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FROM APE TO MAN: An Impressionistic

Reading of Eugene ONeills The Hairy Ape

Alexander Tung

Reprinted from
Journal of Arts and History
Volume VII

Published by
The College of Arts, National Chung Hsing University
Taichung, Taiwan, Republic of China

June, 1977
FROM APE TO MAN: An Impressionistic
Reading of Eugene ONeills The Hairy Ape

Readers of literary masterpieces are often of the opinion that the title must be
suggestive of the work, and indeed writers normally will not fail their readers in this
regard. But the thing is, no;t all readers are content to leave the title alone there as
merely a signboard by which they are ushered into the body of the work. In fact, the
title has more often than not become the readers first impression of the work, and as
the first impression lasts throughout his reading, the title has practically become a
leading guide that the reader has to follow step by step up to the end of the work.
Thus, the title is often the first cause of reading a literary masterpiece
Take Europe ONeills The Hairy Ape for example. In reading that play for the first
time, the writer of this paper had, from the beginning till finishing it, been expecting to
see a hairy ape in the real life of the drama, had been trying to identify as far as
possible the beastly Yank with an imagined hairy ape after learning that the title
explicitly refers to the main character of the play, and finally had been thinking of the
play in terms of the image the title elicits. Likewise, there are readers who, perhaps
finding the main title not suggestive enough, go further to seek help or hint in the
subtitle so as to come up with a better interpretation of the play.1 In fact, as will be
seen below, this paper also draws on its subtitle for interpreting the play.
Of course, a title-guided reading as such may easily bring about erroneous
interpretations. However, so long as a writer entitles his work with adequate care and
exactitude, an impressionistic reading based on the title may witness less danger of
misinterpretation than many other approaches to the same work. After all, we readers
are like so many blindfolded men feeling the same elephant. By knowing first what
we are feeling now is called an elephant, we can prevent ourselves from associating
our impressions with anything totally non-elephantine though no one has as yet any
full clear sight of the huge animal before our eyes. It is with this belief that the author
of this paper will proceed to discuss ONeills The Hairy Ape as follows.
To begin with, in an age when Darwins theory of evolution still holds its influence,
it is only natural for a reader of ONeills The Hairy Ape to think of the hypothesis that
man might originate from the ape, and to presuppose that the title of the play might
have something to do with the hypothesis. Next, when the reader sees the subtitle of
the playA Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life, his presupposition may

somewhat be strengthened. And finally as he carefully reads over the play,2 the ape
image together with the ideas embedded in Darwins great works (for instance, the
modification of species by environment, survival of the fittest, etc.) may constantly
exercise influence on his reading. To be sure, this is precisely what has happened to
the writer of this paper. And the upshot is, I find the theme of evolution is no less
conspicuous in the play and no less convincing to the readers, compared with other
critics different thematic discussions of the same play. To prove this, we shall
consider some critics arguments first.
Arthur and Barbara Gelb in their biographical study of the play have quoted
ONeills own words to show that the play actually germinates from the playwrights
search for an explanation of why Driscoll, ONeills sailing companion at sea,
committed suicide despite the fact that Driscoll was so proud of his animal superiority
and in harmony with his limited conception of the universe (268). They in fact hold
with many other critics that the play shows the playwrights revived interest in the
theme of not belonging, treating Yank as well as Driscoll as a frustrated robust
personality deprived of his self-respect for his own tremendous vigor and strength.
It is true that Yank, the most highly developed individual (Scene 1)3 of the
stokers, may serve as some reminiscence of Driscoll, a real person with ample
individuality of his own. Yet, somehow we feel that Yank is not a mere individual. He
is, in E. M. Forsters terms, a very flat character. He does not have Hamlets
complexity. An ape-like man will be an all sufficient epithet for him. Hence, he is
only a type like one of Ben Johnsons characters of humors. As a type, he naturally
represents not only his personal identity but also some dominant trait of mankind.
That is the reason why John Gassner says he is Worker as well as Man (325).
If Yank does represent man in some respect, then his pet locution of belonging
should be more than an indication of his own personal problem. Surely, it has become
a cue of Everymans problem. In a letter to The New York Herald Tribune, ONeill is
reported to have said that the play is to show how man, unable to feel the harmony
with nature that as an animal he once knew, has not been able to establish a new
harmony through sympathy with his kind (Leech 41). And it is also said that, in an
interview ONeill gave in 1922, he said that Yank is really yourself, and myself
(Leech 41). Of course, the playwrights words are not necessarily the final words
about his plays. Nevertheless, here ONeill has, as will be proved below, not
misconstrued but pinpointed the real function of Yank in the play which has become
ever so controversial a question since the play was first presented.

