In Which I Overthought The Hairy Ape Until My Tiny Mind Imploded…

November 5, 2015

It’s way down at the bottom. You can’t grab it & you can’t stop it. It moves & everything moves. It stops and the whole world stops.

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I went to see The Hairy Ape last weekend and really wanted to write about it, but I don’t know if I can! I felt this play was about identity and it feels worrying how hard I’m finding it to articulate any thoughts or feelings at all. I feel confused and stupid. Please send help?

The play follows a stoker on a transatlantic liner.  There’s a part where all the stokers are… stoking the engine.  Gradually they gather so they move in unison, in rhythm, and in that moment they become a perfect machine: you feel what these men are to the vessel they drive.  At this point, I half wished it a silent play, scratching it’s rage on those finding it most uncomfortable…  There are many moments in the play where I felt and understood things via other senses rather than just dialogue: Loud sounds shock and confuse and the evocative soundscape throws you into a disorienting, unnatural world.  Brash colour encroaches and choreography and movement seem to me to follow emotional expression.

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Overall I found The Hairy Ape sad while watching, but I think even more troubling some time later.  It lingered with me.  While watching I felt sorrow for the protagonist Yank: through being shocked into questioning what had seemed to be his strongly defined sense of self, he is shattered into nothingness.  Later, I think I felt more how his rage and sorrow reflected that within surely so many people.

Yank works at the heart of a liner. He thinks he knows his worth: he is the engine driving the ship, the steel, building the world.  His ego is strong and he is able to feel he belongs and is above others (‘They above couldn’t do what I do.’) In the bellows of the ship, Yank has clear status: he commands respect, effortlessly leads and is listened to, he literally celebrates working in Hell (‘It’s a man’s work.’)

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Yank is power, physicality and his sense of himself is this physically driven force. He can’t understand how any means other than his brute force could garner respect. He doesn’t really have a complete sense of himself at all I don’t think (later in the play, he struggles to even remember his real name.) The play does present us with other views – there’s a politically minded stoker and another who harks back to ‘the good old days’ but Yank doesn’t understand either man, nor does have have time or desire to.  And he speaks at one point of how he doesn’t have a past or a future so can only exist now – maybe another reason he can’t empathise with such viewpoints?  But then, at the time, he seems not to really even listen.  Everyone knows what they think and are so convinced in their own rightness they need not listen to anyone else’s views. The men uphold Yank most as he has highest status more than because of what he says.

Though neither man’s ideas shake Yank’s foundations, a silly girl (I call her silly, but though she is utterly irritating, I felt very sorry for her too and found her also to be lost..?) unknowingly insult’s Yanks pride with her throwaway horror on encountering him.  This breaks his large yet fragile ego and he is thrown, bewildered, spiralling into confronting who he really is.  Where can he fit in?  How can he exist?  Can he fit in?  Can he exist?

I found the play additionally tragic as Yank has been trapped by matter of birth, but was able to carve so strong a position for himself in the life imposed upon him. Yet despite his extreme bravura and power when we first see him, he still is broken completely and reduced to nothing. It made me think of the sorrow in the world if every person had complete self-awareness of who they are and perhaps their insignificance.  Seems so futile and horrid.  I don’t mean to call everyone insignificant… err…!  A few people aren’t!  haha!  Sorry, I jest!  Sort of…  When this play was written, back in 1922, nearly 100 years ago, was one of the things it presented to it’s audience as it as I felt it now: asking people to question at the deepest level who they are?! Or am I talking drivel? And not only who they are, but how they judge others and assume things about who other people are.  (I hope the play made people feel a little uncomfortable…)

Anyway, Yank sets out, raging against this girl who has insulted him. But of course, he has misunderstood already that it is not she but something far greater he ought to battle against. He continues to try to fight the only way he understands – trying to physically exact revenge, time and again only being pushed further down physically and existentially himself. (I just used the word “existentially” then did an actual laugh out loud at myself! I permit you to do the same! Haha!)

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Bertie Carvel is both powerful and subtle as Yank.  I saw Bakkhai less than two months before and I don’t think he could be much more different.  It is a transformative performance. Yank is intimidating. He seems twice as tall as anyone else and is utter Ape in physicality: proud and brutal.  But later there is also childlike innocence and bewilderment which fits entirely with a man who probably became who he would remain when still a child (Yank himself speaks of just when the stokehole became home for him) and so of course this is still how he sees and understands the world. It is quite amazing I think that you come to feel the inner world of this character to the degree you do.  In real life Yank is not a man you’d be likely to get to understand.  Here, he is given a voice.  I am finding his confusion is confusing me just trying to think about it – I cannot imagine how you would go about conveying it and these completely opposing sides of power and loss of self at the same time.  Also, though he begins the play proud and strong, there is already an element of him that is pitiable. As he loses his sense of identity, Yank also begins to truly learn who he is, so on his way to inevitable doom, he becomes more eloquent in thought and understanding.

