The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Eugene O’Neill was not willing to call The Hairy Ape an expressionistic play. He employed so many of the trappings of expressionism, however, that it is difficult to view it as anything else. It can be considered as well a naturalistic play, dealing with the social and biological determinism that drove Yank to the monkey house and to his death.

When the Provincetown Players had The Hairy Ape in rehearsals, someone suggested to the playwright that the notion of society’s impersonality in dealing with someone such as Yank would be heightened if the actors in the Fifth Avenue scene wore masks. O’Neill adopted this technique and later lamented that he had not used masks in the stokehold scene and other scenes as well. This expressionistic device was used successfully by German playwrights with whose work O’Neill was intimately familiar, as he was with Greek drama, which also made extensive use of masks so that actors were representatives of ideas more than individuals acting out individual roles.

Borrowing from Greek drama, O’Neill also liked to fill the theater with the clamor of groups of people speaking, only fragments of which the audience could hear in full but from which they could derive a sense of the play’s tone and milieu. Choruses accomplished much of the business of Greek plays, and O’Neill achieved similar goals with the chattering he introduced into The Hairy Ape in the stokehold scenes, the forecastle scene, the Fifth Avenue scene, and the jail scene.

The play is usually staged with little light except in scene 2, when O’Neill purposely builds his chiaroscuro contrast between the stokehold and the passenger deck while simultaneously setting the scene for the ghostly effect Mildred’s white dress is to have on Yank in the following scene.

In some productions of The Hairy Ape, the Fifth Avenue scene is a virtual ballet. The scene lends itself easily to choreography and is quite effective when played as a ballet scene. This same dance element can be carried over into the final scene, where Yank’s danse macabre with the gorilla is perhaps rendered more sensitively in the ballet format.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Steamship. Ocean liner at sea on which the hairy, bare-chested Yank is stoking the boilers when the play opens. The stokehole into which he shovels coal is at the very bowels of the ship, where the low ceilings force workers to stoop, making them seem apelike. When Mildred Douglas, a wealthy passenger aboard the ship insists on visiting the stokehold, she is so frightened by what she sees that she faints. Yank’s buddy Paddy tells him that the woman looks as if she has seen a hairy ape. The incident shatters Yank’s self-identity and sense of belonging, and he vows to get even.

In another shipboard scene, well-to-do passengers lounge on deck chairs under the open sky, a setting in stark contrast to the dark underworld in which the stokers who keep the ship running live. Whereas the stokehold is enclosed, dark, and constricted, the passenger deck is open, light, and airy. O’Neill uses this contrast to emphasize the difference between the privileged and working class.

*Fifth Avenue

*Fifth Avenue. Fashionable avenue in New York City noted for its exclusive stores. Yank visits Fifth Avenue three weeks after his encounter with Mildred on the ship. Enraged by the thought that Mildred called him a “hairy ape” (which she did not), Yank—unwashed and dressed in greasy clothing—strides defiantly through a crowd of prosperous people who are pouring onto Fifth Avenue as their Sunday church services end. Eugene O’Neill presents Fifth Avenue as the churchgoers see it but later in the scene, in a...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The 1920s, the decade in which The Hairy Ape first appeared, represented an exciting and tumultuous period in American history. It was...

(The entire section is 910 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Scene vs. Act
Unlike many traditional plays that utilize the act format, O'Neill designed The Hairy Ape to be broken...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1922: An important textile mill in Manchester, NH, announces that it is cutting wages twenty percent and increasing weekly...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Think about the character of Yank as a representative for the common laborers who worked in the stokehole. How do these workers compare to...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

The Hairy Ape was adapted as a film in 1944 with Alfred Santell directing. It stars Susan Hayward as Mildred and William Bendix as...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Emperor Jones (1920) is another of O'Neill's forays into expressionist theater. It tells the story of a black man who worked as a...

(The entire section is 158 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, Oxford University Press, 1988.


(The entire section is 258 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Berlin, Normand. Eugene O’Neill. New York: Grove Press, 1982. A succinct work of 178 pages that provides an introduction to O’Neill’s works by decades. Includes a helpful explanation of expressionistic techniques in The Hairy Ape.

Egri, Peter. “ ‘Belonging’ Lost: Alienation and Dramatic Form in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.” In Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill, edited by James J. Martine. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. An excellent analysis of the alienation theme and how it is woven into the structure of the play. Considers the play dramatically significant and with universal appeal.


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