O’Neill’s Existential Man, Distinguished or Extinguished
Long after it was first staged in 1922, The Hairy Ape continues its triumph toward disquietude, perhaps incipient anxiety, for audiences and readers. Regarded from an existential viewpoint, the play reveals rare insight into an individual caught in the throes of troubled consciousness. The main character, Yank, falls from his high perch, one shaped through self-definition, into the abyss of an existential nightmare. As a coarse and common everyman, the protagonist is unable to reveal his inner anxieties about his individuated existence through brilliant-like Shakespearian soliloquies or monologues; rather, expression of his psychological and emotional plight is realized onstage through O’Neill’s artistry in terms of scene staging, Yank’s facial expressions and long silences as he begins to think, changes in his environmental landscape, and his ultimate awareness that he is guilty in life by virtue of being born.
Often staged and anthologized in college textbooks, The Hairy Ape represents O’Neill’s move from the naturalism of his early sea plays and his later The Ice Man Cometh to the exploratory perspective of expressionism vividly evidenced in The Emperor Jones. O’Neill moves from the physical landscape and forces of naturalism to the more complex and uncertain terrain within the mind of the playwright and protagonist Yank. Rather than mirroring reality, O’Neill’s expressionism transforms and distorts the representation of nature.
The tragedy The Hairy Ape is one of the darkest and most expressionistic of O’Neill’s plays of the early 20s, first produced by the Provincetown Players. The drama evokes two main concerns: human existence in a burgeoning industrial society and existence itself. The 1920s, a post-World War I period termed The New Era, was a time of enormous industrial growth in America. This came in the form of automobiles, consumer electronic appliances such as radios and televisions, radios and televisions, motion pictures, aircraft, manufacturing, housing, and other industries. Calvin Coolidge praised the significance of manufacturing as an economic savior: “The man who builds a factory, builds a temple. The man who works there, worships there.” George Bernard Shaw’s secular and capitalist arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft remarks to his daughter in Major Barbara, a play first produced in 1905: “If your old religion broke down yesterday, get a newer and a better one for tomorrow.” Undershaft’s new religion, capitalisim and worker employment, is one that displaces nature and religion for material comforts. He explains to Major Barbara of the Salvation Army: “… you talk of your half-saved ruffian in West Ham: you accuse me of dragging his soul back to perdition. Well, bring him to me here; and I will drag his soul back again to salvation for you. Not by words and dreams; but by thirty-eight shillings a week, a sound house in a handsome street, and a permanent job.”
This was also an era when the human being, through his toil in assembly lines and other urban jobs, was viewed as machine-like, an automaton, in standardized mass production. Man was mechanistic, a product of capitalism, rational science, and time regulation. This was also the age of the Futurists, where great and fast-paced machines like roaring rail road locomotives, airplanes, and mighty ships produced national pride. But this concentration on capitalist growth generated a toxic distillation, a fetid equivalency of man and machine, and this in turn also signaled the nascent emergence of the alienated man, the existential man who questions his very being, the physical object divorced from nature and spirit. Rollo May in The Discovery of Being reminds us that humanity is the heir “of four centuries of technical achievement in power over nature, and now ourselves….” (15). As a result, “we repress the sense of being, the ontological sense. One consequence of this repression of the sense of being is that modern man’s image of himself, his experience of himself as a responsible individual, his experience of his own humanity have likewise disintegrated” (15). Man has been dehumanized into the image of the machine.
William Barrett in his seminal text Irrational Man evaluates the first half of the twentieth century as “…the modern age has prided itself everywhere on its dynamism. In history textbooks we represent the emergence of the modern period out of the Middle Ages as the birth of an energetic and dynamic will to conquer nature and transform the conditions of life, instead of submitting passively to them while waiting to be sent to the next world as medieval man had done” (201).
My thesis argues that the play’s protagonist, the tragic Yank, is more fully understood after the emergence of existentialism in the 1940s and the subsequent decades that produced a diverse body of critical thinking and research into this philosophical condition. Yank’s dehumanized and inauthentic existence remains with us, as is evidenced certainly in existential psychotheraphy. The bleak existential figure yet speaks for many, particularly today as humanity continues to distance itself from nature in its mind-body integration with the technological advancement of computers and virtual realities. O’Neill describes Yank as “a symbol of man who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have in a spiritual way.” Frost’s lines from “Mending Wall” shed some illumination on Yank, a character who in attempting to progress has regressed in an ontological sense, “…like an old-stone savage armed./He moves in darkness as it seems to me.” Although Frost’s narrator’s intention perhaps is to show metaphorically the old ways and prejudices of his neighbor who walks along the other side of the stone fence separating the two men’s lands, the image can be appropriated to Yank, as O’Neill’s plagued hero tumbles away from any generative nature and into darkness. He becomes, as the playwright describes, Rodin’s celebrated stone man, The Thinker, but one languishing deeply in confused contemplation as to the nature of his being in the world.
These ideas and others necessitate an existential examination of The Hairy Ape. Philosophical dimensions in The Hairy Ape, particularly “the existential resonances,” have not received the critical investigation that the play readily offers, according to Patrick Bowles’s “The Hairy Ape as Existential Allegory” in the online publication The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter.
First, it is important to define the term existential being or existential awareness regarding the individual, particularly since my thesis rests on a clear understanding of this complex concept as it applies to The Hairy Ape. As the pioneer of modern existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre admits in Existentialism and Humanism the difficulty of defining existentialism. As with any abstraction, defining the term involves a multifaceted process. Webster and other everyday lexicons have no claim for authority in this endeavor. Existentialism, of course, has to with man’s existence. What is it to exist? What are the problems of existence? How does one define his or her mortal existence in an infinite, eternal universe? Why is one like Yank fated to be born, to rise like a dim sun for a diurnal life, and then to face mortality, the “King of Terrors”?
