THE SEARCH FOR SELF IN THE HAIRY APE: AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY?
The prevailing theme in the work of Eugene O'Neill--man's attempt to discover himself and his place in the order of things--makes his plays universal and enduring. Among the early plays, The Hairy Ape best reflects modern man's struggle for self-awareness and his effort to belong, to give life meaning. In the figure of Yank, O'Neill depicts the dilemma twentieth-century man faces when his faith in the machine and the world of materialism it symbolizes is shattered, and he can find nothing in himself or in his world that can replace this lost faith. O'Neill captures the mood of pessimism that prevailed in the 1920's, when man discovered that while the industrial world provided him with material benefits, it also crushed and threatened to obliterate his humanity. The typically somber O'Neill thesis prevails in the bleak world of The Hairy Ape: that man has lost his place and his belief in himself and in God or anything external to himself, that life without faith can only end in despair and death, and that man must strive to retain his humanity to give order and meaning to existence.
In his effort to dramatize the displacement of modern man in the distorted universe that followed World War I, O'Neill abandoned the realism of his first plays for expressionism. While it does contain realistic elements, The Hairy Ape continues the experiment in nonrealism begun in Emperor Jones. When O'Neill was charged with having been influenced by Kaiser's From Morn to Midnight, he stated that he had seen the play in 1922, after he had written the two plays, adding: "I had read From Morn to Midnight before Hairy Ape was written but not before the idea for it was planned. The point is that The Hairy Ape is a direct descendant of Jones, written before I had ever heard of expressionism." As Egil Tornqvist proves in his recent article, "Miss Julie and O'Neill," O'Neill had read the plays of Strindberg, and he and Central European expressionists were directly influenced by them. Like Strindberg in The Ghost Sonata and A Dream Play, O'Neill and European expressionists depicted modern man as exploited and forced to cope with social inequities.
What distinguishes the American playwright from the German expressionists and aligns him more closely to Strindberg is what John Gassner calls his "metaphysical mode of expressionism" in The Hairy Ape. The play examines not only the nature of man's role in society but the nature of being. Using the technical devices of expressionism, O'Neill moves his hero, Yank, through a series of rapidly changing scenes in his quest to belong, to find his place in the universe; yet in his highly subjective treatment the dramatist never neglects to present the effects of dislocation and loss of faith on the human psyche.
While he needed a nonrealistic approach to dramatize Yank's outer struggle and inner suffering, O'Neill, like Strindberg before him, uses cause and effect and retains the character motivation of realism. O'Neill's catalyst for Yank's questioning of and awakening to his true condition--woman the destroyer and nemesis of man--is Strindbergian. Yank is Strindberg's dreamer in the sense that part of him has ever remained dormant. The distorted dream-like sequences in the last half of the play dramatize in slow motion Yank's search for self.
It is his encounter with Mildred, who emerges out of darkness like the unconscious, shadowed side of him, that rouses this slumbering automaton from his lethargy. Her rejection of his physical presence, the sum total of the self he had known until then, stuns him. He is thrown off balance when she classifies him as an animal, and his pursuit of her becomes a quest for his own identity. The artificial light above the stairs leading down to the stokehole illuminates not only Mildred but a part of Yank which has always remained a dark mystery to him. But it proves to be an ineffective illumination. Although light has always been a symbol of enlightenment, this artificial glow reflects an artificial woman who, like the modern technology that breeds her, cannot provide Yank with insight.
Until this time Yank has responded to his environment by a series of conditioned reflexes. As "part of de engines," he has adapted to his environment mechanically, bypassing conscious decisions. He has worshipped the machine, becoming one with it. It, in return, has crushed his humanity. Yet, at the beginning of the play, the union of machine and the brute strength of man has produced in Yank a godlike feeling. He is an extension of the machine; its power is personified in him. Yet even before Mildred's appearance, Yank has made feeble attempts to "tink," to understand the complexity of existence.
The dark region of the stokehole he inhabits reflects the underground of his mind. Proud of his animal strength and his ability to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the machine, he has never developed a social presence. Yank is not sophisticated enough to assume a mask to project a socially acceptable image. His arrogance and ignorance leave him vulnerable. In his first major contact with it, society, in the form of Mildred, crushes and rejects the raw natural state of man he represents.
Yank's unconscious, repressed desires never surface until Mildred's ethereal appearance. Through Mildred, daughter of the president of Nazareth Steel, the world's new plastic Virgin Queen, descending "a mile of ladders and steps to be havin' a look" at her slaves, O'Neill makes a strong anti-capitalist statement. Her forebears were once vital, productive, purposeful, like the country itself. In contrast, Mildred is described as pale, anemic, "looking as if the vitality of her stock had been sapped before she was conceived." Nervous, disdainful, discontented with her life in spite of great wealth and social position, she is vaguely conscious of being a "poser," as her aunt claims, and of lacking a purpose in life. Somewhere in her unconscious lies a yearning for the primitive, the animalistic, the primordial heart-of-darkness jungle, peopled by creatures like her grandmother "with her pipe beside her--puffing in Paradise." The horror that Yank sees but does not understand when he looks into her eyes is her realization that here in him are not only her roots, her past, but, if she would allow her sexual and emotional drives free expression, her vital self.
