The Hairy Ape
The Hairy Ape (1922) is an expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill about 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, only to find he does not belong anywhere—neither with the socialites on Fifth Avenue, nor with the labor organizers on the waterfront.
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. Yank tells the prisoners his story and one of the prisoners gives him an article about the Industrial Workers of the World. 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. Despite demonstrating in The Hairy Ape his clear belief that the capitalist system persecutes 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 in 1922. The production, directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones, was praised for its use of expressionistic set design and staging techniques, and was transferred to a theatre on Broadway. Actor Louis Wolheim became famous for his interpretation of Yank.
A low-budget 1944 film version produced by Jules Levey, released by United Artists, starred William Bendix, Susan Hayward, Dorothy Comingore, and John Loder. According to a review in the New York Sun it had a "happy ending" and generally "made the story lighter and less loaded with social significance".
In February 2004, The Hairy Ape received positive reviews at the San Pedro Playhouse, Cellar Theatre in San Antonio, Texas. 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. [This] new production of The Hairy Ape reminds us why O'Neill is considered the first Irish-American playwright."
In October 2012, Director Philip Boehm of Upstream Theater staged an acclaimed production of The Hairy Ape in St. Louis, Missouri.
It is staged in London's Old Vic in October and November 2015.