The regression of civilized men to an animalistic state in The Hairy Ape.


Modern men are brutalized by machinery and industry. Explain with reference to The Hairy Ape.


Modern people are rendered inhuman through the mechanized social system. Discuss in the context of The Hairy Ape.


Modern people have lost human qualities and have become soulless. Explain in the context of The Hairy Ape.


The Hairy Ape 2Answer: O’Neill is a critic of post-war American society as a whole; his plays study man in relation to his social environment. He shows that the social environment causes frustration and a sense of alienation. O’Neill has reacted in his plays against the mechanized social system which has rendered human beings mechanized, dehumanized and brutalized.

In The Hairy Ape O’Neill has exposed the regression of civilized men to an animalistic state through the plight and struggle of the firemen in the ocean liner.

The firemen are reduced to animals, caged and abused. The ocean liner functions as a metaphor for the larger confinement and oppression of blue-collar workers into a tight niche in the bottom of society. The cage-like forecastle is representative of the cramped world, devoid of opportunity, that the men exist in. O’Neill suggests that the men should “resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal man is guessed at.” The tight quarters of the forecastle and low ceilings force men to stoop low, preventing the men from having normal, upright posture. Only valued for their physical might, their ability to shove coal into the ship’s furnace, the men have abandoned the need for modern or complex thought and have regressed into a Neanderthal state.

O’Neill reinforces the firemen’s Neanderthal state in the firemen’s speech patterns. O’Neill carefully spells out the broken words and vocal patterns of the men to ensure that the actor will effectively use speech as another barrier and divide between the firemen and the higher class characters. With the exception of Paddy and Long, the men speak in short, simple phrases in broken English. Paddy and Long also have thick accents, but express complex thoughts through their dialogue. In this scene the dialogue between the firemen comes in waves of exclamations:


“Gif me trink dre, you!’Ave a wet! Salute! Gasundheit! Skoal!

Drunk as a lord, God stiffen you! Here’s How! Luck!”

The firemen’s lines are like animal sounds, void of structure or cohesiveness. This is not to ignore the fact that the firemen, in a life outside the play, may communicate full sentences and ideas, but within the text the firemen are characterized like a pack of dogs. The men are reactive and easily bothered, defensive and constantly ready to put up a fight. Yank, the leader of the pack, gains respect not because he is the smartest, but because he is physically the strongest.

Both the rich and the poor are devoid of humanity in the modern society; Mildred is the decadent, aimless product of the society. The people coming out of the church are devoid of fellow-feeling and sensibility.

O’Neill saw no salvation for modern man, a brute who continues redundantly—to be brutalized by machinery and industry. If a man is essentially still an ape, he has also become a machine and, in self delusion, thinks that elemental primitive force which he has retained and converted into steel can be an end in itself. He enjoys a false sense of belonging to something, of being a part of steel and of machinery, whereas he is actually their slave. In those instances where he is not enslaved he has lost his vitality and completely enervated—a waste product in the Bessemer process inheriting the acquired trait of the by-product wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it.” — (Edwin Engel)

According to Richard Dana Skinner, “No one has understood better, than Eugene O’Neill that the soul at war with itself belongs nowhere, in this world of realities. The soul that denies or seeks to escape from its own creative power sinks in misery below the lowly. In The Hairy Ape, we have a restatement of the theme in the rough and inarticulate regions of the soul, ending in death through the embrace of the beast.”

“In The Hairy Ape the poet’s soul has at last found a symbol of the lowest man, in a cage of steel. The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads. They cannot stand upright. This accentuates the natural stooping posture which shoveling coal and the resultant over-development of back and shoulder muscles have given them. The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal man is guessed at. All are hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power and low receding brows above their small, fierce resentful eyes.”


In the first scene, we see Yank quite satisfied with his condition as a stoker. He has a great sense of belongingness. He identifies himself with the steam and smoke and steel. He readily accepts man’s new situation in the industrial world. However, he completely fails to realize that this great material progress has been achieved at the cost of spiritual values; thereby sending man back to his primitive cave days, reducing him, in the process, to a hairy ape. Civilization has turned a vicious cycle. The mechanical life has led to a loss of human identity. Yank’s illusion is broken when Mildred throws him the remark “the filthy beast”. He from this time searches for identity but discovers that he does not belong. He is isolated from the society. He is alone. He is the symbol of the proletariat class who is oppressed and exploited by the capitalist class. The proletariat class serves the interest of the rich who enslave them. They have no identity in the society. Their thought does not develop; they talk in full sentences and cannot raise their voice against oppression. As a result of the life-long confinement in their work-place, they remain unpolished and underdeveloped. They develop beastly instincts out of ignorance, impatience and anger.

Modern man suffers from a terrible dilemma. According to a critic, The Hairy Ape was propaganda in that it was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth or in heaven, he’s in the middle, trying to make peace, taking the “worst punches from a lot of them. Yank can’t go forward, and so he tries to go back. This is what his shaking hands with the gorilla meant. But he cannot go back to belonging either.” To conclude, O’Neill has successfully exposed the regression of modern man to an animalistic state.