Is The Hairy Ape an expressionistic play?
Expressionism is a movement began in early 20th century in German and soon spread over the whole Europe. It initiated in paintings and quickly started to include music, literature and architecture. It was a new technique used in drama of Strindberg and later became a theatrical movement round about the First World War. O’Neill was influenced by them and his play titled The Hairy Ape illustrated expressionistic style. The expressionistic touch is found from the very beginning to the last scene of the play. Expressionism was never a well defined movement.
However the prominent feature is a revolt against the literary tradition of realism. Its intention is to present the world from a subjective perspective. This dramatic technique seeks to represent concretely on the stage what happens inside the mind of the character without any direct statement. Through the behavior and language or dialogues it enables a playwright to depict ‘inner reality’, the soul or psyche of the characters. The Hairy Ape by O’Neill is a play which presents the contrast between the capitalist society and the working class people.
How the working class people were oppressed by the mechanical aristocrat people. The major character of the play Yank is a fireman on a Translantic Ocean Liner. Yank is the representative of a working class. His full name is Robert Smith. As in the beginning he seems that he is very proud of himself and his job. He thinks his power is very strong and he belongs to them who makes the ship moves. Yank is highly individualized in the play. In expressionistic technique focuses all attention on the central character but the other characters are not. There are some voices as a background to throw into sharp relief the central figure.
All this enable the playwright to focus on the obsession of Yank and proceeding in his mind. Expressionistic technique has a number of short scenes and each scene should be detachable, which is present in the pattern of scenes of ‘The Hairy Ape’. The scenes are short and the number of scenes is cut down to a minimum. Each scene is a further stage in the deeper and deeper probing of central figure’s consciousness. Much is left to imagination of the audience. The connection between scenes is emotional and not logical which is not related with the completeness of a realistic play.
The description of the inhabitants of the Fifth Avenue in Scene Five is equally expressionist. Playwright has provided a detailed description. There is the distortion of reality so characteristics of an expressionistic play. By this time Yank’s self confidence has already shaken by the behavior or reaction of Mildred after see him in stokehole. Yank is a kind of angry man and the mockery of his co-workers that her reaction after see him was in the way as if she has seen a Hairy Ape. He became very aggressive and wants to make her know about his power.
When he went to the city with Long, he tells him that it is “too clean and quiet and dolled-up’’ and gives him pain. His intention is to seek out Mildred but Long wants to show Yank that all upper class people is like Mildred. He tries to speak with a gentleman and he was taken to the prison because his attempt makes the man misses his bus. His aim turns to destroy the steel factory which is Mildred’s father. In scene Two characters of Mildred and her aunt are symbolic of artificiality and enervation cause by the contemporary mechanized and materialized urban life.
What do they think about the working class people and their point of view is presented by their dialogues. The language of the expressionistic play is referred to be highly personal, lyrical and condensed. The expressionist doesn’t use any statement. It is the disturbing quality of language that arrests the attention of the audience. O’Neill has used local language of the working class people, who are uneducated. They can’t even pronounce the words correctly. The characters in the play express themselves briefly, often monosyllables.
Their conversation is symbolic of their attitude. It reveals what is passing within their souls. Yank thinks of himself as the leader of them as he orders them to stop the noise and expects that they would listen to him. And in scene eight his conversation with the gorilla expresses his inner state. The entire action of the play is focused on the consciousness of the central character Yank. His suffering and anguished soul is laid bare by the technique of ‘interior monologue’. We have seen of yank after he has been thrown out of the I. W. W. office.
It is a wonderful piece of psycho-analysis which shows the mental confusion of Yank. He came there with the belief that he belongs to it, but his belief that ‘he belongs’ is gradually disappearing. His suffering is spiritual. His spirit is being ignored in the modern mechanized society. Then he goes to the zoo and talks to the gorilla. It is also a long monologue and the gorilla in the cage is the only interlocutor. It brings out the disintegration of Yanks personality. By all these incidents he sees himself as a hairy ape because he is rejected from all human.
The society is not accepting him. He addresses to the gorilla as a ‘brother’ and thinks that both belong to the same club. He is in quest of solving out form which group he belongs really –‘human or animal? ’ as he is being ignored from the society, he thinks may be the gorilla would understand his emotion. His mind has been thrown completely off the balance. He thinks the gorilla at least belongs to the nature, but Yank does not belong even to the beautiful world. He belongs to the world of man but has been rejected and thrown out.
He lets the gorilla out of the cage and shakes hand with, but it crushes him to death. He dies in deep anguish, ‘Even him did not think I belonged. Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in? ’ Yank is placed as the protagonist to explore the area where the upper class is dominating over the lower class. In society there are certain rules. He belongs to the human being and he does not find the place for himself. His proud is punctured by the forces of power that he did not recognize before. Questions raise in his mind are expressionistic utterance.