The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape O'Neill's Wordplay

Aside from his prowess in forming convincing and disturbing plots, O'Neill demonstrates his dramatic prowess in the way he works with language itself. Even more impressive is that he is able to do this not in a high-flown, abstract language, but through the mouth of the most uneducated and most subtlety-averse character: Yank.

Perhaps the most important play with words happens with Yank's phrase “I'm tryin' to t'ink,” which he says first as a kind of joke in Scene One. Since the idea of thinking is introduced ironically, it makes a special and unmissable impression upon his fellow workers and the audience when, after his encounter with Mildred, he repeats the same phrase with sincerity. The stage directions mention specifically that the workers notice and are confused by this reversal. O'Neill underlines the wordplay by making Yank take the position of Rodin's “The Thinker,” a pose that he will repeat again and again, as though rolling the word “think” over and over.

The word “ape” also starts out as an (implicit) insult from Mildred but then undergoes several changes. It is important to note that Yank begins to use it himself, and not just when speaking of himself; he calls the other men in the prison “apes,” to which they respond in a wounded and furious way similar to Yank's. By the end, however, Yank has cynically adopted the word as an identifier to the point that he visits the monkey house at the zoo to identify with the animal itself and in dying, takes the mock third-person stance of a circus barker to announce himself as “the Hairy Ape.”

It is also important to note how “steel” and “comrades,” or “buddies,” start out with the best connotations for Yank but become cynically reversed as he feels imprisoned and betrayed, respectively, by them. We should pay attention to how the same words are used in different ways at different points in the development of Yank's character, not only because we cannot hear his inner thoughts, but also because he is presented as not really thinking except out loud. Yank does not think in terms of abstract ideas but rather actions; so even his speech constitutes part of his action.