The existential figure, a person troubled, thwarted, and embattled by consciousness, uncertain about his existence, has a long history, although he emerged from the darkness when gaining most prominence in the middle of the twentieth century with Sartre’s No Exit, Simone de Beauvoir’s novels, and Albert Camus’s companion works, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus. The Existential man can be traced back to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Trial, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Søren Kierkegaard’s Job and Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Pascal’s philosophical treatises.
Modern Existential man, perhaps disguised now as the person sitting or walking next to one of us in the same room, is recognized as a figure who has lost his way; he is rootless, despairing, fragmented and alienated from the world and the once-familiar symbols around him. He slumbers and even hides in a house of broken icons and images. His eyes reach forward, searching above the room’s fireplace, and where the crucifix, family portrait, or Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night once presided reverently, he sees instead the iconoclastic screen from which a pseudo human identity is amalgamated from pixels of color. And yet somewhere deep within the individual psyche lurks the indecipherable screen revealing an affinity with Edvard Munch’s The Howl. He is an outsider. He does not belong, although he longs to belong. He wears a heavy cloak woven of the coarse threads of fear, anxiety, dread, and even doom. T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” May prefers the term anxiety: “Anxiety is the experience of the threat of imminent nonbeing” (109). It is within a subjective state that one becomes aware that his existence—totality of the self—can be destroyed. Yank fails to demonstrate fear or anxiety, but dread and hopelessness rise to the surface like bubbles from deep water.
The existential being, confronted by anxiety, is beleaguered by consciousness. This is a confrontation of the Self by the Self through consciousness. The Self interrogates the Self, questions it, examines it, dissects it. It looks at itself alone, free, naked, and devoid of props. The Self endures that long stare in the mirror that reveals the emptiness, the nihilism. He is the atheist on death row, Camus’s Mersault in The Stranger. His hope is extinguished as a total eclipse, the suicide with the gun to his head, sitting alone, at 3:00 a.m., in the dark. Consciousness becomes a curse.
The Hairy Ape presents a simplistic structure, as the play is divided between the protagonist on the ship and in the city. The seaman maintains confidence and security in his assessment of himself as a chief stokeman aboard the ocean liner. The man and his work form a tautology, an unusual and unsustainable commensurability. Then one day a rich young woman passenger named Mildred Douglas insults him for his ape-like, working-class appearance. Yank’s anger is stirred, as is his consciousness, by the girl’s denunciation. He soon leaves the ship to track Mildred down and to punish her and the comfortable upper class society which she represents. This simplified assessment of the plot will be explored in greater detail later.
This tragedy probes the existential plight of the young seaman Yank who stumbles from his tower of self –confidence and plunges into the pit of uncertainty and depersonalization. Identity for Yank is problematic. Although Yank has both a Christian and surname name, he is only once identified as Robert Smith. But by O’Neill emphasizing the character’s moniker Yank, the playwright achieves two goals: He makes Yank an Everyman and he undermines the character’s ability to be rooted in identity. Yank even forgets his given name and has trouble recalling it when questioned. This is a step toward the character’s existential fragmentation that ultimately leads to his nightmare in the Zoo where he confronts a caged gorilla, an animal he refers to as “his brother.” Yank works as one of the stokemen in the engine room of a transatlantic steamer sailing from New York to Europe. He is powerfully strong, as his work of shoveling coal all day has enlarged his shoulder, back, and arm muscles. His overly developed body also contrasts with his weak, underdeveloped mental capacity. He is uneducated, rough spoken. In New York after he has left the ship, the protagonist admits to the Secretary in the union hall of the Industrial Workers of the World, “I can’t read much but I kin manage” (6). He is more animal than spirit, more material than consciousness, more beast than human, in this age of modernism and industry, as a result of his action of identifying himself as machine-like, comparable to the engines that power the ship.
Just as the play presents two contrasting settings, the drama also portrays two different views of Yank: the man of steel aboard ship and the man of anxiety in the city. He is first presented in the ship’s bowels as physically strong, independent, and indefatigable. He is a proud and boastful fellow. He brags to his fellow shipboard workers that he is the strongest of their lot, and that through his work he becomes the catalyst of world. He struts, “I start somep’n and the woild moves! It—dat’s me—de new dat’s moiderin’ de old! 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; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! 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” (1). Yank is, of course, indistinguishable from the machine. No mention of his spiritual dimension is suggested.
The protagonist has cast off most forms of traditional identity, ways of belonging, and ideologies, including God, home, family, and women. He thunders to his crew members about religion: “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 save, huh? Jerk us to Jesus, huh? Aw g’wan!” (1).
The past, a point from which self awareness is often based, is dead for Yank. Regarding home, he bellows: “Home? Home, hell! … Home! T’hell wit home. Where d’yah get dat tripe? Dis is home, see? What d’yuh want wit home?” And for women, he condemns: “Goils waitin’ for yuh, huh? Aw hell! Dat’s all tripe. Dey don’t wait for no one. Dey’d double-cross you for a nickel. Dey’re all tarts, get me?” (1).
