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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 3
January, 1980



[Michael Rutenberg directed the Hopkins Center production of The Hairy Ape in Hanover, NH, last August. The following is an excerpt from the director's log dealing with the character of Yank. --Ed.]

Who is Bob Smith? Most O'Neill scholars would be hard-pressed to recognize the name. Even Smith can't quite remember who he is.

SECRETARY—What's your name? I'll make out your card.
YANK—(confused) Name? Lemme timk.
SECRETARY—(sharply) Don't you know your own name?
YANK—Sure; but I been just Yank for so long—Bob, dat's it—Bob Smith.

But Bob Smith ain't so dumb. A lummox can't go through an identity crisis; it takes intelligence. Still, because of O'Neill's description of the man, plus his Brooklyn accent and what other characters say about him, the impression is that Yank is a dolt. And audiences don't empathize with blockheads. The lack of audience involvement with Yank has plagued the play from its inception. O'Neill has said, "Yank is really yourself, and myself. He is every human being. But, apparently, very few people seem to get this."1

The essential question for the director, then, is how to find a way to make the audience identify with Yank. A closer look at O'Neill's text provides the answer. On first examination, the doltish image remains with us. O'Neill's description reads as follows:

YANK is seated in the foreground. He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest. They respect his superior strength the grudging respect of fear. Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression, the very last word in what they are, their most highly developed individual.

And what is it that they are? O'Neill describes the men more fully:

The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at. All are hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes.

There is no mention of intelligence. The description is essentially physical, alluding to a diminished brain capacity. But Neanderthal Man's brain was as large as modern man's. The only certainty for the director so far is that he must cast a powerfully-built man who is capable of savage emotion. Where then is the impression that Yank is a dumb ox?

Perhaps a look at what others say about him will help explain the image. Mildred calls him "the filthy beast!" Well, yes; he is filthy. Anyone shoveling coal in the stokehole would be. And he does use foul language. But she doesn't comment on his mentality. O'Neill, however, adds more to the brutish image at the start of Scene Three, when he describes the stokers as being "outlined in silhouette in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas." (The play's title doesn't help offset the image of stupidity either. Still, looking like a gorilla doesn't ipso facto mean that one must have a gorilla's intelligence.) Paddy, in Scene Four, is the next to add to the infamous image: "In this cage is a queerer kind of baboon than ever you'd find in darkest Africy." He goes on to say, just a bit later, "Sure, 'twas as if she'd seen a great hairy ape excaped from the Zoo!" Yank asks Paddy if indeed Mildred called him a hairy ape, and Paddy fudges a bit by answering, "she looked it at you if she didn't say the word itself." Paddy insinuates it, and Yank believes him. O'Neill has him say, "I'm a hairy ape, get me?" when he talks to the prisoners in Scene Six. Finally, it is the Secretary who solidifies the image when he scornfully attacks Yank, whose arms and legs are pinned by the men of the IWW in Scene Seven:

No. He isn't worth the trouble we'd get into. He's too stupid. (He comes closer and Laughs mockingly in YANK'S face.) Ho-ho! By God, this is the biggest joke they've put up on us yet. Hey, you Joke! Who sent you—Burns or Pinkerton? No, by God, you're such a bonehead I'll bet you're in the Secret Service! ... Oh, hell, what's the use of talking? You're a brainless ape.

And so the portrait is complete. Yank is sub-human. An ape! In fact, it is in the gorilla's cage that Yank, quite convinced that Mildred and the Secretary are right, accepts that he is a wild beast to be caged and then killed.

Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at de one and only—(His voice weakening)—one and original—Hairy Ape from de wilds of—(He slips in a heap on the floor and dies. ... ).

Our preliminary study of the text seems to reinforce the image of Yank as sub-human, but audiences laugh at gorillas; they don't identify with them. Yet, I believe that it is possible to see Yank quite differently from the way he is usually played and to think of him as a truly tragic figure. A more in-depth examination of the text is in order.

Language separates men from animals. It is man's ability to formulate and articulate abstract thought which allows him to rise above and rule the beasts of the earth. And it is in the language of the play that we will find the key to Yank's somewhat dubious intellect. His speech patterns are a combination of "Brooklynese" and a lack of education. "No one ain't never put nothin' over on me and got away wit it, see!" The language is rough, but the message is clear. Yank has never been anyone's patsy and that takes some doing. He may be crude, but he's no dummy.

