I spent autumn 2015 in the studio, theatre and rehearsal room, composing sound and music for a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s Expressionist masterpiece The Hairy Ape (1922). At The Old Vic, London, directed by Richard Jones.
It was fascinating to be asked to work on this revivial, as the invitation arrived in a month where I was also collaborating with the Science Museum, London, on a long-term research project Noise, Music and Silence. Among many other themes, this project examines people’s responses to industrialisation in the interwar period. This includes music composed to echo or counterpoint the sounds of the industrial age (for instance Russolo’s intonarumori). Musical responses to industrialisation, the atomisation of labour and the dehumanisation of the worker are topics I also touched on in this TEDx talk: Loving The Machine. As I’ve been developing sounds over the last few weeks, memories of these threads of research have been colliding with thoughts about the sonic content of the show. Perhaps Yank’s percussive language, delivered in stacatto sentences, can be thought of as yet another echo of the machine. Having studied the films of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and Taylor’s notes on the ‘scientific management of labour’, it was eerie and wonderful to see the actors play out a Gilbrithean stoking sequence in scene 3 of the play (choreographed by Aletta Collins).
Curious to know more about the history of The Hairy Ape and how it was received in the interwar period, I searched the British Newspaper Archive for early accounts of the play. I was hoping to find out how the sound and music had been handled in early productions. Although the clippings don’t yield many clues on that front (apart from the fact that Yank seemed to shout a lot), they’re nonetheless a fascinating read:
Funded by the AHRC, Noise, Music and Silence was a collaboration between the Science Museum, Royal College of Music and University of Nottingham. The chief investigators are Aleks Kolkowski (composer) and Tim Boon (chief curator, Science Museum).
Paul Robeson (1931)
Actor and singer Paul Robeson attempted the role of Yank in 1931, when he appeared at the Ambassadors’ Theatre, London. On medical advice, he stopped the run early as Yank’s continual shouting was harming his voice (another article attributed his vocal problems to the London smog):
This commentary, from someone who attended Robeson’s performance, muses on the audience’s tempered reaction to the frequent use of the ‘Pygmalion oath’ (‘bloody’) in the play.
Maurice Bourgeois (1929)
For a full account of Bourgeois’ involvement with The Hairy Ape, see this interesting piece on early European productions from Horst Frenz. Bourgeois, a dramatist, was asked by O’Neill to translate the play for its first French production. This took place in the Théâtre des Arts, Paris, in 1929. Reading Frenz’ history of the play, it seems the performances went ahead, with Russian-born Georges Pitoëff directing the play and taking the lead role. So it’s interesting to read these two accounts of the play’s toll on Bourgeois. It seems the unfortunate dramatist was so overwhelmed by work and the emotional charge of Yank, at the end of the dress rehearsal he put on Yank’s ‘rough clothes and cap’ and made his way to the roof of the theatre. He stayed there until he was rescued by police.
The Hairy Ape as book of the week (1923)
This review describes O’Neill’s ‘conception of the toiler as great and unorthodox and as startling as Epstein’s Christ’.
A question of sound
These accounts were written in the early days of electronically amplified sound in the theatre. In New York, 2017, I met Robert M Dowling. historian of O’Neill. He said furnaces were used on the original stage so the shovelling sounds would have been real. I’m assuming they weren’t lit. I’m curious to know how the early runs represented the full power of the burning furnace and the ship’s steam engine.