Expressionism to Naturalism: in The Hairy Ape

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      The movement of expressionism seems to have arisen as a kind of revolt against the mutual exclusiveness of romanticism and realism. It is a revolt, on the one hand, against the tendency of realism or naturalism to satisfy itself with a scrupulous (careful) representation of the surfaces of life, the speech, milieu, manners, emotions and ideas of one or another class in the society. It was also a significant experiment in non-realistic theatre and drama that promised effective trans-valuation of modem theatrical values. The expressionists cry for a “real” reality, but to them reality is not limited to the outer world. It is in fact the inner world of thought and vision. Expressionists try to communicate the palpable (definite) essence of things, their qualities, sharply defined, not their appearance in reality.


      This expressionistic style high-lights subjective feelings rather than objective reality; it is an attempt to depict reality beyond the superficial surfaces of realism. To accomplish this goal, expressionistic drama uses the technological devices available in the modem theatre to distort and/or ex-aggerate what is being depicted. Plot and character are less important than atmosphere and aroused feelings. Expressionistic drama does not have a conventional plot with a definite beginning, middle, and end; rather, it uses an episodic form, a series of relatively short scenes that move a central character through a variety of experiences. In expressionistic drama, characters are “types,” often identified by a role or position in society, rather than by a name. The Hairy Ape is firmly rooted in the dramaturgical style of expressionism. The play shows O’Neill’s commitment to expressionistic total theatre.


      Expressionism forms a major element in O’Neill’s plays. It has freed him from the rather hampering limitations of pure romanticism or pure realism. O’Neill rejects the conventions of the fourth-wall realistic drama. He makes no effort to keep up pretenses of realism, for he believes that such realism is very superficial. Like Strindberg, he believes that drama has suffered too much from the banality of surfaces, and the cure lay in adopting the non-realistic techniques of expressionism. O’Neill asserts that a recording of the externals of existence only prevents man from seeing the real reality which lay embedded in the human soul.


      The Hairy Ape is a remarkable unrealistic play. The play marks the beginning of O’Neill’s long period of experimentation with the techniques of anti-naturalism. All the scenes in this play are by no means naturalistic. The Hairy Ape’s aesthetics are dialectic (critical analysis) between realism and expressionism that emphasizes O’Neill’s fundamental theme in the play, Yank’s inability to “belong.” The play is a remarkable example of realistic-expressionistic amalgam.


       Characters in expressionistic drama are often not allowed any distinct individuality or identity. They become types, representing groups and masses.: “To emphasize the general significance of the themes developed”, observed Prof. M. V. Millet, “characters are likely to be represented as types in order to minimize individuality and to emphasize typicality”. They bear such general names as ‘Man’, ‘Woman’, ‘Millionaire’, ‘Doctor” - classified as worker, slave, or master and identified with abstractions like revolt, submission, justice, and energy.

      All the characters in The Hairy Ape are symbolic but not abstract or lifeless. Yank is not so much an actual character as a symbol for the oppressed working class in general. There are many characters in the play which are walking symbols. For many of them O’Neill does not even have names, but labels them in accordance with their work in social standing - Second Mechanic, Fourth Mechanic, etc., which is typical of expressionistic drama.

      The hero and the heroine remain symbols. Yank both looks and acts like a “hairy ape”, while Mildred is described as an “incongruous artificial figure”. Yank is always smudged with symbolic “black” which shows his social inferior status, while Mildred is “dressed all in white” which is symbolic of her superior social ranking.


      O’Neill aims at revealing the inner life of man with its bewildering complexity: he seeks to create the characters that are living human beings. In The Hairy Ape, Yank remains a man who can be easily recognized and identified. He looks “broader, fiercer, more truculent (violent), more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest”. The stokers “respect his superior strength - the ungrudging respect of fear”. Long is the symbol of radicalism in American politics. He believes in the Marxian philosophy of class struggle and deals with workers’ alienation in the Industrial Age. He is opposed to the exploitation of workers by the rich capitalists. He is totally identified with the working class and makes it conscious about its rights and privileges. Mildred is a symbol of the life of artificiality, false glamour and pretensions. She is a poseur who tries to present herself as a humanist in social life. To O’Neill, every name is a symbol as expressive of the character’s inner nature as his outward appearance. The names add to our understanding of them and indirectly of the world in which they draw their breath and hence their being. Every protagonist in the work of O’Neill remains a man having typical human characteristics.


      O’Neill uses mask-like faces to add to the expressionistic value of his plays. In The Hairy Ape, the mask-like faces are most explicitly used in the Fifth Avenue scene: “A procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relent-less horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness: In the prison scene, the dramatist uses disembodied voices with similar depersonalizing effect.


      The keynote of expressionistic plays is chaos. They are marked by a mood of violence, disgust, and madness. “The pessimism, anarchy and madness”, observes A.R. Thompson, “so common in the moment are at first striking characters, but they are not inherent in it as a dramatic technique”. The central figure of expressionism is a lost soul, for in many ways this is a literature of despair. In The Hairy Ape, Yank is brutalized by an impersonal and mechanical social order. It is the society which remains hostile to Yank and has made his life unbearable and worthless. The play is an open denunciation of the whole structure of the modem Machine Age. It is a deliberate humiliation and dehumanization of the underprivileged section of the American society.


