What is the significance of the ending of The Hairy Ape?
The drama The Hairy Ape has many merits, but an unimpressive ending. Discuss.
Answer: It has enjoyed a great stage success. O’Neill was an original dramatist who broke away from the shackles of tradition. His novelties were rightly regarded as his merits, and the drama The Hairy Ape contains more of his novelties than any other of his dramas. S. Bradley has remarked about this aspect of O’Neill in the following terms: “Fundamentally his liberation was psychological. He enriched his art by an understanding of the new psychology not simply Freudianism, but the enlarged awareness of all conscious and subconscious realities. The result was a new depth of seriousness, a new vitality, in the dramas themselves, and the free use, in stagecraft and acting, of experimental techniques which completely ignored the “well-made” conventions and called directly upon the subconscious responses of the audience… The three characteristics almost universally present, however, are all powerfully illustrated in The Hairy Ape. “By his superb art, the playwright was able to achieve a fusion of dialogue and scenery, of the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and pictorial elements into a single thing. Whatever of drama The Hairy Ape may seem to be to an audience—tragic, ironic, or melodramatic—one cannot get away from it? Once in its web, one’s attention is as helpless to wander as was Yank’s escape from the gorilla.”
But yet many critics have found its ending unconvincing and unimpressive. The close of The Hairy Ape seems to be too direct, too simple, too expected. To a European with his complex background it is a little disappointing to see the arrow strike the tragedy directly.
The tragic end of the play makes the reader spectator damped in spirit with a powerful story before their sight. The end of a tragedy should uplift the spirit of the audience, and should ennoble and should embolden him to face the realities of life. But here, at the end of the drama, he feels dispirited, disheartened and pessimistic.
The close shows Yank out of all depths and patience. It is against Yank’s gigantic prowess and fathomless patience in the beginning of the play. His pessimism is without relief. His tragic life becomes complete in his death and nothing spectacular is achieved thereby.
A representative of the labor class driven from pillar to post, homeless and rudderless, Yank appears too depressing. His death amidst gibbering, chattering monkeys, having been totally rejected by mankind is totally unconvincing. The question arises in the mind of the audience, “Is this the lot of a leader, of a representative, of a man who set out to probe into the ills of human society?” Even those who feel happy and satisfied at his death are not really happy and satisfied; in their hearts flow the undercurrent of a deep-rooted despair and disgust, to hide which they force a smile upon their face. So the play, despite its good points, has surely an unconvincing and unimpressive ending.
The play has been the object of much criticism for its dissatisfactory ending, though it has many merits. In a criticism Hugo Von Hofmannsthal made the point that in this play, the conclusion was too neat, clean, and obvious, with our expectations too fully and completely satisfied and the element of surprise gone. “The close of The Hairy Ape … seems to me to be too direct, too simple, too expected; it is a little disappointing of a European with his complex background, to see the arrow strike the target towards which he has watched it speeding all the while.” No doubt, death and destruction, the chaos and confusion get the upper hand in the end of the play. Had the dramatist given some satisfactorily happy ending to the play, it would have proved more lasting in impression and in creating suspense, an element duly belonging to the realm of drama.
The symbol of Yank as an ape also gets jumbled up with an actual ape in the end. Throughout the play the symbol of Yank as an ape receives increasing emphasis. But in the last scene the symbol is visually particularized in the Shape of the gorilla itself. “This symbol” as it appears in the conclusion, “is an error of judgment; to feel with Yank in his perplexity now as we did before, we must also feel with Yank in his perplexity now as we did before, we must also feel sympathy and respect for the animal and this is hardly possible.” The effect produced here is comic, and this comic effect is incompatible with the desirable effect of a tragedy. The seriousness of the effect is lost and the audience do not realize the full impact of the tragedy.
The end fails to involve the emotion of the audience or readers—they do not see themselves as hairy apes. They cannot visualize that Yank’s fate can even be theirs. A great tragedy should secure the total involvement of the spectators and speakers but the end of the drama does not do that.
J. L. Satyan says about the ending of the drama. “O’Neill adds the ironic comment, ‘And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs’ implying a ghost of tragic intention in the denouement, though we may doubt whether one belongs anywhere away from one’s natural habitat; to compare the gorilla in his cage with Yank in society is to mix two symbols somewhat confusedly.”
The critics are divided in their opinion about the effectiveness of the play. There are other critics who look upon the end of the tragedy as appropriate. The above opinions are of those who found fault with the ending of the drama.
Though the critics differ in their opinion about the effectiveness of the ending of The Hairy Ape from an objective and impartial point of view, the ending seems to be quite effective to us. If someone thinks that the ending does riot convince the audience about the sincerity of the portrayal of Yank’s character or induce them to identify themselves with the character, it is largely a subjective matter. The ending may appeal as perfectly all right to somebody or it may not. It depends upon the subjective judgment of the audience concerned. I think that we should judge the effectiveness of the ending from an objective point of view. I think the ending is quite logical, and what is logical must be effective to a reasonable audience. The character of Yank, from the beginning to the end, has been developed according to the writer’s conception: He has conceived Yank as a character who does not belong anywhere—because he is neither fully a beast, nor fully a human being. This condition of his life has been created by the so-called scientific and technological era of the modern civilization. Throughout his life Yank has moved from one point of self-identity to another—from the human to the beastly—and has not been able to find his identity till his death. His identity hovers between the two extremes—the human and the animal. And the ending exactly makes us realize this predicament of Yank. How else could the writer have shown it except through the ending as it is should he have shown him as transformed completely into a human or completely into an animal in the end? He suffered from a lack of identity throughout his life and dies with the same sense of lack of identity. The present day civilization, with its mechanical base, could not, and can never, solve his problem. He dies half-human, half-animal, as a product of the current civilization. The ending shows its dramatic effectiveness.