblance of human existence.  The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in its own powerlessness the reality of inhuman existence. [19]

Within this Marxian antithesis, furthermore, the private owner is perceived as "the conservative side," and thus the preserver of this opposition, whereas the proletarian is viewed as the "destructive side," the annihilator of their relation.  And yet, Mildred's permanent disappearance from the stage, in conjunction with O'Neill's desire to focus upon consciousness as a means of illustrating that that "the source of man's difficulty and the hope of his controlling it lie within the self of each individual man,"[20] suggest that the significance of this encounter exists ultimately in Yank's own mind.   O'Neill's Marxian representation of class difference becomes posited within his protagonist's interior consciousness.

Even so, we can explore the implications of Yank's encounter with Mildred further.  Several critics highlight the significance of their meeting as a dynamic of gender difference.  For example, in her article "Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill:  The Imagery of Gender," Linda Ben-Zvi argues that "(t)hrough the agency of Mildred--the archetypal Eve causing displacement from the modern Edenic albeit horrific home (of the stokehole)--Yank is unfixed and set adrift." [21] Indeed, in Scene IV which follows, Paddy does accuse Yank of having "fallen in love" (217) with Mildred as the stokers attempt to make sense of Yank's extraordinary anger and confusion. However, I would point out that Mildred's comment resonates with an unbearable truth that far transcends the significance of gender.  In his monologues which follow, Yank desperately attempts to pinpoint the effect Mildred has had upon him:

And dere she was wit de light on her! Christ, yuh coulda pushed me over with a finger! I was scared, get me? Sure! I thought she was a ghost, see? She was all in white like dey wrap around stiffs.

Who de hell is she?  Ain't she de same as me?

But Christ, she was funny lookin'! Did yuh pipe her hands? White and skinny.  Yuh could see de bones through 'em . . . And her eyes, dey was like dey'd seen a ghost.  Me, dat was! Sure! Hairy ape!  Ghost, huh?  Look at dat arm! . . . I coulda took her wit dat, wit' just my little finger even, and broke her in two . . .

What is she?  What's she come from?  Who made her? . . .  I don't get her.  She's new to me . . . She don't belong, get me! I can't see her. (221-3, italics mine)

Interesting here is that Yank confuses his own identity with Mildred's throughout his analysis of her inexplicable nature.  O'Neill suggests the presence of some implacable power and relentless predicament whose mark Yank wears and even shares with Mildred, but whose nature is unclear to him.  In his perception, she is as unkillable as a ghost--ultimately indestructible and yet fragile in her transparency.

This suggestion of Mildred's importance as a version or extension of Yank himself is supported by Moleski and Stroupe's discussion of the device of "repetition" throughout O'Neill's works in their article "Jean Anouilh and Eugene O'Neill:  Repetition as Negativity":

In O'Neill's theater of compulsion . . . repetition is the meaningless source of meaning, not only that which betrays truth . . . but equally that which constitutes it.  With no meaning, no self-preceding, subtending repetition, existence means succumbing to monotonous, iterative, numbing attempts to accede to some stability, clarity, definition, or identity . . . O'Neill's repetition is 'that without which there would be no truth': the truth of being  in the intelligible form of . . . that which can be repeated, being the same . . . the identifiable in its equality with itself. [22]

Steeped in the "negativity of repetition," O'Neill's work traces the implications of repetition, and strives to produce strategies which may eliminate instances of reoccurrence.  Encountering the ghostly form of Mildred, therefore, Yank is removed from the heimlich (homelike) or heimisch (native), and is confronted with the dreadful yet eerily familiar uncanny.  His own identity is reduplicated in his dread of the Other. Interestingly, Freud explains that "the uncanny effect is often easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have previously regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality." [23]  More specifically, the suppressed reality which Yank encounters in the form of Mildred is his own social embeddedness, his hitherto false consciousness.

Consequently, we may say that the weight of the superstructure confronts Yank via Mildred.  As his own specter, she elicits his consciousness of alienation, his realization of his exclusion or displacement by class division.  Similiar to Derrida's analysis of Marx in Specters of Marx:  The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International, "this living individual would itself be inhabited and invaded by its own specter . . . Therefore 'I am' would mean 'I am haunted':  I am haunted by myself who am (haunted by myself who am haunted by myself).  Whenever there is Ego,es spukt,  'it spooks.'" [24]  In the same way, Mildred, paradigm of the bourgeois hegemony--displayed in as artificial and ineffectual a form as Marx would have it--steps forward "like a white apparition in the full light from the open furnace doors" (214) to confront Yank with the nature of his own oppression.  Yank's "magnificent egotism," [25] thereby spooked, shrinks to bewilderment.  He is no longer able to rule among the fellow stokers. He no longer feels satisfied with his work.  As Marx himself might portray it, Yank as proletariat suffers a "complete loss of humanity"[26] --"the work of th(is) proletariat has lost all individual . . . charm for the workman." [27]

