The Ape and the Elephant
P. K. Brask
In the following reading of Baal and The Hairy Ape, both published in 1922, I am guided by two claims by the British philosopher Michael Oakshott. One is his understanding that “the genius of the poet and the artist and to a lesser extent the philosopher is to create and to recreate the values of their society. In them a society becomes conscious and critical of itself, its whole self.” (Quoted in Franco, P. 128) This for me implies that the critic’s task may be seen as an attempt to unpack (and re-pack) values embodied in a work. The other claim is related to what I take both plays ultimately to illustrate, whether intentionally or not, that “ human beings are apt to be disconcerted unless they feel themselves to be upheld by something more substantial than the emanations of their own contingent imaginations.” (Quoted in Franco, P. 152)
I am also guided by an understanding artfully novelized by Samuel Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, namely that there is not one way to happiness or proper choice of life and equally there are innumerable ways of going wrong. In other words, I am an irrepressible moralist. But so were O’Neill and Brecht.
- Both plays begin with what could be called “odes to me;” Baal with “Hymn of Baal the Great” (Brecht, Pp.3-4 ). and The Hairy Ape with Yank’s speech towards the end of scene one, that includes, “I’m de end! I’m de start.” (O’Neill, P 128)
- Both plays end with the demise of the protagonist, a return to the earth.
- Both Yank and Baal are called animals; Yank an ape because of his posture and brute strength, Ball an elephant because of his thick skin and his strength (Indeed, Sophie also mistakes his shape for an orangutan).
- Both protagonists see women as an opposing force that doesn’t “belong.” That is, both protagonists have clear misogynist views. Yank talks of women as “skoits” and his world crumples when he sees Mildred and her disgust at him. This causes his desire for revenge. Baal sexually consumes women and murders one in scene 16 (and he abandons Sophie in the dark in scene 13; note: Brecht’s mother’s name was Wilhelmine Friederike SOPHIE Brecht, known by her niece as aunt Sophie. Mrs. Brecht died in 1920). (Saxtorph, P. 26). In The Hairy Ape Mildred is inseparable from the bourgeois world. In Baal women may be used for pleasure but once used they are discarded because any claim on Baal is, for him, an encroachment on his freedom.
- Both protagonists exhibit strong tendencies towards the psychopathic.
- Both plays make use of the “journey” and “stations on the way” structure initiated by Strindberg’s later plays and imitated by German Expressionists.
However these plays also present opportunities for alternative kinds of women – women whose desires are not potentially bourgeois.
Baal could have met his female counterpart – a self-obsessed version of Lou Salome, perhaps? Or, a character based on Lily Prem (nee Krause) who Brecht met in 1919 (perhaps earlier?) and who was a member of the revolutionary women’s council in Augsburg (See Saxtorph, P. 49).
One of the people in the I.W.W. local in The Hairy Ape’s scene seven could have been a woman, suggesting an alternative to Mildred and her aunt. After all O’Neill had experienced such women through both Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant. (Not to mention Susan Glaspell to whom O’Neill read the play at then end of December 1921). Or, he might have included a brief reappearance of The Personal Equation’s tough Olga Tarnoff, as she comes across in the first act of that play.
The fact that such characters are absent, unimagined, suggests that it isn’t merely the protagonists that are misogynist but the plays themselves.
Is it possible that the plays exhibit a (from our perspective) much too literal reading of Nietzsche and too little of the bohemian anarchist milieus in which they are written?
I am persuaded by such current Nietzsche scholars as Kathleen M. Higgins, Robert C. Solomon and Maudemarie Clark that Nietzche’s well-known unflattering statements about women must be read as serving, as Maudmarie Clark puts it, “to exhibit for us (and to express) his misogynistic feelings, even though he is honest enough to admit that the assertions these feelings inspire are not really true.” (Clark, p. 7) I am also persuaded that some of these statements have more to do with his “need for revenge against Lou Salome.” (Nietzsche, p xxvi. Clark, p. 4). I.e. they are an expression of the bad faith Nietzsche calls resentment. However, I very much doubt that most readers, who are not Nietzsche scholars, read his statements with quite as much finesse, or that many such readers were around in the late 1910s or early1920s, or indeed that any such would necessarily have been within earshot of Brecht or O’Neill at the time they were working on these plays.
In Baal and The Hairy Ape women come to stand for a reactionary force, an oppressive force, seemingly “justifying” a desire for cruelty against them. Women in both these plays seem configured as “something predestined for service and achieving her perfection in that.” (Beyond Good and Evil, section 238)
“Is it not better” asks Zarathustra, “to fall into the hands of a murderer than into the dreams of a lustful woman?” (Nietzsche, p. 49). And, as the little old woman suggests to Zarathustra, “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!” (Ibid, p. 59) (See John Fuegi, “Following his beloved Nietzsche Brecht felt that women should be made to respond to their master’s whip.” (Fuegi, p. 25))
The slowness of the move towards women’s equality in anarchist circles and especially among German anarchists, vastly annoyed Emma Goldman. As late as 1929 in “a letter to Berkman, Goldman repeated the charge that German radicals had not advanced in terms of gender equality. ‘[The Germans] remain stationary on all points except economics. Especially as regards women they are really antediluvian.’” (quoted in Goyens, p. 157)
The hatred of the bourgeoisie, the upper classes and their values, expressed in the two plays, a hatred of those who strive for material wealth and contentment, is also a familiar theme from Nietzsche, who calls such a person, “… the most contemptible thing: […] the last man!” (Nietzsche, p.13). And again, “The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable like that of the flea; the last man lives the longest.
