Eugene O’Neil had a life before he became America’s first great playwright. A life lived on the sea. And it was during that time spent aboard ship that word arrived concerning the fate of one his fellow crewmembers from a previous voyage. That shipmate was named Driscoll and his fate was death by his own hand. Like other members of the crew aboard ship for that particular voyage, O’Neill spent more than a little of the lazy hours between furiously busy work episodes mulling over the exact nature of things behind Driscoll’s suicide. Charged by the nature of his attraction to progressive social theories and politics, O’Neill finally landed upon what he felt was an explication for the man’s decision to end things that was at least as reasonable as any other theories being floated around: Driscoll had become hopelessly lodged within that craw of modern society which impacted those stuck within by a desperate feeling of not being able to fit. Driscoll had left humanity on his own terms, in other words, because of the recognition that he simply did not belong.
This philosophical explanation informed by a progressive social and political morality swirled around inside O’Neill’s head well after he had put the specifics of Driscoll’s suicide out of his mind. What began eating at the playwright’s imagination was this possibility that everybody at one time or another struggled with this sense of failing to belong and how the only way to attain that sense and become comfortable both inside one’s own body and outside it among society could be traced back to the ancient Greek imperative to “know thyself.” Only by recognizing the truths about oneself and accepting those truths could one come to such a state of knowledge and this knowledge, in turn, would lead directly to the satisfaction of feeling that one belonged.
And so was formed the philosophical foundation of a dramatic exercise in Expressionism through which O’Neill would explore this Darwinian idea of the fundamental nature of man. In this way, The Hairy Ape can be better appreciated for its decided rejection of realism and naturalism as O’Neill attempts to impose almost a classical sense of ancient Greek drama upon the modern story of an apish sailor struggling to rise to his level of self-knowledge for the attainment of a sense of belonging. But there’s also a modern twist that the Greek tragedians did not have to deal with and that almost literally throws a monkey wrench into the mariner’s struggle.
O’Neill’s sailor is more than just a hirsute example of the uneducated brute thinking he can get through life on the basis of his physical strength alone. He is also a man of the Industrial Revolution and here is where the O’Neill’s politics plug into the conception of the drama as a modernist update of classic Greek tragedy. The titular character in The Hairy Ape struggling toward the next stage of Darwinian evolution must face obstacles beyond coming to grips with the truths about himself he may not be prepared to face. He must also come to grips with how society had rigged achieving a sense of belonging against him. In the end, the fictional doppelganger of the real-life Driscoll is not just a hairy apeman, but also a mechanical man trapped within the cogs of class distinction and in O'Neill's original vision, his journey into New York City becomes a highly theatrical Expressionist trip into a hellish self-revelation.