In a poignant way, there truly is a sense in which Yank really is that ape.  Yes, physically (from the outset Bertie Carvel holds himself ape-like), but where it matters most is in the way Yank tries to define himself, and in fact already sees himself.  It is almost funny and simultaneously very sad the way he thinks in some scenarios he is confronted with.  He desperately strives to find his place but goes at everything wrongly.  I found the play like ape versus steel, as though this industrialised world were become steel itself and no matter how Yank were to throw himself at it, he is mere animal, bashing against uncompromising metal. The world has birthed Yank into an existence in which he cannot mean anything, no matter how or if he may try to.

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A looming moon to give you nightmares. (Looming Moon could be the name of a band, no? LOOMING MOON!)

Thus, Yank no longer fits anywhere.  It is truly tragic.  It reflects on the way society pushes and holds down those at the bottom, driving the figurative these days if less often the literal engines… but I experienced it most as an individual story.  The world consumes Yank.  It is true of many people of all classes – I mentioned I felt sorry for Mildred too, but maybe everyone in the play is boxed and trapped somehow?

I don’t know whether to write this, but a few insecurities Yank displayed once he’s made it outside, I recognised.  They made me realise oddities about people I know or have known even are/were insecurities.  This and maybe other things I’ve already spoken of made me think about people from my life & past.  It is too personal & daft, but I wrote a bit more here. (Nothing about the play though. Depressing overshared rambling about my Dad and an ancestor from far earlier. I’d advise against clicking!)

Back to The Hairy Ape: Yank thought he was part of the steel, but the metal crushes rather than moulding to him. He is trapped, unable to escape what he is.  The delicate shattering of his steely sense of self is heartbreaking, because he is the steel that grinds the ship, but by the end of the play, he becomes nothing at all.  Worse even: though he didn’t know until he awoke to it, he was always really nothing at all.

Beyond Yank’s individual story, I felt the play gave a voice to countless men from any time who’d likely never express their rage & sorrow or how they felt about their place in the world.  Though it may be felt acutely they may either be unwilling or unable to articulate it, or they may feel it but perhaps not even know where such feelings stemmed from?

I can imagine people having very different thoughts on The Hairy Ape. I think it is quite a strange play in that it works on some weird level, like that liner, down deep in the sea. But something about it bothered me and lingers.   It made me sad.  It made me feel uncomfortable.  And I think it digs down deep to the soul of a man… which can extend as a kind of eulogy to the soul of anyone?  And of course, speaking directly I suppose it is simple.  Man comes from the ape and when the world and his own feelings about himself takes too much from him, there he descends again.

Before I end, I saw this play again and each time saw something new or a new link. The way both Mildred & Yank pick at the column on the stage; the way she is reprieved from the notion of Hell, yet Yank is told to go there. The way Yank articulates his inner world entirely by the end…

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And so much more, but ultimately, while each new discovery leads to deepening, it is feelings that matter I think.

Here I am, trying to express what I thought and felt about a play because no matter how stupid any of us feel, at the same time, we all feel as though our own feelings and experiences matter.  This play bothered me: the cages we put ourselves and others in; the idea that there are surely so many people in the world who are so lost or who could be more than they are but who never ever will be & no-one will ever hear their sorrow, their rage, or will even care.  And many people won’t even understand their own rage.  We can think and feel so much, but the majority of us are so limited in what we can be, or even experience.  And perhaps all, or at least most of us are ultimately alone.

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Alone and insignificant.  What a cheery way to end.  The play also, made me think of this ^, Edvard Munch’s The Scream.  Which I imagine a lot of people would laugh at me for saying.  But oh well, they’d laugh no more at this than my words.  Perhaps I should have just posted that image and said here: here is what The Hairy Ape made me feel.  Because I think the only achievement of all this writing has been a small shattering of my own already limited self worth as I see the twaddle spill from my fingers. haha!

I know my thoughts as I tried to write them are not the most articulate or coherent, let alone put across in an interesting way.  I am not a writer.  But I love how plays make you think.  I wonder whether both the fact that they’re so direct as you experience them live and that you have to imagine more than say film or telly can make you think more than you might be likely to with other mediums?  As in you are left to complete it all yourself more?  I don’t know. Anyway, thank you to The Old Vic and everyone involved in this play’s existence.

  • Images are Production Images, thanks to The Old Vic
  • The Hairy Ape is on at The Old Vic until 21st November.
  • The Hairy Ape is by Eugene O’Neill.  Thank you to him for expressing who folks are, deep down within at the root of themselves and within the world around them.  I saw Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic this year too and found that play sweet, passionate & lovely… and pretty much the complete opposite of this play!
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One Response to “In Which I Overthought The Hairy Ape Until My Tiny Mind Imploded…”

  1. […] My thoughts on The Hairy Ape are here: https://wherewordsend.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/in-which-i-overthought-the-hairy-ape-until-my-tiny-mi…. […]

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