The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neil is a play that centers on the themes of identity, effects of industrialization and the dilemmas of the lower social class. Set in very grim and gloomy environment the play aims to project the plight of the lower working class, who seem to be in quest of identity, and in need of recognition from the society. The play makes it mark because it is blunt and a mirror image of the society. This makes it an eye opener for the audience and leaves them thinking about issues that remain covered and unsounded.
One of the main motifs in the play is that of ‘belonging’ or identity. We see the protagonist Yank as ‘broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest.’ He is the man that is sure of himself, his passions and most of all his endless power. Yank dwells in a world that is small, rugged, dark and away from the ‘upper’ world of rich, classy people. In his own world Yank is the king, he has the most physical power, and some of the intellectual power as he often sits to ‘tink’.
The play turns dramatic when Yank encounters Mildred; a lady from the upper class who is sophisticated and almost like a ‘ghost.’ In her stupefied condition Mildred says, “Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast.” This small meeting is an epiphany for Yank. He takes the remark as a direct insult. It shakes him, and all of a sudden he begins to question his identity, his being and his rightful place in the society. The meeting ignites a kind of hatred in Yank; he says at one place, “Hairy ape, huh? Sure! Dat’s de way she looked at me, huh?”
Analyzing this saying of Yank one can notice that he was disgusted at the way he looked upon as, if he was not expecting praise, he still wanted recognition and not at all some hurtful insults bombarded his way. The anger, frustration and realization put him under a lot of psychological pressure, he wants to avenge the insults and be even. Yank is a rough man, with no mannerism, sophistication or even civilization and so the route to revenge and his search for identity take him to New York. Among the skyscrapers built of steel, the steel he made, he feels alienated; he cannot relate to the world outside, he feels nothing even to himself. This is the irony of the play that the men who produce, are the ones who are devoid of their utility.
The play depicts the two extremes of our society, or the world of industrialization. On one side we are growing, developing in advancing in all sorts of fields, but on the other hand there are people like Yank. These people are locked of from the basic necessities of life, thrown away into dark caverns left to work and work. This is not human-like. The Maslow theory states that after the need of survival and shelter and then comes the need of belonging, which is necessary for the well-being of each and every human.
Yank misses on this part of his life, and this is not only his story but the story of all those men, women and children who belong to a lower social class and submit their lives into working or hardworking. It is ironic that on one hand we are becoming all advanced but one the other side we are rapidly declining to the state of when the humans were like ‘apes’ the homo-sapiens, who were just like animals. This is an alarming situation that needs to be looked upon and corrected.
The Hairy ape questions the society for this injustice through the character of Yank. The derogatory status given to human existence need to be settled and brought up to the standards of equality that is mentioned in the books that constitute the laws of every country.