The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape Summary and Analysis of Scenes Five and Six


Scene Five

Three weeks after the events of Scene Four, Yank's ship has returned to New York. On a fine Sunday, he and Long are walking down the affluent Fifth Avenue. Long exclaims about how out of place he and Yank are as “proletarians” in this “private” of the rich. Yank, however, can only think of getting revenge on Mildred in particular for having humiliated him in the stokehole. Long tells him to wait, as the rich people are currently in church nearby; he shows him the window displays of various luxury good stores—clothiers, jewelers, and a furrier—in order to try to convince him that his grievance with that individual young woman is actually part of a much larger social conflict.

Yank tells a bit about his background when thinking about church. As a child, he was sent to church on Sundays by his parents, who themselves would however never attend. On Saturday nights, they would often get into fights that would end with much of the furniture in the house damaged and the young Yank beaten. His father was a longshoreman on the Brooklyn waterfront, and even while young, Yank worked in transportation. Eventually he was sent off as a stoker and since then has felt that he belongs; as he has said before, he does not miss home.

Yank also mentions that when their ship reached Southampton, UK, he had tried to get to Mildred and spit into her eyes in revenge but had been prevented from doing so by the presence of plainclothes police. He still fumes with rage. Long points out the exorbitant prices on the luxury goods to try to redirect Yank's emotions, but Yank is not interested—that is, until he sees monkey fur in the furrier's window.

When the church lets out, Yank starts yelling at the rich people coming out, who do not take notice of him. As Yank becomes more and more violent, Long decides to leave him, afraid that the police will arrest them. Yank becomes exasperated trying to get any response out of the people; in the end he punches a man in the face and is arrested.

Scene Six

The night of the next day, Yank is stuck in the prison on Blackwells Island. He is heavily bruised from the beating he received during his arrest on Fifth Avenue and finds himself again in the pose of Rodin's “Thinker.” Speaking to himself, he wonders at the oppressive environment of the prison and calls it a “zoo.” The other inmates, hearing this, become amused, and some ask him about his story. Yank, however, is at first unwilling to tell; he mentions that at his trial the judge was unsympathetic, giving him the impression that no one in the world can understand him.

When he extends the zoo metaphor to calling himself and the other prisoners “apes,” they become momentarily enraged, thinking he is insulting them; but some wiser voices among them point out that Yank is probably a bit crazy. Yank does eventually tell his story, but the other prisoners are not able to understand; although the mention of Mildred's family name, “Douglas,” allows one of the prisoners to point out to Yank that her father is the president of the Steel Trust, and therefore one of the biggest and richest industrial magnates.

Another suggests that Yank join the Wobblies, that is, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); to inform and encourage him, this man reads out a speech by a certain Senator Queen denouncing the IWW. The other prisoners hoot at the rhetoric about American democracy and equality, but quiet down and go to sleep when the guard threatens to hose them. Yank reads the paper and takes his Rodin pose again, but then leaps up and begins bellowing his realization that he has been all his life caged by steel, and that as a stoker embodying fire, he must melt the steel to reach freedom. His noise only earns him a hosing.


Scene Five is the only scene that takes place in a setting likely familiar to mainstream audiences of “The Hairy Ape”; it should not be forgotten that New York was at O'Neill's time, as it is today, the theater center of the US. Therefore, Fifth Avenue, with its many department stores and luxury good stores, should be eminently known to almost all; there are those few who have the means to patronize the stores and most who do not, but all can pass by the window displays to admire the goods.

O'Neill deliberately defamiliarizes this environment by a sophisticated contrast in lighting, which may be difficult to achieve on the stage, between healthy sunlight and a slightly manic, slightly depraved use of electrical lighting in the store displays. We might think back to Paddy's speech in Scene One opposing sailing to stoking as the first example of one of these many natural-artificial oppositions in the play.

O'Neill also makes it clear in the stage directions how he understands the nature of this artificiality Yank sees:

From each piece hangs an enormous tag from which a dollar sign and numerals in intermittent electric lights wink out the incredible prices. The same in the furrier's. Rich furs of all varieties hang there bathed in a downpour of artificial light. The general effect is of a background of magnificence cheapened and made grotesque by commercialism, a background in tawdry disharmony with the clear light and sunshine on the street itself. (66)

That there is a “magnificence” that has been “cheapened” implies that O'Neill—as a theater man and an admirer of classical Greek drama—saw great value in high culture and craftsmanship, which would put him clearly against the socialist Long, who makes it apparent to Yank that he sees no value whatsoever in the luxury goods. O'Neill wants to generate a deeply disturbing effect on the audience but knows he cannot do so by didactically telling them the answers, as Long does. He cannot show things just as they would see them outside the theater where they are watching The Hairy Ape and expect them to have any genuine interaction with it. Rather, he decides to present things in a frankly unrealistic light, such as by making the rich people Yank tries to provoke inhumanly unresponsive, so as to give them as much a sense of being lost as Yank feels.

By this point in the play, Yank has come to take a very interesting position vis-à-vis the audience. Since he speaks an English that almost certainly none of the theatergoers speak and which they would probably look down upon, they seem to have an unusual distance from him. This distance shrinks as we begin to see him suffer and hear his very language changing as he struggles to come to grips with his suffering. In a word, we would begin to feel pity for him—pity being one of the most important affects in drama as theorized by Aristotle and Lessing. We might feel that we understand him where no one else does; and yet, with his bursting into violent harangues with increasing frequency, we might start to feel pretty defensive ourselves.

How we feel about Yank will likely depend to a great deal on how the actor plays him and how the stage is set up. If performance and staging allows us to feel distant, we might be able to feel abstractly sympathetic, as Mildred is; if things are made too close for comfort, and if Yank is portrayed in a truly mad fashion (at times), as seems to have been O'Neill's intention, then we may, even in spite of ourselves, blanche as Mildred did and find ourselves reflexively turning to whatever notions of class or civilized society we have to stave off the “ape.”

It is O'Neill's genius that allows him to so effectively provoke the audience. We might even think of him as a more brooding, less direct, but for that reason more effective, Yank stalking around Fifth Avenue trying to make rich people feel uncomfortable in their own neighborhood.