Critical Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape

Audiences confront much that is disturbing in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, beginning with the title itself—and as the play moves forward, we are hard-pressed to find any evidence of the “comedy” O’Neill promises in its subtitle. When it was first produced on March 9, 1922, by the Provincetown Players at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village (the play later moved uptown to Broadway), The Hairy Ape starkly divided the critics. The Freeman called it “without question not only the most interesting play of the season, but the most striking play of many seasons,” while Billboard caustically accused the play of smelling “like the monkey house in the Zoo, where the last act takes place and where the play should have been produced” (in Miller 35). Members of the audience were generally convinced, and this goes for nearly all of O’Neill’s plays through the 1920s, that they had either just witnessed a work of unfettered genius or were the butt of a complicated prank. Nevertheless, O’Neill’s convincing use of dialect; his blending of naturalism and expressionism, which would later become the hallmark of “American style” theater; and his powerful psychological treatment of alienation in the modern world, all arguably combine to make The Hairy Ape, though definitely not his best work, one of the most revolutionary plays of its time.


Scene 1

The firemen’s forecastle (pronounced “fo’c’sle”) of a transatlantic steamship, which disembarked from New York Harbor one hour before the scene’s action. The firemen are unable to stand upright, a condition which, along with their vocations as coal shovellers, make the men resemble “those pictures in which the appearance of the Neanderthal Man is guessed at” (2:121). Robert “Yank” Smith, the strongest and most apish-looking of them, is seated in the foreground, with the rest of the men loudly but respectfully situated behind him. Virtually all of the (white) nations of the earth are meant to be represented there—Irish, German, French, Swedish, and so on—much like Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s late play The Iceman Cometh. Long, a socialist who speaks “Cockney,” or workingclass British dialect, attempts to open the men’s eyes to the capitalist, un-Christian exploitation of industrial laborers like themselves. Yank quickly disabuses Long of any hope to convert him to socialism, or to politics of any kind: “De Bible, huh? De Cap’tlist class, huh? Aw nix on dat Salvation Army—Socialist bull. Git a soapbox!” (2:125). His self-deluding position is that they, the firemen, are the driving force of the ship and are therefore more powerful than the officers and owners above them.

Another argument erupts between Yank and Paddy, an older Irish seaman with experience on the sailing ships that were discontinued in the first decade of the 20th century. “’Twas them days [before steam power] men belonged to ships not now,” he insists, “’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was a part of a ship and the sea joined all together and made it one” (2:127). Yank rebuts with a lengthy monologue describing his self-perceived role in the steam, smoke, coal, and steel of the industrial age. The ship’s bells sound, indicating it is time for their shift in the stokehole. Paddy decides to ignore the bells and indulge himself, “sittin’ here at me ease, and drinking, and thinking, and dreaming dreams” (2:130). Yank exits in disgust while Paddy lies back in his bunk, humming contentedly to himself.

Scene 2

The promenade deck of the same ship. The setting is in extreme contrast to scene 1. Mildred Douglas, a dabbler in sociology whose father owns the steamship line and a major steel mill company called Nazareth Steel, and her aunt recline elegantly on the ship’s promenade deck. Mildred is as deluded as Yank in scene 1, though in a way, she “belongs” even more than Yank, given that her father owns both the ship itself and the steel mills that made it. She sees herself as capable of relating to and uplifting the lower class, when in reality her world is so utterly alienating to them, and theirs to her, that, as the aunt caustically points out, her presence is only destructive to their self-esteem and sense of purpose: “How they must have hated you . . . the poor that you made so much poorer in their own eyes” (2:131). And now, her aunt continues, by threatening to visit Whitechapel in London as she did the tenements of New York, she’s turning her “slumming international.” “Please do not mock at my attempts to discover how the other half lives,” she rejoins to her aunt, “Give me credit for some sort of groping sincerity in that at least.” Her grandfather started work as a “puddler,” a steel- worker who puddles pig iron to make wrought iron, in steel mills and achieved the American dream by working his way to ownership of a steel company. But at what cost? Mildred admits that she has “neither the vitality nor integrity [of her grandfather]. All that was burnt out in our stock before I was born” (2:131). It is her underlying contention that by experiencing “how the other half lives,” a popular expression of the time and the title of Jacob Riis’s widely read urban reform tract of 1890, she will “put [her heritage] to the test” by visiting the ship’s stokehold (2:132).

