Themes of the Play The Hairy Ape

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      There is no specific thematic interest in The Hairy Ape. It has multiple focuses which sustain the reader’s interest in it. The themes of belongingness, mysticism, illusion vs reality, man vs society, religion and politics add to the depth of this play.


      O’Neill’s contention is that a poor worker has no place in a highly industrial set-up and he remains an outsider from the beginning to the end of his life. For O’Neill, a petty industrial worker continues to be a searcher with no clear-cut destination. He moves from pillar to post in search of some center of belonging, but fails to find any roots anywhere. Although he works round-the-clock for his betterment, yet he suffers from the feeling of deliberate neglect and non-stop humiliation in work-place.

      In ‘The Hairy Ape’ Yank feels that he belongs to the industrial world and is a vital part of it. Unlike other stokers, he thinks that he is indispensable to the smooth and effective functioning of the ship. Moreover, he claims himself to be its chief driving force. After his humiliation at the hands of Mildred, he no longer feels that he ‘belongs.’ Yank’s sense of belongingness suffers another jolt when he fails to block the passage of the church-goers in the Fifth Avenue to take revenge on Mildred and her class. Yank’s urge for belongingness, his search for identity, carries him to the office of I.W.W., an organization which fights for the cause of workers. Unfortunately, there also he fails to find any satisfactory answer to his problem of belongingness. Yank envies the gorilla’s ability to avoid thinking and defining his place in the world. He has no hesitation in admitting that even the position of the Gorilla is better than his:

“You belong! Sure! Yuh’re de on’y one in de woild dat does, yuh lucky stiff!” Yank dies as O’Neill’s final stage direction suggests that, “perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs”.


      The Hairy Ape is full of mystical elements. Yank’s illusion that he is indispensable force behind the steel industry of Douglas is an absolute truth for him. His contention is that he belongs whereas his rich masters do not belong. His illusion is all shattered when Mildred calls him a ‘filthy beast’. His failure to seek revenge on Mildred for her indecent remark further destabilizes his tension-ridden mind. Yank is thrown out of the I.W.W. Office when he discloses his intention of joining the union for settling personal scores with Mildred for publicly humiliating him in the stokehole. His final illusion of belonging is all shattered when he is killed by the gorilla and dumped in the cage.


      The conflict between reality and illusion is another important thematic interest in the play. The sufferings of O’Neill’s tragic heroes may be attributed to their failure to discriminate between the world of dream and world of reality. His characters have to face destruction and death because they refuse to give up romantic dreams. For them, dream is attractive and vital but reality is repulsive and unbearable. O’Neill’s heroes are the willing victims of romantic illusions and his plays dramatize the tragic defeat of the romantic ideal in actual life. They finally go down fighting and suffer defeat. In The Hairy Ape Yank’s illusion of his indispensability is all shattered when Mildred calls him a hairy ape in the stokehole. He realizes that he is not indispensable but dispensable in the industrial setup.


      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. O’Neill gives us the “feel” of his times in an authentic manner. 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.


      O’Neill relates everything to society in his plays. For him, 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”.


      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. He is a voice against the rising craze for 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 on which he works? Capitalism keeps 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 capitalist system can have on people.

      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 in the social scale to the level of ‘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”.


      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. The fact remains that this 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 stance. 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 under-privileged toiling classes.


      O’Neill has a powerful moral vision and his observations are known for their critical moral insights. The dramatist is extremely critical of the deliberate neglect of the moral 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 satisfy man’s immediate needs and obligations. 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 vehemently opposed to the traditional view of the religion which approaches life from a very narrow perspective. He is consistently opposed to the Puritanical ideals which sadly overlook the legitimate claims of the human body. O’Neill has always fought against the rigid Puritanical code of New England inhabitants. O’Neill unhesitatingly 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 as an instrument of exploitation 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.


      There is no exclusive thematic interest in The Hairy Ape. It has multiple focuses which sustain the reader’s interest in it. The theme of belongingness is the guiding spirit of this remarkable social play. The problem of belongingness is discussed in-depth in it. The theme of the conflict between illusion and reality produces tragic tension in The Hairy Ape. O’Neill is committed to the dramatization of the living, pulsating human drama. For O’Neill, a petty worker like Yank feels totally uprooted and humiliated in a capitalistic society. The theme of materialism shows that the privileged class is least concerned about improving of the workers in an industrial set-up. The craze for the material has almost overshadowed the craze for the spiritual in an advanced society like the United States of America. For O’Neill, the Church is in favor of maintaining status quo and it perpetuates political conservatism only.

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