Applying the Theories of New Historicism to Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape

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Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape: A New Historicist Interpretation Applying the theories of New Historicism to Literature provides a better appreciation of the work. In Theory Into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism, Ann Dobie notes that "by positioning texts against a background of social and political information of the times in which they were produced or in the context of biography, literary historians [provide] readers with a way of understanding another way of life, another culture" (183). It is clear that when this approach is applied to Eugene O'Neill's play The Hairy Ape, we achieve a more complete understanding of the text. Born on 1888, O'Neill writes from a personal point of view that reflects not only his own battles with depression, alcoholism, attempts at suicide, and illness but the general tragedy of the human condition. After reading The Hairy Ape, we can conclude that O'Neill's early life influenced his writing. Like O'Neill, the protagonist, Bob Smith (Yank), leads a painful life because he is caught in destructive situations and paths that he cannot escape, as he searches for ways to adjust to the economic and cultural realities of 1920s New York. O'Neill, himself, left school to begin an education in, what he later called, "life experience." Over the next six years he worked as a sailor, lived penniless on the waterfronts of New York, Buenos Aires, and Liverpool, became an alcoholic and tried to commit suicide. However, at 24, things began to look up for him when he became a reporter for The New London Daily Telegraph. However, things took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While in hospital, O'Neill began to reevaluate his life in what he later termed his "rebirth." It is after this period of hospitalization in 1912-1913 that he refocused his life to become a great playwright. Before O'Neill, most American Drama was farce or melodrama; however, after O'Neill American Theater was transformed into a serious and important cultural institution. For him, the theater was a place to highlight important social issues and ideas. Considered the first great American playwright, his plays deal with the American tragedy through the backdrop of American history and social movements. According to Ulrich Weisstein, "O'Neill single-handedly catapulted American drama into world prominence" (193). Moreover, he "introduced the European movements of realism, naturalism, and expressionism to the American stage as devices to express his comprehensive interest in all of life" (Magill 323). As a leading playwright, a Nobel Laureate, and four time Pulitzer Prize winner, O'Neill, "utilized the Expressionist mode… [to] dramatize the tortured inner life of twentieth-century man" (203). Originating in art, Expressionism was a reaction against Impressionism, which aimed at painting external reality. In Literature, the Expressionists wanted to create and project their own reality, their own inner ideas and visions of what they perceived. Expressionism does not care about creating an imitation of the world; what it cares about is applying subjective and eccentric views of the world. Thus, "O'Neill uses the Expressionist mode in The Hairy Ape, in...[order to] project the inner experience of the protagonist" (Weisstein 194). For instance, in "Scene One," O'Neill uses light and the lack of it to express the stark contrast between the world of the passengers and the world of the workers on the Ocean Liner. Mildred Douglas epitomizes aristocracy and opportunity while Yank signifies the under- privileged worker. O'Niell shifts the scene from the brightly lit promenade deck where Mildred and her Aunt relax in "beautiful sunshine in a great flood, the fresh sea wind blowing across it," to the stokehole where "one hanging electric bulb shed just enough light through the murky air laden with coal dust to pile up masses of shadows everywhere." Indeed, the aim of New Historicism is to treat...
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