The Hairy Ape: A Comedy About a Brash Imbecile or the Grave Tragedy of a Flawed System?
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape presents “a Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life,” or at least this is what the title suggests. Comedic elements are certainly interwoven throughout the work, but a careful reading reveals cruel irony and sad truths about class distinction during the Industrial Revolution. Through the use of a steady stream of saddening realizations by everyman Robert “Yank” Smith, O’Neill gradually paints a picture of a Proletariat class trapped within a cycle of wretchedness. The play illustrates a greedy, industrializing upper class initiative that removes the lower class’ sense of belonging and ultimately de-humanizes them in a real sense. By the end of the narrative, it would appear that the play is more of a tragedy about the helpless “Yanks” in a Capitalist system than a comedy of any sort.
From the first scene of the play, Yank seems transfixed on what “belongs” and what does not. In fact, belonging seems to be the fire that keeps him going, the inferno within him that sparks a zeal for hard work. Initially, his feeling is that he belongs to the steel of the ship in which he works because his hard work is not unlike the machinery that drives the ship’s functioning. “And I’m steel—steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!” Yank’s confidence and passion in his role as the brawn of the ship drive his fellow workers to labor away with a sense of purpose. However, a key question that the play seems to ask is whether Yank and his cronies can reasonably derive value from belonging with the steel and machinery or if they are in fact slaves to a wealthy upper class agenda.
At the end of scene one, Paddy challenges Yank’s convictions, declaring “I’m no slave the like of you. I’ll be sittin’ here at me ease, and drinking, and thinking, and dreaming dreams.” Paddy’s challenge plants the first seeds of doubt about Yank’s true value. Paddy understands that although Yank feels as if he belongs and is in control of his situation, he is truly confined by a definitive stamp of the lower class and a lack of education. As a result, he knows that Yank has little or no opportunity to pursue other avenues of purpose or well-being in life, even if he so desires.
The question of Yank’s self-proclaimed belonging is perpetuated as the play progresses. In the stage direction at the onset of scene three, O’Neill describes the stokehole workers “handling their shovels as if they were part of their bodies, with a strange, awkward, swinging rhythm.” It seems here that the men do belong to the steel in the sense that they have become one with the machinery they fuel. Performing the same monotonous duty for long hours has reduced them to something subhuman and machine-like. As the stage direction continues, it characterizes the workers as “outlined in silhouette in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas.” O’Neill seems to be intimating a harsh question about hard labor. These men perform a duty which requires no intelligent thought, emotion, variety of movement, or human interaction. Does the human condition cease to be when seemingly necessary human behaviors are all but removed, replaced with habitual exercises of sheer strength?
Later in scene three, O’Neill seems to answer this query. The fiasco that takes place between Yank and Mildred demonstrates the glaring contrast between their natures and the worlds from which they are put forth. After Yank’s enraged outburst where “he brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest, gorilla-like, with the other, shouting,” Mildred is all but startled to death by “this unknown, abysmal brutality, naked and shameless.” Yank’s “gorilla face” causes her to utter a “low, choking cry” and cover her eyes to “shut out the sight of his face.” This reaction is similar to what one would expect of a person that has come face-to-face with a horrifying monster. O’Neill uses this tactic of exaggerated reactions to stress his points throughout the play.
After the bewildering encounter between Yank and Mildred, both Yank and the attentive reader realize that in the eyes of the upper class, Yank is something much closer to a beast than a human. Furthering that claim, it is possible for the reader to begin to understand that Yank may even be somewhat of an ape in an actual sense. For the first time in the play, Yank is stricken by true emotion and feelings of utter rejection. “He feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride.” It is this insulting feeling that Yank cannot overcome for the duration of the play.
In his confused attempts to sort through and reconcile the incident with Mildred, Yank’s firmly held beliefs about where he belongs are called into question by his fellow laborers. Yank first listens as Long proclaims that the Engineers were essentially “exhibitin’ us ‘s if we was bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie.” Long goes on to reveal that Mildred’s father “makes arf the bloody steel in the world” and “we’re ‘is slaves!” He reckons that Mildred “wants to see the bloody animals below decks and down they takes ‘er!” These statements affect Yank deeply, but it is only after Paddy tells him that she looked at him “as if she’d seen a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo” that Yank flies into a fearsome rage.
He attempts to reclaim his own self-worth by shouting that “she didn’t belong, dat’s what” and that “I belong and she don’t, see!” Yank is no longer certain of his value or beliefs and can only shout half-heartedly about belonging to try to convince himself of what he once knew. The only means of fixing his pain that he can surmise is to seek vengeance and kill the woman that made him feel as if he did not belong. The degrading of Yank by Mildred has caused him to lose a grasp on anything resembling rational human behavior. Yank’s reactions further demonstrate the beast beneath his human exterior that he has either gradually become or was never able to escape. The fact that he seems shaken to his very core and on the verge of doing something insane is an indicator that something tragic has occurred in the play. Unfortunately for him, the saddening realizations about his world have only just begun to set in.