Mildred orders the second engineer to escort her on an expedition, which he accepts reluctantly. The officer warns her against wearing her white dress and offers her his old coat to prevent her white dress from getting soiled by oil and dirt, advice she dismisses out-of-hand, since she owns 50 more like it. It is clear to him from the first that her desire to go slumming is a foolish exercise. “There’s ladders down there that are none too clean—and dark alleyways,” he says, which only encourages her (2:134). Apparently he is afraid for their well-being among the firemen; he brings along the fourth engineer because, he tells Mildred, in the stokehold “two are better than one” (2:133). As Mildred and the engineers depart for the “dark alleyways” of the stokehold, her aunt repeatedly accuses her of being a “poser” (2:134).

Scene 3

The stokehole (stokehold or boiler room). Paddy and Yank continue their feud, Paddy complaining the watch is too long while Yank embraces the hard labor. In his stage directions, O’Neill describes the scene in terms that evoke images of hell: “The fiery light floods over their shoulders as they bend round for the coal. Rivulets of sooty sweat have traced maps on their backs. The enlarged muscles form bunches of high light and shadow” (2:135–136). The firemen work in unison, adding a savage, ritualistic quality to the expressionistic scene. A whistle sounds intermittently, signaling the firemen to shovel faster so the engines can pick up steam. At first Yank accepts the challenge of the whistle and goads the rest to follow his backbreaking pace. But when Mildred enters, just behind Yank, the whistle blows once too often. Yank then “brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest gorilla-like” and roars a series of foul oaths at the whistle and the officers who blow it (2:137). He sees the rest of the men staring behind him and turns toward Mildred’s ghostly figure. For a moment, he glares at her ferociously. “As for her,” O’Neill writes, “during his speech she has listened, paralyzed with horror, terror, her whole personality crushed, beaten in, collapsed, by the terrific impact of this unknown, abysmal brutality, naked and shameless” (2:137). She lets out a petrified wail that snaps Yank out of his furious rage; he looks dumbfounded, and Mildred faints outright. Just before losing consciousness, she whimpers to the engineers, “Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast!” With this one puncturing utterance (repeated by Paddy in scene 4 as “hairy ape”), Yank’s self-inflated identity collapses. “God damn yuh!” he yells after the engineers carrying the unconscious form of Mildred, and he wildly hurls his shovel at the closing door. The scene ends with the whistle blowing another “long, angry, insistent command” (2:138).

Scene 4

Back in the firemen’s forecastle, same as scene 1. The men relax after their shift. All faces have been perfunctorily washed except Yank’s, which gives him the distinctive appearance of a figure from blackfaced minstrel shows and heightens his designation as an “ape.” While the other firemen try to convince Yank to wash, he is perched on a bench in the pose of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker. Paddy jokes that Yank has fallen in love with Mildred. “Love, hell!” he responds, “Hate, dat’s what. I’ve fallen in hate, get me?” (2:139).

Long voices the complaint Mildred’s aunt had warned her of—that her presence before them was an insult, and the engineers (the management) are equally at fault for “exhibitin’ us’s if we was bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie” (2:139). A deck steward had informed him of her father’s identity, and he holds to his anticapitalist line, likening their condition to that of slavery, with Mildred and her father as the masters. Long suggests they take her to court, to Yank’s disgust—“Hell! Law!”—and together the others respond, expressionistically, as a chorus from Greek Tragedy, “Law!” “Hell! Governments!” Yank says, “Governments!” Hell! God!” “God!” (2:140). Paddy continues to make light of Yank’s reaction and the whole “touching” scene in the stokehold, remarking that it looked “as if she’d seen a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo!” “Say,” Yank says, “is dat what she called me—a hairy ape?” “She looked it at you if she didn’t say the word itself,” Paddy answers (2:141). Insisting repeatedly that she does not belong and he does, Yank swears violent revenge on Mildred and her kind for this slight. Bent on immediate reprisal, he runs at the door, but all the men join together to stop him. The scene closes with Yank at the bottom of the pile, howling with rage, “I’ll show her who’s a ape!” (2:143).