Vital for O'Neill is that consciousness itself ultimately instigates Yank's demise. O'Neill's belief that "man's very 'lostness' . . . is the key to his humanity" [28] makes particular sense in this context, as Yank's mind, filled with ultimate (k)nowledge of itself, separates him from his own ego.  It follows that "the theory of ideology . . . depends of this theory of the ghost" [29] because for ideology to function, it must ultimately elude those who are embedded within its structure. In relation to this necessity, Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology discusses the ideological structure as a "reality" which enables a masking of the Lacanian "Real":

'Ideo(logy)' is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence--the subject can 'enjoy his symptom'  only in so far as its logic escapes him. [30]

Ideology is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our 'reality' itself:  an 'illusion' which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel. [31]

Embracing the hard kernel of (k)nowledge which is ideology personified and confronted directly in Mildred, Yank suffers a total loss of symbolic identity. He is excluded from his position within culture, from his home which had been the stokehole, and the jouissance which he had derived from his manual labor.

Having lost his support in the network of tradition, Yank traverses the Void in the scenes which follow.  O'Neill emphasizes the insubstantial status of his protagonist's own subjectivity.  Three weeks have passed when Scene V opens in New York on a Sunday morning, and Long escorts Yank to a corner of Fifth Avenue in the Fifties. This clean, meticulously maintained street is unchartered territory for Yank and his fellow stoker.  Jeweller's windows appear gaudy with glittering gems, and furriers display opulent coats of all varieties, including a rare "monkey fur" which "apes" Yank's dilemma. "(M)ade grotesque by commercialism"(225), the avenue mirrors Yank's own feelings of inauthenticity.  He is forced to assume that he is not what he thought himself to be, the stoker-in-command, but somebody-something else.  Dressed in "dirty dungarees . . . (He) has not shaved for days and around his fierce, resentful eyes--the black smudge of coal dust still sticks like make-up" (226).  In this way, Yank appears as a monster, a replicant-Other.  He is overwhelmed with a sense of non-recognition--"(A)ll dis gives me pain," he tells Long. "It don't belong" (227).  Nevertheless, Long explains that he has brought Yank midtown to teach him a lesson: 

Yer been lookin' at this 'ere 'ole affair wrong.  Yer been actin' an talkin' 's if it was all a bleedin' personal matter between yer and that bloody cow. I wants to convince yer she was on'y a representative of 'er clarss.  I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness.  Then yer'll see it's 'er clarss yer've got to fight, not 'er alone.  There's a 'ole mob of 'em like'er, Gawd blind 'em. (228)

Attempting to elicit Yank's social consciousness at this late hour, Long wants Yank to realize that individual experience is part of a general pattern. He stresses that Mildred is merely a representative of her class and should not be considered personally.  Nevertheless, more than a paradigm of external oppression, she has now become an entity within Yank's consciousness, and moreover, a sign of his own inaccessibility to himself.  Even so, like a good activist, Long suggests overcoming political subservience through "peaceful means" (230).  Yank, however, is way beyond any rational means of reconciliation.  He becomes hysterical--he bumps into a gentleman, accosts a lady, hits a high-hatted man who wears spats, and makes him miss a bus. Long slinks off, the man calls for the police, and Yank is arrested.  Throughout this scene, interestingly, Yank's violent, subjective affronts are left unanswered by indifferent, reified masks.  The upperclasses who depart from church remain unaware of his antics.  O'Neill stresses that it is too late for him to have any effect, by whatever means.

Yank is thus imprisoned on Blackwell's Island in Scene VI which follows. O'Neill describes "A row of cells in the prison on Blackwell's Island . . . The (cells) do not stop, but disappear in a dark background as if they ran on, numberless, into infinity" (236).  Yank has lost all opportunity for individuality now that his intangible subjectivity has lost its support in the network of tradition.  Prison is the version of the Void which now remains for him.  Beaten by the police and flung into jail by a judge who has given him thirty days to think his position over, Yank ruminates over two issues.  First of all, he continues to obsess over Mildred's ghost-like form.  As the only remaining substantial aspect of his consciousness, she haunts him as if he has just spotted her.  Perversely, she seems more alive than he does in her uncanny indestructibility.  "She was dolled up all in white--in de stoke hole.  I tought she was a ghost . . . Her hands--dey was skinny and white like dey wasn't real but painted on somep'n" (239), he recalls to the other non-comprehending prisoners.  Secondly, he is bent upon seeking revenge against Mildred. "I'll show her who's in de move and who ain't.  You watch my smoke!" (239) he boasts to the men.  One must, of course, win out over the ghost, put an end to it.  And yet, O'Neill stresses that retaliation is unlikely--Yank's structure of support has dissipated even physically.  Steel--Yank's abiding material of empowerment--has now become his mode of incarceration. He thus denounces it:

Sure--her old man--president of de Steel Trust--makes half de steel in de world--steel--where I tought I belonged--drivin' trou--movin'...He made dis--dis cage! Steel! It don't belong, dat's what! Cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars--Dat's what it means--holdin' me down wit him at de top ! (243)

The steel which had rendered him "part of de engines...and (de) speed"(197) in Scene I has transformed itself into a prison structure constructed by the dominant class.  Finding himself in a cell behind bars, Yank feels as though he is a caged animal in a zoo.  His parallels with the ape multiply and deepen, and culminate, as we will consider, in the final scene of the performance.

O'Neill goes on to stage Yank's final demise. One of his fellow captives reads out an article from The Sunday Times which contains a speech by a Senator Queen against the Wobblies, the members of the Organization of the Industrial Workers of the World.  Queen asserts that these radicals plan to demolish liberty, justice, honor, equal opportunity, and the brotherhood of men, and ultimately plot to "make our sweet and lovely civilization a shambles, a desolation where man, God's masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape." (242)  Yank distorts the Wobblies' destructive potential and then decides to join their organization.  As his own subjectivity fails, he makes an effort to resort to the power of a collective, perverting the method which Long had suggested for him.

Having served his prison term, Yank attempts to join a local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World in Scene VII.  In this scene, O'Neill stresses that the American labor movement itself is comprised of a split between theory and practice, a separation of "pamphlet reading" and revolutionary action. [32]  Similar, we may notice, to Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, O'Neill appears to criticize that "(t)he chief defect of . . . existing materialism . . . is that the thing, reality . . . is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice." [33]   However, O'Neill emphasizes Yank's own shortcomings in the realm of "practical-critical" [34] activity.  The secretary who accepts Yank suggests that he should sit down and peruse some pamphlets, but Yank can hardly read and write.  Yank's diminished identity, his replicant-status, is emphasized by his not knowing his real name.  Wanting to make him a membership card, the secretary asks him who he is, and after extended effort, he remembers that he was christened "Bob Smith" (247).  Learning this, the secretary abstracts his identity further by calling him "Robert."  Their interaction then proceeds to an intense misunderstanding of the group's purpose.  To exhibit his good will and prove his toughness, Yank offers to blow up anything.  "Can't youse see I belong?  Sure! I'm regular.  I'll stick, get me? . . . Yuh wanter blow tings up, don't yuh? Well, dat's me! I belong" (249-50), he assures the secretary.  He would find special pleasure, he confesses, obliterating "steel--all de cages--all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails--de Steel Trust and all dat makes it go." (251)  Afterward, he would write Mildred Douglas a letter informing her that the action was perpetrated by the "Hairy Ape" as a means of getting even with her.  Suspecting that he is an agent provocateur, the appalled secretary calls Yank a "brainless ape" (252) and has him thrown out.

During twilight of the next day, Yank makes his way to the monkey house of a nearby zoo. The stage directions of this final scene reveal "On one cage (there is) a sign from which the word 'gorilla' stands out.  The gigantic animal himself is seen squatting on his haunches on a bench in much the same attitude as Rodin's 'Thinker'" (255).  In this way, O'Neill establishes a final, fatal double for Yank.  "Ain't we both members of de same club--de Hairy Apes?" (256) Yank asks the animal as he approaches his cage.  The ape--as Yank's ultimate self-consciousness--instigates his absolute alienation, the final unmasking of an ideology which has hitherto eluded him of the traumatic, real kernel of his identity as proletariat.  In Tarrying With the Negative/Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek discusses the consequences of this impossible embrace of the 'Real':

It is the far more paradoxical thesis that this decentered hard kernel which eludes (one's) grasp is ultimately self-consciousness itself --Self-consciousness is...the gaze able to perceive the true meaning of the stain which gives the body to the unbearable truth about itself. [35]

Realizing "the unbearable truth" of his identity mirrored in this beast behind steel bars, Yank announces that he has given up his schemes of revenge--"I ain't got no past to tink in, nor nothin' dat's comin,' on'y what's now--and dat don't belong" (258), he explains to the ape.  O'Neill suggests that this reduplication occurs outside of time.  It reverberates into space, a play of mirrors lacking perspective and calculable duration.