Let's probe further into his mentality. In violent answer to a song about a lass waiting for a sailor to come home, he barks, "Where d'yuh get dat tripe? Home? Home, hell! I'll make a home for yuh! I'll knock yuh dead. Home! T'hell wit home! Where d'yuh get dat tripe? Dis is home, see!" He's thinking abstractly. He understands that home can be wherever you want it to be. He's the supreme realist. No dreams. No escaping that way. "Home is where you hang your hat." That his view of women is based solely on the types that frequented waterfront dives in the 1920's and on the bitter memories of a mother who was a drunkard understandably explains his attitude toward them. "Goils waitin' for you, huh? Aw, hell! Dat's all tripe. Dey don't wait for no one. Dey'd double-cross yuh for a nickel. Dey're all tarts, get me?" Prejudiced, yes! But definitely not the thinking of a mental defective.

Certainly it is his comments on politics and religion that forever wipe away the doltish image so many have given him: "nix on dat Salvation Army-Socialist bull. Git a soapbox! Hire a hall! Come and be saved, huh? Jerk us to Jesus, huh?" His thinking becomes even clearer toward the end of the play:

—de same old bull—soapboxes and Salvation Army—no guts! Cut out an hour offen de job a day and make me happy! Gimme a dollar more a day and make me happy! Tree squares a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousy vote—and I'm all fixed for Jesus, huh?

One might even go so far as to say that his analysis of governmental control, corporate power and institutionalized religion borders on the profound. But it is his ability to think metaphysically that totally separates him from the brutes of the world. He sees himself as omnipotent the prime mover!

...Sure, on'y for me everyting stops. It all goes dead, get me? De noise and smoke and all de engines movin' de woild, dey stop. Dere ain't nothin' no more! Dat's what I'm sayin'. Everyting else dat makes de woild move, somep'n makes it move. It can't move witout somep'n else, see? Den yuh get down to me. I'm at de bottom, get me! Dere ain't nothin' foither. I'm de end! I'm de start! I start somep'n and de woild moves! It—dat's me!

To be both the beginning and the end. To be able to see oneself as infinite. That takes intelligence!

He's not a bad comedian either, and cracking a joke takes a clever mind—if it's the same mind that thought it up. He talks to Paddy: "But aw say, come up for air onct in a while, can't yuh? See what's happened since yuh croaked." Sometimes he throws in a clever alliteration that brings with it an amazing clarity of thought. "He's hittin' de pipe of de past, dat's what he's doin "'; or, "she was all in white like dey wrap around stiffs." But the most insightful metaphor is "... if she tinks she—She grinds de organ and I'm on de string, huh? I'll fix her!" Not bad for a moronic brute. When the men kid him about Mildred, telling him that he has fallen in love with her, he retorts: "I've fallen in hate, get me?" A nice turn of phrase for someone supposed to be brainless.

Yank also sees more deeply than the other men. Note the description of Mildred's skin: "Did yuh pipe her hands? White and skinny. Yuh could see de bones through 'em." Later he describes her in more detail: "Her hands—dey was skinny and white like dey wasn't real but painted on somep'n. ... She was like some dead ting de cat brung in."

When Long suggests a pacifist approach to a proletarian revolution, using a slightly more sophisticated language than what we have heard from the stokehole, Yank has no difficulty understanding it. He grasps it immediately and responds with his own philosophy: revolutions are won by force.

  LONG—Easy goes, Comrade. Keep yer bloomin' temper. Remember force defeats itself. It ain't our weapon. We must impress our demands through peaceful means—the votes of the on-marching proletarians of the bloody world!
  YANK—(with abysmal contempt) Votes, hell! Votes is a joke, see. Votes for women! Let dem do it!
  LONG—(still more uneasily) Calm, now. Treat 'em wiv the proper contempt. Observe the bleedin' parasites but 'old yer 'orses.
  YANK—(angrily) Git away from me! Yuh're yellow, dat's what. Force, dat's me! De punch, dat's me every time, see!