Say Higgins and Solomon, “…whereas the Übermensch is a fantasy, Nietzsche rightly fears that the last man is all too real – humanity devoid of striving and creativity, reduced to a life of comfort and contentment.” (Ibid, p. xxii)
The struggle against the last man’s world can also take many forms, and did in the anarchistic Bohemian environments familiar to both Brecht and O’Neill. They both describe the struggle through protagonists who are destructive egoist-anarchists, rather than through models like the pacifist Gustav Landauer who saw anarchism as an individual daily struggle of breaking down barriers to freedom and equality and whom they both must have known about; Brecht by the fact that Landauer was a member of Bavarian Council (in fact, Hans Otto Münsterer states in Bert Brecht Erinnerungen aus den Jahren 1917-1919, where Brecht and his gang didn’t know much about Marxism, they did have “Landauer’s and Eisner’s speeches” (quoted in Saxtorph, P. 37)) and O’Neill through his associations centred around Benjamin Tucker’s bookstore. Indeed, the Bohemian milieu O’Neill frequented in New York City (see for example, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century by Christine Stansell) and Brecht in Munich (with, “an illegitimate birthrate of one in three, the city Brecht found was a volatile mixture of the archest nationalist conservatism and cosmopolitan bohemianism.” (Fuegi, p. 28)) provided a multitude of alternative models in the struggle against the last man. Such observations may seem unfair, even irrelevant. But if Brecht and O’Neill did, as I am suggesting, aim for Nietzsche-inspired anarchist critiques of the last man’s small world, their choices of protagonists also hint at a considerable despair at the possibility of change and at self-destruction as a kind of redemption; Baal returns to the earth “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs” in death. This despair can be seen as the eventual, indeed the natural outcome of following Max Stirner’s egoism rather than Nietzsche’s Dionysus. Stirner may be a precursor to Nietzsche but his dictum, “A fig for good and evil! I am I, and I am neither good nor evil. Neither has any meaning for me. The godly is the affair of God, and the human of humanity. My concern is neither the Godly nor the Human, is not the True, the Good, the Right, The Free, etc., but simply mine own self, and it is not general, it is individual, as I myself am individual. For there is nothing above myself.” (Quoted in Gelb, p. 217) This is not sustainable as Emma Goldman pointed out in a world of social beings. The question remains, though, why it is this kind of egoist despair that shapes these plays - for the sake of provocation? I’m afraid this must be the case. And philosophically speaking it seems to have been justified by a Stirner inflected reading of Nietzsche.
Richard Block suggests that, “By privileging the body’s passing sensations through the figure of Baal, Brecht succeeds in destabilizing the ground upon which the institutions of bourgeois society are propped (…).” (Block, p.118).
Likewise we are powerfully aware of Yank’s body in The Hairy Ape. The foregrounding of the body and its claims may be seen as echoes from Zarathustra, who celebrated the ‘I’ that is the body,
However, in The Hairy Ape, the accent is somewhat different. Here the capitalist world has misshapen both Yank’s body and everyone else’s, where his seems to suggest a powerful opposition to the frailty and mask-like existence of the bourgeoisie; who are like the living dead and against whom Yank’s actual death may have some nobility. In fact, O’Neill, unlike Brecht, does not privilege “the body’s passing sensations” but aims for a metaphysical context and contest which in a letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn, dated April 3, 1925, he describes as his being “always acutely conscious of the Force behind – (Fate, God, our biological past creating our present, whatever one calls it – Mystery, certainly) – and of the one eternal tragedy of Man in his glorious, self-destructive struggle to make the Force express him instead of being, as an animal is, an infinitesimal incident in its expression.” (Bogard and Bryer, p. 195)
The Hairy Ape may be more in tune with the peculiar Nietzschean sense of joy than Baal, for there is nothing remotely tragic about Baal. “Life itself,” says Nietzsche, “its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, creates torment, destruction, the will to annihilation. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering […] Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life: it will be eternally reborn and return again from destruction. (Will to Power (1052))
The conclusion I’ve been aiming for is that both the ape and the elephant may have been hip, provocative, experimental, avant-garde works at a certain time in a certain transnational milieu, but that these works, at least in their portrayal of women, became more irresponsible than they had to be. I have not, of course, explicated all values embedded in these plays. And whereas I don’t think there’s much redeemable in Baal, The Hairy Ape does function as a kind of warning of can happen to people in a society where ownership and material possessions are worshipped.
Finally, I’d like to end with another quote from Michael Oakshott, one that is meant to undercut my displayed moral certainty and one that employs a metaphor that I think would have appealed to O’Neill, “In political activity […], men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy […]” (Franco, p. 14).
Richard Block. “Baal Dancing: The Unsettling Position of Baal in Brecht’s Theater of the New” in The German Quarterly 68 (2), 1995
Travis Bogard and Jackson Bryer. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. NY: Limelight Editions, 1994
Bertolt Brecht. Baal. (Translated by Peter Tegel). NY: Arcade Publishing, 1998.
Maudemarie Clark. “Nietzsche’s Misogyny” in International Studies in Philosophy, 26 (3), 1994
Paul Franco. Michael Oakshott: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004
John Fuegi. Brecht and Company: Sex, Politics and the Making of the Modern Drama, NY: Grove Press, 1994
Barbara and Arthur Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. NY: Applause Books, 2002
Tom Goyens. Beer and Revolution: The German Anarchist Movement in New York City, 1880-1914. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007
Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. (Translated by Clancy Martin. Introduction by Kathleen M. Higgens and Robert C. Solomon. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007
Eugene O’Neill. Complete Play 1920-1931. NY: The Library of America, 1988
J. William Saxtorph. Brechts politiske engagement. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 1982
 I cannot help but wonder what the woman who’d recently created the powerful rebel Claire in The Verge would have thought of Mildred and her aunt as the only female representatives in The Hairy Ape.
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