Scene 5

A Sunday morning in New York three weeks later. Yank and Long go slumming in their own right among the “respectable” citizens of Fifth Avenue. The most affluent street in Manhattan, Fifth Avenue is significantly located in the exact center of the island, as far as possible from either waterfront. Along the avenue are expensive fur and jewelery displays with tags announcing outrageous prices that hang visibly from each item. “The general effect,” O’Neill describes in his stage directions, “is of a background of magnificence cheapened and made grotesque by commercialism, a background in tawdry disharmony with the clear light and sunshine on the street itself” (2:144). Long hopes their excursion will spark Yank’s “class consciousness” and convince him that Mildred is only one representative of a larger social evil: “There’s a ’ole mob of ’em like ’er, Gawd blind ’em!’ (2:146). “Observe the bleedin’ parasites,” Long instructs him; but sensing Yank’s brutish purpose, he warns him to “ ’old yer ’orses” (2:147). Church soon lets out, and if O’Neill describes the stokers as resembling “those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal is guessed at,” the pedestrians on Fifth Avenue are equally grotesque, “a procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankensteins in their detached, mechanical unawareness” (2:147).

In this scene, O’Neill steps up the play’s expressionistic quality. In fact, the costume designer, Blanche Hays, proposed to the playwright in rehearsal that the pedestrians wear masks to heighten the dehumanizing effect of commercialism on the characters, a proposition O’Neill agreed to enthusiastically (Egri 90). Along the street, voices are heard preaching the conservative ideas of the day. Yank fiercely provokes the men in the crowd to fight, while Long tries to settle him down, but the genteel pedestrians are surreally unresponsive to his outbursts. Fearing police intervention, Long grabs Yank to stop his provocations, but Yank pushes him to the ground. Long “slinks off” stage left (2:148). Yank then makes a vulgar advance on one of the matrons, who continues walking as if he were invisible.

Yank roars his creed of belonging to the steel and steam of the technological age, but still no one appears to either see or hear him, which only exacerbates his fury. A woman yells out, “Monkey fur!” and they all rush to the storefront window. Yank first attempts to pick up the street curb to hurl at them, then tries to rip a lamppost from its foundation to use as a club. While Yank is struggling with this, a fat gentleman in spats and top hat rushes past him to catch a bus, and Yank is temporarily knocked off balance. Desperate for a fight, Yank lunges and “lets drive a terrific swing, his fist landing full on the fat gentleman’s face.” But the gentleman unaccountably “stands unmoved as if nothing had happened” (2:149). Yank had made him miss his bus, however, and he calls for a policeman—the only response Yank receives from the Fifth Avenue crowd. A platoon of policemen overwhelm him, and the pedestrians continue their bizarre promenade. The policemen club Yank into submission, and a patrol wagon’s gong is heard clanging loudly offstage. The crowd, still gawking at the window display, remains wholly oblivious to the disruption.

Scene 6

A cellblock on Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island), a notorious prison located on the East River between the boroughs of Queens and Manhattan. Yank is now perched on the cot in a prison cell, as he was on the bench in the forecastle in scene 4, “in the attitude of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’ ” but this time with a bloody bandage draped about his head. The set design is, again, highly expressionistic, as the line of cells disappear into the background, “as if they ran on, numberless, into infinity” (2:150). Roaring over the noise of the other prisoners and rattling the bars of his cell menacingly, Yank sees the prison as a zoo, his cell as a cage, and himself, now, as a captured “hairy ape.”

