IRONIC USE OF MYTH IN THE HAIRY APE
Nietzsche's general influence on the thought and plays of Eugene O'Neill is widely known. During his life O'Neill paid homage to Nietzsche as his mentor, and in recent years critical studies have linked both Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Birth of Tragedy to specific O'Neill plays. But no one to my knowledge has pointed out the connection between Nietzsche's Dionysian myth as expounded in The Birth of Tragedy and O'Neill's ironic treatment of that material in The Hairy Ape. Indeed, O'Neill's ironic perspective has proved to be one of the play's most puzzling features. To the confusion of his early critics, O'Neill subtitled his play, "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes." But The Hairy Ape is not "comedy" as that term casually is understood; its violent laughter issues from what Northrop Frye describes as the darkest mode of irony, "the non-heroic residue of tragedy, centering on a theme of puzzled defeat."1
I would suggest that the specific mythological content subverted and parodied in The Hairy Ape is the perpetual triumph of Dionysus over his various antagonists in the ancient world; material which, according to Nietzsche, when symbolized in Greek tragedy, provided the rational man of culture with "an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature," a shattering of individuality and a "fusion with primal being."2 In The Hairy Ape ironically the vital force is mocked: the god is impotent. For O'Neill Yank is Dionysus, but Dionysus who has lost his meaning in the modern world, the symbol of Nietzsche's ancient god emasculated by an urban industrialized America in which he literally does not "belong." The plot of The Hairy Ape very likely is derived from a legend concerning Dionysus which tells of the god's capture by a band of pirates who imprison him on board a ship for ransom. In the Greek myth Dionysus retains his powers and, transforming himself into a lion, scatters the presumptuous mortals who sought to fetter him, turning them into dolphins.
That, however, was the "ancient" god; his counterpart in "modern life" is a powerless grotesque imprisoned in the stokehole of an ocean liner, the captive of a new class of pirates who wear silk hats and monkey fur. Except to his mates in the engine room (who resemble Nietzsche's satyr chorus in their drunken comradery, their shouts of "Drink, don't think!"), the god is an object of ridicule and scorn. On land he is superfluous, a god in search of worshippers to whom he remains invisible. "Force, dat's me:" Yank cries out to the people. "I beg your pardon," one gentleman responds, "You have made me lose my bus." A mock epiphany on Fifth Avenue ends with Dionysus being hauled away to prison, a development which also occurs in Euripides' The Bacchae. But there are no so-called "palace miracles" in The Hairy Ape. Yank pries apart the bars, but instead of toppling down his prison walls, the god is clapped into a straightjacket. Regarded by the new community as an evolutionary throwback, the diminished god eventually wanders to the zoo, and there, among civilization's other specimens of pent-up animal vitality, he is destroyed by his uncomprehending brother, the gorilla.
O'Neill's intent is that we see in this not simply the anguish of an extravagant grotesque, but a portrayal of modern experience as a whole. Yank, O'Neill is saying, represents contemporary man dispossessed of god-head and self-harmony through the workings of a perverted social consciousness that defines him not as the embodiment of vital force but as an object. This process is dramatized in Scene III of The Hairy Ape when Mildred faints at the first sight of Yank. ("Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast!") In forcing Yank to view himself through her perverted eyes, Mildred vitiates Yank's Dionysian harmony and supplants that emotion with a feeling of bleak isolation which remains with Yank throughout the play.
In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche writes that the god Dionysus is continually impelled to suffer in his own person the agonies of individuation; that is why he is perpetually in need of Apollonian redemption through the appearance of regained unity. This parable gives meaning to O'Neill's conception of Yank and Mildred as symbolic corollaries. In Scene V, Yank leaves his ship to search for Mildred so that she may reveal to him how he "belongs," but his quest is doomed to failure. In a "Socratic" culture, Nietzsche intimates, there can be no lasting fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian principles; on the contrary, cut off from one another each force tends to degenerate. Yank indeed is a pitiful Dionysus degraded to brute force. And Mildred, in whose eyes he finds his image (and who is necessary to his redemption), is a more sorrowful creature still. Yank's power drives civilization and Mildred is its representative, "a waste product in the Bessemer process." Thus she becomes the Apollonian manifestation of a degraded Dionysian force, the expression, according to O'Neill's stage direction in Scene II, "not of its life energy but merely of the artificialities that energy had won for itself in the spending." Mildred is too weak to provide the requisite Apollonian camouflage, and eventually she drives the god to destruction. Even her thick-headed aunt sees through her. Six times in the second scene she refers to Mildred as an ineffectual "poser."
Thus Yank is destined not to encounter her again. Instead he finds him-self on Fifth Avenue surrounded by a congregation of "marionettes" who are filing out of church but who are incapable of recognizing the presence of a god. Driven to impotent fury, Yank in the penultimate scene is expelled from a meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World for preaching total destruction rather than reform; then, at the zoo he is absurdly mangled by an ape with whom he has offered to shake hands.
Nietzsche proclaims in The Birth of Tragedy that "without myth every culture loses the healthy and natural power of its creativity; only a horizon defined by myths completes and unifies a whole cultural movement."3 By inverting the heroic pattern of Dionysian myth, O'Neill in The Hairy Ape expresses through irony, not dithyramb, his own wasteland vision of a materialistic culture ignorant of its roots in myth and drama. Incapable of the rhapsodic affirmation he was to arrive at later in The Great God Brown and Lazarus Laughed, O'Neill leaves us here wondering not whether Western civilization will regenerate itself, but only whether some shipmate will bring the news of Yank's demise to Paddy and the crew as Thamus did in ancient times. "So when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus, from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: 'Great Pan is dead.' Even before he had finished, there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement."4
Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1966),
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com