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The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill Analysis

A scene from The Hairy Ape

A scene from The Hairy Ape

Within Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” , Yank, the main character, represents the oppressed working class in our capitalist society. O’Neill was an extreme socialist and believed that without working together, we could not achieve a sense of community (where everyone attempts to work with and help the other members of their society). Through “The Hairy Ape” , he shows us that our society should work together like a community to avoid an “every-man-for-themselves” mentality.

When Mildred, a rich girl, calls Yank a “filthy beast” (347), she is rejecting him because of fear and hate toward the working class. She cannot relate to him in any way because of their origins. Because of this, Yank is discouraged for being all that he can be: a working class member of society. Without prestige or education, Mildred cannot accept the man before her because she thinks less of him; this mentality keeps our society from working together as a community.

As Yank contemplates the meaning of his life, he says, “I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can't see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong!” (361). Yank was once a working machine that could change the world, but because of the oppression and discouragement from others, he is now a broken machine—a powerless being that will never have another chance to correct the wrongs of society.

This piece of theatre sends a very powerful message that is linked heavily to O’Neill’s burning, socialist values. He used dialects that clearly represent the different class structures of the time. When Mildred and her aunt are speaking within the second scene, they insult each other and bicker almost the entire scene. Is O’Neill’s point that the upper-class has nothing better to do than to fight and argue? The juxtaposition between scenes one and two is a clear representation of what each class does when they are not working. The rich complain and argue because they have it all and the working class chants, “Drink, don’t think!”, and sings songs until the day is over. O’Neill is showing his audience that the upper-class that doesn’t have to work does not lead as significant a life as the working class do. When one works hard, one enjoys the simpler pleasures of life more than those who don’t.

An interesting technique that O’Neill uses in this piece is excessive stage direction. This allows the actor (or crew, set design, makeup design, etc.) to encompass the overall message he is trying to send within each part of the production. He references to the makeup in the beginning notes of scene five: “Their faces and bodies shine from soap-and-water scrubbing, but around their eyes, where a hasty dousing does not touch, the coal dust sticks like black makeup, giving them a queer, sinister expression” (347). This stage direction and overall guidance to the play and its design is crucial to the play’s overall meaning.

Within O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” , society is shown as a cruel world where the upper-class mentality believes in fending for themselves while the working class is more inclined to share his wealth and lead a more significant life. This life may not bridge classes, but within its class, a person with purpose can lead many to live better lives.


joy on August 10, 2015:

It is a great work of Eugene O'neill

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Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 03, 2011:

Thank you, Derdrie. I love Eugene O'Neill also. His position as a working class citizen in our society allowed him to create some of the most powerful works in the theatre. Thank you so much for reading/commenting, etc.

Derdriu on December 03, 2011:

Britt: What an insightful, logical, profound analysis of an unusual play by an unusual dramatist! Eugene O'Neill was one of my favorite writers when I was in high school. He had such an unusual viewpoint and such a unique writing style. He also was a pioneer in some of his thoughts about writing and staging plays. His eccentric, impassioned and original genius show through your discussion of plot, motivation, and character.

Thank you once again for a brilliant analysis, voted up, etc.,


Brittany Kennedy (author) from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on December 02, 2011:

I was in this play once (and played Yank, a man). We used the audience to make our scenes more lively and interactive. Thanks for reading!

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on December 02, 2011:

This sounds like a truly inspiring story. I bet it would be great to see on stage.

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