Or. Do you think that O’Neill has criticized the contemporary society in his drama The Hairy Ape? Support your answer.
Or. Do you find elements of satire in The Hairy Ape? Discuss.
Or. Justify the drama The Hairy Ape as a social satire.
Answer: The present question involves an explanation of the nature of satire, and how far the characteristics of a satire are present in O’Neill’s drama The Hairy Ape.
A satire has been defined by Abrams in the following terms: “Satire is the art of diminishing a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, indignation, or scorn.” NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms says that it is “a term used to describe any form of literature that blends ironic humor and wit with criticism for the purpose of ridiculing folly, vice, stupidity—the whole range of human foibles and frailties in individuals and institutions. Satire differs from comedy in that satire seeks to correct, improve, or reform through ridicule, whole comedy aims simply to amuse.” Abrams distinguishes between two types of satire: (1) Direct or formal satire, and (2) Indirect satire. In direct satire, the satirical voice speaks out in the first person “I”, and an indirect satire is cast in the form of a narrative instead of direct address, in which the objects of the satire are characters who make themselves and their opinions ridiculous by what they think, say, and do.
In considering The Hairy Ape as a satire, we are obviously in a problem. The problem arises because we do not find any correspondence between the type of drama The Hairy Ape is, and the definitions of satire given by notable critics. The definitions do not exactly apply to the drama.
A satire is usually in the form of a comedy, but The Hairy Ape is no in the form of a comedy. It is in the form of a tragedy. A satire produces laughter in the beholders, but this drama does not. The satire here is largely indirect but there are some direct satirical remarks about the rich upper class people through the mouths of some of its characters. In Abrams’s indirect satire, the characters themselves are the objects of satire and so are comic but in this drama, the characters are not the objects of satire, but rather they are the writer’s instruments of satire, and are tragic.
Satire in The Hairy Ape is not of form, but of matter, not direct, but largely indirect, and not leveled against something present before the eyes, but against something brooding in the background.
Eugene O’Neill has satirized the contemporary American society in The Hairy Ape. But it may also be regarded as the criticism of any society in the contemporary world where scientific and technological developments have got hold of any advanced, civilized society. This play is regarded as a famous social satire.
O’Neill is a critic of post-war American society as a whole; his plays study man not in relation to fate and God, but in relation to his social environment. In his plays he shows that the social environment is soulless and mechanical, and that it causes frustration, disillusionment and sense of alienation.
The Hairy Ape presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy which rejects entirely the status quo, but sees no answer for man in a better society, and no hope for destroying the existing society. This might be a negative attitude, still, as Winther stresses, it serves to focus attention and to make the problem real. The play provokes thoughts, dramatizes a problem, stresses its evil, promotes understanding, and this in itself constitutes a step towards its solution.
The play presents an extremely negative view of life of the mechanized America. The worker best adapted to the system is a “hairy ape”. The capitalist class is even more terribly dehumanized for it has lost all connection with life. It is simply procession of gaudy marionettes. “Both government and religion are treated as devices for maintaining the status quo. The church substitutes political conservatism for Christianity, substitute’s bazaars, methods of making money, for concern with the meaning of life and death…. On the whole, the state, as pictured in The Hairy Ape is a device for dehumanizing its citizens and for preventing change.” (Doris Alexander).
Though Yank feels, in the beginning of the drama that he is satisfied with his condition of life as a stoker in a large ship, he later on rejects this acceptance and complacency after his rude confrontation with Mildred, a girl of the rich class. He is heard saying “I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles. Afterwards, just before his death, he says, “Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” He feels that he has nothing to belong to. He at last does not belong to even the gorilla cage.
Paddy represents an attitude of rejection of the modern -mechanized civilization. He longs for the days before society became industrialized, the days with “sun warming the blood of you and wind over the miles of shiny Green Ocean, like strong drinks to your lungs.” Long thinks that the structure of the society is rotten. The cause of this rottenness is the economic system: “They dragged us down till we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship sweating burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust! Hit’s them’s ter blvme—the damned capitalist clarss!” Since the basic evil is capitalism, the workers according to Long, must be educated to knowledge of the economic structure of the society. As he tells Yank, “I want to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness. Then yer’ll see it’s ‘er clarss yer’ve got to fight, not’er alone.” Long fights with strictly legal means. He tells Yank, “Remember force defeats itself. It ain’t our weapon. We must impress our demands through means — the votes of the on Marching proletarians of the bloody world!”
O’Neill is more concerned with the psychological and philosophical implications of the machine age, and herein lies his originality as a social critic. The Hairy Ape is such a moving play, and so universal in its appeal because it is a dramatization of the tortured and anguished soul of Yank, the everyman. His example shows that “The truly vicious effects of the capitalist State are not physical, but spiritual.”
For O’Neill, only the non-material satisfactions of work matter. As Yank puts it, “Disting’s is your inside, but it ain’t your belly.” Of course, Long too is concerned with non-material values, as his indignation at Mildred’s “hinsults to our dignity as ‘onest workers” shows. But he sees a solution of the spiritual problem in a solution of the physical problem. He believes that if you “Change the unequal conditions of the society,” you will solve the problem or achieve the necessary conditions for a solution of the problem. In his concern for the spiritual answer, Yank, however has entirely rejected any hope in an alteration of the physical conditions. Although he is against the organization of the State and the economic system as it is, he is contemptuous of any hope in a changed social or economic system. In his final comment on the I.W.W, Yank rejects any hope of bettering man by bettering society: “Dey’re in the wrong pew —the same old bull — soapboxes and Salvation Army — no guts! Cut out an hour out of the job a day and make me happy! Give me a dollar more a day and make me happy! Three square meals a day and cauliflowers in the front yank- equal right — a woman and kids—a lousy vote–and turn all fixed for Jesus, huh? Aw, hell! What does get you?
The machine age is crushing man’s soul as well. The Hairy Ape is dramatization of the tortured and anguished soul of Yank. “The truly vicious effects of the capitalist state are not physical, but spiritual.” (Doris Alexander).
The Hairy Ape presents a profoundly pessimistic criticism of life of the American society, or of all societies resembling the American, which most societies are at the moment.