Like the firemen in the stokehole, the prisoners represent many ethnicities. Yank tells the inmates of his encounter with Mildred and again swears revenge on her and her class. One prisoner suggests that if Yank wants to get back at Mildred and the industrialists, he should consider joining the anarchist labor organization Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies,” as they were called. He had been reading about them in the Sunday Times, and a Senator Queen’s description of them impresses Yank: “There is a menace existing in this country today which threatens the vitals of our fair Republic—a foul menace against the very life-blood of the American Eagle . . . . I refer to that devil’s brew of rascals, jailbirds, murderers and cutthroats who libel all honest working men by calling themselves the Industrial Workers of the World; but in light of their nefarious plots, I call them the Industrial Wreckers of the World!” (2:152; Senator Queen is most probably a send-up of Attorney General Mitchell A. Palmer, who staged a series of raids against radicals in 1919 and 1920 in response to a bomb attack on his home [Pfister 137]). “Wreckers, dat’s de right dope!” Yank responds. “Dat belongs! Me for dem!” (2:152). The inmate hands him the paper, and Yank again assumes the pose of The Thinker. From this posture, he leaps up to the bars of his cell, grabbing one bar with both hands with his feet on the adjacent bars for leverage, and at the mercy of Yank’s superhuman strength, “the bar bends like a licorice stick under his tremendous strength” (2:154). The guards sense a jailbreak and drag a riot hose into the cellblock. The curtain falls with the sound of a tremendous crash of water.

Scene 7

About a month following scene 6, the inside of an IWW chapter office, with the street outside in plain view. Inside there are a group of longshoremen and ironworkers who encircle a secretary in green eyeshades hunched over a table. Two men are playing checkers. In stark contrast to what one might expect from Senator Queen’s strident report, the scene is tranquil and professional. On the street, Yank approaches the door to the office with caution, awed by the ominous silence within. Yank finds nothing like the “gang of blokes—a tough gang” (2:152) that the prisoner had oversimplistically and Senator Queen had hyperbolically described them. Yank’s disappointment stems from the fact that the IWW has little resemblance to the group that, as Queen said, “plot[s] with fire in one hand and dynamite in the other” (2:153). On the contrary, O’Neill portrays them as staid and bureaucratic, expressionistically juxtaposed against Yank’s imposing ferocity.

Scene 7 is the most anomalously realistic of the play, and as such, it is arguably the most brilliant. Since the American press had already envisioned an expressionistic view of the organization, O’Neill counters these popular assumptions by making the IWW scene the only truly realistic one in the play. Yank offers to bomb a Steel Trust factory in their name, which marks a reversal in his attitude toward steel and steam: “I mean blow up de factory, de woiks, where he makes steel. Dat’s what I’m after—to blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to de moon” (2:158).

In the end, the men at the IWW also consider Yank a “brainless ape,” possibly a spy from the Secret Service or one of the private agencies like Burns and Pinkerton, which the trusts notoriously used to hire to bust strikes organized by the IWW. They roughly dispatch him to the street. With his ego deflated once again, Yank sits on the cobblestoned street contemplating his next move, again in the posture of The Thinker. He looks up and begs the “Man on the Moon” for advice. A policeman working the street beat strolls by and orders him to move along. “Say, where do I go from here?” he asks. The policeman answers with a shove and says, “Go to hell” (2:160).

Scene 8

The gorilla cage at the Central Park Zoo. The gorilla’s enormous features can just be made out, and he is seated like Yank had been in previous scenes—in the pose of The Thinker. Yank enters stage left, and his presence causes a chattering reaction among the monkeys offstage. The gorilla’s eyes move left, but he makes no sound or other movement. Yank speaks admiringly to the gorilla about his physique, but the ape offers no discernable reply. Yank’s monologue shows sympathy and fraternal sentiment; he feels as if, with this ape in the cage, he might at last have found a place where he belongs. Originally, O’Neill planned to have Yank return to the stokehold, a place where he basically did belong. Another alternative was to successfully integrate him into the Wobblies. Instead, he sends him to the zoo, where Yank testifies openly on his alienated condition to a caged gorilla that will soon kill him: “I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in the middle tryin’ to separate ’em, takin’ all de woist punches from bot’ of ’em. Maybe dat’s what dey call hell, huh? But you, yuh’re at de bottom. You belong! Sure! Yuh’re de on’y one in de woild dat does, yuh lucky stiff!” (2:162).

