1000 yellow seats, tier upon tier — a sea of bright yellow rising to the rafters: this is the first thing one sees on entering the cavernous performance space of the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall. A startling production of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play from 1922, directed by Richard Jones, originated at the Old Vic in 2015, and features a spectacular design by Stewart Laing that uses the size of the Drill Hall in brilliant contrast to the claustrophobic cages inhabited by the stoker, Yank, the play’s protagonist. The color yellow dominates the set pieces — the stokehole and forecastle of an ocean liner, a jail, a gorilla cage at the zoo — and sparkling accents: yellow shoes, yellow tool boxes, yellow hardhats. A revolving platform spins around the audience like an enormous Lazy Susan, allowing set pieces to be struck or re-set and then emerge into view.
The revolving stage serves as a resonant parallel to the the play’s journey structure. Composed in eight scenes, the action follows Yank’s progression toward O’Neill’s inevitable (and oft-repeated) question: Where do I belong? From domineering leader of his fellow stokers — “I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de woild moves!”— and their (male) effort to feed the (female) ship with coal — “Let her have it! Sling it into her! Feel her move. Watch her smoke! Speed, dat’s her middle name!” — Yank is thrown into vertiginous crisis when Mildred, the daughter of a steel tycoon, goes slumming “to discover how the other half lives.” Seeing the blackened, sweating Yank in the stokehole, she cries “Oh, the filthy beast!”, faints, and is carried off. This encounter sets Yank on a path of revenge that becomes an existential journey to find where, if anywhere, he belongs.
On leave from the ship, Yank sees the luxury items in the stores along Fifth Avenue (including a coat of “monkey fur”) and encounters an after-church crowd that remains oblivious to his presence. Jones uses the full space of the Armory and inventive choreography (by Aletta Collins) for the chorus of pedestrians, dressed in black costumes and masks, with bright yellow shoes. Enraged at his invisibility, Yank attacks the churchgoers, who do not react — they do not feel his blows — but merely repeat: “I beg your pardon.” When a man misses his bus because of Yank’s interference, he calls for a policeman, who bludgeons Yank to the ground.
In jail, Yank learns about the I.W.W — the Industrial Workers of the World — and conceives a plan to join the group, thinking it’s a terrorist organization dedicated to destroying the titans of free-market capitalism. He plans to exact his revenge on Mildred by blowing up her father’s company, Douglas Steel. Concluding that the dynamite-wielding stoker is a police plant, the Wobblies throw him out of the union office, calling him “a brainless ape.” When a policeman tells him to move along, Yank asks, “Where do I go from here?” The cop grins, gives him a shove and replies: “Go to hell.”
At this point, Jones interpolates an eerie party scene, with 1920’s-style dancing and drunken revelry, again using the entire space of the Armory — including the beautifully deteriorating back wall — and graced by a giant floating balloon depicting the benevolent visage of the steel tycoon. This interlude may have arisen from a practical need for time to set the cage on the revolve for the final scene, but in this instance it offers an inspired rhythmic addition to O’Neill’s structure.
In the final scene, Yank finds himself at the zoo, in front of the gorilla cage. In an extended monolog addressed to the gorilla, he acknowledges a peculiar kinship with the beast, releases him from the cage, and offers to shake hands. The gorilla embraces him in “a murderous hug” to which Yank replies, “Hey, I didn’t say kiss me.” The beast responds by throwing him back into the cage. The play ends on an ellipsis from Yank: “Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at de one and only — one and original — Hairy Ape from de wilds of —” as he dies to a chorus of screaming monkeys.
O’Neill’s influences were as varied and vast as the Armory itself. He incorporated elements of German Expressionism: essentialized emotion, character “types,” extremity of gesture, choral responses, and the use of masks; methods of naturalism are replaced by distorted and exaggerated images to express intense, subjective emotion. He was familiar with expressionism from plays such as Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight (1912), which uses a similar journey structure (he also used these elements in The Emperor Jones, from 1920.)
Other influences include the Medieval play Everyman, a literal journey toward death, and elements of Catholic ritual, such as the Stations of the Cross that symbolize Christ’s journey to Golgotha. He also called upon the chorus from Greek tragedy to inspire the astounding soundscape of the play, including the cacophony of ethnic accents on the ship, the rattling discord of the prisoners in the jail, and the screeching of animals in the zoo.
