Friday, December 12, 2014

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

Workingman’s blues
I’m not big on reading plays, but in Eugene O’Neill’s case I can always make an exception. His stirring and thought-provoking plays, among the best ever written in the history of American drama, earned him the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Hairy Ape, first produced in 1922, is one of O’Neill’s better-known works and also one of his most affecting and unforgettable.

The curtain rises on a group of stokers lounging in the forecastle of a transatlantic steamship. Each in turn displays the brutish characteristics of the Neanderthal, but one among them in particular is clearly King of the Cavemen. Yank is an immense, troglodytic figure with a simple mind and a simple pride in the work he performs with his massive muscles. This pride is shaken, however, when a beautiful young socialite with a desire to see how the other half lives ventures into the filthy stokehole. At first sight of Yank she is gripped with horror, as if viewing some monstrous subhuman creature. This reaction is an eye opener for Yank, as he is forced for the first time to recognize his position in the class structure of society. He no longer feels the same enthusiasm for his labor and struggles to find a place where he belongs.

On the printed page, O’Neill’s realistic dialogue and vividly descriptive stage directions create an effect not unlike that of reading a novella, allowing the habitual reader of prose fiction to momentarily forget he’s reading a dramatic work. Yet realism for the stage doesn’t always translate into realism on the page. At times in this play O’Neill can carry things a bit too far. The way some scenes are physically described, they seem to venture dangerously close to slapstick. Every image and event in The Hairy Ape is exaggerated to larger-than-life proportions in order to prove a point. Yet this amplification of reality is also one of the play’s strong points, as it makes for some truly indelible imagery. Yank is a symbol of the American laborer, dehumanized by his industrial habitat and left behind in the stratified system of social evolution. Though he makes the modern world go, he fails to reap any benefit for his labors, instead suffering the derision of unworthy parasites who have outsmarted him and live off of his sweat and blood.

Though The Hairy Ape discusses the conflict between labor and capital, it bears little resemblance to many of the leftist “message” dramas produced during the early 20th-century. Upton Sinclair’s plays, for example, focus on specific political or social issues and discuss them in a fairly straightforward, didactic style. The Hairy Ape, on the other hand, uses expressionistic imagery and allegorical narrative to make a grand statement about universal humanity in the modern era. While in Sinclair’s works, Socialism is always the answer, O’Neill offers no answer for Yank. He merely forces the audience to confront the epic tragedy of this working man’s existence.

Even reluctant readers of drama should give O’Neill a try. Unfortunately, only a few of his works are in the public domain, but luckily this is one of them. If you enjoy realist writers of the early 20th century, in particular socially conscious authors like Sinclair, Jack London, or John Steinbeck, The Hairy Ape will be right up your alley.

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