Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape in Relation to Greek Tragedy, Italian Futurism, and Divine Comedy

Robert J. Cardullo

Abstract


This essay treats four aspects of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1921) that, because of the play’s strong naturalist-expressionistic stylistic component, have hitherto been neglected or completely ignored: first its “comedy,” as O’Neill describes it in the subtitle, “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes”; second, its connection, or opposition, to Italian futurism; third, its choice of so lowly a protagonist as Robert “Yank” Smith to symbolize humanity itself; and last, the relationship of The Hairy Ape to ancient Greek tragedy.

O’Neill, of course, was America’s first genuinely serious dramatist, and he became a serious artist in part because, by the time he came of age, the foundations of an artistic theater—modeled after the independent theaters of Europe—had been laid in the United States. In addition, selected Americans had observed foreign developments in the performing arts and had returned to write about them in Theatre Arts, the first American periodical devoted to a consideration of the art of theater; and a number of esteemed foreign troupes and productions themselves had visited the States, if not for the first time then for the first time in large numbers. Hence it is not by chance that The Hairy Ape artistically assimilates such seemingly disparate international influences as late nineteenth-century European naturalism, Italian futurism, German expressionism, Greek tragedy, and a Renaissance work like the Divine Comedy.


Keywords


Eugene O’Neill; The Hairy Ape; American drama; naturalism; expressionism; Italian futurism; Greek tragedy; comedy

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