When Yank and Long arrive at Fifth Avenue, Yank glimpses for the first time the prim and proper world of the upper class. It is here that Long tries to explain to Yank that Mildred was merely an example of the wealthy class, a single soldier in the vast and powerful enemy ranks. “I wants to convince yer she was on’y a representative of ‘er clarss. I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness. Then yer’ll see it’s ‘er clarss yer’ve got to fight, not ’er alone.” Yank does not yet grasp the truth of these words. He is slow by nature and is still wrapped up in fighting and destroying any man who challenges his belonging and importance in the world. In this way, he is probably similar to many members of the larger lower class population. When the upper class people filter out of church, Yank tries to approach them, saying “Yuh don’t belong, get me!” He roars, “See dat building goin’ up dere? See de steel work? Steel, dat’s me! Youse guys live on it and tink yuh’re some-‘n. But I’m IN it, see! I’m de hoistin’ engine dat makes it go up!” The people pay him no mind except to say indifferently, “I beg your pardon.”
Yank’s inability to disturb or draw a reaction from these wealthy people is symbolic of his unimportance in their world. He is too insignificant for them to pay him any mind. He cannot even harm a man by hitting him squarely in the face, which further symbolizes the futility of his forceful approach to challenging the system. Although Yank would take on the world singlehandedly if he could, he is slowly learning that the system has figuratively caged him in, trapping him with bars much firmer than steel. It is only after Yank causes the man to miss his bus, thereby disturbing the natural order, that several policemen brutally beat him down and throw him in jail. This entire scene allows the reader to understand that Yank is not viewed as an equal in the world of the upper class but rather as a beast or an outsider, a threat that should be done away with. He may as well be an ape that has strayed from the zoo. His anger and strength can do little to interrupt the wealthy society and can effortlessly be overpowered either way.
It is in scene six that Yank finds himself in a jail cell and begins to come to terms with his actual helplessness and the ape-like treatment he has received. Until he is spoken to by the other prisoners, he actually thinks he has been imprisoned in a menagerie. “I tought I was in a cage at de Zoo—but de apes don’t talk, do dey?” It is here that Yank learns of the I.W.W. and realizes that the steel to which he once thought he belonged may be his truest foe. “He made dis—dis cage! Steel! IT don’t belong, dat’s what! Cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars—dat’s what it means!” The sad consequence of this realization is that Yank can no longer claim to belong to the steel or take pride in his role as the muscles behind the steel. He was the manpower behind the operation, but his hard work was just the driving force of an industry making mountains of riches for the wealthy and paying next to nothing to his kind.
After being released from the literal steel constraints of prison, Yank’s final hope for acceptance is in the I.W.W. Unfortunately, upon pursuing entrance into their ranks he finds that he has been misinformed of their purpose. A final distressing realization crashes upon Yank as he understands that there is no large group of violent men prepared to start an explosive revolution against the Steel Industry. At long last, he sees that he has no place to belong and feel appreciated. After he is brutally thrown out and called “a brainless ape,” Yank realizes what is ultimately the sad truth of his existence. “Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me?” This profound statement marks the final leap in Yank’s progression of understanding about his miserable place in the world.
Yank has no means to make his way in the world apart from his muscular physique. He is doomed to work hard labor in the world of steel for meager pay if he wants to survive. The lack of thinking and education in his life combined with years of mindless labor have de-humanized his existence to the extent of truly being something of a gorilla. Whether he completely understands or not, this was the fate that the slavery of the lower class had pre-destined him to fulfill from the start. Yank’s class was his truest confinement all along, a cage much stronger than brute force or even steel. He belongs to the ranks of the pitiful and has no way to escape the destructive cycle.
When Yank goes to the zoo and talks to the real gorilla, he is a broken man looking for one last delusion on which to hang his hat. As he observes the creature, it is as if he could be looking into a mirror. He sees himself in the caged beast and relates to it more than he could relate to anyone else. In a final instance of cruel irony, the gorilla crushes Yank and throws him in its cage upon being released. Even the beast with which Yank felt closest betrayed him and shattered his final hopes for camaraderie, along with his ribs. Yank makes fun of himself in his final moments of life, signifying that the pain of broken ribs was hardly more than trivial in comparison to his broken soul. After Yank crumples in a heap on the floor of the cage and dies, a final stage direction proposes that “perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.” This final note is undoubtedly one of a tragic nature, as it leaves the reader considering that the most peace or fulfillment that the enslaved lower class could ever hope to find in this cruel world is in death.
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape is advertised as a comedy but is truly a tragic story of an unlikely victim, Robert “Yank” Smith. Although the story focuses on the gradual suffering and ultimate ruin of Yank, he can be thought of as a representative for an entire class of underpaid and overworked Americans during the Industrial Revolution. Through employing Yank to examine the sad truths of class discrimination, O’Neill effectively reveals a cycle of trapping and de-humanization of the lower class. He further exposes the removal of all sense of belonging and subhuman treatment experienced by the Proletariat as a result of the avarice of the Bourgeoisie. Yank’s eventual loss of hope culminates in a harshly ironic demise that represents a tragedy much bigger than this play—a tragedy that calls into uncertainty the morality and effectiveness of Capitalism.