The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

The Hairy Ape opens in the overheated stokehold of a steamer, ocean-bound from New York. The stokers raise a cacophony of sailor-like chatter. The dim-witted Yank has most of the speeches, and he soon reveals himself as relatively content where he is. He feels as if he belongs; his life suits him. In the first scene, he is revealed to be a person of strong feelings that are not based on reason or on real knowledge of how society works. In the stokehold, he is removed from society, insulated from ideas that might challenge his own. If there is any conflict in his life, it is over whether beer or whiskey is the preferable drink.

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Scene 2 takes place on the deck of the ship, where two women, a girl just out of college and her aunt, sit in deck chairs. The girl, Mildred Douglas, is restless and craves excitement. She has made arrangements with the second engineer to visit the stokehold and see how the ship is fueled and made to run. The dialogue shows that, superficially at least, Mildred is an iconoclast. Dressed in a delicate white dress, she greets the second engineer, who tries to dissuade her from going into the stokehold, especially dressed as she is. She is insistent and ignores his objections and those of her aunt.

The following scene is back in the stokehold, where Yank has a few more substantial speeches that show his contempt for society and his resentment of those at social levels superior to his: virtually the whole civilized world. The scene’s climax comes when Mildred is shown into the stokehold. She is hit by a sweltering gust of air. Before her she sees sweating stokers, stripped to the waist, black from coal dust. Yank’s blazing eyes meet hers, whereupon she demands to be taken away, calls the stokers dirty beasts, and faints.

Yank’s life is stoking steamship boilers. When his fellow stoker Paddy laments the passing of sailing vessels, Yank upbraids him, saying that Paddy does not belong, while he himself does. Yank’s equilibrium is completely destroyed, however, by Mildred’s intrusion, because it makes him feel that he does not belong and that he is merely a caged animal on display. He takes Mildred’s words and fainting personally and vows vengeance. He wants to find her and retaliate, but he is restrained by his shipmates.

When the ship returns to New York, he and Long leave it. In scene 5, the two are on Fifth Avenue on a Sunday morning, when all the well-dressed churchgoers are out walking in the fine air. In his dirty dungarees, Yank is extremely conspicuous. He swaggers through the crowd, making insulting remarks to people and bumping into them deliberately, but they ignore him. Finally, one well-dressed man protests that Yank is making him miss his bus, and Yank hits him hard in the stomach. The man does not react but simply claps his hands and calls the police, who come and remove Yank.

Scene 6 is set in jail, where a bruised and bloodied Yank sits, a caged animal described as assuming the posture of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker. A chorus of mocking voices is heard, similar to those heard in the stokehold, functioning as a chorus might have in a classical Greek play. Yank remains obsessed by the specter of Mildred, saying that he thought she was a ghost, appearing so suddenly in the stokehold in gleaming white. Finally, being enormously strong, he bends the bars of his cell. The guard comes in, turns a firehose on him, and calls for a straitjacket.

The penultimate scene is nearly a month later. Yank is out of jail, and his first stop is at the headquarters of the International Workers of the World (IWW), where he bangs violently on the door and is greeted by a mild-mannered secretary. Yank pays his fifty cents to join the organization, certain that this is where he belongs.

He immediately volunteers to become a labor activist, to go on a...

(The entire section contains 4484 words.)

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