Do you think that the drama is a tragedy even though the subtitle A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life? Give reasons for your answer.
Is The Hairy Ape a tragedy or a comedy? Support your answer.
Though the sub-title of the drama is a A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life, The Hairy Ape is a tragedy. Discuss.
Answer: The Hairy Ape is a great tragedy of Eugene O’Neill, though it has a sub-title A Comedy of Ancient and Modern We. The tragedy is not a conventional one in the classical or Aristotelian tradition, having as hero an extraordinary person with a tragic flaw or hamartia. But it is a modern tragedy with its protagonist as an anti-hero. Its subtitle does not reflect the theme of the drama, which is, undoubtedly, a tragic one. Rather it is an ironical title, reflecting the satirical intent of the playwright.
The protagonist of the drama, Yank is not an exceptional man like Oedipus of Sophocles, or Hamlet of Shakespeare. He is a humble stoker in a ship whose duty is to shove fuel into the furnace of the ship’s engine. He works long hours in the ships cramped and low roofed stokehole. He is beastly, filthy, vulgar and coarse. He cannot think though he sometimes tries to think. He can use physical force only. Of course, he is stronger than his fellow stokers and loves his work and the ship more than the others. He does not have any tragic flaw either, but he suffers and faces death because he is in conflict with his environment, with certain social forces that are much stronger than he. Though he struggles hard against these forces, he cannot win. We find him in the opening of the drama as a worker contented and with a sense of belonging. But that contentment and belonging is shattered by a girl, Mildred, who visits them in the stokehole. She is horrified by the total atmosphere of the place, and especially by the fearful, beastlike look of Yank whom she calls, even in her faint, “filthy beast”. He feels utterly insulted by this remark and embarks on action of revenge on the girl. He visits the Fifth Avenue, a locality where the rich people live, intending to find Mildred there and kill her. He attacks people there and is put into prison where he comes to feel that he is a “hairy ape” and tries to break open the prison bars. After his release from the prison he visits the zoo where he tries to befriend a gorilla whom he addresses as “brother” and holds out his hands to address him. The gorilla crushes him and lets the crushed body slip to the floor.
He stands over it uncertainly, considering, and then picks it up, throws it into the cage, shuts the door, and shuffles off menacingly into the darkness. Even the other animals feel shocked and frightened at this tragic scene and a great uproar and whimpering comes from the other cages. Then Yank moves, groaning, opening his eyes, and there is silence. He painfully mutters, “Say they ought to match him—with Zybsko. He got me now, all right. I’m through. Even he didn’t think I belonged.” Then he utters with passionate despair, “Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” He grabs hold of the bars of the cage and hauls himself painfully to his feet, forces a mocking laugh and says in the strident tones of a circus barker, “Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at the one and only—one and original— dairy Ape from the wilds of —” then drops down dead on the floor. This is how the tragedy of a common man takes place, and it results in disillusionment, frustration and tragedy for the modern man, as it does for Yank in the play.
The subtitle A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life is merely ironical. It points to the satirical intent of the playwright. The rich class might look at it as a comedy because a beastly man dies. But the playwright’s intent is that we should ponder over the question why such a powerful man belonging to the working class dies. He suffers and dies because of the mechanical social system. His death should arouse pity and sorrow for a human being though ordinary.
The Hairy Ape is the tragedy of the proletariat, seized at the point where it is still tragic— that is to say, before policies begin party struggle and party interest and the play of calculation. In the present play, O’Neill presents the proletarian, so to speak, as he really is — a man who “has lost his harmony with nature and not yet found harmony in his soul.”
In The Hairy Ape action is internal. It has enough action and melodrama but the action is not external. The action develops rapidly through eight scenes and every scene is a step in the disintegration of Yank’s personality. If there is any villain in the tragedy, it is not a god, or Fate or any human being, but the mechanical forces of the social environment. Society is the real villain of the piece. The force of soulless, mechanical social order, with which he is in conflict, quickly and relentlessly sends him to his doom. Attention is focused throughout on the spiritual decay of Yank. That he has been called a hairy ape becomes an obsession with him. The delusion carries him step by step to the gorilla-cage, and so to a gruesome death.
Yank- differs from the tragic heroes of Aristotle because he does not suffer from any fault of his own; but because he is in conflict with his environment, with certain social forces that are much stronger than he. Yank is driven to his doom by these forces, against which he struggles. There is a gradual regression of his personality because of the loss of his sense of belonging.
The Hairy Ape is a modern tragedy of the proletariat. The protagonist, or properly speaking, the antihero of the drama is Yank, a member of the proletariat. He is not a great man, like a Shakespearean or a Marlovian tragic hero, but is an everyman, meeting the tragedy of an average man. His tragedy touches the heart of every man, and fills him with a deep sympathy for the humanity at large, the common human beings oppressed by the evils of the modern mechanized world.