Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

The Hairy Ape

Of all the plays I have never seen, The Hairy Ape is the one I remember best. I doubt if I ever will see it now and anyway some plays are better read then seen. Eugene O’Neill puts so much into his stage directions that his plays can be read as short stories with alternating passages of dialogue and narration.

The first scene takes place on the firemen’s forecastle of a transatlantic liner.

The room is crowded with men, shouting, cursing, laughing, singing – a confused inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning – the bewildered, furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage.

We don’t know it yet, but the play will end in the monkey-house at the zoo, when Yank, the central character, lets the gorilla out of his cage. Only when we see Yank being crushed to death by a gorilla do we appreciate the significance of O’Neill’s use of the language of evolution in his first account of him.

He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest. They respect his superior strength – the grudging respect of fear. Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression, the very last word in what they are, their most highly developed individual.

With only two exceptions, a drunken Irishman and a communist Cockney, the lines spoken by the other stokers are not assigned to specific characters but merely to the ‘Voices’ that make up the ‘confused inchoate uproar’, as in this response to Yank’s defiance of the engineer in charge:

That’s the stuff!
Yank tal him, py golly!
Yank ain’t affeerd.
Goot poy, Yank!
Give him hell!
Tell ’im ’e’s a bloody swine!
Bloody slave-driver!’

The two exceptions are both foils to Yank. He is as scornful of Paddy’s sentimental nostalgia for the old sailing ships as he is of Long’s defence of the rights of the workers, but he struggles to explain why.

He springs to his feet and advances on Paddy threateningly – then stops, fighting some queer struggle within himself…

The word that keeps cropping up in O’Neill’s descriptions of Yank is ‘bewildered’. But out of his bewilderment comes a proto-theological understanding of himself as ‘first mover’, the one who feeds the engine that drives the ship that carries the passengers.

It’s me makes it hot! It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move! Sure, on’y for me everything stops. It all goes dead, get me? De noise and smoke and all de engines movin’ de woild, dey stop. Dere ain’t nothin’ no more! Dat’s what I’m sayin’. Everyting else dat makes de woild move, somp’n makes it move. It can’t move witout somep’n else, see? Den yuh get down to me. I’m at de bottom, get me? Dere ain’t nothin’ foither. I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de woild moves!’

Yank’s confidence in himself is fatally undermined by an encounter with Mildred, the beautiful daughter of a rich steel magnate, who persuades one of the ship’s officers to let her see the engine room. When she appears, Yank is in the middle of an angry, foul-mouthed rant. Everyone else falls silent, but he goes on cursing until he senses that something is wrong and looks round. He and Mildred stare at each other.

As she looks at his gorilla face, as his eyes bore into hers, she utters a low, choking cry and shrinks away from him, putting both hands up before her eyes to shut out the sight of his face, to protect her own. This startles Yank to a reaction. His mouth falls open, his eyes grow bewildered.

She cries to the officers, ‘Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast!’ and they help her out. The effect this has on Yank becomes apparent at the start of the next scene, when the men are back in their quarters, all but Yank having cleaned themselves up before sitting down to eat.

Yank has not washed either face or body. He stands out in contrast to them, a blackened, brooding figure. He is seated forward on a bench in the exact attitude of Rodin’s “The Thinker”.

He is seen in that attitude at regular intervals for the rest of the play. The others laugh about his encounter with the young woman and Yank is uncertain how to react. When Paddy says, ‘And there she was standing behind us, and the Second pointing at us like a man you’d hear in a circus would be saying: In this cage is a queerer kind of baboon than ever you’d find in darkest Africy,’ Yank reacts ‘with a bewildered, uncertain growl’. Paddy rubs it in, saying, ‘Sure, ’twas as if she’d seen a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo!’

Yank’s speeches for the rest of the scene are described in O’Neill’s directions as alternating between rage and bewilderment.

‘Who de hell is she? Ain’t she de same as me? Hairy ape, huh? (With his old confident bravado.) I’ll show her I’m better’n her, if she on’y knew it. I belong and she don’t, see! I move and she’s dead! Twenty-five knots a hour, dats me. Dat carries her, but I make dat. She’s on’y baggage. Sure! (Again, bewildered.) But, Christ, she was funny lookin’!’

In a series of short scenes his bewilderment grows. He walks down Fifth Avenue with the Cockney communist, gets arrested, spends a night in jail, tries to join a workers’ organisation, is suspected of being an agent provocateur, gets thrown out and ends up at the zoo.

Twilight of the next day. The monkey-house at the Zoo. One spot of clear, grey light falls on the front of one cage so that the interior can be seen. The other cages are vague, shrouded in shadow from which chatterings pitched in a conversational tone can be heard. On the one cage a sign from which the word “gorilla” stands out. The gigantic animal himself is seen squatting on his haunches on a bench in much the same attitude as Rodin’s “Thinker”.

Yank talks to the gorilla about belonging and not belonging. ‘On’y yuh’re lucky, see? Yuh don’t belong wit ’em and yuh know it. But me, I belong wit ’em – but I don’t, see? Dey don’t belong wit me, dat’s what. Get me? Tinkin’ is hard – ’

When Yank meets his nemesis, O’Neill concludes as he began, with a stage direction.

He slips in a heap on the floor and dies. The monkeys set up a chattering, whimpering wail.

And then, since his hero is dead, he gives himself the last line.

And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.

But you only hear the last line if you read it. See the play and you miss it.

eugene o'neill 01

Eugene O’Neill

The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 28 January.


February 2015 will see the start of a new monthly feature – a short story published in daily instalments on consecutive days.

The first story, Bicycle Thief, will be published in six instalments, 4-9 February, each one going on-line at 7am.

Don’t worry if you miss one – once they’ve been published, instalments will stay on the Home Page for you to read any time, just like the regular posts.

More short stories will follow, all starting on the first Wednesday of the month.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2015 by in Literature and tagged , , , .
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