Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Visit to the Zoo

So obvious! The source of its simple power. The symbol is like a passion; and like hate, and like love, such a passion, because so strong and so direct, overflows all sense - we feel the force but cannot comprehend its meaning. Symbols, it seems, do not have to be subtle or complex. Indeed, this play suggests that the more obvious the more difficult it is to define them. It is the very obviousness that makes the symbol vague; creating uncertainty and a feeling of mystery.

A man breaks into a cage and embraces a gorilla, who squeezes him to death. The gorilla then wanders around the zoo, returns to the cage and, while standing immediately in front of the dead man, roars across the auditorium. This should be impossible! Yet its very absurdity makes us feel the scene’s truth; the lack of taste and a want of tact adding to its symbolic power. Nevertheless, our thoughts rebel against the crudity. They are defeated by the emotional resonance of the act.

The ending is extraordinary, and upsets the agitprop that had proceeded it. Before, everything was transparently clear; the play schematic and overburdened with political allegory; the action little more than a simple code - the letter a = 1, the letter b = 2 , the letter c = 3 - that we are meant to read without effort. It is the problem of all allegorical writing: how to reconcile our need to camouflage with the need to illustrate; hide the underlying scheme too well and the meaning is lost; hide it not at all and it is turned into a classroom lecture. This playwright is just out of school, and like a just-opened bottle of champagne he bubbling over with the commonplaces of youth. But really; do really need to be told know that life is unequal; that it is unfair; that the rich are a different species?

How strange the rich looked in those days. Exquisite birds destined for extinction. The older generations, through acquiring their wealth, have deprived the present one of all will and energy. Only an effete leisure class is left, and it cannot last long; for these characters are at the end of an evolutionary line.

It is the workers that matter. We are given four versions of their fate.

The Socialist. A sentimental tale of salvation in the future.

The Romantic. This story is told by an old Irishman, who looks back to when work was a craft; and the crew, skipper, boat and sea were a single integrated whole. It is a wistful memory only: the beautiful past is no more.

The Populist. This is the majority view. It is not stated, and is implicit in the action: the workers have no ideas, and blindly follow the leader of the moment.

Yank is this leader. He has his own peculiar vision of work. He turns himself into a machine and so acquires the power of the modern world. For although stoking is a horrible job it makes the ship travel far faster - 25 knots is a favourite refrain - than Paddy’s yachts; and this is what counts. To create this power is to feel the power within one-self and so partake of the grandeur of progress. This is not all. Yank has conceived a wonderful philosophy - it is of the First Cause. A ship, because it cannot sail if there’s no coal in the furnace, depends upon the stoker; this man the first, and therefore most important, cause of its existence. The idea generalises: the worker is the First Cause of all the industrial enterprises of the modern world. He is the hero. The creator of wealth. It is great vision with an intoxicating power denied to that of the socialist’s - shown to be defeatist and otherworldly - while it reduces Paddy’s romanticism to an also-ran; it is too slow and antiquated to compete with the speed of the 20th century. Yank is a man of his times.

For Yank shovelling coal is like drinking champagne. It makes him high! And as he fulfils the vision of himself he inspires the others to copy him, and so becomes the leader of a team. Now we hear another familiar refrain - I belong. Like all exceptional people this man needs to feel connected to his environment; he needs companionship, which is always difficult for him. He also needs something else… He must live in accordance with an idea. His work, hard and horrible though it may be, because it gives him a purpose, makes feel part of modern life. He is happy!

There is human dignity in working for a great operation.

A rich girl seeking diversion persuades the captain to let her visit the boiler room. It is a catastrophic mistake. She sees Yank, and is terrified. She thinks of him as another species - as a hairy ape. The encounter is to profoundly affect them both; though we assume that the girl, being of a weaker sensibility, will recover quickly and with relatively little pain. Yank is too deep to regain his buoyancy so easily.

The encounter suggests a conservative philosophy that is at odds with the radical overtones of the play; although, it is true, the politics are not that clear - it attacks both socialism and the rich. We interpret this scene to mean: that inequality is benign, providing the classes do not mix. Better a caste than a classless social system; where each caste is free to generate its own myths, these myths giving sustenance to a member’s life. It is politics that is the problem. One of the criticisms of the heiress is that she plays at being a progressive; such as joining numerous charities to help the poor. Politics, because in creating the illusion of a future equality mixes the classes together, only highlights the differences between the haves and have-nots; so depressing either side. Stop thinking of other people and worship oneself and do something now, in the present; work! work! work!; this is Yank’s philosophy. But this can only be done if he is isolated from the realities of the age; if he is insulated from the wealthy. Each caste must have its own carefully protected fantasies; it is the only way they can keep their vitality.

