In the cramped sleeping quarters of the fireman's forecastle on a transatlantic liner just setting out from New York to Southampton, a group of coal stokers are carousing drunkenly. As O'Neill specifies in his stage directions, the men are supposed to represent a diversity of European races (none colored) and resemble Neanderthals; the setting of the scene "should by no means be naturalistic." A cacophony of inebriated cries rings out as the curtain rises, but our attention is fixed on the most impressive individual, the alpha male of the group: Yank, an Irish-American.
When he begins to speak, all the others fall silent, only chiming in to cry a common consent after Yank finishes. Dominating the chaotic conversation, he speaks of drink and his contempt for women.
Long, a socialist, jumps up to deliver a short drunken speech blaming the capitalist class for the poor living conditions that they, the workers, experience. He is shouted down rather antagonistically, but Yank restores general jubilance by making everyone drink again.
The mood takes a sudden turn for the melancholy when Paddy, an old Irish sailor, bursts out with a pained elegy for the good old days of sailing, when men felt both free and healthily involved in the workings of the ship—as opposed to the oppressive and humiliating conditions as a coal stoker. He more or less directly challenges Yank with this notion that they may all be trapped, as though chained to the furnace they feed. Yank characteristically rejects Paddy's criticism and answers with a long speech of his own full of confidence in his own strength.
Having finished, Yank urges Paddy to drink until the latter loses his senses. The bell announcing the work shift sounds, and all the workers suddenly become like automata, filing down to the stokehole to report for work. Paddy, alone, stays behind, refusing to work anymore.
Mildred, the daughter of a steel magnate, is on the same oceanic liner with her aunt, who reluctantly acts as her chaperone. Mildred studied sociology in college and is eager to get to know the "other half" of society outside of her own class of the bourgeoisie, whom she finds boring and lacking in vitality. Although she has a keen sense of irony and her aunt accuses her frequently of being a poser, Mildred seems earnest in her efforts to get to know the workers.
When a second engineer comes to escort her to the stokehole, she confuses him with witticisms. Finally, they descend, leaving Mildred's aunt calling her niece a poser.
Even though The Hairy Ape focuses almost entirely on the character of Yank, it develops the oppressive atmosphere of the working-class world and the doomed heroic spirit of the mighty coal stoker by means of contrasting pairs of characters. This is a classic dramatic trope, perhaps even one of the most characteristic devices, used especially by comedies, in which stock characters with unrealistically pronounced personalities provide entertainment by their sheer differences and curious interactions among themselves. O'Neill's play is far from being a comedy or eschewing deep psychological insight, but he does specify in the opening stage notes that: “The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic” (39).
To briefly explain the context in which O'Neill is speaking, we should note that he is responding to two important competing notions of acting at the time: naturalism and expressionism. Roughly speaking, the former sought to express what was real about life by a direct representation of how we experience the everyday; in contrast, the latter strove to reveal certain deep truths about human life that could not be represented except through such situations uncommon to most lives and with characters one might never otherwise meet. Though he was reluctant to identify with any given theory or ideology, O'Neill admitted that he felt much closer to expressionism than naturalism.
The character of Yank is from beginning to end almost impossible for the viewer to identify with; he is a force of his own, described throughout as “contemptuous” and fiercely, even maniacally, individualistic. As O'Neill describes him in the final paragraph of the opening stage directions before we get to the dialogue itself: “He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest. They respect his superior strength—the grudging respect of fear. Then, too, he represents to them a self-expression, the very last word in what they are, their most highly developed individual” (40).
Although Yank is constantly described as, and himself constantly boasts to be, the strongest of the lot of the workers, we discover that the source of both his pride and actual strength is a deeper feature of his personality: a kind of alienation or repulsion from others which, as the title of the play and many foreshadowing hints within the play bring to our attention little by little, will eventually come to the surface and define him entirely. In Scene One, against the cosmopolitan cacophony of the stokers in their forecastle quarters, Yank is, in the beginning, the only one who is able to speak on his own; he can do this because of both his immense physical presence and the aggressive way he has of speaking, whereby he is quick to challenge others and reluctant to let them forget how mighty he is.
Throughout the rest of the play, Yank will continue to find himself speaking with and against groups of hardy men (e.g., prisoners, union members); but we learn already in this first scene that even at the height of his powers, in the place he is most respected, Yank does not interact with others in any deeper sense than working, making threats, and boasting. As the chorus of the voices of the stokers urges, "Drink, don't think" (43). Although Yank stands in contrast to his fellow workers, as argued above, the first truly interpersonal opposition of character comes through the sudden (and, unsurprisingly, drunk) appearance of Long, a socialist.
While speaking the same level of working-class speech as the rest of the stokers, Long shows that he has an entirely different view of the world. Specifically, in direct contrast to Yank, he doesn't see himself as the hero and prime mover in the world, but rather is aware of all the inhumanly massive societal forces that shape his life from the outside. This worldview makes him interested not just in his own affairs but in the issue of justice for his fellow men; hence he calls them “Comrades,” whereas Yank has no particular way of addressing them (43). As we may expect, Yank threatens Long and more or less trumps his argument just by calling him a coward for talking as though there were problems in his, Long's, life not solvable by sheer force alone.
The second contrast of characters, perhaps the most compelling in the entire story, is that between Yank and a kind of father figure to him: the old Irishman Paddy. Whereas Long was very quickly stopped in his speech by a chorus of the stokers' boos, Paddy from the moment he opens his mouth seizes their attention and continues to hold it; in this way he possesses a rhetorical mastery like Yank does, albeit of a very different sort. Correspondingly, Yank's response is subtly different: "Aw, yuh crazy Micki (He springs to his feet and advances on PADDY threateningly—then stops, fighting some queer struggle within himself—lets his hands fall to his sides-contemptuously) Aw, take it easy. Yuh're aw right, at dat. Yuh're bugs, dat's all—nutty as a cuckoo" (47). For the first time in the drama, another person has touched a nerve in Yank.
The second person, who makes up the third contrast with Yank, would of course be Mildred. The shock that she gives him is less by anything she says or any worldview that she speaks of in front of him than the look of horror and disgust that she gives him, in which he sees a side of himself that he himself cannot accept. If Yank was able to show some respect to Paddy—and thereby come close to a chance of developing out of his self-centeredness—after the traumatic experience with Mildred he is increasingly unable to treat other people as human beings, until at the end he is unable to treat himself as a human being.