In a work that pits high and low society against each other, The Hairy Ape offers Yank’s assessment of the ruling rich, owners of capitalism. Scenes in the movie The Titanic concerning class conflict graphically illuminate this point. Yank moans: “What’s dem slobs in de foist cabin got to do wit us? We’re better men dan dey are, ain’t we? Sure! One of us guys could clean up de whole mob wit one mit… Dey’re just baggage” (1). Calling the first-class passengers baggage springs from Yank’s sense of his own self-importance, that he is what propels the machine, the mammoth ocean liner, to move swiftly through the waters. He views his effort as more significant than capital and ownership.
With pride Yank characterizes his own working abode as Hell itself. Referring to his labor of feeding the insatiable hungry fires in the stomach of the ship, he bellows: “It takes a man to work in hell. Hell, sure, dat’s my fav’rite climate. I eat it up! I git fat on it! It’s me makes it hot! It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move!” (1). Yank exists, of course, in a metaphorical hell, as O’Neill describes the stokeman in the crucible located deep in the ship where they feed huge furnaces that burn coal to intense temperatures to produce the steam which powers the ship. Yank appears to thrive, even delight, in this Dantesque inferno.
Perhaps Yank’s fullest sense of self-definition, his basis of identity, comes when he unwittingly alludes to Aristotle’s treatise, Metaphysics. The worker says: “Everything 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 bottem, get me!” (1). Unaware, Yank makes a connection to the Greek philosopher’s theory that the universe was set in motion by what he referred to as a Prime Mover, First Cause, Uncaused Cause, or God. Yank, through his hubris, is priding himself as this First Cause, this God. He is not merely a cog in the large wheel, the machinery of life.
Yank’s justification for his ontological view of existence is constructed from fragments from a surrounding world. He defines himself through his work on the ship, his fellow workers, and others in terms of class distinction. But there exists a dichotomy in Yank’s collective being. He is of the same working class as the other men, but he elevates himself above and apart from the other firemen in the stokehole. Yet Yank remains separate in thought, temperament, and work ability from the others. He stands apart in his individuality. A majority of the firemen function as the play’s chorus. A despondent Yank says, “I’m tryin’ to tink,” as he identifies one of the ambiguous themes of the play. In unison, the chorus labeled All spur him on: “Tink” (4). But Yank is paralyzed, unable to continue the dialogue in constructing and expressing thought. Ironically, he exhibits far less ability to think than the absurd Lucky in Beckett’s much later play Waiting for Godot. In that work, the tyrant Pozzo commands the silent Lucky, “Think, pig!” Yes, Lucky speaks aloud, but what are we to make of his gibberish laced, incoherent pattern of dialogue? Yank has a sense of belonging to the ship, but it is not as an equal to the other men, but someone above, the higher denizen in the hell forecastle.
Yank’s various methods of self-referentiality and identity create a memorable and intriguing character. Undoubtedly, one smiles at Yank’s bravado, self- confidence, self-reliance, individuality, and disdain for social and class distinctions. He is the optimistic underdog in an unfriendly social landscape divided by rich and poor. All of these characterizations taken together present Yank as affable, promising, and worthy of the tragic hero. Of course, his low character, lack of education, poor verbal skills, and menial work offer an ironic twist, as he is the new modern hero on the stage, the common man. Yank signals the death of the hero worship of the nineteenth century, and answers Hegel’s disdain for the non-heroic figure who does not figure into the history of the world. Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman would not take to the boards until 1949.
Action and conflict in The Hairy Ape obviously frame the protagonist, but what is the nature of the forces that ensnare him? These forces represent the public man, the Yank we watch in action onstage, and the private Yank, the character whose hidden consciousness we must attempt to decipher. Yank is seen in verbal conflict with other men aboard the ship as they spar with one another. They threaten each other as they maneuver for positions of power and importance. Yank rudely dismisses Paddy as old and irrelevant. He summarizes through dialogue his previous conflicts with home and society, and he seems to have dispatched these ties to a troubled past. Yank has stormed to his own pinnacle of power.
Mildred takes the stage and signals the rising action and turning point in events. She produces the cause of Yank’s rage, as he sees her words as a personal affront, flying as arrows to pierce his shield of steel. The young, spoiled, upper-class debutante, and the rich daughter of a steel magnate, is traveling first class aboard the liner. In Scene 3, she ventures to see a spectacle: “how the other half lives,” by visiting the stokehole to see how the crude and ignorant workers exist in the bottom of the ship. She is instantly shocked by the sight of these men: Neanderthal in countenance and form, hairy chests and faces and upper torsos blackened by the heavy soot of the coal. She shrieks toward Yank: “Oh, the filthy beast,” and then faints. She perceives Yank as not a human being like herself but a creature devoid of humanity. This leaves Yank dehumanized, his very existence, suddenly undermined.
Her outburst staggers Yank, and his life is irrevocably changed. He has prided himself as a self-created nobleman of the ship’s bowels—a god of power in the underworld of capitalism. Mildred in her outside, objective evaluation of Yank as an object pierces Yank’s Achilles’ heel, his perception of himself. His self-determination of his value is brutally shaken. In anger, he seeks revenge. He soon leaves the ship, the home where he has previously felt that he belonged, and goes in search of Mildred in New York to exact his retribution.
His subsequent revenge is leveled against not only Mildred but also her father’s steel industry, a power with which he earlier equated himself and his existence. Yank’s anger is flawed and misdirected. His indignation erupts out of proportion to the offense. Both targets of anger are self-defeating, as Yank later learns. Earlier, he had identified himself as the steel fiber of the ship, the force of industry, and so in his intention to blow up the steel industry he would be destructing himself. But Yank’s pursuit or his ordeal becomes transformed, as he never confronts Mildred or her father’s Steel Trust empire. His real pursuit changes from the concrete and definable to an abstraction, the goal of belonging. And despite Yank’s courage to be, through belonging to some group or organization, he is ironically blindly embarking on self-annihilation. There is plenty of pathos in which Yank swims, but it is warranted, as Yank’s demand for his own holy grail is not mundane. Unlike Willy Loman’s fixation on his prestige as a salesman—rewarded by pats on the back for his shoeshine and a smile performances—Yank’s object of realization is transcendent, and thus offers no physical counterpart or signified.
