Write a note on O’Neill’s tragic view of life as reflected in The Hairy Ape.


“Contemporary spiritual chaos has been reflected in The Hairy Ape.” Elucidate.


How has the inner-conflict of modern man been depicted in The Hairy Ape? Explain.


Analyze The Hairy Ape as a pessimistic play.


O’Neill depicts the human predicament in The Hairy Ape. Discuss.


The Hairy ApeAnswer: The Hairy Ape is a deeply pessimistic play which depicts the human predicament in the mechanized society, but holds out no solution or hopes of salvation for him. In his search for identity, Yank suffers from terrible anguish and is ultimately crushed to death by a gorilla. The end of the play is weird, tragic and terrible. This play is a dramatization of the tortured and anguished soul of Yank, the everyman. O’Neill shows that the vicious effects of the capitalist state are not physical, but spiritual. He finds no solution to human predicament.

To O’Neill, man is bound to be torn by inner chaos and ultimately disintegrated. This view has been reflected in The Hairy Ape. In this play, O’Neill finds himself for the first time under the mental and emotional cloud of late nineteenth century science, and the spiritual chaos it rendered. O’Neill presents his own reaction to the modern state through his central character Yank, for Yank is, according to O’Neill, “every human being”. O’Neill faces Yank with three possible attitudes towards modern society. The first is his own at the beginning of the play: complete acceptance of industrialized society, identification with speed and power. This attitude becomes impossible for Yank the moment he sees how he appears to a cultivated sensibility, and more important, realizes that he is owned and controlled by the men who own the steel.

The play presents an extremely negative view of the state of mechanized America, where the “capitalist” class is even more terribly dehumanized, for it has lost all connection with life, is simply a “procession of gaudy marionettes.” Both government and religion are treated as devices for maintaining the status quo. The church substitutes political conservation for Christianity, substitute’s methods of making money, for concern with the meaning of life and death. The government is equally at the service of the marionettes. On the legislative side, it is exemplified by the wintry oratory of senator Queen, glorifying the status quo and denouncing with ignorant terror any threat to it like the I.W.W. On the executive side, it is exemplified by the police who function to keep the workers from disturbing the wealthy. On the whole, the state as pictured in the play, is a device for dehumanizing its citizens, and for preventing change.


O’Neill is more concerned with the psychological and philosophical implications of the machine age, and herein lays his originality as a social critic. The Hairy Ape is such a moving play, and so universal in its appeal because it is a dramatization of the tortured and anguished soul of Yank, the Everyman. His example shows that, “The truly vicious effects of the capitalist state are not physical, but spiritual.” — (Doris Alexander)

O’Neill saw no salvation for modern man, a brute who continues to be brutalized by machinery and industry. If 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 adequate end in itself. I le 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 vitality and become 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.

The first scene of the play presents Yank as having faith in himself; also, as having an equally great sense of belonging to the stokehole and the engine. He identifies himself with the steam, smoke and steel. “I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles…. And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dot stands for the whole thing! And I’m steel, — steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!”

Yank 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 men back to his primitive cave days, reducing him, in the process, to a hairy ape. Civilization has turned a vicious circle. The mechanical life has led to a loss of human identity. Yank is in his desire to “belong”, identifies himself with smoke, with steel and the like. Then suddenly Yank’s illusion is shattered and he is thoroughly confused.

It is in Scene III, when Mildred confronts Yank and calls him “the filthy beast” that the disillusionment of Yank begins. Rage and bewildered fury rush back on Yank. He feels insulted in some unknown fashion, “in the very heart of his pride”. It is from this point onwards that Yank’s questionings and self-doubts begin and he feels that he no longer ‘belongs’.


The play is thus, centered on Yank’s loss of faith and belief in himself as well as in the world in which he lives. Yank, in the search of his identity discovers that he is alone, lonely and the world is impossible to live in. Secondly, the steel is no power within him but a prison around him.

Yank’s disillusionment becomes complete when he discovers, he does not even belong to the species of the gorilla. This sense of despair, frustration and disillusion is not experienced by Yank alone. It is shared by Mildred also. She is a decadent, aimless product of the society. She suffers from exhaustion and complete loss of vitality. The people coming out of the church are ‘gaudy marionettes”. They have no mind, no will, and no soul.

In the opinion of Richard Dana Skinner, “No one has understood better, than 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 beast. In The Hairy Ape, we have a restatement of the theme in the rough and inarticulate regions of soul, ending in death through the embrace of the beast.”

To conclude, the play presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy which rejects entirely the status quo, but sees no answer for man in a better society, and no hope for destroying the existing, mechanized and dehumanized society.