This vision of Mildred has a twofold effect on Yank: it makes him aware of his social inferiority and conscious of his inadequacies as a human being. Before this encounter, he had been an integral part of the vast industrial complex that produced steel girders, rising godlike in the sky. Their majesty was something tangible, strong, aspiring, impressive like the brute power of his own body. It is inconceivable to him that Mildred, the daughter of steel, would reject him, the son of steel. Yank is the offspring of greedy, exploitative men and an accommodating earth mother with her wealth of natural resources. But he is the bastard child, a deformed Caliban, conceived furtively in the dark by amoral men and destined to inhabit the nether regions, hidden from society. Before Mildred came into his life, he had been the pure animal, a leopard, stalking through his domain, proud of the spots, the dirt and sweat, that gave him identity. When Mildred calls him a "filthy beast," Yank's safe, known world is destroyed; he is dispossessed. The feminine wonder of Mildred touches a chord of humanity within him that has never been struck before. He responds with a growing arousal of sensitivity and seeks to find his place on the ladder of evolution. When his pitiful attempts to belong fail, he wants to hurt the creature who gave life to the displaced monster in him but who has neglected to sever the umbilical cord that ties him to his animal world. He says, "She grinds the organ and I'm on de string. She'll get on her knees and take it back."
Mildred can do nothing to help him or anyone else. For her own attempts to become fully human have failed; and she is left, as she says, "a waste product of the Bessemer process," created and sustained by steel, a symbol of nature and human nature exploited. Nor can Yank help himself. He can-not discover by reflection who he is or where he belongs; he simply does not have the mental capacity to do so. Therefore, vainly, he turns out-ward to society for guidance, understanding and compassion. Society--assuming in the last scenes the shapes of the stylized chorus on Fifth Avenue, the prisoners at Blackwells Island, and the members of the IWW--persistently rejects him.
In his search to discover himself, Yank moves from one oubliette to another--from the cage-like stokehole of the steamer to the cell on Black-wells Island to the final deathcage. Although he does not reach the end without a degree of awareness of the meaning of existence, he must suffer the limits of his perception. In the past Yank had been content to worship the god of steel, had taken pride that he belonged to it. As a result of the rejection he has experienced, the idol is shattered. Now he knows that girders and beams and steam are not enough, that the newly aroused instincts within him crave nourishment:
When he realizes his search to belong somewhere has been futile, and he has been rejected by all segments of society--the wealthy, the imprisoned, and finally the representatives of the masses, the IWW--Yank sits in a gutter, "bewildered by the confusion in his brain, pathetically impotent." In desperation, he "turns a bitter mocking face up like an ape gibbering at the moon" and says: "Man in de Moon, yuh look so wise, gimme de answer, huh? Slip me de inside dope, de information right from de stable--where do I get off at, huh?" Abandoned by and now abandoning humanity, Yank makes his way to the zoo and the gorilla's cage. Remembering Mildred's words, he thinks man's house of classified beasts is where he might belong. It is twilight, that gray-light time between day and night, suspended precariously, even as Yank is, between heaven and earth, humanity and animality. Watching the gorilla who sits like "The Thinker," a pose he had often assumed earlier, Yank says, "Youse can sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and de rest of it. But me--I ain't got no past to tink in.... You belong." He confronts the beast, looking for traces of himself, and calls it "brother." Yank settles not for brotherhood with man but with animals. Recklessly, he opens the door of the cage, and the gorilla embraces him "in a murderous hug" and throws Yank's crushed body into the cage.
Yank's world ends in despair and death. As O'Neill depicts it, his plight is that of modern man who has become dislocated, disillusioned, and destroyed by his highly technological world. As long as man does not question this world nor seek a better one, he is allowed to function by society, though only on an animalistic, mentally stultifying level. Only when he begins to question, however feebly, the validity of this world and tries to discover a more meaningful existence does he meet with rejection. The tragedy in modern society is not that man has become reduced to Yank's level but that he has even lost the will to attain to Yank's admirable though ill-fated quest. Having rejected his former place as "son" of God, he emerges as the bastard child of materialism, industrialism, and all the other "isms" that symbolize his godlessness and his inability to provide substitutes. Root-less, bereft of a meaningful role and place in the structure of the universe, he becomes an alien in a hostile world.
In an interview in the New York Herald Tribune (November 16, 1925), O'Neill stated that Yank is 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." O'Neill was dismayed that audiences saw merely the stoker and not the symbol, and said, "the symbol makes the play either important or just another play."
O'Neill would agree with Freud that complete self-awareness is an
impossibility; man can never explore fully the deep recesses of the
unconscious and fathom the secret storehouse of the source of
rational decisions. The mind of man is a bottomless pit. What
O'Neill seems to be demonstrating in The Hairy Ape is that
man should at least engage in a search for the self
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