The Hairy Ape and the Pursuit to Belong by Eugene O’Neill

Theatre & Performance Guide and Guru 6

Summer 2012:  36-39

The brooding, never-satisfied Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) hardly ever went to the theatre. Every five years or so he would visit some European country and see one of his plays in a language he could not understand. But he did not bother seeing his plays in British or American theatres as he expected disappointment. We can only wonder what O’Neill would have made of the London productions of two plays launched this spring. While Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) starring David Suchet at the Apollo Theatre has gained the lion’s share of media attention, the lesser-known Hairy Ape (1922) has proven in its own way to be every bit as intriguing. Staged at Southwark Playhouse by Cartwright Productions and Creature of London and directed by Kate Budgen, The Hairy Ape exhibited itself as a fearsome nugget of a one-act play. Budgen used an ensemble of eight to take the lead actor playing a ship stoker on a journey from a filthy stokehole to, among other places, New York City’s Fifth Avenue and the Bronx Zoo, with each scene driving home the inescapability of his hellish isolation.

In the early scenes set in the bowels of an ocean liner, the drunken chants of sailors and talk of radical politics are mixed with visual interrogations of racial stereotypes and notions of social Darwinism. It is, in Budgen’s words, “incredible visceral theatre” created by an ensemble made “flesh and blood”. O’Neill specified in his stage directions that “the men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at”, and that “all the civilized white races are represented” in the stokehole. Including German, Irish, Italian and Cockney, the wide range of early twentieth-century accents challenged both actors and audiences in this production. In the opening scene, the audience heard almost simultaneously such lines that, as O’Neill wrote them, read thus: “I hit him smash in yaw, py Gott!” and “I like peer better. It don’t pig head gif you.” To educated theatregoers in the 1920s, this was all strange speech from a world that seemed somehow more vital than their own. O’Neill is, however, now regarded as notoriously poor at recording dialect. Budgen used two dialect coaches to help translate O’Neill’s odd spellings into more accurate and understandable speech patterns.

In the third of eight scenes, the hulking stoker Yank (played by Bill Ward) was confronted in the stokehole by Mildred (Emma King), the steel magnate’s daughter whose frustrated boredom had sent her slumming it down into the stokehole. Yank was black with coal dust; Mildred was dressed in flowing white and, interestingly, stood slightly taller than Yank. But the contrast was somewhat illusory as, according to Budgen, Mildred was “just as trapped” in her class as Yank was in his. The fine lady’s disgust at the sight of Yank nosedived the stoker’s sense of self worth, so distancing him from his shipmates that he could not bring himself to wash off the coal dust. (The 1931 London production of The Hairy Ape cast the African-American Paul Robeson in the lead, greatly heightening the racial undertones.) Aided by Jean Chan’s flexible, minimal set made of wooden decking, Yank with his burden of Mildred’s disgust was then sent out into a city that, as the last four scenes repeatedly demonstrated, cared nothing for his manhood, if indeed it recognised it at all.

With an admirably thick New York accent, Ward played a role O’Neill deemed “tremendous”, though the playwright admitted to doubting “if an actor can act it”. O’Neill based the character Yank on a stoker named Driscoll, whose friendship he had made during his seafaring days around 1910 and 1911. Normally seamen had nothing to do with the rougher men who sweated in the stokehole. “I shouldn’t have known the stokers if I hadn’t happened to scrape an acquaintance with one of our own furnace-room gang at Jimmy the Priest’s,” O’Neill said, referring to the bar and flophouse in lower Manhattan (the basis for the setting of The Iceman Cometh) where sailors could hang out for weeks in a boozy haze. When O’Neill and Driscoll were on board the S.S. Philadelphia sailing from Southampton to New York, Driscoll would have been shovelling coal while O’Neill was scrubbing decks — the future playwright all too bristlingly aware, as Driscoll would not have been, of the wealthy passengers and their superior airs. In The Hairy Ape, O’Neill used the seemingly impossible confrontation between the stoker and the steel magnate’s daughter to bring Yank to an awareness of his perceived physical, social and intellectual inferiority, an awareness with which his life up to that moment had given him no means to cope.

For stokers were proud of their physical labour, and Driscoll was the brawniest and best at his job. In a 1924 interview, O’Neill described Driscoll as “a giant of a man and absurdly strong. He thought a whole lot of himself, was a determined individualist. He was very proud of his strength, his capacity for gruelling work. It seemed to give him mental poise to be able to dominate the stokehole, do more work than any of his mates.” O’Neill had tried to take his own life in 1912 while staying at Jimmy the Priest’s, yet in 1915 he was stunned to learn that Driscoll, age 37, had jumped overboard from an ocean liner: “It was the why of Driscoll’s suicide that gave me the germ of my play The Hairy Ape.”

Yank is obsessed with his need to “belong”, using the word in nearly every scene of The Hairy Ape, first with pride and from then on with yearning. His need was in fact O’Neill’s own, his life sentence that no success nor marriage could commute. Born in a hotel, O’Neill grew up as the son of a working-class, itinerant actor who played the Count of Monte Cristo six thousand times and a prim middle-class mother who hated to let her husband travel without her and looked down on his thespian associates. Going to sea represented a kind of rebellion for O’Neill, and perhaps the comradeship he experienced then gave him a brief respite from his abiding sense of alienation. “If I write often of seamen it is because I know and like them so well,” he said. “I was once one of them.”

