The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill

Contact Us

BBC Radio 3, 6 December 2009
With Dominic West (of The Wire fame) as the star, Toby Swift's revival was clearly conceived as a prestige production. He played Yank, a stoker on an Atlantic passenger-ship who spent most of his life cooped up in a boiler-room with his fellow crew-members. Considered insignificant by the bourgeois passengers on deck, they nonetheless acquire a kind of strength  - although a very diverse set of personalities, they remain committed to the group ethic. Their relatively peaceful existence is interrupted, however, once Mildred (Sacha Pick) decides to visit them. A typical member of the New York aristocracy, she wants to develop a social conscience without the commitment; to understand 'the working class' without sacrificing anything of her comfortable existence. She comes to visit the crew; and is quite obviously shocked by what she sees. Yank is likewise surprised; and from then on decides to destroy the aristocracy (especially Mildred) with an almost revolutionary zeal. O'Neill puts him through a series of adventures, both at sea and on land; but he eventually ends up in a zoo talking to an ape, in a vain attempt to prove that he is actually is a human being rather than an animal. Yank meets a grisly end, crushed to death by the ape while exclaiming "Where do I fit in?"
O'Neill uses the play to make some trenchant comments about social inequality in early 1920s America; the casual indifference shown by the aristocracy towards the working class; the complacent trade unions which, while purporting to represent workers' interests, are more concerned with self-preservation; and people like Yank, who because they lack an education and pursue dead-end jobs are treated as detritus by everyone. The Hairy Ape actually depicts Yank as a master of language with a rhythm all its own; like his fellow crew-members, he has developed a kind of discourse suitable for his vocation.
Swift's production made much of the fact that humans can often prove indistinguishable from animals: as Yank referred on one occasion to institutions such as "love" and "the law," "God" and "government," the rest of the crew-members repeated each word scornfully, as if recognizing that none of these institutions had any real relevance in their lives. They were nothing more than outcasts. Swift also suggested that, once Yank had left the comfortable, almost womb-like world of the boiler room, his demise was almost inevitable; as he encountered the gorilla, we heard ominous music in the background, signalling that he was about to meet his inevitable fate.
And yet despite Swift's obvious sincerity of purpose, I couldn't help feeling that The Hairy Ape does contain its fair share of ranting. Yank is given too much opportunity to monopolize the listeners' attention, and thereby suspends the development of the plot. We might understand his social disadvantages, but perhaps he ought not to be so voluble in his opinions. But then perhaps this is something that could be said of most of O'Neill's plays.