The Freeman, April 26, 1922
The Hairy Ape
By WALTER PRICHARD EATON
The director of
Odéon in Paris has asked the Drama League of America to select an
American play for production at his theatre.
The selection has not yet been made, but the League could not
do better than to recommend Eugene O’Neill’s latest drama,
“The Hairy Ape,” which is now being exhibited by the
Provincetown Players in their dingy little playhouse on Macdougal
Street. “The Hairy Ape” is without question not only the most
interesting American play of this season, but the most striking play
of many seasons. It
belongs, furthermore, to the future rather than the past; it is
forward-facing, suggestive, untraditional.
One’s only fear is that it might prove too strong meat for
Paris, where the drama still lingers in the bonds of traditionalism.
Hairy Ape” is written in eight short, abrupt scenes, and might
almost be called and expressionistic tragic-comedy of modern
industrial unrest. The
hero, if so conventional a word can be applied to the leading figure
of his play, is mighty stoker called “Yank,” and we see him
first, stripped to the waist, with the rest of his half-naked shift,
in their fo’e’sle bunk-room.
He can outcurse, outfight, outfeel them all, and he is proud
of his powers, proud of his job as a stoker at the heart of the
ship, glories to think that he is steel and coal and motion.
“Twenty-five knots an hour! – that’s me!”
We next see the ultra-sophisticated daughter of the owner of
the liner, lolling on the deck and pining for the sensation of going
down into the stokehole to see how the other half lives.
Another change; the curtains part, and out of the darkness
gleam the rims of the boiler-doors.
A bell clangs, the doors swing open, a terrific red glare
leaps out at the audience, and Yank and his mates heave in the coal.
The bell clangs again, too soon, and Yank is cursing the
engineer with terrific violence, when he turns to see the girl
beside him. She almost
faints at the sight of him, cries out that his is a beat, and is
dragged away, as he hurls his shovel after her with a horrid oath. Another change; we are back in the fo’e’sle to see Yank
completely upset by the incident, brooding over the depths of social
difference revealed to him, burning with hatred, rage, revenge. He is no longer steel, coal, speed, because he no longer is
sure of himself. To
make sure of himself, he is going forth on a mission of revenge.
see him next on Fifth Avenue. The passers-by are strange, unreal
automata, wearing masks all alike.
He makes no more impression on them than if they were dreams;
all that happens is that a policeman beats him up and arrests him.
Then we see him in a cell on the Island.
Out of the darkness come the snarls and oaths and horrid
howls of other prisoners. One prisoner reads from the New York Times an attack
on the I.W.W., as a menace to civilization.
The Hairy Ape resolves to join the Wobblies. When we next observe him, he is trying to joint, that he,
too, may plant dynamite beneath the steel-magnate’s home. But the Wobblies throw him out as an agent-provocateur.
Finally, in his puzzled despair, he reaches the gorilla’s
cage in the Zoo. Ah! A
brother, the real hairy ape! He
lets the gorilla loose, to go with him on a pilgrimage of
destruction. But the
gorilla silently seized him in a deadly embrace and tosses him into
the cage, where he dies behind the bars.
in brief, is the story; and there is really no more to it than that
– eight flashes of scene which burn on the brain of the beholder
the picture of a naked soul in torment, using realistic symbols or
fantastic ones, according as each may best serve the purpose.
This, certainly, is not drama as we have known it; it is
neither drama of realism nor of poetic suggestion.
It is something new, something strange (though provisioned in
“Liliom”) and something so profoundly theatrical that it can not
be expressed or even intimated in a printed test.
The text, to be sure, could give a suggestion of Mr.
O’Neill’s strange power over language, his ability to make a
stream of foul oaths and stoker’s slang imprecations roll in a
kind of wild organ-music; but it would only confuse one, perhaps,
regarding the “meaning” of the play, simply because it would
send one looking for a meaning, as printed words always do, when, in
that intellectual sense, the play has no meaning at all.
The puzzled critics who have decided that Mr. O’Neill is
preaching class=consciousness and red revolution, and the equally
puzzled critics who have decided that he is illustrating how brute
force defeats itself, are alike beside the mark; or, perhaps, they
are both quite right – what of it?
Here is a soul profoundly shaken in respect of its
fundamental faith in itself, and swirled into contest with forces
beyond its ken. How can that abstract struggle be given a concrete, visual,
theatrical shape? To
this question “The Hairy Ape” as it appears on stage, is the
aided by the stage-designs and lighting by Messrs. Cleon
Throckmorton and Robert Edmond Jones (indeed, impotent without
them), Mr. O’Neill has been able to use the harshest realism as a
springboard into startling imaginative effects.
When the Hairy Ape’s soul has been stung with doubt and
hatred, the loud laughter of his mates suddenly becomes rhythmic,
like the fearful tattoo of a drum.
When the boiler-doors are open, six red, searing
searchlight-glares strike into the eyeballs of the audience like
flashes from the Inferno. Amid
the masked manikins on Fifth Avenue, the Hairy Ape moves as in a
dream, in worlds unrealized. Most
marvelous is the scene in jail.
Only Yank’s cell-door shows in a beam of pallid light; the
rest is darkness. But
out of the dark comes the husky voice of the prisoner quoting from
the New York Times, and then rises a score of other voices,
howling, jeering, cursing, groaning – the terrific strophe of the
caged. The last scene
shows the gigantic form of the gorilla behind his bars, dimly
silhouetted against /160/ a window just flushed with dawn.
He rises up; one lurching stride and he is out; one crushing
embrace, a strangled cry, and Yank is done for; which would be sheer
horror and nothing more, if Yank were a realistic character, but
which actually is the last theatric symbol which carries to the
mind, through ear and eye, the tragedy not of a person, but of a
state of soul.
will be those, no doubt, who will be revolted as Mr. O’Neill’s
choice of subject for his expressionistic treatment.
That he takes a soul from out the lowest bowels of a plunging
liner, out of grime and heat and sweat and ignorance, out of an
atmosphere of foul oaths and obscenity, will offend the delicate,
the squeamish, and certainly the pious. Mr. O’Neill’s language smites as swiftly as the red glare
from the boiler-doors. Yet
it is somehow tonic in its stark sincerity, and though it may quite
truly play no small part in the startling quality of the play, the
quality which brings you up in our seat like a slap in the face, it
also is curiously devoid of mean suggestion, rousing instead, a
profound pity in all spectators who have imagination enough tot
grasp the significant of the drama.
Certainly, never on our stage has such use been made of the rank realism of vulgar speech, a use beside which such attempts at poetry as John Weaver’s “In American” become trivial pipings. We may say also quite as certainly, I think, no such fusion of dialogue and scenery, of the intellectual, the emotional, the spiritual, and the pictorial, into a single thing which is only to be described by the word theatrical, has ever before been accomplished by and American playwright. One may call “The Hairy Ape” bizarre; one may call it tragic, or ironic, or gloomy, or terrible, or puzzling, or morbid, or sordid, or beautiful, or moving, or whatever else one’s views and tendencies dictate; but one can not get away from it. Once in its grip, one’s attention is as helpless to wander as was Yank to escaped from the gorilla. In Eugene O’Neill the new art of the theatre in America has found the new playwright at last. To see “The Hairy Ape” is to see the bright promise of what is to come, not the pale reflection of what has been.
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