The Hairy Ape
Key Information :
- Author: Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
- Subtitle: “A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes”
- Published Date: The play “The Hairy Ape” was first performed in 1922.
- Genre: Drama
- Time Setting: The play is set in the early 20th century, specifically during the industrialization period.
Place Setting: The story takes place in various locations, including a transatlantic ocean liner, the stokehole of a steamship, and the streets of New York City.
Themes: Some of the key themes explored in “The Hairy Ape” are:
Alienation and Identity: The protagonist, Yank, experiences a profound sense of alienation as he struggles to find his place in a rapidly changing industrial society. The play delves into the question of individual identity and the dehumanizing effects of technology and class divisions.
Class Conflict: O’Neill examines the stark contrast between the working class and the upper class. The play explores the tensions, misunderstandings, and clashes between these social groups.
Search for Meaning: Yank’s journey can be seen as a search for meaning and belonging. He grapples with existential questions about his purpose in the world and seeks to define his own identity.
Characters: Some important characters in “The Hairy Ape” are:
Robert Smith (Yank): The protagonist is a physically powerful and confident stoker in the engine room of a steamship. He becomes disillusioned with his place in society and embarks on a quest for identity. His real name is Bob Smith.
Mildred Douglas: A wealthy young woman who encounters Yank on the ship and becomes the catalyst for his transformation. She represents the upper class and embodies the ignorance and indifference of the privileged. She studies Social Science.
Paddy: An older, wiser worker who serves as a mentor figure to Yank. He provides guidance and shares his disillusionment with the world.
Long and Short: Two fellow stokers who work with Yank. They represent different aspects of the working class and have their perspectives on life.
Mildred’s Aunt: A prostitute whom Yank encounters in the final act. She symbolizes the marginalized and downtrodden individuals of society.
Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” is a powerful and thought-provoking play that explores themes of social class, identity, and the human condition. The play is divided into eight acts, each providing a unique perspective on the protagonist Yank’s life and his struggle to find his place in society.
Act 1 opens in the stokehold of an ocean liner, where Yank and his colleagues toil in unbearable heat, pouring coal into the ship’s furnaces. Yank is portrayed as a strong, brutal man. He prides himself on his physical prowess and his place among the Stokers. However, he becomes increasingly aware of the class divisions that separate him from the upper-class passengers on board. When a wealthy young woman named Mildred Douglas enters the stokehold out of curiosity. Yank is immediately drawn to her and believes she will appreciate her strength and power.
In Act 2, Yank enters the upper-class world in search of Mildred. He goes to Fifth Avenue and encounters various characters. They mock and reject him because of his appearance and social status. Yank’s hopes of acceptance are shattered and he begins to question his identity and purpose in life. This act highlights the stark contrast between the working class and the privileged elite.
Read More: Beloved
Yank is seen in the zoo in Act 3. He finds solace and a sense of togetherness in the caged animals. He is particularly fascinated by a monkey, which he sees as a reflection of himself. Yank’s identification with the hairy ape symbolizes his growing realization that he is considered nothing more than a brute by upper-class society. The work explores Yank’s inner turmoil and his struggle to reconcile his self-image with society’s perception of him.
Yank’s despair intensifies in Act 4 as he turns to radical political parties for answers. He joined a group of militant socialists who promised him a way to fight the capitalist system. However, Yanks’ attempts to find a sense of purpose through these groups ultimately lead to disillusionment. He realizes that despite these movements, he is still seen as an outsider, and his anger and frustration continue to grow.
In Act 5, Yank meets Mildred again. But this time Mildred is surrounded by her rich friends at a party. Yank confronts her, hoping she will recognize him and acknowledge their previous encounter. However, Mildred fails to remember him and her friends mock the yank. This encounter serves as a breaking point for Yank, as he realizes the futility of his attempts to transcend his social status. His anger reaches a climax and he physically attacks Mildred, leading to her arrest and imprisonment.
Read More: Seize the Day
Yank is captured in Act 6. He reflects on his past actions and the consequences of his violent outbursts. Yank experiences a moment of clarity, recognizing the futility of his previous efforts to find belonging and meaning. This act highlights the themes of introspection and self-realization.
Acts 7 and 8:
In this scene, Yank finds himself inside a cage in a gorilla exhibit at the zoo. He is surrounded by onlookers who see him as a savage, primitive creature like a gorilla. Yanks are deeply disturbed by this inhuman situation. He realizes that he has become a symbol of the marginalization and devaluation of the working class in industrialized society.
Yank engages in a heated conversation with various visitors who taunt and jeer him. He desperately tries to assert his identity and humanity. But the audience responds only with laughter and contempt. Yank’s frustration and anger build up, causing him to physically strike. However, his actions only reinforce the idea that he is a savage beast.
In the final moments of the play, Yank falls to the ground, defeated and broken. He recognizes the futility of his struggle for recognition and his inability to find his place in a society that rejects him. The play ends on a somber note, highlighting the alienation and dehumanization faced by people like the Yanks in the modern industrialized world. Thus, the drama ends.
Read More: Young Goodman Brown