The Hairy Ape as an expressionistic drama.


Point out the features of expressionism in The Hairy Ape.


Consider The Hairy Ape as an expressionistic drama.


What elements of expressionism do you find in The Hairy Ape?


Justify The Hairy Ape as an expressionistic drama.


The Hairy Ape 2Answer: Expressionism has been defined by Morner and Rausch in the following terms: “It attempts to express emotions, moods, and other aspects of inner experience by externalizing them through the use of non-realistic devices.” In drama it involves drama-like distortions, staccato dialogue, abrupt, fantastic and many-leveled action, and non-realistic stage settings.

In The Hairy Ape the playwright has adopted non-realistic method, that is though he has used realistic scenes, he has used them for non-realistic purposes. The setting of the opening scenes, for example is realistically presented, but the playwright warns the reader that “The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic. The effect sought after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship, imprisoned by white steel.” The realistic setting has been to create an impression of overcrowding in the way of an expressionist.

The stokers, including Yank, have also been realistically presented, “Hairy-chested, 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. Yank, the central figure of the play, 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 last word in what they are—their most highly developed individual.” Thus Yank is the representative of a class; he serves to create the impression of man as “hairy ape”. He symbolizes the primitive, the animal like man. Equally realistic as well as equally symbolic is the scene II. Both Mildred and her aunt are symbolic of the artificiality and enervation sensed by the contemporary mechanized and materialized urban life. The description of the inhabitants of the Fifth Avenue in scene V is equally expressionistic. “The crowd from the church enters from the right, sauntering slowly and effectively, their heads held stiffly up, looking neither to right nor left, talking in toneless, simpering voices. The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed… The men are in tail coats, tall hats, spats, canes etc. A procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein’s in their detached mechanical unawareness.” In the description we get the exaggerated distortion of reality so characteristic of an expressionistic play.


According to Allan G. Halline, a critic “… this play is the purest example of the type that O’Neill wrote… In The Hairy Ape the feelings and attitudes of the characters, as well as the intent of the author are brought out by heightened language, choral treatment of characters, distorted and symbolic sets, stylized acting. A majority of O’Neill plays, it may be noted, are expressionistic in one degree or another.”

The number of characters in this expressionistic play is reduced to the minimum. The attention is focused on the central figure, and the rest of the characters are not individualized. They merely serve as background to the full picture of the protagonist. Except Paddy and Long, all the stokers are merely a shadow of voices, contribution to the development of the main character, Yank. The prisoners of the Blackwell Island and the denizens of the Fifth Avenue are presented as mere shadows, not individualized. This technique enables the playwright to focus on the obsession of Yank and the state of his soul. The interaction between the characters does not develop them, or their relationships; they are merely juxtaposed.

The dialogues are also expressionistic. The characters talk in broken sentences, clipped language indicative of their state of mind. Certain expressions are repeated there as also interior monologue. The entire action of the play is focused on the consciousness of Yank, the central figure, the only living personage in the play. The dramatist has exploited the technique of the “interior monologue”, to lay bare the suffering, anguished soul of Yank. The long monologue of Yank after he has been thrown out of the I.W.W with the conviction that he belonged to it; now his conviction receives a rude, shattering shock, a shock which is too much for him. He finds that the I.W.W is the conventional women’s stuff which would like to feed and dress his body and give him shorter hours of work. But the thing which hurts him is not in his belly, it is deep down at the bottom, and the I.W.W cannot touch him. In other words, his suffering—and that of the modern worker—is spiritual and not physical and it is the spirit which is being ignored in the modern mechanized age. Man has been degraded and dehumanized. He has been reduced to a machine, merely to a thing of steel. The full bewilderment of Yank is thus expressed. “I am a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see — it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong! (He turns a bitter, mocking face up like an ape gibbering at the moon.) Say, youse up dere, Man in de Moon, yuh look so, wise, gimme de answer, huh? Slip me de inside dope, de information right from de stable—where do I get off at, huh?” He belongs neither to earth, nor to heaven.

With all his expressionistic techniques, O’Neill does not lose control of the form of drama. Goldberg’s remark is worth quoting here. “O’Neill had yielded to neither the formlessness nor the incoherence of the more extreme expressionists; even when his contact with external reality seems least firm, he yet maintains his grip on the roots of things.”

O’Neill’s expressionistic art in The Hairy Ape is quite successful. It has enabled him to achieve his purpose.