Further conflict then unfolds as Yank presses through New York. But each of these outward actions in the city—the church goers, jail, and union hall—is of secondary consequence, used to bring Yank to his final confrontation at the Zoo. The main conflict lurks darkly within Yank himself. His conflict is not with a specific nemesis like Mildred, social order, cultural values, or the natural world, but with an unnamable Other. This is an awareness that he vaguely intuits or glimpses as he tries to find a concrete counterpart to it, an objective correlative, in the outside world. In one instance, he attempts to find the elusive complement to his psychical need in the union hall. He terms this Other “to belong.” Yank is slowly awakening to consciousness, and this is reflected in Kierkegaard’s enigmatic admonition: “Life is a dark saying.” Yank is probing through his dark consciousness to bring to light an awareness of being, of purpose, in the world.
These noted exterior conflicts are of a subordinate nature, as mentioned. Mildred functions as a catalyst to bring change to Yank’s awareness of his existence. Yank loses his steamship paradise where he ruled in his own self-created dynasty, his heaven or hell as he defines it. He becomes a wanderer, an outsider stumbling along in an inhospitable landscape in the city. Davis Dunbar McElroy offers that a character like Yank’s his self-awareness, the thinking self, seen as a split between subject and object, has divided the individual from his natural self. As such, he has become set apart from the natural self, while at the same time a part of it. Ultimately, he is homeless in the sense of lacking a center for which to belong (3).
What then becomes of identity for Yank? He leaves the ship for the urban landscape and soon realizes that his perception of the ontological nature of the former world below decks was false. He becomes Plato’s prisoner in the dark cave who escapes his confinement and journeys to the sunlight surface world. It is there in this other world that both Yank and Plato’s prisoner confront a different reality, although it, too, is false. Plato’s prisoner perceives the world of the sun, clouds, trees, and lakes, all hidden from him in his cave existence. But as Plato points out in the Republic, this perceptible world fails to give true knowledge or awareness. It is one step removed from the ideal, from the Platonic changeless Forms. Yank’s discoveries in the alternative world of the city are not what he anticipates. His goal, changing from the specific object Mildred to the abstract concept of belonging, is thwarted and denied. Death then offers a state of belonging, where consciousness no longer troubles the thinker. Kierkegaard, who ardently rejects Hegel’s emphasis on reason as the sole road to truth, regarded Hegel’s identification of abstract truth with reality as an illusion and “trickery.” Truth for Kierkegaard is not a conscious and intellectual process, but is manifested only through the choices and actions of the individual.
Yank eventually becomes what the seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal calls “the ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his.” The stokehole hand had propped himself up on his imaginary throne, only to awaken to its benighted nature. “Thus he [Pascal] takes as his fundamental premise the image of man as a disinherited being” (Barrett 112). Yank is also W. B. Yeats’s falcon in “The Second Coming.” Just as the falcon has lost its center and home as it spirals away from the falconer, so too does Yank lose his compass points in terms of identity and belonging. He experiences the collapse of self-image. Virginia Floyd in “The Search for Self in The Hairy Ape: An Exercise in Futility?” sheds light on the hero’s profundity:
The theme of belonging permeates the play and functions as the existential labyrinth through which Yank must traverse. Belonging is one of the first steps up the tall ladder for Yank in redefining his existence. But this escape is not without doubts and confusion. On the ship, the men, like planets, are kept in routine orbit about the sun of the furnaces. Work schedules are handed down and kept to. Clocks dictate work and relief. The amount of coal fed to the boilers, the temperature of the fire, the pressure of the steam are all regulated, measured, and monitored. Compass points and maps marking longitudes and latitudes clearly chart movements from port to port.
Aboard ship where Yank finds safety in his bunker from the foe of identity ambiguity runs rampant as to what it means to belong. It is hotly contested in its subjective interpretation. Other stokemen aboard the ship, in Scene 1, also join into the dialogue about the need to belong. Paddy, the old sailor who lives in past memories, asks Yank: “Is it to belong to that you’re wishing?” Yank in his rough manner thunders his words in excoriating Paddy: he’s old “you don’t belong no more, see. I belong and he don’t.” Here belonging gains some clarity. It is limited and given definition by the work routines, rank of the men, pack dog aggression in the stokehole, and knowing that strength and power belong to youth. Yank, young and strong, belongs; Paddy, aging, easily tired by the heavy work, and dreaming of the past, does not. The need to belong becomes a fundamental drive and litmus test for defining Yank’s existence. As he begins to think—to awaken to consciousness—he climbs out of his hell of existence, his false reality, on the ship. Warnock offers that “. . . reflection may bring his attention to the true state of affairs and may open his eyes to his position in the world, which is above all a position of responsibility . . . [that] . . . he and he alone is responsible for the world’s having significance (57).
