The Hairy Ape
In the "The Hairy Ape" O'Neill has exposed the regression of civilized men to an animalistic state through the plight and struggle of the firemen in the ocean liner. The play is a modern tragedy of the proletariat. The protagonist, or properly speaking, the antihero of the drama is Yank, a member of the proletariat. He is not a great man, like a Shakespearean or a Marlovian tragic hero, but is an everyman, meeting the tragedy of an average man. His tragedy touches the heart of every man, and fills him with a deep sympathy for the humanity at large, the common human beings oppressed by the evils of the modern mechanised world.
'The Hairy Ape' is a renowned tragedy of Eugene O'Neill, though it has a subtitle 'A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life'. The subtitle of a book is usually explanatory or descriptive. Though it is a grim tragedy of a proletariat, it has been named a comedy. Its subtitle does not reflect the theme of the drama, which is, undoubtedly, a tragic one. Rather it is an ironical title, reflecting the satirical intent of the playwright. O'Neill saw no salvation for modern man, a brute who continues to be brutalized by machinery and industry.
The theme of the drama "The Hairy Ape" is isolation or alienation, or the loss of the sense of belonging of Yank, the protagonist of the drama. He is a humble stoker whose business it is to shovel coal into the furnace of the ship's engine. The very title 'The Hairy Ape' is symbolical of Yanks degeneration into an animal like being, and his language is that of a half-human, half-animal being, closely resembling the growls, and roars of the gorilla. The drama consists of eight scenes, and the incidents of each of the scenes lead on to the incidents of the next scene, so that they are related to each other in a chain of causal relationship.
In the beginning of the drama we see Yank is quite satisfied with his state of existence. He has a sense of belongingness to the ship. He identifies himself with the smoke and steel and steam. But his confrontation with Mildred disturbs his sense of belongingness. Mildred's remark about him as the filthy beast shakes the very foundation of his faith, and sense of belongingness. His disillusionment about the machine's contribution to the progress of human conditions begins. He tries to take revenge on Mildred, and struggles hard to regain his former sense of belongingness.
In his search for identity, he finds out that he is alone, and the world is impossible to live in. He realizes that steel makes the ship and the ship represents power, but it also makes the cage in which he is imprisoned. Yank thought that he was the creative element in the ship but now it is all dark. Groping blindly he asks himself, "Where do I get off say, where do I go from here?" He asks the gorilla, "Aren't we both members of de same club- de Hairy Ape?" Thus he surrenders himself to the self image, of which he can be conscious, that is symbolised by the ape and the cage.
The problem of Yank is not only his but also of everyman in the modern world. Yank is more than an individual. He is a symbol of the deep protest that rises like a wave against the whole structure of the modern civilisation. He is a man crying out against a system which has not only exploited man's body but his spirit as well. The play is not a protest against low wages and unemployment, but it is a condemnation of the whole structure of machine civilisation, a civilisation which succeeds only when it destroys the psychological well-being of those who make it possible.
'The Hairy Ape' is a deeply pessimistic play which depicts the human predicament in the mechanized society, but holds out no solution or hopes of salvation for him. The plot is well-arranged by the dramatist so that from the beginning to its end, the theme flows through the incidents and character to its ultimate goal, just as a river, originating from a high mountain flows through different places and ultimately reaches the sea. 'The Hairy Ape' is an expressionistic drama in which the playwright tried to express emotions, moods and other aspects of inner experience by externalizing them through the use of nonrealistic devices.
The reviewer is a writer and MPhil researcher (Pedagogy) in the School of Education, Bangladesh Open University