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Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape As Mirror Plays Emil Roy The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1921-22), are Eugene O ’Neill’s most successful experiments in expressionism. Con­ sidering the similarities in their cyclical structures, mock-heroic pro­ tagonists and archetypal symbolism, they are mirror plays whose aspects parallel or complement one another’s correspondences. In Emperor, Jones is forced to flee his erstwhile subjects in a quest through a nightmarish, menacing dark night of the soul (Walpurgisnacht). Once he has exhausted the mana or vital force attached to his silver bullet, he is forced to return to the sun-lit world of death. The Hairy Ape duplicates this order of events while inverting the symbolic con­ tent. Yank Smith, the protagonist, is almost immediately deprived of his persona through female duplicity. Emerging from his ship’s womb­ like stokehold, he searches for rebirth through the labyrinthine bowels of the City. Repeatedly eluded by his lost identity, he finally enters the deathly embrace of his alter ego, the gorilla in the zoo. Both plays demonically parody the tragic ritual pattern which has been de­ fined as a “transition by which— through the processes of separation, regeneration, and the return on a higher level— both the individual and the community are assured their victory over the forces of chaos which are thereby kept under control.” ! Although Yank Smith has some claims to tragic stature, being described by O ’Neill as “a symbol in a sort of modem Morality play,” 2 and both protagonists engage in conflicts which probe the mysteries of the corrupted human will, the society of neither play is changed. Yank refuses to return at all, and the victory over chaos which “society” achieves through Jones’s assassination re-establishes a cabal of Calibans, a mindless gang of Yahoos. Nor do Jones and Smith achieve significant recognitions. Moreover, the expressionistic devices take effect less through the access to the unconscious supposedly provided by allegorical characters, anti-realistic staging, and unexpected transformations than through esthetic distancing. As in tragicomedy, which both plays closely resemble, the audience remains at a distance, yet within immediate call—impersonal, yet strangely involved.3 21 22 Comparative Drama Both protagonists, we quickly notice, are messianic types whose unremarkable origins parody the characteristics which Otto Rank and Lord Raglan assign to the hero myth. Although Jones’s parentage and childhood are unknown, Yank had run away from his drunken, quarrelsome parents— “Dat was where I loined to take punishment.”4 The most important fact about Jones is his escape from a chain gang, where he had been sent for murdering a guard who symbolically represented the cruel parent of folklore. As in the Moses and Jonas stories, Jones had safely arrived at the island after a sea journey. There he had been reborn. The “ Emperor” which Jones has become, like Fitzgerald’s “Great” Gatsby, then “sprang from his platonic conception of himself.” 5 It is ironic, in retrospect, how closely Jones’s regime had resembled a practical joke. Having shot down an assassin sent by Lem, his antagonist, he was suddenly inspired, as Smithers recalls: “You was so strong only a silver bullet could kill yer, you told ’em” (178) . Jones foisted himself off as a god incarnate on a band of superstitious savages, relying only on his wits and bravado: “ I knows I kin fool ’em— I knows it— and dat’s backin’ enough fo’ my game” (179) , he boasts. Once he has milked his subjects dry, he plans to make a clandestine escape and have the last laugh in safety. W. H. Auden has observed the same phenomenon in a larger context: Unlike the ordinary ambitious man who strives for a dominant position in public and enjoys giving orders and seeing others obey them, the practical joker desires to make others obey him without being aware of his existence until the moment of his theophany.6 In O ’Neill’s play it is almost farcical that Jones’s subjects accept him at his own fraudulent self-estimate: by being taken too seriously, he is hoist with his own petard. Yank Smith, on the other hand...


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pp. 21-31
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