In late November, 1921, while The Fountain was still incomplete in its first draft, O’Neill began another project that was to evolve as The Hairy Ape. In 1917, he had written a short story of that title concerning the “revolt” of a stoker who finally joins the I.W.W. He had submitted it for publication, but it was rejected and he later destroyed it.17 In the same year, he had come across his central image while writing The Moon of the Caribbees:
It is possible also that his extensive reading of the Saturday Evening Post in the years 1918 and 1919 contributed some suggestions. Amidst the sea stories that the magazine regularly published there is one by Richard M. Hallet entitled Ticklish Waters, in which Slim Williams saves his ship by keeping the fires going under the boilers when all seems lost:
As the fires gradually take hold and the ship regains power, his ecstasy mounts:
Something of Yank’s manner and his power may have been suggested by the valiant Williams.
When it was fully
conceived, the play was written with great speed. A tentative commitment
to cast Louis Wolheim as Yank was made in November before the script was
written. The first draft was completed before Christmas, requiring about
three weeks’ writing, and the final revisions were made by the third
week in January. On December 24, 1921, O’Neill wrote to Macgowan of
his satisfaction with the work in words that indicate his attention as a
playwright to Macgowan’s theories of drama:
Arthur Hopkins, whose production of “Anna Christie” in November, 1921, had proved a success, was interested in the new O’Neill work and offered to help James Light with the direction. Evidently with an eye to moving the play to Broadway should it prove itself in the Provincetown production, he arranged that Robert Edmond Jones should “assist” Cleon Throckmorton with the settings. The Hairy Ape opened at the Provincetown Playhouse on March 9, 1922, and on April 17, Hopkins took it uptown for a successful Broadway production and tour. **
Thus, The Hairy Ape studies man’s attempt to come into harmony with his world, to find to whom, to what he can belong. In doing so, it dramatizes the same theological quest that had formed the basis for Welded and The Fountain but without question, it is a better play in the theatre than its predecessors. Its success paralleled that of The Emperor Jones, and O’Neill was to create no comparable theatrical excitement until the Theatre Guild produced Strange Interlude in 1928. The style of the play, which must have seemed exactly what the proponents of the Art Theatre ordered, placed O’Neill as an experimenter far to the front of the avant-garde in America, and doubtless confirmed his decision to experiment with new forms of theatre.
Yet the play, written at the beginning of O’Neill’s commitment to the new movement, betrays a stylistic problem which was in the end to bring his career to a crucial dilemma, one that he summed unawarely in his gleeful phrase about the play’s style: “It seems to run the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism.”
Among the plays of
the 1920’s, The Hairy Ape, for all its seeming originality of style and
substance, is perhaps the most derivative. It is framed in eight short
scenes as The Emperor Jones was,
and like the earlier play, it concentrates on its hero’s run through
a kind of wilderness to his eventual destruction by a primitive force.
The play owes something as well to O’Neill’s earlier realistic
plays of the sea. Paddy’s praise of the days of the sailing ships,
when “a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and
the sea joined all together and
made it one,” is an explicit statement of the view of men as
“children of the sea.” The same attitude toward steam ships had
been expressed in the first act of Chris Christopherson when Mickey and Devlin attempt to persuade
Chris to sail with them:
Stripped of its expressionistic scenic requirements, the first four scenes, up to the point where Yank leaves the ship, are not essentially different from the earlier sea plays.
