Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Hairy Ape--Eugene O'Neill (1922)

I was trying to do another post which involved scanning some pictures but I couldn't get my scanner to work (it kept saying it wasn't hooked up properly) so I am going to skip it for now.Eugene O'Neill has been a name and a set of basic facts known to me for at least twenty-five years now, in all of which time however he has not progressed much in my consciousness beyond those original facts. On only one occasion have I been present when his name has come up in conversation, and the person who made mention of him did so in a most scornful manner, with which asessment no one present had disagreed, and several had smiled wickedly at the thought of people so stupid as to believe Eugene O'Neill was a good writer.

I must say, when reading Eugene O'Neill, I am often inclined to think these sneering student critics were onto something after all. He had a rather flat style joined to an opaque manner of storytelling, which tends to lie dead on the page. I find more and more as I get older how essential it is with most playwrights to actually see the work performed, but I wonder if O'Neill is not the most extreme example of this. There was an outstanding movie made of Long Day's Journey Into Night back in the early 60s that made a very strong impression where reading had produced no sensation in me at all, though why I could not envision the ways the scenes ought to be spoken and played out in reading them I still do not understand. There were a number of famous movie stars (Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards) in this film who demonstrated a familiarity with the play and the type of theater out of which it originated which one who only knew them from the movies would not necessarily have suspected them to have. It was, frankly, impressive. I haven't seen any other films of his plays--I think this might be supposed to be the best one, though I notice that Hepburn and Robards appear in some of the other filmed versions, such as Strange Interlude and The Iceman Cometh (never to be confused, of course, with The Diceman Cometh).

The Hairy Ape is a not especially pleasant early twentieth century play about the class struggle. I don't think it is giving away the surprise too much to reveal that the poor lose. It reads loudly. The action takes place on a huge ocean liner with lots of iron machines and fiery furnaces and in a chaotic New York full of shouting paperboys, and traffic. These are the salient details that stick out in my memory of the reading. Now I am going to look over the notes I made, which actually look more interesting than usual, though unfortunately I wrote them sloppily and am having trouble deciphering what they say.
The laborers on the ship are described right in the stage directions as resembling "those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at." There is a lot of overkill in establishing this idea throughout the play. Yank, the protagonist and hairy ape of the title, is defined as "their most highly developed individual", the strongest, fiercest, most self-assured, etc, though his level of development does not count for much as one moves up the food chain of the jungle of humanity.

Now I going to digress again to consider the history of Eugene O'Neill's reputation and where it goes from here. 1936, the year he won the Nobel Prize, I think would be a good start, because that seems to have been about when his acclaim was at its highest, and when he was regarded as a major figure in the nation's cultural life on par with the way Martin Scorcese or some similar renowned filmmaker would be today. By the time he died in 1953 he had moved a little away from the white hot center of literary fashion, but was still considered indisputably to be America's greatest playwright. This was still the case more or less in 1962, the various reference books I have from that year indicating the opinion that any well-educated American would be expected to have some familiarity with his work, and certainly any serious stage actor at the time would have had to have a more than passing knowledge of his oeuvre. The edition of the book in the picture at the top of the page is part of an attractive multivolume set put out in 1964 by Random House apparently for mass market sale, which even had the internet never come into existence is almost unfathomable for a collection of plays not by Shakespeare. By my childhood and youth, the 1980s, mainstream America had largely lost contact with what was going on in the theater, and its reading classes being cut off from any relation to that context, O'Neill's style and the construction of his plots no longer had much resonance; and as to the intellectuals, I assume that during the heyday of postmodernism and deconstruction his concerns and manner of expressing them must have seemed a bit dull and simplistic, hence the ridicule of him I encountered among the students in the early 90s. Today there seems to be some interest in him of a historical nature, people who are curious about what was hot in 1930, that sort of thing. I don't detect a big O'Neill influence on contemporary literature or theater, though I could be wrong about that.

I have a bunch of notes the meaning of which I have no longer any idea:

1. Theory on feminism held back (women on boats/death in (lakes?), etc) Socialist? I have no clue what this is supposed to mean.
2. Symbol of hell, (obv.?), & can I bring down to upper expectations also? I assume that the stokehole is the symbol of hell. The second part of this makes no sense.

3. Atmosphere of industrial life such part of USA, (underlined word, illegible, here) now. The illegible word may be 'done'. The working-class bustle one imagines to have been formerly such a constant feature in the life of our now largely hollowed-out city centers when reading these old books stirs an unsavory and emotional nostalgia, for what exactly I would be hard-pressed to either explain or defend, I am sure.

The comparison of the laborers' voices to phonograph horns followed by a chorus of hard, barking laughter (in the stage directions) is repeated numerous times in Scene Four, I assume for a point. The obvious suggestion is that these men have taken on an industrialized, mass-produced, anti-human quality as a result of the environment in which they have to exist.
Scene Five, more stage directions (this is where much of the action is for the reader in this play) describing storefront windows on Fifth Avenue: "The general effect is of a background of magnificence cheapened and made grotesque by commercialism, a background in tawdry disharmony with the clear light and sunshine on the street itself."

The socialist agenda is laid on in a more or less similiarly heavy fashion throughout the rest of the play. The art, or other greatness quality in it I admit are very elusive to me.

In Scene Seven, after his apelike persona results in his getting tossed out even of an I.W.W. office, Yank sits in the middle of the street in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker" and reflects, "Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain't steel, and de woild owns me." I thought this was important because it reveals that his consciousness has now been awakened, but not in the usual positive sense with which we identify this event, because he is a shattered man who cannot recover what he had been formerly, which was a man sufficient at least unto himself. One could interpret it as an analysis about the entire modern human condition.

Eugene O'Neill, as I'm sure you know, had a gorgeous daughter, Oona, who married Charlie Chaplin when she was 18, after which her father apparently never spoke to her again, and went on to have 8 children. I'm very interested in gorgeous literary-connected people.

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