Subtle association of primitivism with the working class in Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Hairy Ape is quite intriguing. In the play, we sense the primitivistic approach to the firemen working together in the ship who are likened to a group of animal doing and saying the same thing all the time. They do not have individualities and they represent the same class which is the working class. There are two aspects of O’Neill’s usage of primitivism to depict this particular class. One is related to their existence as a crowd and the other is to their identification themselves with their physicality, which also shows the traces of Darwinism. Therefore, to examine how working class people define themselves and are defined by the modern world, which is quite primitivistic, we can look into the portrayal of them as a body of crowd in The Hairy Ape.
The first approach to the firemen as primitives comes from their existence as a crowd. In order to examine these working class people as a crowd in the play, we must look into them in general terms. We see that they are named simply as “voices” or “all” in the play. We do not know their names except for Yank, Paddy and Long, who show some specific characteristics by themselves. Therefore, as Gustave Le Bon asserts, the firemen lose their identities when they are together, becoming a grain of sand among other grains of sand” (Nye 48). Therefore, they are portrayed as the same in the level of both body and mind, which come into being in the ideology and the actions of Yank. In the case of their body image, the firemen, who resemble to chained gorillas with their crouching and inhuman attitudes, move in rhythmic motion and do the same job, shoveling in a tumult of orderly noise (O’Neill 160). One cannot ignore the animalistic, “inhuman” and gorilla-like portrayal of the firemen. As to the rhythm and noise present in the crowd, according to Robert Nye, elevate the mood and emotions of the individuals (42). At times, they become more and more enthusiastic and lose their control in a way. This is most obvious when they say the same thing at the same time, which is related to their being alike in terms of mind. While they exclaim the statements such as “Think,” “Love,” “God,” and “Law,” they become barbaric and atavistic because they turn to their pre-historic human state in a way, completely losing their individuality and becoming totally one body. The reason actually is that the meaning of these word are emptied which indicates that they may not be able to think at all since these words are only a sound and there is no communication. In addition, the repetitions of these statements are similar to the workings of the machines. Therefore, the firemen become like machines without the ability to contemplate, which in turn deepens their primitivization. This kind of portrayal of the firemen is quite animalistic, barbaric and atavistic because they exist on the verge animality, repeating what they do without thinking.
The firemen’s existence as a crowd also related to their identification themselves with their physical strength, which is also somewhat animalistic and primitive: their belief and interest in their physicality results from the fact that their losing their identities and their ability to contemplate as a crowd or vice versa. Therefore, there is a binary of body and mind and since the working class people represent the body, they have no individual voice. As a result, we find their perspective in the words and actions of Yank because he “represents to the firemen a self-expression” as their “most highly developed individual” (O’Neill 142). In order to make their devotion to the physical strength apparent, O’Neill uses Paddy as a foil to Yank, who is the embodiment of the firemen. Paddy is an older one always complaining about working in a stokehole because he believes this is not the men belong to. Paddy says after shoveling, “Yerra, will this divil’s watch nivir end? Me back is broke. I’m destroyed entirely” (161). While he is old and weak, O’Neill describes the others as “hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power” (141). At one point, Yank shows his power even by “pounding on his chest, gorilla-like” (163). Therefore, it is clear they believe that they exist because of their physical strength and their “tremendous power,” the firemen cast Paddy out because he does not belong. They want strong, brave men who will not be tired with working. This mindset has to do with Darwinism because they believe that if they are strong, they will adapt and survive in their environment as the animals does. However, in the modern times, there is no need to be physically strong; therefore, they are primitized because they still trying to exist with animalistic strategies and with their muscles.
In conclusion, the statement of Second Engineer makes the working class people’s primitivism quite apparent when he warns Mildred about the stokehole. He says “there’s ladders to climb down that are none to clean–and dark alleyways” implying that descending into the stokehole is somewhat similar to descending the ladder of class hierarchy. This implication calls Le Bon’s statement about crowd to mind; he says that while in a crowd, a person “descends several rung in the ladder of civilization” since they act with their primitive instincts during the time which causes turn into their pre-historic state (Nye 48). Therefore, people working in the stokehole in the bowels of the ship are primitives in two levels: first because they act as a barbaric crowd without individualism and common sense and second because they are simply beings who cannot exist without their physical strength.