Modern Social Criticism in the Play The Hairy Ape

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      O’Neill possesses a remarkable social vision and his plays are rich in factual social criticism. As a social dramatist, O’Neill sees the society as a whole and gives us the real ‘feel’ of it. O’Neill visualizes the modern society critically, without prejudice. He is rarely satisfied with the surface depiction of it, but moves inward to sound its depth. O’Neill’s knowledge of the American society is both deep and factual. Being a social critic, he is quite clear-headed about the democratic necessities of the modern drama.


      O’Neill is a great realist in the field of American drama. All along his life, he has been committed to the dramatization of the living, pulsating human drama. The dramatist depicts life in such a forceful manner that it is promptly accepted as a factual truth. The constant search for the nature of reality is considered as one of his major concerns in his plays. O’Neill’s world is not a make-belief world in any way.


      The most vital element in O’Neill’s realistic drama is the realism of themes. Unlike the earlier American playwrights, O’Neill’s plays have a powerful social orientation and reflect the forces-social, economic, religious-affecting his themes. He is chiefly concerned with the fate of man in this hostile universe. O’Neill’s major themes are “Dream, Drunkenness, and Death”. He has also dealt with Puritanism, gentility, industrialization, agrarianism, class struggle, individual freedom, social justice, etc.


      O’Neill’s plays create in us a new social awareness and thus open our eyes to the limitations of the so-called ‘progressive’ and highly ‘developed’ society of the United States of America. O’Neill is all for the ideal perfection and for him only the non-material satisfaction of work matters in life.

      O’Neill is a vehement critic of materialism and his plays present a powerful criticism of the craze for the material success that followed the gilded prosperity of the twenties. As a social critic, he has always considered the acquisitive man as the root cause of all the modern malaise. It is the profit-motive has been playing havoc with the Western civilization and destroying that which is the best and noblest in man. His is a voice against the rising craze for the material success. O’Neill spares none who has been engaged in this race of minting money, irrespective of the ways adopted by an individual in increasing his bank balance. To him, the business middle-class is quite complacent and steeped in its money values. He has launched either pointed or derogatory allusions to materialism as a false value and he fully exposes business morality and mentality in his social plays.

      In The Hairy Ape, Yank rails against the capitalists, in particular, against the steel baron who owns the ship which is his work-place? For O’Neill, Capitalists keep men like Yank down, cages them in and imprisons them in the cotton fields, in factories, and aboard ship. In the plight of Robert Smith (“Yank”), the audience observes the dehumanizing effects that the pigeonholing capital-ist system can have on hard-pressed stokers. It is anti-poor and exploits the workers for serving its commercial interests only. Yank calls the capitalists ‘baggage’ and lifeless who can never belong. He calls the rich church-goers “Bums! Pigs! Tarts! Bitches!” when they refused even to look at him” when he tried to block their way in the Fifth Avenue. Long blames the Capitalists for making them “wage slaves in the bowls of the bloody ship, sweatin’, bumin’ up, eatin’ coal dust”. He calls those who travel in first class cabins ‘lazy, bloated swines’.


      O’Neill relates everything to society in his plays. For him, a man has no life apart from it. It is not man as an individual alone that draws O’Neill’s sympathy, but it is man in social order that has always attracted his critical attention. The dramatist treats man against a rich background of social forces that influence his life on earth. “It is not man as an individual”, observes S.K. Winther, ‘‘alone that concerns O’Neill; it is man in a social order, tortured, starved, disillusioned, thwarted and driven to disaster by the forces of a system which cares nothing for the general welfare of society”.

      The Hairy Ape, shows, how Yank has to face sufferings at the hands of materialistic society which refuses to grant him even a human status. Yank’s sufferings are, in fact, the sufferings of the entire toiling masses that are treated like dumb-driven cattle, having no life of their own. They, in the absence of any human identity, have been brought down in the social scale to the level of the ‘hairy apes’. The Hairy Ape also shows that the plight of the capitalist class is equally very disturbing. The members of the privileged class also suffer from the feeling of alienation and are no better than “a procession of gaudy marionettes”. Mildred is morally degenerated and is begs her Aunt to give her credit for “groping sincerity”. She frankly admits that she has “neither the vitality nor integrity” and is the “waste product in the Bessemer process-like the millions”.


      O’Neill’s social vision has a sound psychological base. His importance as a social critic lies in his emphasizing the psychological aspects of the modem acquisitive society. It not only ruthlessly exploits the worker, but also denies him the opportunity to lead a peaceful and happy life. Being extremely humiliated, he has become an unwilling worker who has lost all interest in life. He works under compulsion to earn his livelihood. A modern worker derives no pleasure from his work and this lack of proper appreciation of it has a damaging impact on his mind and body. His work is in fact an extension of his ego. In The Hairy Ape, it is the modem industrial society which destroys the modern counter-part of Yank. He is left with the feeling that he is unwanted. Yank’s tragedy is that he has tailed to compromise with his situation in an effective manner.


