The Play

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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 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...

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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 dynamiting rampage and destroy the factories that turn out the steel to make the bars for jails and other cages. His wild and frightening talk of assassinating industrial tycoons terrifies the secretary, who calls him a brainless ape. Just then a police officer arrives and says that he would arrest Yank if the police station were closer. The scene ends with Yank asking where he can go next.

In the final scene, Yank has gone to the only place where he might feel a sense of belonging, where he might find beings that understand him and have shared his humiliations: the monkey house at the zoo. He stands before the gorilla cage, venting his spleen in a monologue directed at the ape inside the cage. He eventually opens the cage to free the beast, which approaches Yank. Yank embraces his simian cousin, which reacts by nearly squeezing the life out of the stoker and throwing him violently against the cage. The ape then wanders away. The play ends with the dying Yank asking where he belongs and inviting an imaginary audience to step up and see the hairy ape.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 stage direction, he offers Yank’s inner, expressionistic vision of what Fifth Avenue is: “The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed, overdressed to the nth degree.” Enraged when the crowd seems oblivious to his presence, Yank behaves increasingly violently until he is arrested.

*Blackwells Island

*Blackwells Island. Now known as Welfare Island, small island in New York’s East River that had a penal institution at the time when the play was written. Yank is taken to the island’s jail after he is beaten and arrested by police. Scene 6 opens in the jail, in which a row of cells is exposed. The police have arrived, beaten Yank, and arrested him. While in the jail, Yank learns about the Wobblies, a labor organization that he thinks he must join.

Cages of various types are a recurring motif throughout the play. O’Neill’s stage directions in the first, third, and fourth scenes suggest that he sees the ocean liner’s stokehold as a cage. In the jail scene, Yank truly is in a cage; he awakens there thinking he is in a zoo. In the play’s final scene, he visits an actual zoo.

Union Hall

Union Hall. Meeting hall of the “Wobblies,” the International Workers of the World (IWW), located near New York’s waterfront. After being released from jail, Yank goes to the hall to join the union. Thinking the members will welcome him because of his willingness to dynamite steel plants and go to prison if necessary, he announces his intentions but is turned away as a dangerous dissenter. The union hall, which should be a haven for Yank, turns into another threatening locale, further alienating him.

Monkey house

Monkey house. Area at a public zoo (presumably the Bronx Zoo) in which the final scene is set. Failing to gain acceptance among human society, Yank goes to the zoo, where he tries to talk to a caged gorilla. He breaks the lock on the gorilla’s cage and releases the huge animal. However, when he tries to shake the gorilla’s hand in friendship, it turns on him, crushes him, throws his body into the cage, and wanders off. Yank is left to die in an ape’s cage, reinforcing the motif O’Neill has been building throughout the play.

Historical Context

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The 1920s, the decade in which The Hairy Ape first appeared, represented an exciting and tumultuous period in American history. It was the age of the flappers (young female socialites intent on dancing and partying), Prohibition, and a massive influx of wealth, often due to stock market speculation. Although the working class saw little change in their quality of life during this period, there was a growing affluent class who could afford to indulge themselves in such leisure activities as a sea cruise to Europe, as Mildred and her aunt do in O'Neill's play.

For many decades up to and beyond the 1920s, as the upper classes were amassing considerable wealth from its advances, the Industrial Revolution was creating a more demanding and intense work environment for both skilled and unskilled laborers. As scientific technology created more powerful means of industry, such as the steam engine used to power ocean liners and railroads, more workers were needed to maintain the machines, often with little regard for their safety or mental well-being. As the pitch of the revolution became more intense and the need for faster and faster means of production arose, workers were pushed to often unbearable extremes to foster industrial growth.

As working conditions worsened, unions arose. These organizations sought to ensure that laborers were fairly paid for their work—and that work conditions met with safety requirements. The union movement was viewed by business owners with suspicion. The International Workers of the World (the Wobblies represented in the play) represented a growing movement of workers dissatisfied with the status quo who demanded equity. Often this movement was connected with socialism or the communist party, which attained power in Russia with the revolution of 1917. Socialism argues for community ownership of the means of production, with all classes sharing equally in the profits.

While unions enjoyed significant growth in the 1920s, it was also a difficult period in which union organizers were opposed, often violently, by business owners. A basic tactic of the unions was the strike, in which workers would uniformly walk off the job, stalling production, and, hopefully, forcing the owners to meet their demands. Management retaliated by sending in strikebreakers (often these were thugs hired to intimidate union leaders and brutalize workers) and replacement workers (often called "scabs"). Clashes between striking workers and the management's replacements often turned violent.

The 1920s was the lull between the storms. The world had survived World War I. But it had not yet dealt with the side effects of a burgeoning economy. The 1930s would see an economic depression that impacted the world and the lives of both rich and poor.

By 1922 however World War I had ended, nations were stabilizing, and the industrial machine built to support the war effort was now put into the service of consumerism. Times were very good for the nations on the winning side of the war. Yet in the nations defeated in WWI, this period marked the rise of fascism, particularly the regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany. The impact of these dictatorships would come to the fore in the next two decades as the world headed toward a second global battle.