     Mechanization of life is one of the leading features of the expressionistic drama. The Hairy Ape dramatizes the mechanization of the modem world. It is the excessive mechanization of modern life that often causes tragedy in O’Neill’s plays. It generates a sense of loneliness and insecurity and destabilizes the life of the poor workers. In The Hairy Ape, Yank is brutalized by an impersonal and mechanical social order.


     Expressionists are primarily preoccupied with contemporary social and economic issues in their plays. Expressionism is indispensable to social criticism. O’Neill’s plays are specifically a criticism of American life. “Not concerned with the views and virtues of the medieval religionist”, remarks Louis Broussard, “the expressionists substitute for them the dynamic concepts of contemporary civilization; brotherhood, economic equality, communism, fascism, democracy”. They dramatize modern man’s alienation from his times, family, society and even God. The expressionist’s hero is born under unfavorable stars and faces life and death struggles in his life. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s desperate efforts to belong finally end in his destruction.


     Expressionists are profoundly interested in psychology and they celebrate the supremacy of spirit over matter. They deal with the subjective, with “inner” realities of the human mind. Man becomes a key figure in their works. He is no longer a product of his environment, driven by forces beyond his control, but he is himself the driving agent, capable of transforming the world according to his vision. It is not the world that fashions man; it is man who fashions the world. The expressionists undertake the study of human passion instead of the history of persons and their achievements. An effort is made to investigate the human psyche and to present on the stage the aberrations in human character. In the words of N.S. Wilson: “It attempts, in a word to dramatize the inner life of man, to represent what is passing in his soul”.

      The Hairy Ape is the ancestor of psychoanalytic drama. The key to the expressionistic symbolism here is that the suppressed individual, Yank, in his desire for revenge and for freedom, becomes the slave of his own instincts. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s mind is all split as a result of the inner struggle, which threatens his very existence.


      Time is not used in a traditional sense in the expressionistic drama. There is no logical sequence of events. Past and present time mingle freely in the expressionistic plays. Memory intrudes itself into a present situation and not only dominates but alters it. Flashback technique is also frequently employed to dramatize the past experiences and events of the characters involved in the drama. Past and present interact freely in The Hairy Ape. Yank lives in the present but Paddy is firmly rooted in the past. It is this intermingling of the time that brings before the comparative picture of the life of sailors in the past and the present.


      O’Neill has a predilection (preference) for the potency of pure sound on the stage. He shows a fondness for aural and visual effects and he has always used sounds as a structural part of the plays. The high frequency of musical effects in O’Neill’s plays is, in part, due the unusual power of music to speak directly to our emotions. Egil Tornqvist has rightly observed: “Far from being an alienating effect, music used by O’Neill is an integral, mood-sustaining part of the plays”.

      In The Hairy Ape, O’Neill does invest real sounds, such as the rattling of the steel bars of the prison cells and the chattering of the unseen monkeys at the zoo, with the emotional weight of the respective moments for Yank, as he frantically attempts to break out of the confines of his socially defined and stifling identity. The sound effects in the stokehole are also quite striking:

     There is a tumult of noise—the brazen clang of the furnace doors as they are flung open or slammed shut, the grating, teeth-gritting grind of steel against steel, of crunching coal. This clash of sounds stuns one’s ears with its rending dissonance O’Neill achieves two effects here: one is the “rending dissonance,” which defines Yank’s experience throughout the play as he runs up against barrier after barrier; the other is the “monotonous beat of the engines,” which conveys the oppressive environment from which Yank yearns to escape. The monotonous throbbing beat of the engines gives the rhythms of a mechanically regulated recurrence.

      O’Neill experiments with sound in The Hairy Ape, using interesting repetitions, choral lines, and choreographed cacophony. For example, Yanks shipmates frequently repeat a word that he has shouted, such as “T’ink” or “Love,” and each time O’Neill offers almost the same stage direction: “The chorused word has a brazen, metallic quality as if their throats were phonograph horns. It is followed by a general uproar of hard, barking laughter”. The patterned sound in The Hairy Ape also extends beyond music and language to include harsh mechanical noise. For example, O’Neill describes a “tumult of noise” as the firemen work in the fiery stokehole: “This clash of sounds stuns one’s ears with its rending dissonance. Bur there is order in it, rhythm, a mechanical regulated recurrence, a tempo”.

      Described as a group, and not as individuals, the stokers act like a chorus, responding to what Yank says as “Voices” speaking lines that are meant to sound spontaneous, sometimes sequentially and sometimes simultaneously. At one point, they chant in unison a “refrain, stamping on the floor, pounding on the benches with fists “Drink, don’t think!”