As the play progresses, Yank comes to realize more deeply that he can no longer return
to the stokehole, having had a glimpse of the power of wealth. When asked by the IWW Secretary about the other stokers like himself, he replies that "dey're all dead to de woild." There is nothing else for him to do. He can't return, and the rich won't have him; and so he concludes that the only way out of his insignificance is to commit an act of destruction. Then he'll be noticed. It is an awful insight he has reached. Man can rise above his fellow men by creativity or by destruction. It is the philosophy assassins are made of.

  YANK—...I mean blow up de factory, de woiks, where he makes de steel. Dat's what I'm after—to blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to de moon. Dat'll fix tings!

But the IWW doesn't want him. They mistake him for a government infiltrator and throw him out. Defeated, ostracized and finally humiliated, he understands the irony of his visit to a gorilla in the Central Park Zoo. It is then that Yank becomes his most insightful.

Ain't we both members of de same club—de Hairy Apes? (They stare at each other--a pause then YANK goes on slowly and bitterly) So yuh're what she seen when she looked at me, de white-faced tart! I was you to her, get me? On'y outa de cage--broke out—free to moider her, see? Sure! Dat's what she tought. She wasn't wise dat I was in a cage, too—worser'n yours—sure--a damn sight—'cause you got some chanct to bust loose—but me—

It is during this scene that we realize O'Neill's unfolding of Yank's character and the subsequent development of the plot. In the eight scenes it takes to perform the play, Yank's character goes from savage to humane. It is a tragedy, if one can accept Maxwell Anderson's definition of a spiritual realization arrived at too late. Yank can think, despite his humble declaration that "tinkin' is hard—". He understands precisely his tragic dilemma when he says, "I ain't on oith and I ain't in heaven, get me? I'm in de middle tryin' to separate 'em, takin' all de woist punches from bot' of 'em. Maybe dat's what dey call hell, huh?" Not so far removed from Sartre's "hell is other people," is it?

Yank also knows the mold is cast. His life is not going to change. Things are not going to get better. So he does the only thing possible, the only free choice still left to him. He kills himself. He lets the gorilla out of the cage so that it will kill him. And this is the essence of the play. Nothing fancy about myth, existentialism, or everyman symbols for the oppressed proletariat. Just an explanation, a clarification, of one man's suicide. O'Neill wrote about it in 1935:

It was at Jimmy the Priest's that I knew Driscoll, a Liverpool Irishman who was a stoker on a transatlantic liner. Shortly afterwards I learned that he had committed suicide by jumping overboard in mid-ocean. Why? The search for an explanation of why Driscoll, proud of his animal superiority and in complete harmony with his limited conception of the universe, should kill himself provided the germ of the idea for The Hairy Ape.2

Yank opens the cage to let out death, but for a while a part of him will continue to seek vengeance upon New York City in the body of the gorilla. Together they will wreak havoc until the beast, too, is killed.

  YANK—...T'hell wit it! A little action, dat's our meat! Dat belongs! Knock 'em down and keep Bustin' 'em till dey croaks yuh wit a gat—wit steel! Sure! Are yuh game? Dey've looked at youse, ain't dey--in a cage? Wanter git even? Wanter wind up like a sport 'stead of croakin' slow in dere? (The gorilla roars an emphatic affirmative. YANK goes on with a sort of furious exaltation) Sure! Yuh're reg'lar! Yuh'll stick to de finish! Me 'n' you, huh?--bot' members of this club! We'll put up one last star bout dat'll knock 'em off en deir seats? Dey'll have to make de cages stronger after we're trou!

If the actor who is cast can believe that Yank is not stupid, that he can think quite insightfully, that he is vulnerable and human, then the audience will identify and empathize with Yank and the play will become a modern tragedy. Perhaps the most significant way to conclude this examination of Yank's intellect is to remind oneself that O'Neill's use of Rodin's "The Thinker" as a running motif is not as ironic as one might at first assume.

--Michael E. Rutenberg

1 Mary B. Mullett, "The Extraordinary Story of Eugene O'Neill," American Magazine, XCIV, No. 5 (November, 1922).

2 The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Scribner's, 1935), Vol. V. (The Wilderness Edition includes this brief anecdote.)



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