The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Given the unusualness of Yank's working-class background and his violent personality, how do you think O'Neill envisioned his audiences relating to the character?

    Although other artistic forms such as novels and photography had well-established traditions of realist and social realist reportage and dramatization of the miseries of working-class life by the time O'Neill wrote and produced The Hairy Ape, drama still hewed to higher and more standard registers of speech. Thus, contemporary audiences were shocked but also deeply impressed by the feeling that they were almost right there themselves in the forecastle or stokehole overhearing the genuine conversation of men whom they would otherwise never hear in their everyday lives. However, O'Neill makes this stance very difficult by making Yank implicitly mock and threaten those who would gawk at him and his brethren from a safe distance.

  2. 2

    A script is a text meant to eventually be performed. Discuss a crucial point in the story when decisions in acting and staging could make a significant different in the meaning of the play.

    Yank's monologue that takes up the entirety of Scene Eight poses a great challenge for the actor in part because of its length. However, as the stage directions make clear, Yank is also at his most conflicted in this scene and alternates frequently and abruptly between a sincere sympathy and a mocking disdain. Depending on how well the monologue is delivered, it may come across as either a boring rant or a rollercoaster ride that constantly frustrates the audience's expectations.

  3. 3

    The issue of sexuality is not spoken about explicitly except for a few times and never takes place on the stage. Yet how would you explain its significance to Yank's emotional development?

    Women are first mentioned in Scene One after discussion of the masculine culture of drinking; although Yank speaks confidently and encouragingly about the latter, when it comes to women he can only speak with disdain and veiled threats. His world, as we know from his background of hard labor since a young age, centers exclusively on a masculine world in which women are as much objects as a bottle of whiskey. However, given that Yank does not boast about women, we may infer that he has not had much experience. His shock at seeing Mildred derives from precisely this lack.

  4. 4

    What is the significance of race in the play?

    In a sense, the first significant mention of racism is in the stage directions for Scene One that specifies that although the firemen come from a variety of races, none of them are colored. They are able to band together convincingly because they are all “white”; if one were black, it would have been blatantly unrealistic, given the times, to not have a significant conflict with that character—not to mention that in reality the man would likely not have been able to get the job in the first place. The only explicit mention of African Americans is the I.W.W. secretary's remark that they do not have a “coon” as a doorman. However, Yank, especially in his identification with apes, symbolizes a kind of social alienation that mirrors that experienced by black men.

  5. 5

    Discuss a stylistic feature of O'Neill's stage direction writing that directly contributes to the moral drama of the play as a whole.

    In the climactic Scene Eight, O'Neill specifies that the stage lights should be focused on the gorilla and Yank; all the other monkeys, like the other workers in the forecastle and stokehole scenes, are meant to fade into the dark background, so that the drama is focused on the person of Yank. However, O'Neill inverts the glorious of dramatic heroism by using the same attention, as indicated by the lights, to represent Yank's isolation and the humiliating sense of being seen by a distanced audience.