Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953)
Contributing Editor: James A. Robinson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Problems with teaching O'Neill include (1) students' lack of acquaintance with drama as a genre, which leads to problems of point of view, etc.; (2) for Hairy Ape, fragmentation of the action and styles--its anti-realism--bewilders some; I often scan the final scenes in discussion in explaining the expressionism of earlier scenes; (3) difficulty with identifying tone: students don't know whether the work is tragedy, comedy, or satire; whether to identify with the hero or laugh at him.
To address these issues (1) emphasize the absence of point of view as an opportunity, not a problem, and use the central conflict to generate theme--in what ways do Yank and Mildred contrast? What do these contrasts represent (socially, sexually, psychologically)? (2) Relate the fragmentation of setting to that found (or made possible) by film as medium; compare other fragmentations to poetry (Eliot's The Waste Land) and fiction (Faulkner) contemporary with the play. (3) Define Yank as both hero and anti-hero (using Esther Jackson's definition in The Broken World of Tennessee Williams); identify targets of satire (distorted characters, for example) and ask how they relate to Yank's tragic journey toward awareness and toward death.
Consider approaching this play as an existential text (as Doris Falk does in her book on O'Neill) in which Yank is guilty of "bad faith" in his early identification with something outside of himself--steel--leaving him no place to turn when that identification collapses. Finally, consider a Freudian approach for some scenes like scene 3 with its blatant phallic and vaginal symbolism; you could also see Yank as "id" struggling toward "ego" in some ways, as animal striving to become a human individual.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Personal Issues: O'Neill's relationship to women, particularly his blaming of his mother for his "fall" from innocence; O'Neill's lapsed faith in the Catholic God, leading to a philosophical search similar to Yank's; O'Neill's love of death.
Historical Issues: modern industrial capitalism as destructive of harmony (Paddy versus Yank) but O'Neill's lack of faith in social solutions (repudiation of Long).
Themes: alienation as major theme, not "belonging"--dramatized in dialogue, setting, sound effects, and character distortions, as well as in action, a quintessential modern theme.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The primary question is the theatrical mode of expressionism, and why O'Neill chose a style employing distortion and fragmentation for themes of industrialism and alienation.
A related issue is how this expresses the experimental spirit of the 1920s and the questioning of American bourgeois culture spearheaded by Mencken and others--particularly the recognition of class divisions apparent in other works, like Gatsby.
The Broadway audience of the 1920s accepted O'Neill's experimentation, partially because he was promoted by influential critics; but the reviews of Ape were mixed. You could cite reviews from leftist journals about the criticism of capitalism in the play to ignite discussion as to whether this is a central theme. Recently, Joel Pfister has argued along New Historicist lines that O'Neill's Broadway audiences were dominated by members of an emerging professional-managerial class that would empathize with the play's presentation of Yank's angst as philosophical and universal rather than class-based and historically determined.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
As indicated above, the play invites comparison with The Waste Land (fragmentation), The Great Gatsby (social criticism), as well as with figures like Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser and Jack London (the latter influenced O'Neill, in fact), whose American naturalism emphasized the animal, instinctual behavior of man. Darwinism, the struggle toward evolution (note Yank's emergence from the sea onto land in scene 5) clearly informs the assumptions of the play.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
For "genre": the key is central conflict (here, Yank versus Mildred) and how this generates the themes of the play.
For expressionistic aesthetic: point out parallels to/influence of cinema, especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis.
Read the Ape chapter in Doris Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension; Doris Alexander, "Eugene O'Neill as Social Critic," American Quarterly (Winter 1954; rpt. in Oscar Cargill et al., O'Neill and His Plays --which is also useful for O'Neill's extra-dramatic utterances, several of which are in Ape); the chapter on Ape in Timo Tuisanen, O'Neill's Scenic Images; the chapter on Ape in Travis Bogard, Contour in Time: The Plays of EO; my article, "O'Neill's Distorted Dances," in Modern Drama 19 (1976); Jean Chothia, "Theatre Language: Word and Image in The Hairy Ape," in Eugene O'Neill and the Emergence of American Drama, ed. Marc Maufort; and the section on Ape in Joel Pfister, Staging Depth: Eugene O'Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse.