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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. I, No. 3
January, 1978



Eugene O'Neill, a lapsed Catholic, said that the modern playwright must "dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it--the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in." The inarticulate Yank of The Hairy Ape feels a need that he cannot express, and that cannot be filled by anything available to him in the 20th century. Neither the rich people's Fifth Avenue church nor the poor people's Salvation Army has anything to offer Yank. The rich man's church denies his situation and needs. (The sermon was preached against such laborers' organizations as the IWW.) The Sallies mean well, offering "sinkers and coffee." But, as Yank says, "Aw, hell! What does dat get yuh?--Dis ting's in your inside, but it ain't your belly. Feedin' your face . . . dat don't touch it. It's way down at de bottom. Yuh can't grab it, and yuh can't stop it. It moves and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops." He compares himself to a watch with a broken mainspring. In his fumbling fashion, Yank is made to say what O'Neill realized, that man needs--if not a deity, at least a sense of the significance of his own life, to lend it dignity.

It is a truism that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition placed man at the center, with all creation subject to him, or--like the stars--made to serve his needs, and that Darwinism thrust man from the center of his universe. Post-Darwinian man no longer can see himself as the crown of creation. The hairy ape, or even Desmond Morris's naked ape, is unable to say with Renaissance man: "What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god."

In blatantly ironic contrast to Rodin's "The Thinker," whose posture Yank is made to assume, the hairy ape is not yet evolved into the fully human, his evolution thwarted by those who need his gorilla strength and cannot afford to let him escape his cage. Senator Queen, the representative of government, says of the IWW: "They would tear down society, put the lowest scum in the seats of the mighty, turn Almighty God's revealed plan for the world topsy-turvy, and make of our sweet and lovely civilization a shambles, a desolation where man, God's masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape!" The irony may be sophomorically heavy-handed, but certainly the message is clear: in this play it is an industrialist and capitalist society that is responsible for man's degeneration to the hairy ape.

At the beginning of the play Yank believes in a myth that gives him the delusion of significance. He and the rest of the ape-like crew are "real men." Unlike the rich, they "belong." "It's me makes it hot," he says of the furnace he stokes. "It's me makes it roar! It's me makes it move! Sure, only for me everything stops. It all goes dead, get me?" But by the end of the play he has been awakened to the fallacy of this blue-collar myth, and there is nothing to replace it.

The deity Yank serves is the furnace. "She's gettin' hungry! Pile some grub in her. Trow it in her belly." This is more than personification; the furnace is Moloch, requiring to be fed by human lives. The cruel god of the pagan Canaanites was propitiated by sacrifices. Children were thrown into the furnace of his belly. In O'Neill's doctrinaire drama, industrialism demands human sacrifice. "Feeding our lives along wid the coal, I'm thinking," says Paddy, who also says, "Almighty God have pity on us." (One thinks of Dynamo, in which the god also destroys its worshippers.)

American society worships false gods, O'Neill suggests, by means of a familiar Biblical allusion, whose context is less familiar. Mildred speaks to her aunt: "Pardon my outburst. When a leopard complains of its spots, it must sound rather grotesque . . . only stay in the jungle, where your spots are camouflage. In a cage they make you conspicuous." But Mildred does not stay in her native habitat. She descends--and condescends--to "hell," to the stokers' "cage." By her distinctive "spots" (white dress, white face, transparent-looking hands) Mildred is recognizable as a member of the effete, spiritually dead leisure class. ("She was all in white like dey wrap around stiffs.") And she herself acknowledges that she is "damned in more ways than one." Later, voices call out to Yank, who is black with coal dust, "It makes spots on you, like a leopard . . . like a piebald nigger." The prophet Jeremiah asked a rhetorical question: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" and concluded in sarcasm, "Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." The inability to change will bring retribution: "This is your lot . . . because you have forsaken me and trusted in false gods."

Several of the Biblical echoes in The Hairy Ape are of little significance. Mildred's father is president of Nazareth Steel, an obvious substitute for Bethlehem Steel Company, merely substituting the name of Jesus' boyhood home for that of his supposed birthplace. Mildred, leaving her aunt on deck, says, "Don't pray too hard that I may fall into the fiery furnace." The secretary for the IWW local wants Yank to distribute pamphlets on board ship. "Sow the seed." Long, the socialist stoker, protests, "All men is born free and ekal. That's in the bleedin' Bible, maties. [It isn't, of course.] But what do they care for the Bible--them lazy, bloated swine what travels first class." These passages do not illuminate the play.

However, the desultory chat of the rich church-goers does require examination. Many readers will realize that "dear Doctor Caiaphas" is an allusion to the High Priest who was, at least indirectly, responsible for the death of Christ. Caiaphas told the Jews that because of the explosive political situation it would be to their advantage to sacrifice Jesus rather than risk Roman intervention. In short, the Biblical Caiaphas stands for sacrificing justice to expediency, and so does O'Neill's. The rich people's pastor preached his sermon against "the radicals, my dear--and the false doctrines that are being preached." (In other words, he preached against such groups as the IWW, whose function was to aid men like Yank in their struggle with the Capitalists.)

The proceeds of the proposed "hundred percent American bazaar," it is suggested, can go to "rehabilitating the veil of the temple." In Jewish belief, God was invisibly present in the Temple's Holy of Holies, veiled from mankind by a curtain. He was directly accessible only to the High
Priest, who, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could lift the curtain aside and enter the invisible presence of God. In Christian belief, Christ's sacrificial death "rent the veil in the Temple" in that it opened the way into the direct presence of the deity. By "rehabilitating the veil of the temple," O'Neill's wealthy church-goers would replace the barrier between humanity and God.

In the penultimate scene, Yank has been turned away from the IWW local by members suspicious that he is an agent provocateur. Yank turns his face upward and questions the Man in the Moon. (There is no longer a God to whom man can address his questions.) "Aw hell! I can't see--it's all dark, get me?" Paul, in speaking of the limitations of human knowledge in this earthly life, said, "Now I see as in a glass, darkly. Then [after death, in the presence of God] I shall see face to face." But for Yank and the other apes in the crew there will be no "then." There is no heaven, but there is a hell. A grinning and indifferent cop consigns him to it.

--Ann D. Hughes



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