In this production, Budgen aimed to convey Yank’s alienated condition as a universal one. “I saw myself in him,” she explains, echoing O’Neill’s stated desire for the perception of his great character. Frustrated at the blindness of 1920s audiences, O’Neill expounded that Yank “is every human being. But, apparently, very few people seem to get this. . . . No one has said, ‘I am Yank! Yank is my own self!’” As if to emphasise the point, Mark Cartwright had a short black-and-white film made and posted on the Cartwright Production website showing how men trapped in a 1920s lift could change in differing ways under stress, with one man discovering that, as he grew more fierce, the others in the lift saw him as a threatening beast. The cage of the lift foreshadowed the many cages of The Hairy Ape, including not only the stokehole but the prison where Yank is thrown in Scene Six and the gorilla cage where he winds up in the last scene.

Because the play’s universal message can be lost amid its political and racial currents, Budgen chose to “leave [its politics] outside” the rehearsal room, though she felt that the London riots of last August made The Hairy Ape “extraordinarily relevant”. After his confrontation with Mildred, Yank and his radical English shipmate Long (played engagingly by Mark Weinman) seek out wealth amid the luxuries of Fifth Avenue and their well-dressed frequenters. Each held a mask to one side in expressionistic fashion, as if accompanied by a partner equally oblivious to the presence of the stokers. Yank was thrown in prison for trying to hit one of these zombies, and there a fellow inmate (Mitchell Mullen) told him he needed to join the Industrial Workers of the World, “if you want to get back at that dame” Douglas. Amid much rattling of cell cages, the inmate then quoted from a newspaper’s printing of a U. S. senator’s speech stating that the I. W. W. “would tear down society, put the lowest scum in the seats of the mighty . . . and make of our sweet and lovely civilization a shambles, a desolation where man, God’s masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape!” Budgen’s team discovered that the newspaper article thus cited was actually published.

O’Neill was swimming in dangerous waters in 1922 when he dared to let the prisoners mock the words of a patriotic politician. The senator’s fears were widespread in an America that had just passed through its first Red Scare, 1919-20, and the steel strike of 1919-20. Dogged by rumours that they were backed by communists and the I. W. W., steel workers were physically and financially beaten while a majority of Americans only wanted to know that their way of life remained protected. The I. W. W. was America’s best known radical organisation in the 1920s, its membership of “wobblies” numbering around one hundred thousand. However, its power was then decreasing, as members were often imprisoned and some were killed by police or angry mobs. It would not the least have amazed 1920s audiences that when Yank arrived at an I. W. W. office ready to “blow tings up . . . steel – all de cages”, he was told by the wary secretary (Patrick Myles) that he must be both a government spy and “a brainless ape”.

The F. B. I. was watching O’Neill. In Eugene O’Neill’s America, John Patrick Diggins cites the report of one government agent: “The Hairy Ape could lend itself to radical propaganda, and it is somewhat surprising that it has not already been used for this purpose.” The New York Police Department even tried to shut the play down on the grounds of its “obscene, indecent and impure” language but failed in court. O’Neill commented to the press at the time, “This stupidity was to be expected. Morons will be morons.” Perhaps O’Neill’s case was aided by his own disillusionment with the anarchists’ cause, however much he shared its concerns. On one occasion O’Neill described himself as “a philosophical anarchist” whose slogan was, “Go to it, but leave me out of it!” As he saw it, all power corrupts and humans could not escape their desire for power.

Eventually Yank decided he had nowhere to go but the Bronx Zoo, where he found a gorilla to whom he could speak freely. “I didn’t want to go near a man in a gorilla suit,” says Budgen, explaining why she chose to play the scene in total darkness punctuated only by the sounds of a disturbed gorilla. One audience member told the producer Mark Cartwright that experiencing the scene reminded him of “those horror rides” at amusement parks. The lights returned to show a dying Yank, his ribs having been crushed by the escaped gorilla. Several critics agree that, by putting Yank in the gorilla cage to die, O’Neill was recalling a now infamous exhibition at the zoo in 1906, when a Congolese pygmy, Ota Benga, was placed in the monkey house for a few months. David Roediger argues, “The Bronx Zoo presented [Benga] as the missing evolutionary link between human beings and apes.” A sign on the exhibit read: “The African Pigmy, ‘Ota Benga.’ Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State…Exhibited each afternoon during September.”

O’Neill may have been aware of Benga’s agreement to be thus exhibited and of his subsequent depression and suicide in 1916. So desperate was his Yank that he was willing to entertain the notion that he and the gorilla were “bot’ members of dis club” of the strong whom society seeks to cage. “Yank can’t go forward and so he tries to go back,” O’Neill said. “This is what his shaking hands with the gorilla meant.” The final stage direction reads, “And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs.” Years later O’Neill seemed to have lost the uncertainty of that “perhaps”. In Louis Sheaffer’s biography, O’Neill is quoted discussing the death of his brother Jamie from alcoholism: “He had never found his place. He had never belonged. I hope like my ‘Hairy Ape’ he does now.”