BOB SMITH AIN'T SO DUMB: DIRECTING THE HAIRY APE
[Michael Rutenberg directed the Hopkins Center production of The Hairy Ape in Hanover, NH, last August. The following is an excerpt from the director's log dealing with the character of Yank. --Ed.]
Who is Bob Smith? Most O'Neill scholars would be hard-pressed to recognize the name. Even Smith can't quite remember who he is.
But Bob Smith ain't so dumb. A lummox can't go through an identity crisis; it takes intelligence. Still, because of O'Neill's description of the man, plus his Brooklyn accent and what other characters say about him, the impression is that Yank is a dolt. And audiences don't empathize with blockheads. The lack of audience involvement with Yank has plagued the play from its inception. O'Neill has said, "Yank is really yourself, and myself. He is every human being. But, apparently, very few people seem to get this."1
The essential question for the director, then, is how to find a way to make the audience identify with Yank. A closer look at O'Neill's text provides the answer. On first examination, the doltish image remains with us. O'Neill's description reads as follows:
And what is it that they are? O'Neill describes the men more fully:
There is no mention of intelligence. The description is essentially physical, alluding to a diminished brain capacity. But Neanderthal Man's brain was as large as modern man's. The only certainty for the director so far is that he must cast a powerfully-built man who is capable of savage emotion. Where then is the impression that Yank is a dumb ox?
Perhaps a look at what others say about him will help explain the image. Mildred calls him "the filthy beast!" Well, yes; he is filthy. Anyone shoveling coal in the stokehole would be. And he does use foul language. But she doesn't comment on his mentality. O'Neill, however, adds more to the brutish image at the start of Scene Three, when he describes the stokers as being "outlined in silhouette in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas." (The play's title doesn't help offset the image of stupidity either. Still, looking like a gorilla doesn't ipso facto mean that one must have a gorilla's intelligence.) Paddy, in Scene Four, is the next to add to the infamous image: "In this cage is a queerer kind of baboon than ever you'd find in darkest Africy." He goes on to say, just a bit later, "Sure, 'twas as if she'd seen a great hairy ape excaped from the Zoo!" Yank asks Paddy if indeed Mildred called him a hairy ape, and Paddy fudges a bit by answering, "she looked it at you if she didn't say the word itself." Paddy insinuates it, and Yank believes him. O'Neill has him say, "I'm a hairy ape, get me?" when he talks to the prisoners in Scene Six. Finally, it is the Secretary who solidifies the image when he scornfully attacks Yank, whose arms and legs are pinned by the men of the IWW in Scene Seven:
And so the portrait is complete. Yank is sub-human. An ape! In fact, it is in the gorilla's cage that Yank, quite convinced that Mildred and the Secretary are right, accepts that he is a wild beast to be caged and then killed.
Our preliminary study of the text seems to reinforce the image of Yank as sub-human, but audiences laugh at gorillas; they don't identify with them. Yet, I believe that it is possible to see Yank quite differently from the way he is usually played and to think of him as a truly tragic figure. A more in-depth examination of the text is in order.
Language separates men from animals. It is man's ability to formulate and articulate abstract thought which allows him to rise above and rule the beasts of the earth. And it is in the language of the play that we will find the key to Yank's somewhat dubious intellect. His speech patterns are a combination of "Brooklynese" and a lack of education. "No one ain't never put nothin' over on me and got away wit it, see!" The language is rough, but the message is clear. Yank has never been anyone's patsy and that takes some doing. He may be crude, but he's no dummy.
Let's probe further into his mentality. In violent answer to a song about a lass waiting for a sailor to come home, he barks, "Where d'yuh get dat tripe? Home? Home, hell! I'll make a home for yuh! I'll knock yuh dead. Home! T'hell wit home! Where d'yuh get dat tripe? Dis is home, see!" He's thinking abstractly. He understands that home can be wherever you want it to be. He's the supreme realist. No dreams. No escaping that way. "Home is where you hang your hat." That his view of women is based solely on the types that frequented waterfront dives in the 1920's and on the bitter memories of a mother who was a drunkard understandably explains his attitude toward them. "Goils waitin' for you, huh? Aw, hell! Dat's all tripe. Dey don't wait for no one. Dey'd double-cross yuh for a nickel. Dey're all tarts, get me?" Prejudiced, yes! But definitely not the thinking of a mental defective.