Yet, by 1921, O’Neill had heard much from Macgowan and others of the German expressionist drama. A letter to Macgowan, dated July 1, 1921, asks Macgowan to bring to Provincetown some illustrated pamphlets on the German Theatre. The Theatre of Tomorrow describes in detail Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight, in which a bank clerk runs from established security to destruction, commenting on its division into seven scenes, its use of soliloquies and its mixture of terror and humor, both of which “cut close to those strange psychic realities of life which come often with the effect of a hypnotic interlude in logical normal existence.”20 He concludes his praise of the play with the comment that “Kaiser has succeeded in getting past the surface of reality. He has penetrated the basic stratum of man’s psyche. To do this, I take it, is the purpose of expressionism.”21 He continues to discuss romantic drama as a step in the right direction, adding that once audiences are accustomed to something other than realism, they will accept “an imaginative treatment” of lives in Main Street or Harlem.22 He is concerned to note that “the grandeur of the play of the future must lie not in a superhuman figure, but in the vast and eternal forces of life which we are made to recognize as they play upon him. The expressionist puts it rather rhetorically when he writes: ‘Let the characters be great in the sense that their existence, their lives, share the great existence of the heavens and the earth—that their hearts united to all that occurs, beat in time with the universe.’ . . . The drama must seek to make us recognize the things that, since Greek days, we have forgotten—the eternal identity of you and me with the vast and unmanageable forces which have played through every atom of life since the beginning. Psychoanalysis, tracing back our thoughts and actions into fundamental impulses, has done more than any one factor to make us recover the sense of our unity with the dumb, mysterious processes of nature. We know now through science what the Greeks and all primitive peoples knew through instinct. The task is to apply it to art and, in our case, to the drama.”****
Whether The Hairy Ape is directly indebted to From Morn to Midnight or not, it clearly owes much to Macgowan’s enthusiasm for the German expressionist drama.***** O’Neill’s first plan for his narrative was to return Yank to the stokehole where his failure to “belong” would leave him alienated and alone. Such an ending would have thrown the play inevitably back into the realistic context of the first four scenes, bringing the same sense of return to normalcy after a strange psychic voyage that the final scene of The Emperor Jones achieves. The ending upon which O’Neill decided was one stylistically more appropriate to the expressionistic second half of the play, and one quite in line with Macgowan’s dictum, that the hero of the play of the future would be a kind of everyman caught up in a great issue that would stress his unity with the mysterious processes of the forces of nature.
The Hairy Ape, then, is a play prompted in its stylistic development by Macgowan’s enthusiasm that splits the ticket sharply between realism and the new expressionism. Stylistically, it lies at a half-way point in O’Neill’s career.
In describing the first scene, the fireman’s forecastle of a transAtlantic liner, O’Neill writes that the setting, with the lines of the bunks and upright supports made of white steel, should cross one another “like the steel framework of a cage.” In the cramped space, the firemen who inhabit the cage should resemble “those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at.” The stokers, like the crew of the Glencairn, represent a wide variety of nationalities and types, but essentially they are to be alike. As to the visual elements of the scene, O’Neill is specific: “The treatment of this scene or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic.” (207) However, the action which takes place in this and the following settings is not anti-naturalistic. Onstage, the actors playing the stokers may indeed look like Neanderthal men, but they will also look like the popular conception of stokers, stooped, heavy-shouldered, somewhat brutish. Similarly, there is little need for a designer to distort the forecastle space. A forecastle is a cramped space and the lines of the bunks do suggest a cage. The second scene is “a section of the promenade deck” which contains no significant visual distortions, but is intended to convey “the beautiful, vivid life of the sea.” In scene iii, the stokehole is one in fact, depicted as O’Neill knew stokeholes to be from his own experiences crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. New York. No degree of visual distortion will change the fact that O’Neill’s scenic requirements in the first half of his play are for purely realistic settings. The non-naturalistic treatment is chiefly decorative.******
The action, evolving as it does from O’Neill’s knowledge of the sea, makes no demands on the setting except for purposes of realism. Nothing of Kaiser’s use of expressionist symbol is called for by what happens. To be sure O’Neill attempts to create a certain stylization of the action. Remembering the effect of the drums in The Emperor Jones, he calls for an extensive orchestration of sounds of violence: the “tumult of sound” made by the drunken sailors as the curtain rises, “the brazen clang of the furnace doors as they are flung open or slammed shut, the grating, teeth-gritting grind of steel against steel, of crunching coal, . . . the roar of leaping flames, the monotonous throbbing of the engines.” (223) These sounds are built into a rhythm, “a mechanically regulated recurrence, a tempo” which is evidently intended to enhance the strangeness of the whole. Yet, in the context of a stokehole the sounds are to be expected and are all essentially naturalistic.
Twice, O’Neill turns to something more than realism. From the crew, he calls for a choric effect that will suggest they are mechanical elements, dehumanized. Their voices are to have “a brazen metallic quality as if their throats were phonograph horns,” and he attempts to evolve a stylized choric statement on the word “Think”:
The chorus effect was intended to suggest that the men were no more than machines. It is an attempt to move “behind life”—a clearly expressionistic device. As such, however, it is defeated by the individual who discovers that “Think rhymes with drink.” A realistic thought-process, by no means non-naturalistic, has been introduced, and the choric tumult follows it in what can be taken as a logical or “natural” concatenation.
Perhaps the only genuinely non-naturalistic element in the early scenes is the pose which Yank assumes when he is attempting to puzzle out the questions that have been raised. Then he sits in the attitude of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The Rodin sculpture held for O’Neill an evolutionary significance appropriate to the play—brutish man attempting to puzzle out the truth of his existence and perhaps to better it, mind triumphing over brute force. Rodin’s bronze, however, is far from pessimistic, and considering the course Yank is to follow, question may be raised as to the appropriateness of its ironic use here. Under any circumstances, deletion of the pose would not materially damage the scenes. What is important is that Yank should think, not that he should quote Rodin.