To claim Yank as a symbol of man in some respect instead of simply a particular

individual, we can also gain some support from the play proper. For instance, at the
beginning of Scene 1, ONeill gives the following description:
The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the
appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at. All are hairychested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding
brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes. All the civilized
white races are represented, but except for the slight differentiation
in color of hair, skin, eyes, all these men are alike.
The men are the firemen working in the forecastle of an ocean liner, and Yank is one
of them. He is basically the same as his fellow workers though he seems broader,
fiercer (Scene 1). So he is actually their best representative. And since the men
speak a medley of dialects (of Irish brogue, Cockney, Swedish, American lower class,
Scots, etc.), the melting-pot idea is suggested (Raleigh 219). And, therefore, Yank
as their representative must of necessity assume the role of Everyman.
Yank is, of course, not an entire Everyman. He is Everyman only in that he stands
for mans prototypal self, the incarnation of bestial strength as seen in a picture of
Neanderthal Man. That is why he is described as a fierce, truculent, powerful and
ugly ape. Now, as Darwins theory of evolution goes, the ape is gradually becoming
more and more human while its environment is becoming more and more civilized.
And the present-day result of that process is seen in Mildred Douglas, the heroine, so
to speak, of the play.
Mildred is in every way the contrast to Yank except that she is as full of disdainful
superiority as he. She is slender, delicate, with a pretty face fretful, nervous and
discontented, bored by her own anemia (Scene II). She and her aunt are two
incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious looking as if the vitality of
her stock had been snapped before she was conceived, so that she is the expression not
of its life energy but merely of the artificialities that energy had won for itself in the
spending (Scene II).
Here it is clear that Mildred is as flat a character as Yank. She is also a type
symbolic of some human trait. If Yank is masculine beyond measure, she is feminine
in the extreme. If Yank belongs to a rough, primitive, hellish world, she belongs to a

heavenly fine world of culture. Indeed, they are two opposing extremes of mankind,
two pictures of man in his ancient and modern forms.
Now, what has ONeill got to say with such two types of characters? In his
Eugene ONeill as Social Critic, Doris Alexander asserts that the play presents an
extremely negative view of the state, of mechanized America, where the worker best
adjusted to the system is a hairy ape, and where the Capitalist class is even more
terribly dehumanized, for it has lost all connection with life, is simply a procession of
gaudy marionettes (390). This assertion implies that in this play man, dichotomized
into worker or capitalist, is dehumanized as a result of the new economical system in
the modern mechanical age. Certainly we can see this in Yanks being tauntingly
reduced to an ape by Mildred and, in turn, in the latters being tauntingly reduced, too,
to a ghost by the former. Still, such is too superficial and too narrow a view of the
In actuality, we may also see this play as a peculiar or fantastic treatment of split
personality just like Stevensons Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the target of study here
is man with his ancient self embodied in Yank and modern self embodied in Mildred.
Instead of representing the proletarian and aristocratic (or working and leisure) classes
respectively, Yank and Mildred actually stand for our primitive wild nature and
civilized tame feature. And the conflict of the play lies not in the incompatibility of
the two social classes but in mans inability to get his two selves reconciled in our
modern world. In a plain word, there is something wrong with our evolution from ape
to man now. To prove this, let us go back to the plot of the play.
We know when Mildred is going down to the stokehold, she says she wants to
discover how the other half lives (Scene II). This other half, as we know, refer to
the firemen in particular, of whom Yank is the best representative. What is left of this
other half is of course the one half that Mildred herself represents. If we take the two
halves not as two social classes but as two embodiments or components of man (like
male and female sexes), then we can easily interpret the climax of the play, that is,
Yank and Mildreds being mutually astounded on seeing each other. We know that in
real life upper-class people and lower-class people are not so unfamiliar to each other
as to be mutually shocked when they are first put together. But when a refined man
becomes suddenly aware that he is originally as brutish as Yank or a vigorous man
becomes suddenly aware that he has turned as emasculate as Mildred, a great shock is
sure to be there. The shock is indeed that of ape and man facing each other. The
climax is doubtless that of mans ancient and modern selves meeting each other.