Certainly it is his comments on politics and religion that forever wipe away the doltish image so many have given him: "nix on dat Salvation Army-Socialist bull. Git a soapbox! Hire a hall! Come and be saved, huh? Jerk us to Jesus, huh?" His thinking becomes even clearer toward the end of the play:
One might even go so far as to say that his analysis of governmental control, corporate power and institutionalized religion borders on the profound. But it is his ability to think metaphysically that totally separates him from the brutes of the world. He sees himself as omnipotent the prime mover!
To be both the beginning and the end. To be able to see oneself as infinite. That takes intelligence!
He's not a bad comedian either, and cracking a joke takes a clever mind—if it's the same mind that thought it up. He talks to Paddy: "But aw say, come up for air onct in a while, can't yuh? See what's happened since yuh croaked." Sometimes he throws in a clever alliteration that brings with it an amazing clarity of thought. "He's hittin' de pipe of de past, dat's what he's doin "'; or, "she was all in white like dey wrap around stiffs." But the most insightful metaphor is "... if she tinks she—She grinds de organ and I'm on de string, huh? I'll fix her!" Not bad for a moronic brute. When the men kid him about Mildred, telling him that he has fallen in love with her, he retorts: "I've fallen in hate, get me?" A nice turn of phrase for someone supposed to be brainless.
Yank also sees more deeply than the other men. Note the description of Mildred's skin: "Did yuh pipe her hands? White and skinny. Yuh could see de bones through 'em." Later he describes her in more detail: "Her hands—dey was skinny and white like dey wasn't real but painted on somep'n. ... She was like some dead ting de cat brung in."
When Long suggests a pacifist approach to a proletarian revolution, using a slightly more sophisticated language than what we have heard from the stokehole, Yank has no difficulty understanding it. He grasps it immediately and responds with his own philosophy: revolutions are won by force.
As the play progresses,
Yank comes to realize more deeply that he can no longer return
But the IWW doesn't want him. They mistake him for a government infiltrator and throw him out. Defeated, ostracized and finally humiliated, he understands the irony of his visit to a gorilla in the Central Park Zoo. It is then that Yank becomes his most insightful.
It is during this scene that we realize O'Neill's unfolding of Yank's character and the subsequent development of the plot. In the eight scenes it takes to perform the play, Yank's character goes from savage to humane. It is a tragedy, if one can accept Maxwell Anderson's definition of a spiritual realization arrived at too late. Yank can think, despite his humble declaration that "tinkin' is hard—". He understands precisely his tragic dilemma when he says, "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. Maybe dat's what dey call hell, huh?" Not so far removed from Sartre's "hell is other people," is it?
Yank also knows the mold is cast. His life is not going to change. Things are not going to get better. So he does the only thing possible, the only free choice still left to him. He kills himself. He lets the gorilla out of the cage so that it will kill him. And this is the essence of the play. Nothing fancy about myth, existentialism, or everyman symbols for the oppressed proletariat. Just an explanation, a clarification, of one man's suicide. O'Neill wrote about it in 1935:
Yank opens the cage to let out death, but for a while a part of him will continue to seek vengeance upon New York City in the body of the gorilla. Together they will wreak havoc until the beast, too, is killed.
If the actor who is cast can believe that Yank is not stupid, that he can think quite insightfully, that he is vulnerable and human, then the audience will identify and empathize with Yank and the play will become a modern tragedy. Perhaps the most significant way to conclude this examination of Yank's intellect is to remind oneself that O'Neill's use of Rodin's "The Thinker" as a running motif is not as ironic as one might at first assume.
--Michael E. Rutenberg
1 Mary B. Mullett, "The Extraordinary Story of Eugene O'Neill," American Magazine, XCIV, No. 5 (November, 1922).
2 The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Scribner's, 1935), Vol. V. (The Wilderness Edition includes this brief anecdote.)
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