Places: The Hairy Ape

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1922

First produced: 1922, at the Provincetown Playhouse, New York City

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Expressionism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSteamship

Steamship. Hairy Ape, TheOcean liner at sea on which the hairy, bare-chested Yank is stoking the boilers when the play opens. The stokehole into which he shovels coal is at the very bowels of the ship, where the low ceilings force workers to stoop, making them seem apelike. When Mildred Douglas, a wealthy passenger aboard the ship insists on visiting the stokehold, she is so frightened by what she sees that she faints. Yank’s buddy Paddy tells him that the woman looks as if she has seen a hairy ape. The incident shatters Yank’s self-identity and sense of belonging, and he vows to get even.

In another shipboard scene, well-to-do passengers lounge on deck chairs under the open sky, a setting in stark contrast to the dark underworld in which the stokers who keep the ship running live. Whereas the stokehold is enclosed, dark, and constricted, the passenger deck is open, light, and airy. O’Neill uses this contrast to emphasize the difference between the privileged and working class.

*Fifth Avenue

*Fifth Avenue. Fashionable avenue in New York City noted for its exclusive stores. Yank visits Fifth Avenue three weeks after his encounter with Mildred on the ship. Enraged by the thought that Mildred called him a “hairy ape” (which she did not), Yank–unwashed and dressed in greasy clothing–strides defiantly through a crowd of prosperous people who are pouring onto Fifth Avenue as their Sunday church services end. Eugene O’Neill presents Fifth Avenue as the churchgoers see it but later in the scene, in a stage direction, he offers Yank’s inner, expressionistic vision of what Fifth Avenue is: “The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed, overdressed to the nth degree.” Enraged when the crowd seems oblivious to his presence, Yank behaves increasingly violently until he is arrested.

*Blackwells Island

*Blackwells Island. Now known as Welfare Island, small island in New York’s East River that had a penal institution at the time when the play was written. Yank is taken to the island’s jail after he is beaten and arrested by police. Scene 6 opens in the jail, in which a row of cells is exposed. The police have arrived, beaten Yank, and arrested him. While in the jail, Yank learns about the Wobblies, a labor organization that he thinks he must join.

Cages of various types are a recurring motif throughout the play. O’Neill’s stage directions in the first, third, and fourth scenes suggest that he sees the ocean liner’s stokehold as a cage. In the jail scene, Yank truly is in a cage; he awakens there thinking he is in a zoo. In the play’s final scene, he visits an actual zoo.

Union Hall

Union Hall. Meeting hall of the “Wobblies,” the International Workers of the World (IWW), located near New York’s waterfront. After being released from jail, Yank goes to the hall to join the union. Thinking the members will welcome him because of his willingness to dynamite steel plants and go to prison if necessary, he announces his intentions but is turned away as a dangerous dissenter. The union hall, which should be a haven for Yank, turns into another threatening locale, further alienating him.

Monkey house

Monkey house. Area at a public zoo (presumably the Bronx Zoo) in which the final scene is set. Failing to gain acceptance among human society, Yank goes to the zoo, where he tries to talk to a caged gorilla. He breaks the lock on the gorilla’s cage and releases the huge animal. However, when he tries to shake the gorilla’s hand in friendship, it turns on him, crushes him, throws his body into the cage, and wanders off. Yank is left to die in an ape’s cage, reinforcing the motif O’Neill has been building throughout the play.

BibliographyBerlin, Normand. Eugene O’Neill. New York: Grove Press, 1982. A succinct work of 178 pages that provides an introduction to O’Neill’s works by decades. Includes a helpful explanation of expressionistic techniques in The Hairy Ape.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. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. An excellent analysis of the alienation theme and how it is woven into the structure of the play. Considers the play dramatically significant and with universal appeal.Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. A critical discussion of the O’Neill canon, with one chapter devoted to The Hairy Ape. Contains several production photographs.O’Neill, Eugene. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. An engrossing collection of letters, revealing O’Neill in interpersonal and business relationships. Discusses details of creation and production of The Hairy Ape.Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968-1973. An impressive biography, more than fifteen hundred pages long, with many photographs, and a bibliography. Its wealth of information includes analyses of plays, themes, and characters; reviews; and quotations from O’Neill. The first volume concludes with the production of Beyond the Horizon in 1920, the second with O’Neill’s death.
Categories: Places