Yank As A Modern Day Oedipus In O' Neill's Play, The Hairy Ape

2282 words - 9 pages

Yank as a Modern Day Oedipus in O' Neill's Play, The Hairy Ape

The representation of tragedy today has adapted itself to more humanistic, base and symbolic concerns. Often, they are commentaries on society just as much as they are on the nature of man. Although O' Neill insists that his play "The Hairy Ape" is not a tragedy, but rather a dark comedy, the play follows the definition of a tragedy. The basic points that make up a tragedy still remain the same, even if they have to be slightly modified to be relevant to today's audience. Despite this, The Hairy Ape bears a striking resemblance to the quintessential Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex.

The only direct challenge to the Aristotelian definition of tragedy is the portrayal of the tragic hero as not only not being a "noble" in the traditional sense, but usually as a working class, common man. Arthur Miller discusses this belief in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man". In it, he insists that "we never hesitate to attribute to the well placed and the exalted the very same mental processes as the lowly" and "if the exaltation of tragic action were truly the property of the high bred character alone, it is inconceivable that the mass of mankind should cherish tragedy above all other forms, let alone be capable of understanding it"(Miller 1162).

According to Aristotle, a tragedy concerns a person of noble stature. In the modern sense, as explained by Miller, "noble" does not necessarily mean royalty or upper class, merely that the tragic protagonist "is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity"(1162). Yank is willing to do this. His sense of justice is primitive in that he is not concerned with the consequences of his revenge, but only that he gets it. Similar to Oedipus' obsessive search for the truth, Yank's blind revenge will lead him down his path of self destruction.

YANK : ...I wished it'd banged her! I wished it'd knocked her block off.
LONG : And be 'anged for murder or 'lectrocuted? She ain't bleedin' well worth it.
YANK : I don't give a damn what! I'd be square wit her, wouldn't I? Tink I wanter let her put somep'n over on me? Tink I'm gonna let her git away wit that stuff?

This is one of the most telling sections of the play. Long is the voice of reason. He recognizes the concept of law and weighs decisions inside the context of such. Long sees his life as more important than Mildred and her actions are. Yank however, does not merely want revenge on Mildred. For Yank, the only important thing is his sense of self respect. He isn't going to let her put "somep'n" over me. Ironically, Long's declaration that Yank would be "'anged or 'lectrocuted" is only half true. Yank does indeed die at the end of his search to reclaim his dignity and identity, but in accordance with his final realization that he is merely a brute, animalistic being, he is killed by and as such.

Oedipus may literally be of noble stature, but Yank...

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