Eugene O’Neill. The Hairy Ape. O’Neill: Complete Plays 1920-1931. New York: Library of America, 1988. Print.
The Hairy Ape was one of Eugene O’Neill’s early successes and helped establish him as a significant American dramatist. It is a little dated nowadays, but still has something to say to us. O’Neill wrote: “The playwright of today must dig at the roots of the sickness of the age as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new meaning to life.”
His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, did exactly that. Full of Biblical imagery, it suggested that the Christian Messianic hope was futile. At the same time it also noted that science and a materialistic philosophy were not helpful either.
The Hairy Ape deals with another false hope of O’Neill’s day, socialistic reform. One could argue that socialism claims a foundation on science and materialism.. Keep in mind that this was produced in 1922 when Communism was a mere fledgling in Russia and German National Socialism was still a few years away.
The tough, muscular Yank stokes coal on a freighter. On one voyage the spoiled and sickly daughter of the owner of the ship comes aboard. She is interested in taking a tour of the ship, but she is repelled by the filth and raw habits of the stokers. Yank overhears her calling him a hairy ape. Yank never forgives her for this, and tries to get his revenge for this slight.
Yank’s plans are very primitive in one sense. All he knows is brute strength. He tries to get other stokers to join him, but they see no reason to. He joins the IWW, the most radical of the labor unions, hoping to take part in some of their anarchistic endeavors. He is so eager, though, they suspect he is some kind of informer.
We can guess that Yank is not going to turn out well. But he really expresses the futility of changing society when he encounters a genuine hairy ape. The upper class educated people seem to have adopted Darwin’s thesis that some people are closer to apes than to humans, and all we can look forward to is a naturalistic survival of the fittest.