The ape reacts to Yank’s fraternal advances with alternating growls, roars, and rattles of his cage. Yank mistakes this for comprehension or agreement and jimmies open the lock. The gorilla slowly exits the cage, and Yank holds out his hand to shake, promising to take him for a stroll down Fifth Avenue. The gorilla lunges at him and wraps him in a “murderous hug” (2:163). We hear the sound of Yank’s ribcage cracking before the gorilla flings him bodily into the cage and shuts the door behind him. Yank is thus suffocated to death by a fellow primate, an actual “hairy ape.” This was the last type—out of the stokers, the Fifth Avenue pedestrians, the prisoners, and the members of the IWW —that he meets during his identity quest with whom Yank felt he might “belong.”


Like its highly acclaimed predecessor, The Emperor Jones (1920), The Hairy Ape is framed in eight scenes. The first four take place on a transatlantic ocean liner and the second four in New York City while its protagonist Robert “Yank” Smith is on shore leave. In all eight scenes, O’Neill expressionistically juxtaposes his title character, an aggressive, brutish “fireman,” or “stoker,” with a series of contrasting agents. These contrasts are often mistaken for romantic melodrama, since harshly drawn oppositions—rich/poor, good/evil, etc.—are the stuff of melodrama. But in fact, O’Neill was experimenting with expressionism, a new type of German drama that reached the United States in the 1920s. O’Neill later insisted that The Emperor Jones, also a work of expressionism, was a stronger influence on The Hairy Ape than anything that came out of Europe. One can also see the seeds of this work having been planted even earlier in his play The Personal Equation, which was written for George Pierce Baker’s Harvard playwriting workshop in 1915 and also offered “observations on the state of radical politics” and the plight of the working class (Diggins 65).

O’Neill’s own often-quoted report to Kenneth Macgowan upon completing the play explains a great deal about the playwright’s intentions:

The Hairy Ape—first draft—was finished yesterday. . . . I don’t think the play as a whole can be fitted into any of the current “isms.” It seems to run the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism—with more of the latter than the former. I have tried to dig deep in it to probe in the shadows of the soul of man bewildered by the disharmony of his primitive pride and individualism at war with the mechanistic development of society. And the man in the case is not an Irishman, as I at first intended, but more fittingly, an American—a New York tough of the toughs, a product of the waterfront turned stoker—a type of mind, if you could call it that, which I know extremely well. . . . Suffice it for me to add, the treatment of all the sets should be expressionistic, I think. (quoted in Egri 77)

The most pronounced expressionistic technique O’Neill employs is cage imagery, which dominates this play: the bunks in the forecastle that, the stage directions expressly note, “cross each other like the framework of a steel cage” (2:121); the stokehold, in which the firemen “are outlined in silhouette in the crouching, inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas” (2:135); Fifth Avenue, lined as it is in “adornments of extreme wealth” making a “background in tawdry disharmony with the clear light and sunshine on the street itself” (2:144); the prison cell’s “heavy steel bars” (2:150); the gorilla cage at the zoo; and finally the “crackling snap” of Yank’s crushed ribcage (2:163). There is enormous potential for directors and set designers to treat O’Neill’s expressionistic stage directions innovatively. Indeed, Alexander Woollcott, in his New York Times review immediately following the premiere on March 9, 1922, applauded the Provincetown Players for, “in one of the real events of the year,” transforming “that preposterous little theatre . . . one of the most cramped stages New York has ever known [and creating] the illusion of vast spaces and endless perspectives” (quoted in Miller 32, 31). The Wooster Group’s production of the late 1990s highlighted the industrial nightmare O’Neill conceived by constructing massive, cagelike scaffolding, which allowed Yank (fiercely played by Willem Dafoe) to climb about the cage with his coal-blackened face resembling nothing less than the primal ancestor, heavily influenced as it was by Darwinism, that O’Neill envisioned.