Yank exists in a compartmentalized and rigidly defined environment. His whole existence in the first part of the play is confined to and reduced to the small spaces of the stokehole where he lives, labors, socializes, and bestows meaning on himself. The playwright reorients, or bends, brute physical nature as it may appear objectively in space and time in order to introduce a subjective view from the realm of consciousness of this landscape. Staging of this altered, expressionistic, state in The Hairy Ape of the physical world—the cramped and dirty bowels of a ship, essentially a cage for human animals—mirrors the minds of the characters. The play draws an equivalency between the stokehole workers and caged animals. The boilermen, like beasts confined in a zoo, prowl about, snarl at one another, and seek physical and linguistic domination. O’Neill’s stage directions in Scene 1 point directly to this approach:
The protagonist has denied all religious, social, and personal constructs that add broad meaning and stabilization to one’s existence. The psychoanalyst May terms this negation repression that ultimately leads to neurosis, a condition that progressively produces self-denial, delusion, fragmentation, doubt, and anxiety.
Angst has long been accepted as a pivotal concept in existential thought, going back to Kierkegaard and Heidegger. The German word typically is translated into English as dread and anxiety. The word fear has also found its way into the list of synonyms for angst, although that usage is inappropriate in that the state of fear necessitates an object that emotes fear: crashing lighting, booming thunder, and a racing rabid dog represent these definable objects. According to Cooper, “Angst is the disturbing and uncanny mood which summons a person to reflect on his individual existence and its possibilities” (128). Cooper’s attempt to elucidate the broad spectrum of the meanings of angst neglects important details, as we keep in mind that the devil is in the details. Certainly angst is related to an emotional mood, but existential angst is far darker, deeper, and non-plussed than the common usage of the word mood conveys. Mood suggests a fleeting feeling or state of mind, as “He’s in a bad mood, but it will pass.” Mood and neurosis are distinguishable from one another, as a bad day and suicide are not intrinsically related.
Angst in terms of anxiety may morph into neurosis, more explicitly seen as an intense and sustained unconscious conflict evidenced through emotional distress and depression related to questions of Being and existence. Ibsen’s aristocratic Hedda Gabler seems such a victim, as her sense of upper-class identity and worth cannot be sustained in a rising and crude middle-class world in which she finds herself trapped. She is defined and controlled by the Other, those people and traditions that make up her social world. Her motives and inner most thoughts are unrevealed. Yank, like the modern heroine Hedda Gabler, fails in his attempt toward a freedom of consciousness and the independent existence from an amalgamation of society, of Others. He is not Sartre’s philosophical hero who can willingly choose freedom and responsibility for that choice, and then rise up in triumph over the social order.
Sartre’s term bad faith describes Yank aboard ship. He defines this term as living an inauthentic life, one in which the individual, rather than making free choices in life, succumbs to and is malleated by the forces of the external social masses. This is evident as Yank surrenders to the Other: job role, ship, authority, and environment. He has abdicated his own nature, his unique humanism, to be shaped as a part of the whole, a cog in the machinery of the ship and society. Ironically, at the same time he asserts that he has individuated himself, set himself apart from others. He naively defines himself as the dynamo that feeds all others with his power. He has allowed the sway and control of the Other to define him, although he would say that he defines himself. In his attempt to set himself free from family, relationships, and religion, to identify himself with the soul of the ship, he has merely replaced one outside set of limitations of belonging with another. But this assumption is false, another move toward bad faith.
But the determined Yank is not one to give up easily. His true quest—that of belonging—begins after his metaphoric fall on the ship. He is not even aware that he has fallen until much later in the play’s action. As an individual beginning to think, he verbalizes his quest in words about belonging. He soon changes from the concrete and particular goal of Mildred to the abstract and indefinite one of belonging.
Beleaguered, Yank possesses a vague notion for that which he is seeking, yet he does not know what the it is. There is something absent in his life, and he sets out on a trial to find it. He has a sense of need and desire, perhaps fulfillment, but this hunger is imprecise and indefinable. He does not disclose if his search is for meaning, which, like belonging, presents a quixotic abstraction. Tragically, he still seeks fulfillment through the Other, the masses of society in the city. Heidegger explains that with angst an intellectual understanding remains undefined, whereby often one does not know that which one is anxious about. This runs counter to fear, which has an object. Angst points to no object in the sense a spatio-temporally located particular such as the summit of the Matterhorn. Angst is also understood as “the experience of groundlessness, the absence of anything holding one in place and anchoring one’s actions” Cooper (130).
The tragic hero continues his thwarted hunt to identify the object of his pursuit, his elemental need, as he tramps through the streets of New York City. His goal for the unnamed something that he longs for—sensed as significant and crucial that he longs for—he terms this “to belong.” But this for Yank seems merely a naming device, a signifier that points back to yet another signifier. He is searching for the right word to name the centermost point, yet it remains unnamed or unnamable. But an impenetrable darkness swallows up his attempts to illuminate this dark reality that he attempts to glimpse, name, and then grasp. This represents a stirring in Yank’s consciousness, a primitive instinct that he has previously pushed aside and forgotten, as he had progressed in making himself a Nietzschean Overman of steel and fire. He now struggles to sense it, identify it, name or rename it, and finally resurrect it through thought and language. If he were Oedipus, the search would be far easier, more finite and limited. The Greek hero realizes that he is inextricably linked to the Fates and gods. He knows his struggle is with a past and future long ago outlined by the gods. Conversely, Yank remains impoverished of such transcendent links. Oedipus can take solace in the awareness that he is bound to the gods, for then he is part of that greater whole, a cosmos, the infinite. His struggle, even if he falls to defeat, is a realization of his involvement with existing transcendental forces. Yank, on the other hand, finds himself stumbling about in a far different, more complex terrain, a modern world without these points of register. He becomes his own measure. He bobs about in an immense ocean where no current or wind is favorable. The struggle becomes significant and universal. In his aesthetics, O’Neill sought to follow the Greek sense of tragedy in order to “develop a tragic expression in terms of transfigured modern values” (Sewall 130).
