A Modern Tragedy – The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill
Inside Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” the main character, Yank, embodies the beleaguered working class of a capitalist culture. As Mr. O’Neill’s was understood to be a zealous socialist himself believing that a society should and can work together, as a whole, towards a better world; the reader of “the Hairy Ape” can see and understand his views. Eugene O'Neill's supreme creation “The Hairy Ape” has the drama necessary to relay the all-encompassing vision from the writer. The tantalizing conflicts within Yank are conveyed expertly through stage direction masterfully executed so that we the purveyor of this play can see dreadful and disaffected condition that effects the major masses of a capitalist society. We are allowed to share in Yanks journey to understand his place in the cogs of the gigantic machinery of life, only for all to come to a rather tragic end.
The expansive stage direction that O’Neill uses in an ingenious method that allows the crew and actors to further make the watcher understand and believe in the message of the play. We can sense this by the writer’s reference to the makeup in the first portion of scene five: “Their faces and bodies shine from soap-and-water scrubbing, but around their eyes, where a hasty dousing does not touch, the coal dust sticks like black makeup, giving them a queer, sinister expression” being portrayed. Having no classic hero to speak of, The Hairy Ape could be considered a modern day tragedy. The play gives the reader Yank who embodies the definition of the antihero. Yank (whose real name is Bob Smith) is just a regular Joe. He’s not a scholar but instead he is a stoker in a ship, a very laborious job with little mental rewards.
He’s a beastly, menacing coarse man whom works long hours for probably what is next to little pay. Although it may seem that Yanks job is below most socialist in his community he takes great pride in the fact that he can be an integral part of the ship, loving his ship more than many people. The only place he feels really a part of something is his ship, wondering why he doesn’t get that satisfaction in his community. Yank does not possess any outward tragic flaws although he suffers eventual demise due to his clash with society as it is, he struggles hard against the social forces which are much stronger than he. The reaction from Mildred Douglas's at Yank is the goad that forces him to face the obvious rank and class perception. Mildred calls Yank a “filthy beast” (191), some might say it is out of fear of the unknown coupled with her inability to ever understand the working class. He is deeply wounded by Mildred because she represents that world that he will never belong too. Her words alone shake him to his core like none other.
She has rattled his sense of well-being and his inner feelings of belonging (if even a little) to the world outside his bubble of work. He feels alienated from what should be his society and classifies himself an outsider who does not deserve to belong. As Yank continues to evaluate his place in the universe, he says, “I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can't see it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong!” He was once a productive unit in society, providing the service of keeping his ship moving. Now he feels hopeless, worthless with no direction. Preoccupied with an excessive amount of anger Yank plots to kill the rich girl. He takes himself to Fifth Avenue to exact his revenge. Yank unabashedly attacks anyone he sees therefore he subsequently finds himself in jail. In jail is where he takes on the feelings of the hairy ape, a caged large beast that he has become or has he always been. After his eventual release from prison he visits his local zoo in search of the caged gorilla. He finds his “brother” and attempts to befriend the beast in the cage with an embrace only to be physically crushed by the animal. Yank dies a broken, dejected animal there in the zoo. After his death O’Neill comments that atlas Yank was able to find his true identity and knows exactly where he belongs now. All throughout Yank’s struggle he identifies ‘belonging’ as power.
When he thinks he ‘belongs’ to something he gains strength, when he is scorned by a class, he feels dreadfully weak. Nevertheless Yank is rejected by all of society: his fellow stokers, Mildred, the denizens of the swanky Fifty Avenue, the I.W.W., and finally the ape in the zoo. The Hairy Ape is an attentive and soul searing tale of the tragedy of the human predicament in any modern age. The stories subtitle ‘A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life’ is a nod to the ironic. It points to the mocking aim of the O’Neill. The rich may view the play as a comedy due to the fact that a beastly man dies.
But O’Neill’s intent is that we should all question why Yank gave so much power over himself to others. Why did what they thought of him matter to his own self-worth? I would imagine that answering that question would lead many of us to see parts of ourselves that are not pretty. The “Hairy Ape” is a powerful piece of theater that send the message from O’Neill about his views on social classes and their divide from each other. O’Neill uses dialect in his story to show the evident difference in education from each class. When Mildred and her aunt converse during the second scene, they bicker and insult each other almost the whole scene. Is O’Neill’s trying to say that the upper-class has nothing better to do than to argue and fight? Between scenes one and two we are shown what the classes do when they are not working. The rich complain and argue because they have it all and the working class chants, “Drink, don’t think!”, and sings songs until the day is over. A clear view that the worlds that we identify with are a far cry from the world that another justifies with.