In the first four scenes, although scenic distortion in the expressionist manner is possible, it is never essential. These scenes restate the themes that O’Neill has treated before in the Glencairn cycle and “Anna Christie”: that a sailor is a creature of the sea and can have no will beyond the sea’s will. Many of the effects, brought here to new levels of theatrical excitement, are to be found in so realistic a play as The Moon of the Caribbees—the sound patterns, for example, or the use of songs or the seemingly ad lib lines of seamen’s voices forming a choral accompaniment to the main action. O’Neill’s attempt to move “behind life” by expressionist means is defeated for two reasons: As they are conceived, the characters are so primitive that they are in appearance what they are in essence. They are simple organisms, and no layers of sophistication mask them to be stripped away as Brutus Jones’s “Emperorhood” is taken from him. The second reason is that O’Neill’s technical skill in depicting Yank and his crew is superb realism. Motivations are clear, strength and weakness of character underlie and make plausible all patterns of thought, and even Yank’s long monologues emerge convincingly from situation and character. Yank is more comprehensible as a man than as a symbol. If he becomes a symbol, he does so in the way Chekhov’s characters attain more than individual, personal significance—by the very depth of his reality.
In the stokehole, Yank belongs. His credo—that he is the force at the bottom that makes the entire mechanized society move—is right. He is such a force until the meeting with Mildred causes him to doubt himself and sends him out in a frenzied effort to destroy the God of power he has served at his furnace-altar. When Yank moves uptown, briefly, the conditions change, and for one scene the nonnaturalistic treatment has relevance. On Fifth Avenue, Yank moves amazed like a Neanderthal Alice in a hostile Wonderland. What an audience sees is a kind of reality but distorted as it might be when filtered through Yank’s consciousness. Yet the beginning of the scene, judged by the dialogue alone, is naturalistic. Yank and Paddy, joking and bumbling, explore a world they have not seen before. As the scene develops, however, and as Yank’s anger at the unseeing passersby mounts uncontrollably, the play becomes for a moment expressionistic. Yank’s fury at the masked creatures******* causes him to attack them brutally, but his blows have no effect. Instead it is he who recoils after each punch. Now it is the action and not the scenery which is being treated in a non-naturalistic way and for a moment, O’Neill writes completely in the expressionistic mode.
The ending of scene v is the only moment in the play which can be accurately called expressionistic. The prison scene that follows, although the cage symbolism is continued, is in fact realistic, its style determined by Yank’s conversation with unseen prisoners in adjoining cells. The scene in the I.W.W. Hall again evolves no symbolic action. Through both scenes Yank is treated as he was in the first half of the play as a realistic figure who moves coherently in time and space, and as one whose psychological development is credible. He is shown as an individual, obsessed with the idea of proving his worth, put through a debilitating series of experiences, and brought in the end close to madness. The brutality of his treatment in the prison arises from his near dementia, and the rejection of his proposal to blow up the Steel Trust reduces him to incompetence. Under such circumstances, even his death in the gorilla cage has a minimal plausibility. Although it realizes in a stage image the symbol of ape-in-cage which has been developed from the first scene, it does not entirely break from the context which the play has established as “real.”
The Hairy Ape is a play written by a dramatist to whom the realistic theatre was a proper element, but who had left that style and committed himself to a new and intriguing mode. But he was not a master of the style. Like his hero, O’Neill was lost in an alien territory which he could not quite make his own. A mixed style is not in itself a danger unless, as here, its elements work in diametrically opposed ways to achieve their end. O’Neill was successful theatrically in The Hairy Ape as in The Emperor Jones because he conceived realistically a character with enough power and a sufficient command of language to make credible the peripheral presentational expression of the themes. Yank’s simplicity is the key. With more complex characters, as The Great God Brown and Dynamo would shortly demonstrate, O’Neill’s skill as a playwright was nearly confounded. For the moment, however, the duality of style was not damaging. O’Neill had written a play which appeared to be in a new mode, but which was not so startling as to alienate audiences trained in realistic theatre, and they responded to the play’s thesis which, like the shape of the folk play, was to become an American dramatic “myth,” the play of social protest.