      O’Neill’s plays present a vivid account of the modern political scene. All the tall claims about American progress have no meaning in the eyes of O’Neill. He exclusively blames the politicians for projecting a distorted image of America at home and abroad. For O’Neill, the country has achieved nothing substantial in the field of politics. O’Neill’s approach to society is neither sociological nor political. He has no revolutionary political agenda. For him, the entire political set-up simply aims at self-aggrandizement. In The Hairy Ape, it can be discovered how political power can bring untold miseries to the underprivileged toiling classes.


      O’Neill has a powerful moral vision and his observations are known for their sound moral and spiritual insights. The dramatist is quite critical of the deliberate neglect of the moral as well as spiritual values of life. The craze for the material has almost overshadowed the craze for the spiritual in some of great social plays. The stress is not on the past or the future, but the present which can only satisfy man’s immediate physical needs and aspirations. The image of man as presented in O’Neill’s plays is not one of life, but typical of his inner weakness and sterility.


      O’Neill is opposed to the traditional view of the religion which approaches life from a very narrow perspective. He is vehemently opposed to the Puritanical ideals which are limited to the satisfaction of the legitimate claims of the human body. He has always protested against the rigid and obsolete Puritanical code of New England Inhabitants. O’Neill exposes the hollow, self-denying Puritanical society in his social plays. His plays contain either an implicit or an explicit castigation of Christianity and he launches his attack on two fronts. He attacks the Church as an institution and castigates the damaging impact of Christianity and its morality on the individual. For O’Neill, the Church is in favor of maintaining status quo and it perpetuates political conservatism only.


      O’Neill was never a political activist, having a new set ideology. He never backed any movement for establishing a new form of State. O’Neill was never enthusiastic about, even a mild reform, let alone revolutionary movements. He openly rejected all social programs for the betterment of life on earth. He was engaged throughout his career in a challenging task of finding the meaning and the satisfaction of life itself. He offered answers gropingly and tentatively, never simply committing himself to any one set course. He offered no alternative in its place.


      O’Neill’s social vision visualizes no hope for the modern man. All of his statements on the future of mankind show profound pessimism. There is the utter lack of any sustaining faith in the present times; there is also complete loss of faith in the traditional religions. The only solution O’Neill envisions for mankind is death. He has no faith in man, society and rejects all hope for the regeneration of humanity. In the words of Doris Alexander: “He has no great hope for mankind in improved methods of production, nor does he see any correlation between a man’s satisfaction in his work and the material rewards he gets from it”. O’Neill informs B. H. Clark “man has definitely decided to destroy himself, and this seems to be the only truly wise decision, he has ever made”. In The Hairy Ape, O Neill presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy which sees no answer for man a better society, and no hope for destroying the existing society. He strongly holds that the cause of this misery “is a social system which is destructive m itself, which thwarts every effort to achieve happiness, which puts a value on misery and pain as a good in itself, and worst of all, encourages and rewards everything that is predatory and destructive, condemning beauty, well-being and happiness as a sin”.


      The main force of O’Neill’s language is its realism. The dialogues in his plays are known for their frank realism, raciness and honesty. O’Neill’s speech is never over controlled or over dramatic. His vocabulary is rich with the richness of life. His is a realistic prose with a poetic flair for imagery, and scenic imagination. Sometimes the dialogues are brutal in their power.

      In The Hairy Ape, O’Neill’s rough characters speak in the authentic idiom of their situations.


      O’Neill’s social vision is rich in The Hairy Ape and focused on every aspect of modem life. It is both penetrating and all-pervasive. O’Neill’s plays are known for their social realism and it goes to the dramatist’s credit that he gives us the real ‘feel’ of the modem age. The characters are thrillingly alive and they have been minutely and objectively studied in their most realistic and authentic situations. The horrible impact of modernization of life is clearly reflected in The Hairy Ape. O’Neill is critical of the moneyed-class which has been consciously sleeping over the just and genuine demands of the toiling masses. The workers think that they are damned from here to eternity. They want to protest against this dull and brutal life, but feel helpless in taking any decisive action in this direction. They are quite doubtful about the possible outcome of any resistance, individual or collective. The characters suffer from a sense of extreme loneliness which is both unending an unbearable. Their whole life is spent in waiting, watching and fearing. O’Neill has openly criticized the commercial civilization for making man spiritually bankrupt. He does not even spare the government for framing such laws which are opposed to the welfare of the down-trodden. He exposes the very system which is meant for self-aggrandizement only. He also attacks Puritanism for its narrowness and the way it obstructs normal and natural growth or development. He is never in favor of violence or an open rebellion against the established order. It is also clear from his plays that the picture of life as painted in them is not altogether dark or pessimistic. The unending suffering of the toiling class is a blessing in disguise. It provides them freedom and deliverance from utter despair and hopelessness. Death, for O’Neill, is not an illusion but a living reality.

University Questions

In The Hairy Ape, O’Neill created at least the outline of the America Drama of protest. Elaborate.
Write a critical note on the elements of social and political protest in The Hairy Ape.
In The Hairy Ape O’Neill has repudiated the modern mechanical civilization but has not offered any solution. Discuss.
The Hairy Ape is the study in the disintegration of modern civilization. Explain.

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