restricted access Tragic Effect in The Hairy Ape
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TRAGIC EFFECT IN THE HAIRY APE The Hairy Ape HAS BEEN WIDELY PRAISED and widely reprinted. Most reviewers and critics have agreed that it has unusual power and unusual ability to project its sense of tragedy. But critics have disagreed on where that sense of tragedy comes from and, in consequence, on basic matters of interpretation. Early critics saw its power in its brutal naturalism, for a long time hardly noticing the expressionistic techniques-and disregarding O'Neill's explicit instructions that the treatment of the scenes "should by no means be naturalistic." More recently commentators have recognized some of the complex ways in which this comparatively direct and simple play works. I like much of Doris V. Falk's analysis in psychoanalytic and existential terms. She seems especially germane when she suggests that Yank in his "be-:longing " "has abdicated his manhood, has ceased to be an 'existent' and becomes a passive, vegetative being at the mercy of forces outside himself and beyond his control."! However we interpret "belonging," we miss O'Neill's play if we interpret it as good. Yet as late as 1947 Joseph Wood Krutch, perhaps the most sensitive and appreciative of O'Neill's critics, was able to describe Yank as "a man who, however brutalized, remains a man until he loses his sense of 'belonging,' and thereby inevitably becomes an animal."2 The truth, I am convinced, is almost diametrically opposite this. I would describe Yank as a man who, by glorying in his merely belonging, contributes to his own brutalization, who remains a brute until he gets jarred out of that sense of belonging and then inevitably moves toward becoming a man, in the process inevitably destroying himself. To see this as the direction of the action, we need merely ask at what stage we admire Yank more: when he is the brutal mechanistic ape shoveling coal into the hell-fires to drive faster the mechanism he is part of and exploited by, or when he is talking to himself and to th~ real ape outside the cage. Yank's movement from the cage and hell of the stokehole to the actual cage involves several different complementary and overlapping threads of action, all but one of them leading downward. All these threads begin from the dramatic and jarring confrontation of Yank and Mildred in Scene III. Yank has already shown himself 1 Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N. J., 1 58), p. 34. Subsequent references are by page numbers in context. 2 "O'Neill's Tragic Sense," American Scholar, XVI (Summer 1947), 285. 372 1968 The Hairy Api 373 not only belonging, but belonging so completely that he neither knows nor needs to know what he rejects in so belonging. He comments "with a cynical grin" on the activity that is to become so important to him: "Can't youse see I'm tryin' to t'ink?" His mates echo the cynicism when they echo the word "Think" and then work it up into almost a chant, "Drink, don't think. Drink, don't think." He has neither a past (like the lost romance and beauty of Paddy's clipper ships) nor a future (not even like the one implied in Long's cheap attacks that look forward to the overthrow of the "damned Capitalist Class"). Yank is all present: "Sure, I'm part of de engines! Why de, hell not! Dey move, don't dey? Deyre speed, ain't dey! ... Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I'm steel-steel-steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!" Yank's rhetoric defines a frighteningly blind hubris. He not only belongs to all this; he is all of it-crew, ship, motion, steam, money, steel. But up on the clean, fresh, sun-warmed deck Nemesis is already prepared , Nemesis in absolute white. O'Neill sets up the contrast in expressionistic symbols: Mildred and her Aunt, in the midst of the "beautiful, vivid life of the sea" are "two incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious." These extreme contrasts make very fine theater, but they may seem somewhat contrived-as so many of O'Neill...