The transition from sail to steam power in the last years of the 19th century was a painful one in the merchant marine. Recalling the dispute between Chris Christopherson and Mat Burke (who is also based on O’Neill’s friend Driscoll) in act 3 of “Anna Christie”—Chris representing the old windjammers, or “windbags,” and Mat the steamships—O’Neill’s character Paddy indicts the new, industrialized, steam-powered factories of the sea Yank lords over with such outlandish conceit:

Oh to be scudding south again wid the power of the Trade Wind driving her on steady through the nights and days! Full sail on her! . . . ’Twas them days men belonged to ships, not now. ’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one. (Scornfully) Is it one wid this you’d be, Yank—black smoke from the funnels smudging the sea, smudging the decks—the bloody engines pounding and shaking—wid devil a sight of sun or a breath of clean air—choking our lungs with coal dust— breaking our backs and hearts in the hell of the stokehole—feeding the bloody furnace— feeding our lives along with the coal, I’m thinking— caged in by steel from a sight of the sky like bloody apes in the Zoo! (2:127).

Paddy’s monologue makes clear that O’Neill’s experience on the Norwegian bark Charles Racine, one of the last square-riggers (Richter 40), was by far a more fulfilling voyage than his work on industrialized steamers like the SS Philadelphia. This transition from sail to steam power was a fait accompli by the early 1910s. Sailors were no longer the skilled adventurers of the past but became associated instead with the less-glamorous industrial workforce. Nonetheless, Yank holds to his dearly held belief that modern technology is the thing of the future, that he is intrinsically a part of the new industrial age, and that Paddy and his generation are historical deadweight.

I belong and he don’t. He’s dead but I’m livin’. Listen to me! Sure I’m part of de engines! Why de hell not! Dey move, don’t dey? Dey’re speed, ain’t dey! Dey smash trou, don’t dey? Twentyfive knots an hour! Dat’s goin’ some! Dat’s new stuff! Dat belongs! . . . I’m de end! I’m de start! I’m somep’n and de woild moves! It—dat’s me!—de new dat’s moiderin’ de old! I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines; I’m de ting in noise dat makes yuh hear it; I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel—steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it! (2:128–129).

The word belong is used 43 times in the play (with variations on parts of speech) and 10 times in Yank’s final monologue in scene 8 alone. Jean Chothia, in a powerful study of O’Neill’s use of dramatic language, writes that “the word ‘belong’ is repeated by Yank until it becomes an emblem of his quest and, because of this first striking usage, we are alert to the ambiguities inherent in that quest” (78). The motif of belonging is punctuated by Yank’s last line of scene 1, where he turns to Paddy and growls, “Aw, yuh make me sick! Yuh don’t belong!” (2:130).

In scene 1’s opening stage directions, O’Neill announces that “the treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic” (2:121). What the playwright means by this is that The Hairy Ape is openly not intended to be a social protest play, or any kind of social realism at all, though its protagonist is a stoker on a steamship, and the first two of many conflicts are of major historical importance. The first conflict, between Yank and Long, is a relatively minor one, but O’Neill gives it more weight in the highly expressionistic scene 5. The setting of scene 1 is in the firemen’s forecastle of a steamship—one that recalls the forecastle in O’Neill’s earlier play The Personal Equation (Egri 78)—an oppressive, cagelike dwelling in the bowels of the ship. Similar to Ella and James Harris’s tenement apartment in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which O’Neill specifies should shrink around them as the scenes progress to connote the sensation of imprisonment, the ceiling of the forecastle “crushes down upon the men’s heads” (2:121).

O’Neill’s subtitle, A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life, is an accurate introduction to the play insofar as ancient calls to mind Yank’s clear connection to Homo sapiens’s natural heredity, our Darwinian ancestry, incredibly only three years before the famous Scopes (“Monkey”) trial of 1925. Yank is also a “tragic hero,” a figure from ancient Greek tragedy doomed by a fatal personal flaw—nearly always hubris, or unwarranted and excessive pride. O’Neill suggests in the final line of his (notoriously complex) stage directions that “perhaps” it is only in death that “the Hairy Ape at last belongs” (2:163). Indeed, death provides the sole escape from the cages thrown up around us by modern times—a proposition O’Neill incessantly defends in the body of his work.

The distinctly “modern” conclusion of this play, then, is dark and existential: The dehumanizing effects of a modernized, industrialized world make it impossible to sustain any authentic feelings of self-pride, self-worth, individuality, or belonging. That O’Neill calls The Hairy Ape a “comedy” might be irony without adulteration, or it might be a reference to the “happy ending” of Yank’s finally fitting in—far more subtle than the uncertain marriage proposal that concludes “Anna Christie”—if only in death.


