The Tragedy of Eugene O’Neill’s Play, The Hairy Ape
Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape is the story of an alienated, low-class stoker named Yank. Yank’s life becomes a whirlwind when Mildred, the daughter of a wealthy steel owner, looks at Yank like he is a hairy ape. This action creates the withdrawal Yank exhibits. The remainder of the play is Yank’s journey to find his place in society’s realms. He searches for his place in a stokehole, at Fifth Avenue, and in jail. Ultimately Yank’s trek ends as a gorilla squeezes the life out of Yank—O’Neill’s suggestion that Yank can only belong in death (O’Neill 57).
Eugene Gladstone O’Neill was born on October 16, 1888, in New York City. His father, James O’Neill, was a popular actor, and introduced Eugene O’Neill to the theater at an early age. After being expelled from Princeton in 1906, O’Neill worked as a gold prospector in Honduras and later as a seaman in the New York area. Soon O’Neill became a regular at bars and clubs in New York City. In 1912, O’Neill contracted tuberculosis. It was during his recovery that O’Neill began to write plays. He wrote many plays and is one of the greatest American dramatists. O’Neill won four Pulitzer Prizes—Beyond the Horizon (1920), Anna Christie (1922), Strange Interlude (1928), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1957). Eugene O’Neill also received the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature. O’Neill was given the Nobel Prize, “for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy” (<http://nobelprizes.com/nobel/literature/1936a.html>).
Some critics point to The Hairy Ape as a satirical play. These critics suggest that "clearly O’Neill is a critic of American society and society as a whole," (Alexander 390) and " The Hairy Ape presents an extremely negative view of the state, of mechanized America, where the worker best adjusted to the system is a ‘hairy ape’…" (Alexander 390). Their view overlooks The Hairy Ape’s lack of suitable answers to specific social problems mentioned—a vital trait of satirical plays. Other critics propose that The Hairy Ape is a comedy. This suggestion has no basis except for the title—The Hairy Ape: A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes. This conclusion, though, can also be dismissed because of the play’s lack of comic language and the absence of a non-tragic ending. The evidence in the play points to The Hairy Ape as a tragedy. Most critics mention the numerous elements of tragedy found in The Hairy Ape.
The Aristotelian definition of a tragedy is a play that ends unhappily, arousing the pity and terror of the audience over the misfortunes that befall the principal character. These misfortunes of the primary character, or tragic flaw—a shortcoming in an otherwise admirable character—is usually hubris, or excessive pride. The Greek Tragedy also has a tragic hero, an essentially admirable character whose downfall is the tragic flaw. ...