Yank’s inability to define the object and yet at the same time to rush towards it perhaps grips him with the feeling of a vertigo of consciousness. Stirred into dizzying consciousness, Yank begins his odyssey through the alien terrain of the city. He finds himself an outsider physically and mentally to the church goers he accosts. Even his venture to join the labor union, where he feels he will easily fit in with other workers, is aborted, as he is suspected by the union officials of being a spy for the capitalist owners or the police. This is apparent in the decline of his attitude of superiority and his physical prowess, particularly when he is manhandled by the union thugs.
In the second part of the play in the city, Yank eventually reaches the point where he discovers the futility and absurd condition of his quest. He has gone from the apex of solipsism to the nadir of adversity and despair.
Yank’s elongated silences can bewilder theatergoers who anticipate causal plots, transparency, and intelligibility in motive. One reason for this fecund elusiveness of silence is that O’Neill strategically offers no foil to whom Yank can express his meditations. Yank is lost within the infinite spaces of the abstract concept of belonging. He now equates belonging to existence, but because belonging remains a hypothetical concept he fails to grasp existence, too, in any specific way. Realization or affirmation of the object of desire remains vague, puzzling, distant, and ultimately out of reach, not only to Yank, but also to audiences. Belonging, as O’Neill employs the word, becomes a subjective metaphor, lacking any concrete signified. As such, it is an ambiguous signifier that points backward, but the antecedent signified remains cryptic as well. This aesthetic treatment of the indeterminate raises up modern playwriting, sets it apart from the drawing room drama found in Ibsen’s Ghosts, Strindberg’s The Father, and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. This dramatic technique of obfuscation, though, identifies one of O’Neill’s strengths in the writing of The Hairy Ape. The playwright brackets the concretion of Yank’s identity and purposeful existence in the world labyrinth. The elemental yearning for definition of existence and finding an objective correlative fades to disenchantment. This is the modern predicament. Had his search been more finite and specific like Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, Yank’s primal need would function in a limited spatio-temporal plane.
The theme of belonging permeates the play and functions as a part of the existential puzzle or labyrinth. This theme is deeply rooted in O’Neill himself. This existential theme, one dependent upon belonging, is deeply rooted in O’Neill himself, according to much of the fine biographical texts on the playwright. O’Neill struggled with the complexity of his own existence and mortal being. The playwright found that “He could belong” as long as he was writing. Art for O’Neill became the single dominant definition of his subjective being. “As long as you have a job on hand that absorbs all of your mental energy you haven’t much worry to spare over other things. It serves as a suit of armor” (Geld 234). O’Neill found that in writing he could escape from a hostile world. He could belong. It is doubtful that O’Neill ever achieved a sense of belonging, as at the end of his life he had lost the will to live, rejecting all contact with family, friends and the world, except his wife and nurse. At the end he said, “born in a hotel and died in a hotel.” I point this out to stress the importance of the theme of belonging. This is a modernist theme. The individual is cast from a known landscape marked by social definitions, left to wander alone in an inexplicable wilderness. On the other hand, the blind Gloucester roams across the stormy heath, Edgar as Mad Tom functioning as his guide.
May’s writings suggest that Yank falls into the abyss of neurosis, as the detrimental result when such basic drives are thwarted. “But in our day of conformism and the outer-directed man, the most prevalent neurotic pattern takes the opposite form—namely, going out too far, dispersing one’s self in participation and identification with others until one’s own being is emptied. This is the psycho-cultural phenomenon of the organization man. It is one reason that castration is no longer the dominant fear of men or women in our day, but ostracism” (May 20-21).
O’Neill’s fascination with the existentialist Nietzsche has well been documented by Arthur and Barbara Gleb. The playwright often reread several of the German’s works. While no extant scholarship exists that directly links O’Neill’s characterization of Yank with the Nietsczschean Overman, a comparison of the two figures is certainly suggested. Yank is seen as a non-symphonic, singular protagonist who, at least in his own mind early in the play, has established his own separate identity and freed himself from the limitations and definition of mass society. He feels that he has risen above the lot of others, rich and poor, ascending to an impregnable throne above humanity. Zarathustra talks about the Overman as a new man who will overcome former mankind. This new figure will rise in its continued trajectory above the animal and collective man, the man that was ape. “What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment” (12).
O’Neill’s depiction of the tragic hero is a recreation and more importantly a reassessment of the Overman described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Rather than a dawning Superman, Yank is the failed everyman who once laid claim to the throne of the Overman. He is a mechanism programmed to work, lacking morality, good and evil. The Overman exists beyond good and evil and other social conventions and definitions. Yank is a self-mastered individual who disdains the crowd’s public identity and approval. He has achieved the ultimate degree of the will to power, self-identity, and self-satisfaction. But Nietzsche recognizes the precariousness and finitude of existence, the eventual fall into oblivion, even for the Overman: “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman—a rope over an abyss” (14). The will to reinvent oneself—alter one’s nature—along this road towards the Superman is hazardous.
Other artists have made much of this artery over the abyss. Modernist Virginia Woolf revisits Nietzsche’s metaphor depicting life’s finitude and vertiginous aspects when she later writes: "Why is life so tragic; so like a little strip of pavement over an abyss? I look down; I feel giddy; I wonder how I am ever to walk to the end" (Diary 2 72-73). Woolf suffered recurrent stages of anxiety and depression before taking her own life. The modernist metaphor of the abyss, as graphic as Eliot’s more widely identifiable Wasteland, is also presented in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play written between 1948 and 1949 and first presented in 1953, and published in 1954: “. . . one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more” (103).
