Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890
On the surface The Hairy Ape might seem to be a fairly political play. There is the marked contrast of the sweaty fireman whose brute strength propels the ship that provides diversion and pleasure to those privileged class denizens who inhabit the upper decks. There is obvious reference to exploitation of the workers. But The Hairy Ape, although laced with references to capitalism, socialism, and other concepts, is really about the existential condition of man, namely that humans rarely feel like they fit in, that they are essentially always alone and separate.
This play, which was a foray into expressionism for the playwright, presents a number of characters who are in essence only stick figures. There is Mildred, the precious princess who cannot face reality, although she flirts with the idea of social activism and charity. Despite her social posturing, her true self is readily apparent: ''Be as artificial as you are," her aunt advises. Ultimately, artificial is all Mildred is—although she is well-intentioned and appears to have a good heart. Then there is Long who mouths socialist gospel but has no personality or soul to speak of. And Paddy, a relic from the past, is painted without dimension. It is only Yank, the swarthy, beastly king of the stokehole, who is a multidimensional character. And it is Yank who personifies O'Neill's examination of the human condition.
"Yank ... is the only character who really lives, all the others merely serve as background against which he stands out," claimed Andrew Malone in Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O 'Neill.
In the course of the play Yank goes from the cocky leader of the mighty firemen to a heap of a human being, crushed physically and morally. In the sweaty stokehole, Yank possesses a comfortable worldview. He shows disdain for the upper classes that Long criticizes. Yet these supposed oppressors are inconsequential in Yank's view. "They don't belong," he rants again and again. He roars out his defiance toward them, believing his mastery of the furnace defines and raises him above all others.
"In the stokehole, Yank belongs. His credo—that he is the force at the bottom that makes the entire mechanized society move—is right. He is such a force until the meeting with Mildred causes him to doubt himself and sends him out in a frenzied effort to destroy the God of power he has served in his furnace altar," wrote Travis Bogard in Contour in Time.
Yank's sense of place is tenuous at best. In what others label as hell, he feels a connection. But this feeling of connection does not extend beyond the stokehole, which for him is the center of the universe, even the pinnacle.
The fateful encounter with Mildred puts his world on edge. He is a man beside himself when her look of horror and revulsion emblazons itself on his psyche. His worldview is shattered as he realizes he is not the king of anything. And he sets out roaring like a wounded beast. Now his only connections are with steel—he has in fact called himself steel: "I'm steel—steel—steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!"—with the fire of the furnace, and with the animals in the zoo (the other hairy apes). He is forced to admit his lack of connection with other humans; he is alienated from society.
This alienation is one that O'Neill underscores throughout the play by employing a number of symbols. The steel, whether it's the clanging door of the furnace, the shovel that is an extension of Yank's arm, or the bars of the prison and the gorilla cage at the zoo, is hard and ultimately isolating. It reinforces the idea of separation. Even Mildred the unwitting muse (or tormentor) of Yank, represents the metal: she is the daughter of a steel magnate, the offspring of the cold, isolating substance.
Mildred wears white. It is a cold...
(The entire section contains 6409 words.)
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