      O’Neill asserted that modern drama need not be bound by the realistic set and he made his stage a servant to his art. The Hairy Ape uses distorted settings that suggest a claustrophobic (terrifying) world. O’Neill’s settings are very suggestive and symbolic. O’Neill has risen above the limitations of his stage and made it a servant to his art, refusing to accept the limitations imposed by tradition. “The use of a setting”, remarks S.K. Winther, “gives him greater flexibility and increases the imaginative quality of is drama”. O’Neill was always satisfied with the briefest of descriptions. Setting serves to add to the emotional content of his plays. The function of the setting is to augment imaginatively the total effect of the action. It is both suggestive and plausible.

      In The Hairy Ape, the cage image pervades the entire play and it is poignantly expressive of Yank’s struggle with his, own fate. The private lane in the Fifth Avenue is exclusively meant for the rich class and the poor are treated as trespassers for using it. It is a clear-cut case of racial discrimination in America.


      The substitution of symbolic types for the individual human beings has caused a change in the dialogue form. The expressionist dramatist does not attempt realistic conversation for its own sake. O’Neill makes use of associative rather than directly communicative language. Life is sometimes dramatized in language full of significant puns and associations. Characters often burst into song or speak verse. They break into a chanting repetition of a single phrase so as to convey the idea of the monotony or dreariness of life. It is a form of expression suited to its intensely emotional emphasis. Every expressionist coins his personal idiom. In this process grammar and syntax are ruthlessly overthrown, articles eliminated, sentences clipped, new words created. In some extreme cases, the dialogue is reduced to bare exclamation. Dialogues bear no resemblance to human speech and they are subjected to varied weird abbreviations and distortions, so that they become violent, telegraphic and enigmatic.

      In The Hairy Ape the language is subjected to weird abbreviations and distortions. Prose dialogue in O’Neill’s drama aims at maintaining stylization on a high or formal plane, ft heightens its effect by utilizing some of the devices that we normally associate with verse dialogue—marked rhythm, vivid sensory diction and striking similes or metaphors. In additions, O’Neill has made use of frequent word repetition to lend the speech its musicality.


     Few expressionists pay attention to form. Their plays are marked by looseness of construction and stylistic grotesqueness. They are also chaotic, hysterical and apparently meaningless. Most of the expressionists foiled both emotionally and intellectually to impart unity to their plays. Lack of form caused pure expressionism to lose ground to the same degree as extreme naturalism against which it was a reaction. There is also a marked tendency to confuse the outer form with an inner intrinsic one. But O’Neill has yielded to neither the formlessness nor the incoherent incoherence of the more extreme expressionists. Each of his plays is well-knit and sharp in outline, solidly constructed from beginning to end. In his non-realistic as well as his realistic plays. O’Neill demonstrates an acute sense of organic form which makes him a leader of American expressionism. In The Hairy Ape, the motif of repetition progresses uninterruptedly from scene to scene and the effect becomes more and more tense as the action hurries on towards the end.


      The expressionistic drama is cut short in size and the number of scenes is further cut down to the minimum. The Hairy Ape takes eight scenes to complete the play. The story part of the drama is not very important. Here the digressions are avoided and the efforts to create the character through various scenes renounced. The long preparation which usually went towards the creation of climatic situations in the conventional play is abbreviated. Event follows event in quick succession. The transition from one scene to another is abrupt, and this disjointedness is deliberate, meant to suggest the disorganization of our lives today. Scenes form a series in which incidents are singly displayed.


      Expressionism is a powerful dramatic; technique which is opposed to the mutual exclusiveness of romanticism and realism for depicting the hidden realities of life. As a potent non-realistic technique, it aims at trans-valuation of modem theatrical values. The central focus in the expressionistic drama is ‘inward’ rather than undependable ‘outward’ presentation of human life.

      The Hairy Ape is firmly rooted in the dramaturgical style of expressionism. This style emphasizes subjective feelings rather than objective reality; it is an attempt to depict reality beyond the superficial surfaces of realism. All the characters in The Hairy Ape are symbolic but not lifeless. Yank remains a man who can be easily recognized and identified. Time is not used in a traditional sense in the expressionistic drama. There is no logical sequence of events. Past and present time mingle freely in The Hairy Ape. O’Neill experiments with sound in The Hairy Ape, using interesting repetitions, choral lines, and choreographed cacophony. In The Hairy Ape, the mask-like faces arc most explicitly used in the Fifth Avenue scene. The Hairy Ape uses distorted settings that suggest a claustrophobic world. The play gains much of its power from its conscious use of new expressionistic techniques.

University Questions

Q.1. Comment critically on the use of expressionistic technique in The Hairy Ape.
Write an essay on O’Neill’s handling of the expressionist technique in The Hairy Ape.
Q.2. Write an essay on O’Neill’s adapting the expressionistic technique to native realism.
Q.3. Illustrate the view that expressionism and naturalism are faced in The Hairy Ape.
Q.4. O’Neill claimed that The Hairy Ape cannot be categorized as any sort of ‘ism’; it rather seems to sum the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism, with more of the latter than the former.

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