Yank realizes that he can no longer feel at home on the ship. He now faces an existential dread of facing that what he once was he no longer is: “Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me” (7). He has lost that logocentric placement and, to Jacques Derrida’s disdain, no doubt, he challenges himself to rediscover another. The existential problem of identity—fixed or fluid—was staged by other playwrights in the 1920s, including Pirandello in Six Characters in Search of an Author and Henry IV. Novels in the 1920s by Kafka, The Trial and The Castle, also explore the state of absurdity and existence.
Scene V, Yank’s move from ship to shore, marks the second part of the play. The revengeful protagonist never finds Mildred as he wanders about New York City. Yank’s real search, as O’Neill organizes the action, becomes for a place in which he can belong, a center, although Yank fails to realize this right away. Even the seaman Long, the most knowledgeable of the stokemen, recognizes Yank’s misdirected anger. Unlike Yank, Long in Scene 5 is able to think abstractly:
Yank’s pursuit of achieving the hero’s goal—belonging and identity, in that order—proves to be beyond him. He must belong, but to what, he does not know. In the city he appears weak and compromised compared to his earlier large stature. His strength and power are eclipsed. In one encounter, he is dragged off to jail by the police, a place Yank presciently calls “de Zoo.” He is later thrown out of the Industrial Workers of the World, Local No. 57 union hall, where he has ventured in order to join the union, a social body, a collective of other men. But he is quickly tossed out for his ill-conceived plan to blow up the steel industry. As he tumbles down the stairs of the hall he is again accosted by a policeman. And in response to the constable’s question in Scene 7 as to what trouble he was causing for being thrown out of the union hall, Yank summons up the most appropriate existential answer: “Enuf to gimme life for! I was born, see? Sure dat’s de charge. Write it in de blotter. I was born, get me!” This statement represents a seminal condition of existential awareness. Heidegger notes that one’s “existence is thrown into the world,” sans essence or purpose—the sin of birth.
Yank’s journey ultimately leads him at night in the monkey house of the Zoo. The Zoo, like the Thinker, is referenced many times in the play: the bowel of the ship and the jail cell. Yank’s defiance has all but disappeared, and the chill of despair seems absent as he trudges into this final destination. Here the young man enters what he thinks is a common ground for those of his kind. He comes face to face with a caged gorilla. The gorilla is sitting in his cage in the position as Rodin’s figure, mirroring the posture Yank exhibited on several occurrences earlier in the play. O’Neill obviously focuses a great deal of importance on the comparison of Yank and The Thinker. The playwright makes specific mention of Yank sitting in the same posture of The Thinker six times in his directorial notes throughout the short drama. In Scene 8, Yank seems to embrace the darkness as he seems at the end of his rope, believing that he recognizes some affiliation, even brotherhood, with the huge and powerful animal. He mutters to the gorilla in philosophical thought: “Ain’t we both members of de same club—de Hairy Apes?”
In this final scene, O’Neill draws together the many metaphors and images used throughout the play: Zoo, caged beasts, and belonging. Yank’s appearance at the Zoo comes as no surprise to audiences, as the foreshadowing is suggested throughout the play. His ability to think meditatively about his sense of existence in the world is voiced in a poetics of despair. He speaks to the caged gorilla: “Sure you’re de best off. You can’t tink, can yuh? You can’t talk neider. But I can make a bluff at talkin’ and tinkin’…I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in de middle tryin’ to separate ‘em, takin’ all de woist punches from bot’ of ‘em… But you, yuh’re at de bottom. You belong? Sure! You’re de on’y one in de woild dat does, yuh lucky stiff!” (8). Yank recognizes the immutable condition of his existence. He is neither animal nor spirit, but lies suspended between the two in a web of torment. Spirit in terms of mental faculty falls short of allowing him to reason out of his dilemma.
In an act of what appears on the surface to be benevolent brotherhood, Yank, who seems exhausted from fighting through life’s mazes, opens the cage door and frees the gorilla. The frost of anguish has returned. Yank seems to have unlocked the gate to the dark contradictory quandary—the absurdity—of existence. May explains that “…the results of this disintegration upon the inner emotional and spiritual life of the individual [lead to]: endemic anxiety, loneliness, estrangement of one man from another, and finally the condition that would lead to ultimate despair, man’s alienation from himself” (65).
They stare at one another for a moment, and then the animal throws his huge arms around the other and crushes him with his primal strength. It is Yank who falls. It is surprising that Yank does not fight back or cry out for help, but instead he chooses to witness his own death. Yank’s existential nightmare—the ever ever presence of consciousness that probes and asks a myriad of questions—is a plague that spawns a realization of inadequacy, lack, difference, and separation for Yank. Rather than affirming Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, Yank negates the French philosopher’s dictum: I think, therefore I am not.
Bowles has remarked, “Yank’s neglected soliloquy of self-definition in the…final scene which not only explains the self-conscious simian’s symbolic character, but which remains, even in its rude articulation, one of the most elegantly concise definitions of man in modern literature.”
Much has been made of the point that a human being like Yank is separated from nature, a condition of estrangement that continued to shape the characterization of the individual in the literature of the first half of the twentieth century and contemporary works, and it continues to do so in other disciplines such as psychotherapy and logotherapy. O’Neill was very conscious of this loss of nature. But the term nature begs clarification. It is not that Yank has been separated from the natural elements of the world. He has been separated from his nature. And what is his nature? The nature he has silenced is his spiritual core—that which defines and sustains him. This is a human, non-theistic, non-dogmatic center. Yank as the man of steel is portrayed as a parallel to the play’s caged gorilla, an animal that is clearly removed from his natural environment.
