The Hairy Ape
That said, it is not hard to see why The Hairy Ape is not high on the list of O'Neill's produced works. For one thing, there are a great many monologues and little dialogue, so the play has a declamatory feel. The plot is fairly simplistic and the central character, Yank (an anti-hero if ever there was one), lacks depth. He is an extreme example of a brute, who is undone when he realizes that, rather than standing at the pinnacle of power, he and his ilk are at the bottom. The play seems to have been intended to make a statement which O'Neill certainly does, but without an iota of subtlety. Combustible's production takes that statement and superimposes it on our current social-political landscape, a gambit that works remarkably well, though, again, with little regard for subtlety.
In the boiler room of a trans-Atlantic ocean liner steaming toward New York City in the years after the first World War, Yank heads up a crew of stokers, men who spend their days shoveling coal into the furnaces that power the mighty vessel. The men are filthy from coal dust and lathered in sweat, emitting grunts as they work in a constant rhythmic pace that requires no thought, only muscles. None of this diminishes Yank–on the contrary, he believes it is his power and the crew he dominates that make the boat go. He claims it as their boat, for it would mean nothing without them. The passengers dining on fine china and sleeping in staterooms above are mere baggage. Paddy, an old-timer, reminisces about days of yore when he worked on sailing vessels, when ship and wind and sea and men glided across the sea as one. Another crew member, Long, recognizes their subjugation as he advocates for the union and for socialism. Neither alter Yank's view of himself as the top dog who makes the ship go, and the other stokers stick with Yank, whose firm belief gives meaning to their lives.
On the top deck high above, a wealthy young woman named Mildred naively declares her wish to be a social worker and help those in need. Against the advice of her snooty aunt, she descends to the furnace room to see for herself those her work will benefit but is unprepared for the constant din of the furnaces, the stifling heat, and the filth glazed upon the men. She and Yank stare at one another until she shrieks in terror, calling Yank a filthy beast. The words "filthy beast" become, in Yank's mind, "hairy ape," and he is enraged at her gall, at her utter disrespect for his power and dismissal of all she owes to him. After the ship docks in New York, Yank can neither forget nor forgive the woman who offended him and is determined to make her pay. But he has no idea of how to fight back against the vast web of power of which she is a part. From having been the most essential player in his scheme of things, Yank loses any sense of worth. He gets into a fight, is sent to jail, tries and fails to find a place for himself in the union, and continues on a downward spiral that does not end well.
One has to question whether the men like Yank, whose muscularity was unquestionably essential in building the industrial empire represented by the ship, could also have a modicum of kindness, or use mental capacities along with muscles. O'Neill's conceit seems to have been to conjure the most extreme specimen of a brute, relying on nothing but physical strength and intimidation to hold his place in the world, with no ability to moderate his behavior. When it becomes apparent that the educated, refined men riding first class actually do have all the power, Yank can salvage nothing–neither the nostalgia proffered by Paddy nor the reorganization of power advocated by Long–to keep him from being just a hair's breath from the ranks of a caged ape.
The performance style draws heavily on physical theatre techniques, very effectively using the actors' entire bodies, along with their voices, to express feelings and ideas, starting with the soft opening in which cast members wander onto the stage, languorously looking about and positioning themselves in various poses on a few pieces of bright yellow scaffolding that serve as the set, creating stark images that held firm in my mind throughout the entire play.
Foremost among the outstanding cast is Nick Miller, giving an aptly ferocious performance as Yank, using rippling muscles and booming voice to make his stance, but with a light in his eyes that seems to suggest a deeply submerged vulnerability. The others in the cast are also terrific. These include Erik Hoover as Paddy, whose long experience puts him beyond getting riled up about the present indignities; Nick Likens as Long, proselytizing a workingmen's fight; Alice Wenzlow as self-deluded Mildred, who refuses to cover up her pure white dress before going down to the furnaces because she has fifty more like it; Renee Howard Hatton as Mildred's aunt, using comical physicality to express disdain for Mildred's ideas, and Anna Pladson as a no-nonsense secretary of a workers' union, whose organizing strategies are at odds with Yank's explosiveness.
Longhi and her creative team use costuming (designed by Longhi), sound (Micah Kopecky's excellent design), lighting (evocatively created by Paul Epton), and Jim Peitzman's projections to leap from O'Neill's exposition of an industrial worker as an insect–even a burly one–squashed under the heel of capitalism to a depiction of a segment of our populace whose disaffection and loss of hope provoke them to look not up, toward inspiring and uplifting voices aiming raise them out of their morass, but downward to one even more crude, less forgiving, and more dependent on brutality to restore a sense of dignity based not on rising up, but on dragging everyone else down.
This transition from the ship's boiler room in 1920 to a political campaign in 2016 occurs with stunning effectiveness, delivering a bracing, if not terrifying, cautionary dispatch. What, precisely is the message? To not underestimate the ferocity of those who have felt themselves called "filthy beasts" and "hairy apes" (or "basket of deplorables"), yes, but also for those among us who have issued such epithets, perhaps using different words, perhaps uttered unwittingly, to shoulder a share of responsibility for the resulting discord.
It has taken the many decades of my life to see The Hairy Ape for the first time, and it is possible that there won't be another one, so I am grateful for the opportunity and especially to Combustible Company for taking what is, after all, one of O'Neill's lesser works and presenting it in a manner that is compelling to watch, and that finds in this century-old play a parable for our times.
Combustible Company's The Hairy Ape runs through November 18, 2023, at Center for Performing Arts, 3754 Pleasant Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For information and tickets, please visit CombustibleCompany.org.
Playwright: Eugene O'Neill; Director and Costume Design: Kim Longhi; Set Design: Jim Peitzman and Kym Longhi; Lighting Design: Paul Epton; Sound Design: Micah Kopecky; Video Design: Jim Peitzman; Stage Manager: Joni Griffith
Cast: Kaleb Baker (First Prisoner/ensemble), Michael DiPrima (Second Engineer/ensemble), Renee Howard Hatton (Mildred's Aunt/ensemble), Erik Hoover (Paddy/ensemble), Nick Likens (Long/ ensemble), Nick Miller (Robert "Yank" Smith), Anna Pladson (The Secretary/ensemble), Alice Wenzlow (Mildred Douglas).