The Hairy Ape as a Social Satire

In his plays, Eugene O'Neill emerges as a discerning critic of post-war American society, focusing on the individual's relationship with the social environment rather than with fate or divine intervention. The Hairy Ape exemplifies O'Neill's scathing critique of a soulless and mechanized society that engenders frustration, disillusionment, and a profound sense of alienation. Unlike social dramas that offer neat solutions, O'Neill's plays delve into the complex psychological and philosophical implications of life within this society, defying easy classification.

Condemnation of the Status Quo

"The Hairy Ape" presents an extremely bleak portrayal of mechanized America, where the most well-adjusted worker is reduced to a mere "hairy ape," and the "Capitalist class" is dehumanized, akin to a procession of lifeless marionettes. Both government and religion are exposed as instruments for upholding the status quo. The church has abandoned true Christianity in favor of political conservatism and materialistic pursuits. The government, both legislative and executive, serves as a tool to protect the interests of the wealthy and suppress the workers. The state, as depicted in the play, strips its citizens of their humanity and stifles any potential for meaningful change.

- Doris Alexander

Yank's Initial Acceptance

The protagonist Yank serves as O'Neill's conduit for exploring different attitudes toward modern society. Initially, Yank wholeheartedly embraces industrialized society, identifying himself with its speed and power. He proudly proclaims, "I'm smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles." However, this acceptance crumbles when he encounters a cultivated sensibility that views him as an object of derision. More significantly, he realizes that he is owned and controlled by the very individuals who possess the steel.

Paddy's Yearning for the Past

Paddy represents another attitude toward modern society, characterized by a nostalgic longing for a pre-industrialized era. He romanticizes a time when work was carried out under the open sky, with a sense of skill and daring, where one's labor was an expression of craftsmanship. Although Yank does not dismiss the idea of returning to the past, he regards it as an unattainable "dope dream." Paddy's desire for a bygone era holds no appeal for Yank, who sees it as a dead and irrelevant longing.

Long: The Attitude of the Radicals

The third perspective on modern society is embodied by Long, the radical character in the play. Long offers a clear analysis of what he perceives as the systemic flaws of society and proposes a remedy. He attributes the rottenness of the social structure to the economic system and believes that educating the workers about the underlying economic order is crucial. Long advocates for peaceful means, emphasizing the power of the proletariat's votes in effecting change. However, while Yank shares Long's acknowledgment of being enslaved by capitalism, he rejects Long's solution and methodology.

Shattering of Yank's Faith: Yank's Final Attitude

O'Neill aligns Yank with Long's diagnosis of the social problem, but diverges in terms of the proposed solution and the means of achieving it. Yank accepts the notion that he is a slave to capitalism, recognizing the control exerted by Mildred's wealthy father, who represents the steel trust. This realization fuels his growing disillusionment. While Yank concurs with Long's assessment of their predicament, he dismisses the I.W.W.'s hope for bettering society through forceful means or creating a new order altogether.

Yank's rejection of Long's program stems from his belief that any alteration of physical conditions or social structures will not lead to salvation. He sees no hope in improved material circumstances, contending that the true value of work lies in non-material satisfaction. Yank argues that the concern for physical needs, such as food and wages, detracts from the deeper fulfillment found in craftsmanship and the pursuit of inner ideals. His advocacy for wholesale destruction of the status quo represents an extreme, anarchistic stance that O'Neill presents without offering a viable alternative.

Psychological Implications of the Machine Age

O'Neill's focus on the psychological and philosophical implications of the machine age sets him apart as a social critic. The Hairy Ape profoundly embodies this concern, using Yank as a vessel to showcase the tormented and anguished soul of Everyman. The play emphasizes that the truly pernicious effects of the capitalist state are not purely physical but spiritual in nature. The smoky and oppressive stokehole fails to make Yank question the inherent injustice of the status quo, underscoring the prevailing attitude that endurance in the face of poor working conditions is a sign of strength. O'Neill contends that the material rewards of work bear no correlation to one's satisfaction, emphasizing the significance of non-material values.

Yank's tragic journey highlights the devastating impact of a society that values material concerns above all else. His gradual disillusionment, epitomizing the psychological consequences of the machine age, ultimately leads him to reject both Long's proposed solution and any hope for societal transformation. Eugene O'Neill offers no hopeful vision for man in an improved society, leaving death as the only resolution for his Everyman.


"The Hairy Ape" presents a profoundly pessimistic social philosophy that wholeheartedly rejects the status quo. However, it offers no answers for finding solace in a better society or hope for dismantling the existing system. Eugene O'Neill's play serves as a powerful catalyst for introspection, forcing audiences to grapple with the problem at hand and fostering a deeper understanding of its malignant effects. In this regard, the play itself becomes a crucial step toward the potential solution.

- Doris Alexander

The Hairy Ape, with its piercing social satire and profound psychological insights, challenges society to confront the dehumanizing consequences of its mechanized existence. By provoking thought and emphasizing the urgency of the problem, O'Neill's play contributes to the ongoing dialogue surrounding the quest for a more humane and meaningful existence.

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