The IWW too are effete. They too want to impose their class culture - essentially bourgeois - onto the poor. Their embrace must also be rejected. Let the workers alone! There is a dignity in poverty which can be destroyed by too much interference - if workers become victims they will lose their honour. 

Myths are more important than material realities. It is better to feel like a king than be told you are poor, and require the help of your superiors. Yes. As we gaze through the mists of this political allegory a different landscape is coming into view…  It is of the artist in their garden, dreaming of paradise.

The spirit is what really matters. Yank is an odd chap. There is something willed about his life and opinions. It appears that he has consciously created an idea to justify his place in the world; and this suggests that deep down he feels alienated from it. Although a worker he resembles an intellectual. Our supposition is confirmed by that refrain - I belong. Yank is the perennial outsider. Too poor to belong to the rich; he is too clever to be a simple workman. A tension he resolves by living inside an idea; and for a while - as he leads him band of machine-like men - he feels connected to his time and place. It cannot last. The girl’s intervention returns him to his alienated self. At first he argues that it is she who doesn't belong. It is no use. To think himself an animal is a horror for Yank; it destroys his own sense of his own nobility.

On reaching port he goes on a pilgrimage; it is a picaresque journey around New York that takes in Fifth Avenue, the offices of the IWW and a prison cell. This journey confirms his outsider-dom. Yank doesn’t even belong in the United States of America. He is a universal misfit.

Yank visits the zoo. And it is in the zoo - after the clich√©d stylisation: the rich in faceless marks; the commuters performing mechanised dances - that the play becomes strange and unnerving. Yank, because he thinks so much, is always on the edge of instability; thus the rapid mental collapse following the girl’s entry into the boiler room. In New York, failing to find salvation, he tumbles down into madness; his pilgrimage a descent into hell; its last circle the zoological gardens. Here he recognises himself in the hairy ape and embraces his own image. It kills him.


To accept one’s true nature is both a revelation and the acme of our liberty. It is also the moment we feel at our most debased and wretched. For to be truly, to be absolutely, free is to be set apart from society; which we need if we are to fulfil ourselves.1

Inside a bottle marked freedom there is poison. The liquid is very sweet. We love it! It makes us feel so intoxicatingly alive. We love…for a few moments only. And then…the poison embraces our insides like…yes, a hairy ape, squeezing us to death.

Yank’s predicament is the artist’s dilemma. Separated from the modern world he cannot be fully part of it. For sure the artist creates stories that give meaning to others - Yank’s story of the machine, for example - but, ultimately, he is disconnected from these people’s mundane lives; their conformity; their unthinking acceptance of their place and time. Nevertheless, he needs that acceptance - he needs society - if he is to live; for even artists require love and sympathy; they need an intelligent audience. A tension exists that can easily snap. It snaps here. 

Because Yank is a worker his actions are suffused with ambiguity. Here is a man who appears to act out of character. It is one reason why that final embrace feels so bizarre. It can only be the actions of a mad man.2 Indeed, it has all the incongruity of a lunatic’s monologue - the content is crazy but the craziness is real and true. We feel this truth, and it moves us. 

The man dies. The gorilla is free to roar his message across the auditorium. What does it mean? It seems so obvious. And yet…and yet… 

To be free is to belong to a different species. We the audience can see and hear and feel this liberty, but we cannot comprehend it. This is too strange a beast for our commonplace understanding. It is dangerous too. It is right that such beasts are kept in cages.


(Review: The Hairy Ape



1. Freedom is a form of barbarism. To be free, to reject society totally, is to behave like a beast. For an extraordinary example of this truth consider the character of Don in Out of the Blue. To be civilised requires a measure of conformity; of submission; of suppression. And yet, by conforming, especially when young, we will acquire a world greater than ourselves; the first condition for a cultivated existence. 

2. Contrast with the Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish. To free the fish seems an eminently sane act; only the brother’s stupidity could believe it is insanity.

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