The Aunt

Mildred Douglas’s aunt. Mildred’s aunt appears with her niece in scene 2. Lounging on the promenade deck of the ship, the two women form a stark contrast to the fireman in the forecastle of the previous scene. O’Neill describes the aunt as a “pompous and proud—and fat—old lady” (2:130), specifying that she is a “type”—the meddling, henpecking aunt—right down to her double chin and lorgnettes, and she dresses in a way that betrays her pretentious need to indicate a sense of superiority over others. The aunt mocks her niece’s “morbid thrills of social service work on New York’s East Side” and subsequent desire to make her “slumming international” with a visit to Whitechapel, a working-class slum in London (2:131). She considers her niece “artificial” and in her final lines repeatedly calls her a “poser” (2:134). Mildred contemptuously responds by slapping her aunt across the face and then laughs as she joins the Second Engineer down to the stokehold of the ship. Although O’Neill is clearly critical of this character type from the United States’ ruling class, Mildred’s aunt voices some of the playwright’s own views— and foreshows Robert “Yank” Smith’s violent reaction to Mildred in the following scene—when she scornfully remarks to her niece, “how they [the poor of New York’s East Side] must have hated you, by the way, the poor that you made so much poorer in their own eyes!” (2:131).

Douglas, Mildred

An upper-class young woman who has studied sociology in college and expresses an interest (without sincerity) in discovering “how the other half lives,” first on New York’s Lower East Side and then, fatefully, in the steamship’s stokehole (2:131). Philanthropic slumming, or “friendly visiting,” was a popular activity among frustrated, dynamic Victorian women who were tired of the subjugation the codes of domestic respectability imposed. It was a means to head off impending boredom and at the same time an attempt to generate some spiritual uplift in an increasingly cynical urban environment. Unlike the maritime slumming expeditions espoused in O’Neill’s early one-act play Fog, where the Poet sincerely considered life in the steerage more interesting than on the promenade, here Mildred’s inclinations are almost purely selfish— a means by which to rid herself of the mounting ennui brought on by having everything in life except self-fulfillment.

Mildred’s father owns a line of steamships, along with a company called Nazareth Steel, but her grandfather was a “puddler” in the steel mills. In an attempt to connect with her past—impossibly distanced by time and station—she demands that an engineer accompany her to the stokehold. Once there, she glimpses Robert “Yank” Smith, whose rough mannerisms, filthy body, and vile language trigger a fainting spell. Before losing consciousness, however, she screams out “Oh, the filthy beast!” (2:137). That one line disillusions Yank, who had always taken great pride in his work and his sense of belonging on the ship, to a point of no return. For her part, Mildred must also suffer disillusionment, as Peter Egri argues, given her original desire to cure herself of ennui by reestablishing a connection with her working-class heritage; Yank is O’Neill’s tragic hero, and we are not meant to feel too much sympathy for Mildred, as in the context of the play at least, “her spiritual death will only make itself felt as a living insult in Yank’s soul” (Egri 86).


Long is a cockney, or British working-class, socialist agitator and coal stoker aboard Robert “Yank” Smith’s ship who rails openly and often against the capitalist class. Long attempts to direct Yank’s rage against Mildred Douglas toward social activism, rather than personal revenge. In scene 4, after Mildred visits the stokehold, Long voices outrage over the engineers “exhibitin’ us’s if we was bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie” (2:139). In scene 5, he accompanies Yank to Fifth Avenue, the wealthiest street in New York, with the intention of convincing Yank that Mildred’s insult was social and economic, not a personal matter, and to “awaken [Yank’s] bloody class consciousness” (2:146). Yank dismisses Long’s political rhetoric and favors individual action—violent revenge—over Marxist politics and class consciousness. Long slinks away, afraid of the police, when he fails to control Yank’s violent outbursts against the wealthy pedestrians.


Paddy is an elderly Irish seaman aboard Robert “Yank” Smith’s ship who speaks in a thick Irish brogue and argues with Yank about the relative merits of sail (skilled) versus steam (unskilled) seamanship: “ ’Twas them days [of clipper ships] men belonged to ships, not now,” he contends, “and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one” (2:127). O’Neill describes Paddy as “an old, wizened Irishman” whose face is “extremely monkey-like with all the sad, patient pathos of that animal in his small eyes” (2:123). Paddy’s monologue on the natural beauty of sail power in scene 1 directly contradicts Yank’s elevated view of their steamship’s 25-knot speed and ferocious power. This point of view is also argued by the character Chris Christopherson in “Anna Christie,” O’Neill’s earlier full-length play of the sea. At the end of scene 1, Paddy, who consciously seeks to retain his individuality in the face of meaningless industrial work, refuses to heed the call of the work bell, defiantly telling the other men, “Let thim log me and be damned. I’m no slave the like of you. I’ll be sittin’ here at me ease, and drinking, and thinking, and dreaming dreams” (2:129–130).

Second Engineer

The Second Engineer is “a husky, fine-looking man of thirty-five or so” (2:133). In scene 2, he appears on the promenade deck to escort Mildred Douglas down to the stokehold. He warns her that the soot in the stokehold will blacken her white dress, to which she curtly responds, “It doesn’t matter. . . . I have fifty dresses like this. I will throw this one into the sea when I come back” (2:133– 134). When the Second Engineer exits to find the Fourth Engineer to join them, Mildred describes him as “an oaf—but a handsome, virile oaf” (2:134). He appears again in scene 3, when he and his Fourth accompany Mildred into the stokehold, and the two of them carry her out after she faints at the sight of Robert “Yank” Smith. Long condemns the engineers in scene 4 for “exhibitin’ us’s if we was bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie” (2:139).

Smith, Robert “Yank”

A stoker on a steamship and the tragic antihero of O’Neill’s play. Yank Smith is likely, with the possible exception of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman from The Iceman Cometh, the most difficult role for an actor to portray successfully in all of O’Neill’s repertoire, as the character’s monologues are frequent and lengthy and must be performed with an impeccable Brooklyn accent. (Yank’s father worked as a trucker on the Brooklyn waterfront.) Line after line of bluster is shoveled out to the audience while the firemen in the stokehold, for their part, rhythmically shovel coal into the furnace; the latter action is meant to keep the ship and the play’s tension moving forward, the former to keep Yank’s sense of “belonging” stable and prop up the crew’s self-esteem, as associated with him, in a foul, heavily industrialized work environment.

Yank’s character is based on a drinking partner of O’Neill’s at Jimmy “the Priest’s” bar named Driscoll, who worked as a coal stoker on the SS Philadelphia. Driscoll, according to O’Neill in a 1922 interview with American Magazine, “committed suicide by jumping overboard in mid-ocean.” O’Neill himself had attempted suicide in spring 1912. “It was the why of Driscoll’s suicide that gave me the germ of the idea [for The Hairy Ape]” (quoted in Clark 128).

The Hairy Ape charts the course of Yank’s identity quest, as his preferred sense of “belonging” was shattered by Mildred Douglas in scene 3. When Mildred faints during her expedition down to the stokehold, calling Yank a “filthy beast” before losing consciousness, Yank takes it as a personal insult rather than a social one, as Long did (2:141). That one act tears Yank’s worldview apart and leads him on a journey from one social group to another in an effort to discover where, in fact, he “belongs.” His quest ends at the Central Park Zoo, where he unlocks the gorilla cage and is crushed to death by the animal inside. Hence, as O’Neill writes in the final line of the stage directions, “perhaps [only in death], the Hairy Ape at last belongs” (2:163).

Chothia, Jean. Forging a Language: A Study of the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1947.
Diggins, John Patrick. Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire under Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
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, 77–111.
Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984. Miller, Jordan Y. Playwright’s Progress: O’Neill and the Critics. Chicago: Scott, Foresman & Company, 1965.
Pfister, Joel. Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Richter, Robert A. Eugene O’Neill and Dat Ole Davil Sea: Maritime Influences in the Life and Works of Eugene O’Neill. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport, 2004.

Source: Dowling, R. M. (2009). Critical companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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