The thesis which O’Neill develops is an easy one, characteristic of much American political thought in the 1920’s and 1930’s. As the theatrical myth has it, materialistic America distorts and deforms the individual’s spirit, destroying man’s creative potential by divorcing him from those qualities of humanity which give him dignity and the sense of manhood. The materialistic system is his enemy and the core conflict of the fable is his battle with the exponents of that system. A year after The Hairy Ape was produced, Elmer Rice developed the same fable in a more truly expressionistic mode in The Adding Machine, and the concept was shortly to become a staple commodity in the work of John Howard Lawson, Clifford Odets and Sidney Kingsley. Most recently the fable has served Arthur Miller to notable effect.
In general, it may
be said that all versions of the fable narrating man’s war with a
capitalistic society can be resolved in one of two ways. If a
playwright espouses a revolutionary political cause the resolution of
the narrative is almost inevitably a call to revolution, as in the
ending of Waiting for Lefty.********
If the playwright is less committed to a specific ideology, what
he is likely to show is the crushing of the little man by the
society, and he will draw from this parable certain truths concerning
man’s dignity and his innate capacity for human feeling, and will
excoriate those evils in the world which crush out life and render men
pathetic and a little ridiculous—the ending, in short, of The
Adding Machine and Death of
Elements of the myth, hidden under romantic and historical narrative, were to be found in The Fountain, especially when O’Neill dwelt on Juan’s materialism and showed it to be dominating his more humane qualities. In The Hairy Ape, the design emerges without ambiguity, and, considering the play’s date, it may be held that here O’Neill created at least the outlines of the American drama of social protest. Thus, Yank, throughout the play, is linked with the evolutionary process—a thinking Ape. Yet, society, faced with the desire of the beast to become human, places him in cage after cage, condemning him without seeing him, mocking his power and life. So interpreted the narrative arouses emotions of protest against a world that victimizes any of its citizens this way.
Yet it is difficult to carry the condemnation beyond the sketchy indictment of the Fifth Avenue scene. It is there in outline, but not filled in with detail. By comparison, Arthur Miller’s inspection of American society in Death of a Salesman is an almanac of facts. Willy Loman is crushed by Chevrolets and water heaters and silk stockings and economics that, in Clifford Odets’s phrase, come down “like a ton of coal on the head.” Yank meets his society only in symbolic contexts, and the indictment of society is imprecise because it is unspecific.
In his choice of endings, O’Neill veers away from either of the possibilities of the social problem play. On the one hand, there was the possibility for a positive, revolutionary ending—the one he appears to have provided for his short story in causing Yank to join the I.W.W. Yet O’Neill, in spite of having Jack Reed and Terry Carlin as drinking companions, was no convert to radical causes. The I.W.W. was not the answer any more than it had been when he wrote The Personal Equation at Harvard. His most specific indictment in the play is of the ineffective, bureaucratic anarchists. Revolution in such terms was impossible.
On the other hand, Yank is clearly not destroyed by the social system, even though at the end he exhibits symptoms of alienation leading to such madness as overcomes Willy Loman. Yank is destroyed, as is Brutus Jones, by a figure out of his own “racial” past, by a gorilla in the Zoo. It is impossible to make the equation, “Gorilla equals Society.” The gorilla is caged because society is fascinated with but cannot find a way of relating to the essential brutality, the primitive nature in all men. As the gorilla must be caged, so Yank cannot be left free, but in meeting the gorilla, Yank meets not society but himself in another incarnation. Thus he may be said to have destroyed himself.
The ending of The Hairy Ape is at best ambiguous. As Yank dies, O’Neill writes a stage direction: “. . . and, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.” “Perhaps” sounds a significant note of doubt. Writing of the play to Theresa Helburn well after the tragedy had become theatrical history, he said he found it “very timely. Because I think we are all a bit sick of answers that don’t answer. The Hairy Ape, at least, faces the simple truth that, being what we are, and with any significant spiritual change for the better in us probably ten thousand years away, there just is no answer. . . .”********* The comment, like the ending to the play, does not entirely clarify the implications of the action. In fact, in the opening scenes, Yank does belong—to the world of steam and steel in the stokehole—to the modern world. He looks like an ape, but he is not one. He thinks, and he acts with physical and moral courage. He is undeniably heroic, perhaps the most conventionally “heroic” figure O’Neill ever drew. Like other, more conventional tragic heroes, he is to fall in pride from his throne before the furnaces. He is even guilty of a form of hubris when he brags that he is himself the essential force of life: “I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steel and oil for de engines; I’m de ting in noise dat makes yuh hear it; I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting!” (216)
The claim to be a God is hubristic but it is essentially creative. When he is dislocated from his furnaces and driven into the upper world whose energy he has helped create, he turns destructive and tries to wreck what he has built. What should follow is society’s destruction of the revenger-hero, humbling him in his pride. What is not in view is a sudden tumble back down the evolutionary ladder. The implication of the Rodin pose is one of upward evolution; it means that Yank’s movement into society is leading him toward some self-knowledge and pulling him from brute force toward more thoughtful awareness.********** O’Neill discards all this, and drops his hero back into darkness by suggesting that he can only belong to a force of simian brutality. The ending is reminiscent of that of The Emperor Jones, but the dark theology of the earlier play is inappropriate to the story of Yank, who has always “belonged” and who is very different from Brutus Jones.