Wishing to embrace his ultimate (k)nowledge about himself literally, Yank jimmies open the lock of the cage door.  The ape "wraps his huge arms around Yank in a murderous hug.  There is a crackling snap of crushed ribs" (259) as Yank is engulfed by his own self-realization. Confirmed in Yank's tragic conclusion is that "(t)he price to (the) access to 'reality' is that something must remain unthought." [36]  Thus, the insupportable kernel of social reality, here embodied in the ape/Other, necessitates Yank's  inevitable demise.  "Slip(ping) in a heap on the floor and d(ying)" (260) at the play's end, Yank is at last perfected/annihilated.  His own absolute alienation flashes before his eyes.  "Perhaps," O'Neill suggests, "the Hairy Ape at last belongs" (260) in death itself, in the logic of an ideology which no longer eludes him.


[1] Eugene O'Neill, The Emperor Jones/Anna Christie/The Hairy Ape (New York:  Random House, Inc., 1964), p.186.  Hereafter, citations follow within the text.


[2] Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (New York:  International Publishers, 1971), p.323.


[3] Ibid, p.3.


[4] Ibid, p.12.


[5] Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci's Politics (Minneapolis:  The University of Minnesota Press, 1980), p.149.


[6] Ibid, p.141.


[7] James J. Martine, Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill (Boston:  G.K. Hall & Co., 1984), pp. 98-99.


[8] Doris V. Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New York:  Gordian Press, 1982), p.28.


[9] O'Neill, introduction, xvi.


[10] John H. Stroupe, ed., Critical Approaches to O'Neill (New York:  AMS Press, 1988), p.197.


[11] Raymond Williams, Modern Tragedy (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1966), p.116.


[12] Falk, p.34.


[13] Oscar Cargill, ed., O’Neill and His Plays (New York:  New York University Press, 1961), p.107.


[14] Falk, pp.34-5.


[15] Martine, p.82.


[16] David McLellan, trans., Karl Marx/The Grundrisse (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1972), p.361.


[17] Karl Marx, Capital (London:  J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1934), p.289.


[18] David Mc Lellan, ed., Karl Marx/Selected Writings (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1977), p.231.


[19] Ibid, p.134.


[20] Falk, p.35.


[21] Linda Ben-Zvi, "Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill:  The Imagery of Gender," The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter 10:1 (Spring 1986): 27.


[22] Stroupe, ed., p.188.


[23] Carrie Lee Rothgeb, ed., Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Baltimore:  U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare), p.114.


[24] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx:  The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International (New York:  Routledge, Inc., 1994), p.133.


[25] O'Neill, introduction, xii.


[26] McLellan, ed., Karl Marx/Selected Writings, p.73.


[27] Ibid, p.227.


[28] Falk, p. 34.


[29] Derrida, p.127.


[30] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York, Verso, 1989), p.21.


[31] Ibid, p.45.


[32] Martine, p.93


[33] David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx/Selected Writings, p.157.


[34] Ibid, p.156.


[35] Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying With The Negative/Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham:  Duke University Press, 1993), 66.


[36] Ibid, p.44.


Ben-Zvi, Linda.  "Susan Glaspell and Eugene O'Neill:  The Imagery of Gender." The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter 10:1 (Spring 1986): 22-27.

Cargill, Oscar, ed.  O'Neill and His Plays/Four Decades of Criticism.  New York: New York University Press, 1961.

Derrida, Jacques.  Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning, and The New International.  New York:  Routledge, Inc, 1994.

Falk, Doris V.  Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension/An Interpretive Study of the Plays.  New York:  Gordian Press, 1982.

Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections From the Prison Notebooks.  New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Lethbridge, David.  Mind In the World/The Marxist Psychology of Self-Actualization.  Minneapolis:  MEP Publications, 1992.

Martine, James J.  Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill.  Boston:  G.K. Hall & Co., 1984.

Marx, Karl.  Capital.  London:  J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd, 1934.

McLellan, David, ed. Karl Marx/The Grundrisse. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972.

McLellan, David, ed.  Karl Marx/Selected Writings.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

O'Neill, Eugene.  The Emperor Jones/Anna Christie/The Hairy Ape.  New York:  Random House, 1964.

Rothgeb, Carrie Lee, ed.  Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.  Baltimore:  U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, sans date.

Sassoon, Anne Showstack.  Gramsci's Politics.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Singh, Veena.  "O'Neill's Yank and Jones; The Dislocated Characters."  Panjab University Research Bulletin 18:1 (April 1987): 45-54.

Stroupe, John H, ed. Critical Approaches to O'Neill.  New York:  AMS Press, 1988.

Williams, Raymond.  Modern Tragedy. Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1966.

Zapf, Hubert.  "O'Neill's Hairy Ape and the Reversal of Hegelian Dialectics."  Modern Drama 31:1 (March 1988):  35-40.

Zizek, Slavoj.  The Sublime Object of Ideology.  New York:  Verso, 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj.  Tarrying With The Negative/Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 1993.

[This paper was originally presented at the Sixth International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]



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