In addition to lubricating the machines of the industrial age, modern science was making significant inroads in human health care. Discoveries in the treatment of diabetes with animal insulin and microorganisms connected to the advent of the antibiotic penicillin gave humankind greater stability and control of its environment. Crippling diseases that once represented a serious impediment to advancement now seemed surmountable; man was learning to control his world.

As the 1920s brought newfound affluence to many parts of society, people had more time and money to spend on arts and leisure. As a result the decade saw the motion-picture industry reach its first zenith of commerce and creativity, and there was a surge in significant new music, art, and literature. Novelist James Joyce published the completed version of his landmark work Ulysses in 1922. Although the book would never make any bestseller list, Joyce's account of one day in the life of Molly and Leopold Bloom in Dublin, Ireland, was destined to have a significant impact on how fiction (and other literature forms) was written. Joyce's unique stream-of-consciousness approach eventually influenced the Beats of the 1950s, which included poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

In music, Jazz came into its own in the 1920s. A distinctly American musical form with roots in numerous styles, Jazz originated in New Orleans and eventually found mass popularity in New York nightclubs such as the Cotton Club. Although embraced to some extent stateside, Jazz music became wildly popular in Europe, where race proved less of an obstacle for the predominantly black musicians.

This expatriatism came to affect a variety of artists in the 1920s, as a significant number of important Americans left the U.S. to live and work in Europe. This group included writers such Gertrude Stein Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. While these white writers and artists were sitting in sidewalk cafes in Paris France African-American writers who had migrated to America's northern cities began to express their anger at racism (notably the recent history of slavery and civil rights abuses that followed Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation) and to forge an identity for themselves. This movement was called the Harlem Renaissance and includes writers such as Langston Hughes Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston.

Literary Style

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Scene vs. Act
Unlike many traditional plays that utilize the act format, O'Neill designed The Hairy Ape to be broken up as eight scenes. An act is a demarcation of action in a play that is often comprised of several scenes. Scenes are typically shorter than acts and limited to one or two locations. By structuring his play's action around short episodic scenes, O'Neill is able to encompass a variety of settings that depict Yank's disassociation with both his peers and members of the upper class. The scene format also allows the action of the play to flow quicker, creating a tension that builds to Yank's death in scene 8.

Expressionism and Realism
The Hairy Ape is often categorized as expressionist theater. O'Neill's writing did not exclusively center on this style—in fact, only a handful of the playwright's work fits the definition of expression-istic theater. Dramatic expressionism is a theatrical movement that is largely credited to August Strindberg (author of Miss Julie and a significant influence on O'Neill) Within this genre, a playwright can show a very subjective viewpoint on life, one that can be interpreted on a number of levels (which explains why The Hairy Ape has variously been viewed as both pro-socialist propaganda and anti-socialist criticism).

With expressionism, the playwright depicts life not as it really is but as he (or his characters) perceives it to be. Often expressionism has found itself connected with social concerns. It also frequently addresses itself to a future, which may or may not ever be experienced in the work (such as Long's Utopia of a worker-owned state). The approach is often seen as pessimistic in that it commonly finds society to have serious flaws, yet most expressionistic theater offers some hope for improvement—although a character such as Yank does not reap the benefits of such improvement.
Within the theater, the expressionistic approach opened up-the space well beyond the stage and offered the possibility of involving the audience in a much more intimate way. The structure of the play does not have to concern itself as much with a strict chronology of time and sequence, so the playwright has more opportunity to make use of imagination; O'Neill's intent is less concerned with establishing a clear narrative path than painting an impression of Yank's character and dislocation. The playwright can express his views, make use of theatrical devices such as lighting and sound effects, and can distort or exaggerate characters (while realistic in some sense, the hyperbolic Yank is a good example of an extreme expressionist character).

While The Hairy Ape has distinct expressionist tendencies, O'Neill infused realistic elements to set off the more extreme action and define his message. The structure of the play is somewhat disjointed and has its surreal moments (particularly the scenes set in the hellish stokehole), yet O'Neill has populated his play with a variety of recognizable character types and settings. Part of the play's success in reaching its audience lies in the familiarity of the people and situations it portrays. By allowing his viewers to identify with facets of his play, O'Neill is able to drive home the more subjective, expressionist aspects of the play. Set against relatively normal characters such as Long and Mildred, Yank appears even more grotesque and out of step with society. Likewise, the relative normalcy of the first-class deck contrasts with the fiery, otherworldly stokehole, emphasizing the vast differences between the classes.

There are some significant and important symbols throughout The Hairy Ape. The symbols are employed to reinforce the playwright's ideas and _ intentions behind the play. Mildred, with her pure white dress, is a symbol of naivete, an unspotted, pure life. This innocence sinks into the depths of the ship, disrupting the equilibrium that had existed among the firemen.