What is the aftermath of the climax, then? We know Yank has thenceforth become
a revenge-seeker and, by misusing his force has gone step by step to his selfdestruction at last. Here an interpretation based on a social viewpoint may claim Yank
as an unhappy individual thwarted in his groping after social significance (Goldberg
242), as the hero of a tragedy of the proletarians exile from all the charms of culture
(Bab 351). However, if we accept Yank and Mildred as two extremes of man, we may
come closer to an understanding of why ONeill gave the play the subtitle: A
Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life.
Yank, the ape-like, all masculine half of man, has to die because the brutal force
which he stands for is, like the dynamite he suggests using for blowing up Douglass
steel works, more dangerous and destructive than useful in a civilized world although
in mans primitive state of life it really is the most important and even now it can be
de start, de ting in coal dat makes it boin, de muscles in steel, de punch behind
it!as Yank claims himself to be in Scene 1. Indeed, we can sympathize with Yank
and think of him as a sort of modern Caliban, produced by our industrial society,
disowned by it, and rebellious (Woodbridge 315). For he is, like the caged gorilla,
forever imprisoned in the civilized world.4 And his death in the murderous hug
(Scene VIII) of the gorilla is in reality an instance of suicide which often occurs in the
end of a tragedy since the gorilla is Yanks like in every respect. Nevertheless, as he is
so blind to the real value of animal strength in a civilized world, we really can also
think of him as a blind cyclopean Demos that cannot build but only destroy;
malformed, powerful--when he stirs fair cities topple--thick-witted, dangerous, ugly
(Long 82). Consequently, his death can be considered as a happy ending for mankind.
In fact, Yanks death is not an entire death. We know Yank releases the gorilla from
the cage and then he himself dies in it. Since Yank can be identified with the gorilla,
the gorillas coming out of the cage and into the outside world may symbolize that
Yanks animal self--that is, mans primitive vigor and strength--still exists in our
world. What has died is only Yanks illusion of self-respect, his blind conviction in
the use of brutal force. In this connection, Yanks death is justifiably a mere symbol of
mans doing away with his bestial whims. With his bestial whims removed, man
naturally can become fitter to live in the civilized world. This, I think, is the reason
why ONeill makes the comment before the curtain falls that perhaps, the Hairy Ape
at last belongs, and the reason why ONeill labels the play as a comedy.
So, in the perspective of its action, the play is seen to manifest itself as a comment

on the use of force in the course of mans progress from ancient to modern times. It
seems that ONeill has clearly seen the direction in which mankind has been
undeviatingly advancing, that is, from the strength-governed primitivism towards the
wisdom-governed civilization, or simply from ape to man. This advancement is
inevitable. Any nostalgic reflection upon the bygone things is of little use just as
Paddys looking back upon the old days of sailing ships is. And any attempt to
radically change the status quo is doomed to fail just as Yanks threat to revenge
himself by force never works (See Alexander 396). The thing is, the status quo has its
own course of movement. After a long period of time, man may be shocked to see his
primeval archetype just as Mildred is at the sight of Yank. Or man may be
dumbfounded, just as Yank is on seeing Mildred, by the long distance he has gone
from his original self. But evolution is forever under way. We can always see with
Darwin or ONeill our original ape-self moving towards our ideal man-self and, at the
same time, wondering where to belong in our ever-new world.
Now, is the from-ape-to-man evolution good? Obviously, ONeill does not regard it
as wholly good. On the one hand, he does disapprove of anything that would tear
down society, put the lowest scum in the seats of the mighty, turn Almighty Gods
revealed plan for the world topsy-turvy, and make of our sweet and lovely civilization
a shambles, a desolation where man, Gods masterpiece, would soon degenerate back
to the ape! (Scene VI). On the other hand, however, he also fears that the
civilization-oriented evolution of man may ultimately result in the relentless horror of
Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness (Scene V), may finally
make man, to quote Mildreds words, inherit the acquired trait of the by-product [in
the Bessemer process], wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel
that made it (Scene II). It follows then that ONeill seems to uphold mans
inextricable cause of evolution but at the same time tries to remind us not to forsake
our primordial vitality. Civilization is not to make posers (Scene II). Without
Yanks natural power, man is what Mildreds aunt calls her--a mere ghoul.
So far, the author of this paper has been taking his hint from the title and subtitle
of the play in interpreting ONeills The Hairy Ape. All arguments raised or advocated
concerning the play have been the product of reading it with its title and subtitle
always in mind. Therefore, this paper may be called a title-guided impressionistic
reading of the play. If impressionistic criticism is the adventures of a sensitive soul
among masterpieces,5 what counts at last is of course the question: how far have the
adventures carried the sensitive soul? From ape to man?

1. E.g., Clifford Leech argues that the play is more truly a comedy by referring to
its subtitle: A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life. See his ONeill, pp. 40-1.
2. It is to be borne in mind that the play, as a play usually is, is written to be acted
rather than read. All discussions in this paper are the result of reading it,
3. Hereinafter each parenthesized number of the scene refers to the text of ONeills
The Hairy Ape.
4. Yank is first figuratively imprisoned in the abysmal stokehole, then in the cell of
the prison on Blackwells island, and finally, after his death, in the gorillas cage.
5. Anatole Frances words, quoted in Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, (rpt.
Taipei: Tun Huang, 1968), p. 238.

Works Consulted
Alexander, Doris. Eugene ONeill as Social Critic. Rpt. in Cargill et al., 395-7.
Bab, Julius. As Europe Sees Americas Foremost Playwright. The Theatre Guild
Magazine. Nov. 1931. Rpt. in Cargill et al., 350-2.
Cargill, Oscar, N. B. Fagin & W. J. Fisher, eds. ONeill and His Play. New York:
New York UP, 1961.
Carpenter, Frederic 1. Eugene ONeill. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1964.
Coolidge, Olivia. Eugene ONeill. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1966.
Gassner, John. Homage to ONeill. Theatre Time, Summer 1951. Rpt. in Cargill et
al., 324-8.
Gelb, Arthur & Barbara Gelb. ONeil. New York: Dell, 1965.
Goldberg, Isaac. At the Beginning of a Career. The Drama of Transition. Rpt. in
Cargill et al., 240-4.
Griffin, G. Ernest, ed. Eugene ONeill. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976.
Harper, B., & Clark, ed. Eugene ONeill : The Man and His Plays. New York: Dover
Publications, 1947.
Leech, Clifford. ONeill. Edinburgh & London: Oliver & Boyd, 1963.
Long, Chester Clayton. The Role of Nemesis in the Structure of Selected Plays by
Eugene ONeill. The Hague & Paris: Mouton & Co., 1968.

Raleigh, John Henry. Eugene ONeill: The Man and His Works. Toronto: Forum
House, 1969.
Woodbridge, Homer E. Beyond Melodrama. Theatre Time, Summer 1951. Rpt. in
Cargill et al., 313-6.