Add to these influences the experience of growing up watching his father, the prominent actor James O’Neill, perform the leading role in the melodrama The Count of Monte Cristo for nearly four decades. While the son may have railed against the father’s surrender to the commercial “show shop” of Broadway, he remained impressed by the powerful acting and the stunning theatrical tableaux of melodrama. And on a deeper level still, a pervasive sense of inferiority, the result of the prejudice against the Irish immigrant population at the time, rendered O’Neill forever uneasy (and often drunk) among the uptown swells who attended his plays.
While the revolving stage and the sophisticated soundscape and choreography enhance each stage of Yank’s journey, not all of Jones’s choices serve O’Neill’s play. Most importantly, the crucial moment of reversal that decides Yank’s course of action — the encounter with the steel heiress Mildred in the stokehole — doesn’t carry much impact here. O’Neill’s description of the scene recalls those impressive tableaux from melodrama, depicting a heightened confrontation between the terrified heiress and the raging Yank, brandishing his coal shovel as a weapon. Jones oddly truncates the moment, undermining the dramatic climax of the scene.
The missing frisson from this moment might also be due to the interpretation of Mildred’s character. In Scene II, O’Neill describes Mildred as “inert … bored by her own anemia … looking as if the vitality of her stock had been sapped before she was conceived …” However, Catherine Combs’s Mildred is a robust, even hyper-active young woman, moving acrobatically on and around the giant letters DOUGLAS STEEL that define the deck of the ocean liner. Her performance throws off the rhythmic structure of the play: the “anemic” female rhythms of Mildred and her aunt in Scene II should provide a contrast to the violent male eruption in the stokehole. And once in the stokehole, this vainglorious Mildred faints at the first sight of Yank — not quite the response we’d expect from the Mildred of the previous scene.
Another problematic interpretation occurs in Scene VII — the office of the I.W.W. O’Neill’s describes the set as “… decidedly cheap, banal, commonplace and unmysterious as a room could well be.” In contrast to the previous six scenes, we’re now in a “realistic” world, devoid of the expressionistic elements seen before and calling for a naturalistic treatment. This contrast is crucial for several reasons, and not only as an expression of O’Neill’s sympathy with the labor movement. Yank mistakes the mission of the I.W.W. as profoundly as he misreads the other elements of the society he encounters. But by stylizing the set and acting, Jones has missed an important thematic point; Yank discovers that he doesn’t belong even among his fellow workers — even when rendered in American naturalism! — any more than he belongs in the other expressionist stations on his journey from the hellfire of the stokehole.
Jones also chooses to exaggerate the violence visited upon Yank beyond what O’Neill indicates in the text, perhaps to emphasize his status as a victim of contemporary capitalism. He calls for the Wobblies to beat Yank after throwing him out of the office; the policeman strikes him with his billy club; and, most tellingly, the gorilla violently throws him against the bars of the cage several times instead of the simple, ambiguous embrace O’Neill called for. But Yank is not merely a working class victim; in his efforts to “t’ink” he represents the everyman trying to discover the very reason for his existence. He fails to find that reason, that peace, except in death — not a Christian death suffused with God’s grace, but the sheer comfort of nonbeing.
Despite these questionable choices (and despite the repetitions and overly explicit thematic motifs typical of O’Neill’s dramaturgy), this production, in this spacious venue, enlarges O’Neill’s own project, theatricalizing and deepening his didacticism with stunning spectacle, including the ebullient touch of the yellow shoes.
So why does a viewer leave the production affected more by the beauty of the space, the design, and the choreography than by the central figure? Perhaps it has to do with Bobby Cannavale’s performance as Yank. He’s certainly a capable actor and appropriate for the role, but something feels missing at bottom — an awareness of an inner contradiction, of the beast struggling with consciousness — a resonant symbol of O’Neill’s own tortured artistic process. Or perhaps this performance would please O’Neill after all: Everyman/Yank is not regarded for his individual, actorly presence but for a more general quality; his very non-uniqueness ultimately results in a more profound representation of the human condition.
The Hairy Ape
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Richard Jones
Park Avenue Armory
March 25-April 22, 2017
New York City
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.