Book Review: The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

Hairy Ape - Kindle edition by O'Neill, Eugene. Literature ...

The Hairy Ape is a classic drama of realism, expressionism and symbolism created by Nobel laureate Eugene O ‘Neill in 1921. The play consists of eight scenes. The work depicts in great detail the psychological process of people at the bottom of society from being happy and blindly optimistic to realizing their pathetic status in the society, reflecting the confusion and pain of laborers who lose their affiliation and find no way out in modern society with rapid industrial development. The author makes extensive use of expressionist dramatic techniques, such as the stream of consciousness, monologue, stage externalization of characters’ inner activities, non-line director’s instructions, etc. It is the foundation work of modern American drama.

The Hairy Ape describes the life of a seafaring worker. On a mail ship crossing the Atlantic, the firemen lived in the crowded forecastle. They were poor, irascible and eccentric. Yank the stoker was the most authoritative of them all. He had no family, no parents, no wife, no children, no relatives or friends. He lived in poverty and worked hard, but he did not worry about unemployment. He was uneducated, simple-minded, and confident in life. He did not feel at the bottom of society at all. He was always at ease, thinking that he was the foundation of the world and represented everything. His partners Paddy and Long disagreed. One day Miss. Mildred the capitalist came on board and called him a dirty beast. Yank’s pride had been hurt, and he was determined to take his revenge. After that, he unleashed his hatred by fighting in the street against a wealthy gentry, and was put in prison by the police. After he gets out, Yank tries to blow up Mildred’s father’s steel company but fails. After several rebuffs, he went to the zoo in great frustration, and poured out his heart to an ape in the cage. He opened the iron door and let the ape out. When he wanted to take revenge with him, the ape grabbed him, broke his ribs, and threw him into a cage. Inside the cage, Yank stood up painfully, looked around in bewilderment, and collapsed like a heap of flesh.

The big mail ship in The Hairy Ape symbolizes both modern life and ancient savage life. The play aims to explore the value of human survival, that is, to explore how people can be regarded as human beings, or how the contradiction between individuals and society can be resolved. The protagonist Yank is a symbol of modern people; he can not find a way out in modern life and wants to go back. But he couldn’t have gone back to his primitive life because he was a modern man after all and couldn’t have lived with a gorilla. In the author’s opinion, modern society makes people lose the essence of human being and makes people lose the universality of nature. In order to survive, people have to seek this kind of consistency. But when they have found it, they are of no avail but perish. The Hairy Ape reveals this embarrassing dilemma of modern people. The image of cages everywhere in the play is a symbol of this dilemma, and it also shows the author’s pessimistic mood about the future of human beings.

-Coreen C.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.