What does it specifically mean to say that an individual like Yank is flawed as a spiritual being? First, this spirit, a term used here in a non-religious sense, is separate from man’s somatic and mental qualities, the other two of the three human foundations. Descartes’s rational dualism addressed only the material and mental, a division that subsumed the spiritual under the mental qualities. The existential spirit, enumerated as a manifestation of the noumenal world, an undergarment of sort, does not present itself in the causal, spatio-temporal plane of existence. It cannot be recognized or charted like the tides and currents. The spirit, a dynamic nucleus, gives credence to the individual’s uniqueness, the sense of transcendence in rising above the physical plane. It unleashes the will to be and desire to become. This is evidenced by an intuitive sense of thrusting oneself toward the future rather than collapsing backward toward an inert state of existence. In existential terms, the spirit is that center which recognizes the individual’s unique mission towards which the individual propels himself or herself forward. This latter characteristic is that which Frankl explains as the “will-to-meaning,” the drive of the human spirit toward self-realization associated with the pursuit or goal that infuses life with meaning.
One can interject Camus’s lines from The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays into Yank’s thinking as he commits suicide: "I can negate everything of that part of me that lives on vague nostalgias, except this desire for unity, this longing to solve, this need for clarity and cohesion. I can refute everything in this world surrounding me that offends or enraptures me, except this chaos, this sovereign chance and this divine equivalence which springs from anarchy. I don't know whether this world has meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms" (51).
It was not until greater understanding of existentialism, beginning in the 1940s and extending through the decades since, that O’Neill’s play could be more definitively examined. Yank, who loses the single bearing or construct that gives meaning to his existence, plunges into confusion. But rather than turning to nihilism and succumbing to meaninglessness, as Camus suggests in his essay, Yank initially seeks the lifeboat of belonging. At least this is his first response. Failing to stay afloat on his life raft, though, the protagonist realizes the absurdity of his search and the world as meaningless.
Camus writes in “The Myth of Sisyphus”: “It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (10). Yank’s confrontation with the Other in the form of Mildred triggers his consciousness to question his meaning in the world.
Camus offers his well-known statement that suicide is the one serious philosophical question one has to address. I mentioned earlier that Yank commits suicide, but this is my interpretation of the ending action. My inference is based partly on Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s biographical research of the play. They point out that Yank is based on a seaman named Driscoll that O’Neill worked with aboard ships. Driscoll, despite his natural animal strength and self-confidence, committed suicide (268), and this final act was associated with Driscoll’s inability to find a place in which he could belong.
In conclusion, Yank ultimately finds himself alienated and fractured on various levels: He is a stranger to God, certainly to the natural world, as he identifies himself with steel, to society, to home, and to himself. Yank’s estrangement leaves him to exist at the level of a commodity, that of the worker, a man of machine and steel, and he has identified himself solely with his manual labor. There exists no difference between Yank and the machine. “…and the rest of his being is allowed to subsist as best it can—usually to be dropped below the surface of consciousness and forgotten” (Barrett 36). Perhaps this is the reason that O’Neill imposes the comparison between Yank and Rodin’s The Thinker. Yank, the anti-hero, diminished and fallen from his self-created throne, remains the Neanderthal trying to waken to thought, to consciousness, although consciousness—the self aware of the self as both subject and object—is often, as Yank sadly discovers, to be dreaded, as it unleashes the unintended consequences of anguish, fear, and dread. O’Neill is very direct, perhaps too much so, matching up Yank and The Thinker, a sculpture piece first created by Rodin as a centerpiece for his lesser-known Gates of Hell. The Thinker sits atop the gates through which Dante must pass into the Inferno. Yank on the ship exists in his own modern hell, one of spiraling commerce, graphic class distinction, and personal self-delusion. The uneducated and unrefined Yank wanders like Dante from “the straightforward path” and becomes lost “within a forest dark.” This symbolic woods in O’Neill’s play is the confused Other world of consciousness. For the individual, absent the objective external signs of definition, turns to the self-scripted subjective.
Yank attempts to ascend from the dark regions of Avernus, but only to find himself without a meaningful pathway. Yank is degraded man, marking a desperate and perilous existence over the nihility of existence.
O’Neill is purposely ambivalent in terms of his analogy of Yank to The Thinker. Perhaps O’Neill intends this obfuscation. Does Yank awake from the machine-minded man into human thought, and is this then the nightmare to which he awakens? Perhaps Yank was better off before Mildred jolted him into anger and awakened a challenge to his identity. Consciousness in this sense looms as a curse for Yank. One looks at the celebrated statue of the sitting, naked man with his chin resting on his right hand. It is a human desire to wonder what he is thinking. The answer is, of course, the dualism of everything and nothing, infinite notions and zero perceptions. Rodin’s Thinker is not a sentient form. He has a head of bronze and stone. And if one as subject is viewing the statue as object, in a different medium, as a printed illustration in a textbook or even an electronic computer image, the spatial probability of the Thinker’s thoughts is even more absurd to consider. Any thoughts one associates with the Thinker are those that the subject ascribes to the object. The Thinker lacks consciousness and is perhaps, in O’Neill’s staging, awaiting his own awakening to consciousness of and being in the world.
O’Neill’s final authorial comment on the action is also ambivalent: “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.” These words are recognizable only to a reader of the text of the play; in performances the words are bracketed. The scene—that of the Zoo and the monkeys chattering and wailing—suggests perhaps that Yank in death has come home to a primitive realm.”
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