* The reference to Yank’s having been Irish in the original conception suggests that the question of the suicide of O’Neill’s stoker friend, the Irishman, Driscoll, formed one of the roots of the play. O’Neill admitted as much in an article for the American Magazine, November, 1922: “It was the why of Driscoll’s suicide that gave me the germ of the idea (for The Hairy Ape).“19
** The Hairy Ape was the last successful presentation of the first phase of the Provincetown Players. A comedy by Susan Glaspell, Chains of Dew, completed the season, at which point, the Cooks went to Greece and the Provincetown “holiday” began.
*** The Hairy Ape opened five days after Augustin Duncan’s production of The First Man. This was the third time in O’Neill’s short career that two of his major works had opened in close proximity. Beyond the Horizon had opened February 2, 1920, and Chris Christopherson on March 8. “Anna Christie” opened November 2, 1921, and The Straw on November 10. The phenomenon was to be repeated once more when the Theatre Guild opened Marco Millions on January 9, 1928, and Strange Interlude on January 30. The strain on a playwright during the rehearsals of his work is great. O’Neill’s ability to fulfill heavy obligations to his theatrical enterprises is worthy of comment.
**** Macgowan, 263. O’Neill had received a copy of Macgowan’s book as a Christmas present in 1921. His letter to Macgowan wherein he stated that he had just finished The Hairy Ape in first draft was written December 24. He there mentioned that he will not “cheat by unveiling your Christmas gift before the due time,” although he knew what it was. He wrote, “I am darned eager to see how it is gotten Out and to be able to read it as a whole.” Evidently he and Macgowan had discussed its contents and he had read some of it in draft.
***** Cf. Clark, 83. Clark quotes O’Neill as stating that he had read From Morn to Midnight before he wrote The Hairy Ape, but not before the idea for it was in his mind. Characteristically, he denied any influence: “The point is that The Hairy Ape is a direct descendant of Jones, written long before I had ever heard of Expressionism (he had, of course, read Strindberg), and its form needs no explanation but this. As a matter of fact, I did not think much of Morn to Midnight, and still don’t. It is too easy. It would not have influenced me.” Clark adds that he does not know whether O’Neill had read Kaiser’s Gas trilogy but he rightly points out similarities between that work and Dynamo. There are close similarities between The Coral and The Hairy Ape, notably in Act II of Kaiser’s play, when the idle guests of the Billionaire, seated under an awning on the deck of a yacht, find their empty world invaded by a stoker who has been overcome by the heat. The contrast of the deckside luxury and the stokehole is similar to that which O’Neill draws in scenes ii and iii of his play.
****** The stoking procedure is incorrect, altered so as to achieve a rhythmic effect. See A Drama of Souls, 159, n. 6.
******* O’Neill did not call for masks to be used in the scene. The Provincetown’s costumer, Blanche Hays, suggested their use. Cf. Gelb, 495.
******** The call to revolution is sometimes stated more ambiguously, as in the endings of Awake and Sing or The Little Foxes, where the burden of social change is left to the young people in the plays. For example, Alexandra in The Little Foxes will leave her home to find some place where people do more than stand around and watch the foxes spoil the vines. Similarly in Awake and Sing, the final focus on the youth, Ralph, standing “full and strong,” suggests in that context revolutionary potential without stressing an explicit message.
********* Quoted in Theresa Helburn, A Wayward Quest, 271. O’Neill had become interested in the possibility of making operas on the order of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from The Fountain, The Hairy Ape and Marco Millions. He noted that once Eric Coates had proposed creating a score for The Hairy Ape. The most active of the opera projects was in connection with Marco Millions. Kurt Weill and Richard Rodgers were mentioned as composers, Rodgers working with his librettist, Lorenz Hart. The project was dropped when it was learned that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were working on a Marco Polo musical, based on Donn Byrne’s short novel, Messer Marco Polo.
********** In one scenario, Yank was to return to the stokehole.
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