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Character Analysis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

YANK, a fireman, the central character in The Hairy Ape (real name Robert Smith). Yank, at the beginning of the play is an ugly, squat, truculent, almost simian figure, the leader of all the firemen on board an unnamed steamship. He glories in his strength and identifies himself with the machinery he serves. He perceives himself as the prime mover of all machinery, the maker of steel, "the bottom," but someone on whom the entire movement of the industrial world depends. He "belongs," a favorite word with him. He has found a place for himself, one which satisfied him, in the inferno of the stokehole. This dream is shattered when Mildred Douglas, a jaded young society woman, visits the stokehole in search of a new experience and sees Yank. She is appalled, frightened, and cries out, "The filthy beast." Yank is destroyed psychologically by this experience because he is forced to reevaluate his existence. From this time on, whenever he wants to think, he falls into the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker," and one ought to recall that this piece of sculpture was intended for the central position on top of the monumental work, "The Gates of Hell."

Yank is taken by his friend, Long, a radical activist, to visit Fifth Avenue on a Sunday morning. There he sees firsthand the conspicuous consumption of the capitalist class. In an expressionistic scene, he bumps into assorted members of this group as they come out of church, but they merely say, "I beg your pardon" or fail completely to notice him. Finally, one man calls the police when Yank becomes violent, and he is imprisoned for thirty days. Yank does not belong on Fifth Avenue.

In prison he learns about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He joins this organization in an attempt to get even with Mildred by blowing up the steel company her father owns. Steel has betrayed him. He has thought himself to be the personification of steel, but as a result of his experience he now sees steel as something that imprisons him in some kind of cage, whether it be the cage of the stoker's forecastle, the cage of prison, or the cage of social injustice. However, his incendiary ideas are too violent even for the IWW, and Yank is thrown onto the street.

In the final scene, Yank visits the gorilla in the zoo. He looked at the beauty of a sunrise and realized that he does not belong with that, and now he has come to see how it is with a real hairy ape in the zoo. Everyone has been calling him that, so he might as well be one. As he confides his sense of displacement to the gorilla, there almost seems to be communication between them, and Yank realizes the ugliness that Mildred has seen in him. He claims that the gorilla is more fortunate than he because the animal can at least have some memory of a more pleasant past in the jungle. He, however, has never had a place in which he belongs. He goes between heaven and hell, trying to find a place; but the gorilla, by definition, does not belong among men, and therefore he is put in a cage. He suggests that he and the gorilla take a stroll down Fifth Avenue—anything is better than merely dying passively in a cage. He opens the door and attempts to shake hands with the animal, who responds by crushing his ribs and then shuffling off. Yank realizes that he is dying and crawls into the gorilla's cage, holding himself upright by the bars, and then dies. O'Neill's final stage direction suggests that "perhaps the Hairy Ape at last belongs," a rather pessimistic thought.

Yank is a symbolic rather than a polemical figure. He reacts against society because he can find no place in it, and he is destroyed by his discovery that society has no use for such a man as he. But he is not to be read as a disappointed revolutionary. Rather, he is a symbol of modern man searching for certainties in a world which has lost its ancient truths. The days when men and the sea were one (as Paddy suggests) are finished, and at first Yank believes that steel and machinery have taken their place. He is, therefore, the exemplar of a man who has accepted the dreams and promises of industrial society, only to find them wanting, like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949), or destructive, as Reuben Light in Dynamo discovers when he wishes to become one with the machine. For some people, and this includes Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones, society has no place, and therefore they must look elsewhere. Jones is forced to relive his lost past; but Yank, having no such resources, takes on the identity of the animal he resembles. But even the animal refuses this identification, and Yank is destroyed. Originally O'Neill had planned to make this character an Irishman but later had second thoughts. The play gains immediacy by the change.

PADDY. A wizened Irishman given to dreaming of the past and continually recalling the lost days of sail when man and the sea were one.

LONG. A fellow-fireman with Yank. He is the stereotypical radical who is given to polemical and revolutionary statements about the equality of man and the tyranny of the capitalist class. He attempts to raise Yank's social consciousness.

DOUGLAS, Mildred. A jaded, bored, fretful, pretty girl of twenty dressed in white. She is seeking additional experiences on her transatlantic crossing. She looks with a certain frisson of sexual interest on the second engineer, who is to escort her to the stokehole to see how the other half lives. She has also been playing at social work on New York's Lower East Side and is en route to look at conditions in London's Whitechapel. With these credentials, and her father's influence as head of the Steel Trust and owner of the shipping line, she manages to get permission to visit the stokehole, despite the opposition of both captain and chief engineer. When she enters that inferno, she is almost overwhelmed by the horror of the scene but manages to hold herself together momentarily until Yank whirls around, after shouting obscenities at the commanding steam whistle in the compartment. She looks at him as if he is an animal, and he thinks her a ghost. Her personality totally collapses, she covers her face with her hands, cries out, "Oh, the filthy beast!" and faints. She disappears from the play after that, but she has made such an impression on Yank that she has destroyed the very wellsprings of his being, hence he tries to gain revenge on her and her class for his loss of certainty. Originally played by Mary Blair, the role of Mildred Douglas was given in the uptown performance of the play to Carlotta Monterey, later to become O'Neill's third wife.

AUNT, of Mildred Douglas. The Aunt appears in one scene only and is used partially for expository purposes, but she is also a symbol of the female representative of capitalist society. She is the epitome of the dowager: pretentiously dressed, double-chinned, wearing a lorgnette. She is Mildred's reluctant chaperone on the transatlantic voyage.

 

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