The fire of the furnace is tied into the animal energy of the fireman, who are harnessed to a fever pitch when they feed the ship's engines. The stokehole also symbolizes the hellish nature of the men's lives. It is an underworld that is uncomfortable to all except Yank, who has, symbolically, sold his soul to the ideal of work.

Steel comes up often in the play. Yank claims he is steel. Mildred is the daughter of a man who makes steel. The bars of the prison are steel as are the bars of the gorilla's cage in the zoo. Within the play steel represents that hard and irresistible fact of separation and enslavement. Yank mistakenly sees himself as made of steel but it is the steel of society that holds him apart from the rest of humanity.

The ape is a symbol of the animal and basic nature of man, the evolutionary beginnings of the human race. Yank is a kind of missing link between socialized humans and the wilder animals. His persona is one that is to be harnessed or put behind bars; as evidenced by his attack on the high society group in scene 5, it is something that is not safe out on the streets. Yank's primal state is far from the world of Mildred, who nearly faints when she sees his raw, brutish strength and frightening, ape-like appearance.

Compare and Contrast

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1922: An important textile mill in Manchester, NH, announces that it is cutting wages twenty percent and increasing weekly hours from forty-eight to fifty-two. The Railroad Labor Board announces a thirteen percent wage cut.

Today: While working conditions in many areas have vastly improved, mergers and downsizing have significantly increased the pool of temporary workers. Many corporations rely on the expertise of former employees who are now employed as independent contractors, working long hours with no benefits and with no assurances as to permanency. This situation reduces the overhead of the corporation, which no longer has to pay benefits for these workers.

1922: Henry Ford makes more than $264,000 per day. The Associated Press estimates his wealth to be in the billions.

Today: Bill Gates, the founder and chair of Microsoft, a dominant computer software company, is reportedly worth billions. His company controls vast portions of the computer market. The Justice Department investigates what many claim are unfair monopolistic practices in Microsoft's day-to-day business.

1922: An enzyme is discovered by Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. Able to break down the cellular walls of bacteria, the enzyme is named penicillin, a breakthrough drug that will change the way disease is battled and overcome.

Today: Researchers have devised a protocol of drugs, which when taken regularly in combination can halt or delay the progress of AIDS. Many HIV positive people depend on this cocktail of drugs to preserve their life, waiting for a more definitive cure for the disease.

1922: Prohibition makes illegal the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Despite the law, a lively trade for alcohol exists, resulting in the rise of organized crime.

Today: The use of marijuana is illegal, resulting in a major trade in illegal drugs, involving more than marijuana. Some states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the drug must be prescribed by a doctor.

Media Adaptations

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The Hairy Ape was adapted as a film in 1944 with Alfred Santell directing. It stars Susan Hayward as Mildred and William Bendix as Yank. The black-and-white film was produced by United Artists and is available on videocassette from United American Video Corporation.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Cargil, Oscar, Editor. O'Neill and His Plays. Four Decades of Criticism, New York University Press, 1961.

Dubost, Thierry. Struggle, Defeat, or Rebirth: Eugene O'Neill's Vision of Humanity, McFarland, 1997.

Engel, Edwin A. The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O'Neill, Harvard University Press, 1953.

Floyd, Virginia, Editor. Eugene O'Neill: A World View, Ungar, 1979.

Shaughnessy, Edward L., Down the Nights and Down the Days. Eugene O'Neill's Catholic Sensibility, University of Notre Dame Press, 1996.

Skinner, Richard Dana. Eugene O'Neill: A Poet's Quest, Longmans, 1935.

Wainscott, Ronald H. Staging O'Neill--The Experimental Years, 1920-1934, Yale University Press, 1988.

Day, Dorothy, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, Knopf, 1983.
Day was a friend of O'Neill's in the 1920s, and they had a strong influence on each other. The woman who founded the Catholic Worker movement can be experienced through this collection of her writings over the years.

Egan, Leona Rust. Provincetown as a Stage. Provincetown, the Provincetown Players, and the Discovery of Eugene O'Neill, Parnassus Imprints, 1994.
This book recounts the story of the artistic life of Provincetown, where O'Neill was nurtured and rose to prominence. This is a scholarly work that, at times, offers tidbits of gossip courtesy of some excerpts from Carlotta O'Neill, the playwright's last wife.

Moorton, Richard F., Jr. Eugene O'Neill's Century: Centennial Views on America's Foremost Tragic Dramatist, Greenwood Press, 1991.
With essays by thirteen writers, this book looks at specific plays and at special themes in O'Neill's work, including the concept of searching for a home.


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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.

Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. A critical discussion of the O’Neill canon, with one chapter devoted to The Hairy Ape. Contains several production photographs.

O’Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. An engrossing collection of letters, revealing O’Neill in interpersonal and business relationships. Discusses details of creation and production of The Hairy Ape.

Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968-1973. An impressive biography, more than fifteen hundred pages long, with many photographs, and a bibliography. Its wealth of information includes analyses of plays, themes, and characters; reviews; and quotations from O’Neill. The first volume concludes with the production of Beyond the Horizon in 1920, the second with O’Neill’s death.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide