The play tells the story of a brutish, unthinking laborer known as Yank, as he searches for a sense of belonging in a world controlled by the rich. At first Yank feels secure as he stokes the engines of an oceanliner, and is highly confident in his physical power over the ship's engines.
However, when the weak but rich daughter of an industrialist in the steel business refers to him as a "filthy beast," Yank undergoes a crisis of identity. He leaves the ship and wanders into Manhattan
Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. Located primarily on the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River, the boundaries of the borough are identical to those of New York County, an original county of the state of New York...
, only to find he does not belong anywhere—neither with the socialites on Fifth Avenue, nor with the labor organizers on the waterfront. Finally he is reduced to seeking a kindred being with the gorilla in the zoo and dies in the animal's embrace.
Scene by scene synopsis
The play is divided into 8 scenes. Scene 1 takes place in the fireman's forecastle of a cruise ship, where they sleep. Their racks resemble the bars of a cage. They are sailing from New York, where Yank and the other firemen are talking and singing drunkenly. Yank is shown to be a leader among them. Other featured characters are Long, a socialist, and Paddy, a particularly drunken Irishman.
Scene 2 takes place on the deck, where Mildred Douglas (the rich girl) and her aunt are talking. They are almost constantly arguing.
Scene 3 takes place in the stokehold. Yank and the other firemen take pride in their work. When Mildred comes to visit the stokehold, Mildred hears Yank cursing. When he turns around and she sees him, she is so shocked by him she calls Yank a filthy beast and faints.
Scene 4 also takes place on the ship. Yank is very depressed and the other men try to understand why.
In scene 5, Yank and Long go to 5th Avenue in New York. Yank argues with Long about how best to attack the upper class. Long leaves, fearing arrest, and Yank is arrested after attacking a Gentleman.
Scene 6 takes place at the prison at Blackwell’s Island
Roosevelt Island, known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973, and before that Blackwell's Island, is a narrow island in the East River of New York City. It lies between the island of Manhattan to its west and the borough of Queens to its east...
. Yank tells the prisoners his story and one of the prisoners gives him an article about the Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...
. Yank tries to escape.
Scene 7 takes place at the IWW office that Yank goes to after his month in jail. They are happy to have him at first because there are not many ship firemen in the union - but he is thrown out after he says that he wants to blow up things, and they think he is a spy.
Scene 8 takes place at the zoo, when Yank is crushed after trying to talk to an ape and releasing it from its cage.
The Hairy Ape
displays O'Neill's social concern for the oppressed industrial working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...
. Despite demonstrating in The Hairy Ape
his clear belief that the capitalist system persecuted the working man, O'Neill is critical of a socialist movement that can't fulfill individual needs or solve unique problems.
The industrial environment is presented as toxic and dehumanizing; the world of the rich, superficial and dehumanized. Yank has also been interpreted as representative of the human condition, alienated from nature by his isolated consciousness, unable to find belonging in any social group or environment.
The Hairy Ape
was first produced by the Provincetown Players
The Provincetown Players was an amateur group of writers and artists who, at the early part of the 20th Century, wanted to see a change in American theatre and created a company committed to producing new plays by exclusively American playwrights...
in 1922. The production, directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones
Robert Edmond Jones was an American scenic, lighting, and costume designer. He is credited with incorporating the new stagecraft into the American drama. His designs sought to integrate the scenic elements into the storytelling instead of having them stand separate and indifferent from the play’s...
, was praised for its use of expressionistic set design and staging techniques, and was transferred to a theatre on Broadway
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...
. Actor Louis Wolheim
Louis Wolheim was an American character actor.His trademark broken nose was the result of an injury sustained while playing football for Cornell University. Despite his rugged visage, Wolheim was intelligent and cultivated, speaking French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish. He was also a mathematics...
became famous for his interpretation of Yank.
A 1930s London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...
production featuring African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...
actor Paul Robeson
Paul Leroy Robeson was an American concert singer , recording artist, actor, athlete, scholar who was an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the twentieth century...
playing the lead white role, was a critical success, despite having only five performances.
A low-budget 1944 film version produced by Jules Levey
for the television producer please see Jules LevyJules Levey was the producer of the Frank Buck movie Jacaré.-Early career:...
, released by United Artists
United Artists Corporation is an American film studio. The original studio of that name was founded in 1919 by D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks....
, starred William Bendix
William Bendix was an American film, radio, and television actor, best remembered in movies for the title role in the movie The Babe Ruth Story and for portraying clumsily earnest aircraft plant worker Chester A. Riley in radio and television's The Life of Riley...
, Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward was an American actress.After working as a fashion model in New York, Hayward travelled to Hollywood in 1937 when open auditions were held for the leading role in Gone with the Wind . Although she was not selected, she secured a film contract, and played several small supporting...
, Dorothy Comingore
Dorothy Comingore was an American film actress, best known for her portrayal of Susan Alexander in Orson Welles's critically acclaimed movie Citizen Kane...
, and John Loder
John Loder was a British-American actor. He was born William John Muir Lowe in London.-Early life:Loder's father was General W. H. M. Lowe, the British officer to whom Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Ireland, surrendered...
. According to a review in the New York Sun
(quoted at http://community-2.webtv.net/AnnDiOrio/TheFilmsofSusan/), it had a "happy ending" and generally "made the story lighter and less loaded with social significance".
Later notable productions include Peter Stein
Peter Stein is a critically acclaimed German theatre and opera director who established himself at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, a company that he brought to the forefront of German theatre....
's 1986 revival, and a postmodern multimedia interpretation by the Wooster Group in 1996, with Willem Dafoe
Willem Dafoe is an American film, stage, and voice actor, and a founding member of the experimental theatre company The Wooster Group...
playing the protagonist.
In February 2004, The Hairy Ape
received positive reviews at The San Pedro Playhouse, Cellar Theatre in San Antonio, TX. Deborah Martin of the San Antonio Express News said of Brad Milne "His Yank is raw and hard to forget."
In fall 2006, The Hairy Ape
was staged to positive reviews by the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City. The Irish Voice
declared, "O'Neill's spirit still resonates. The Irish Repertory Theatre's new production of The Hairy Ape
reminds us why O'Neill is considered the first Irish American
Irish Americans are citizens of the United States who can trace their ancestry to Ireland. A total of 36,278,332 Americans—estimated at 11.9% of the total population—reported Irish ancestry in the 2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau...
In February 2009, director Sean Graney of the Hypocrites Theatre Company
The Hypocrites is an award-winning Chicago storefront theate company founded in 1997 by Sean Graney, Brandon Kruse and Christopher Cintron. Graney has been artistic director of the company since its founding. Megan Wildebour serves as their current Managing Director...
staged a production of The Hairy Ape
at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois.
On 6 December 2009 BBC Radio 3
BBC Radio 3 is a national radio station operated by the BBC within the United Kingdom. Its output centres on classical music and opera, but jazz, world music, drama, culture and the arts also feature. The station is the world’s most significant commissioner of new music, and its New Generation...
broadcast a radio adaptation of The Hairy Ape
directed by Toby Swift
Toby Swift is a radio drama director and producer for BBC Radio. His numerous credits include the crime dramas The Recall Man and Trueman and Riley. He also directs contemporary and period radio dramas....