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Synopsis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

"A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes" is what O'Neill called this play, also noting that "it seems to run the whole gamut from extreme naturalism to extreme expressionism—with more of the latter than the former" (letter to Kenneth Macgowan, December 24, 1921).

Scene i: "The firemen's forecastle of an ocean liner—an hour after sailing from New York" on a transatlantic crossing. The room is crowded with shouting, drunken men dressed in ringlets and dungarees or stripped to the waist. Voices mingle into a general confused uproar. "The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic. The effect sought after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship, imprisoned by white steel." There are tiers of bunks, uprights supporting them, and a low ceiling which forces all the men to stoop into a position reminiscent of Neanderthal Man. The men look like his popularly portrayed image, hairy chested, simian foreheads, and so forth, while the criss-cross pattern of the steel irresistibly recalls a cage. The denizens of this zoo show a representation of "all the civilized white races," which is indicated by their dialect conversation out of which individual remarks suddenly surface. The central figure, the character to whom all the men show a grudging respect, is Yank. "He seems broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest." He seems most in command of the situation, ordering Paddy, the romantic Irishman, to shut up so that he (Yank) can think. At this the entire forecastle repeats the word "think!" The stage direction says, "The chorus has a brazen metallic quality as if their throats were phonograph horns. It is followed by a general uproar of hard, barking laughter." As in "Anna Christie," where "the ole davil sea" is a leitmotif, and The Emperor Jones, where drumbeats hypnotize the audience, this stage direction is repeated throughout Scenes I and IV in order to give an impression of the stokers as machines. Yank glories in his role; he is the strongest and the best, and the ship is his home. He stands alone, without any need for women or anyone else. Long, the labor radical, takes up from Yank's commitment to the ship and dismissal of customary ideas of home and family, twisting his words "To 'ell with home" slightly: "And 'e says 'ome is hell. And 'e's right! This is 'ell. We lives in 'ell—and right enough we'll die in it." With this he proceeds with the usual arguments about the Biblical equality of man and the violation of individual rights by the capitalist class.

This outburst arouses Yank's contempt, and he turns on Long, calling him "yellow," asserting the superiority of those in the stokehole to the inhabitants of the first-class cabins. The stokers make the ship run and are therefore necessary. They belong; but none of the passengers could possibly endure the conditions and therefore are superfluous. After another round of drinks, Paddy begins a long lament for the past of the tall ships, where men were Children of the Sea, when the moon was high, the sails were full, and Trade Winds were blowing. After this paean of praise to an editorialized version of the days of sail, Paddy recalls, "'Twas them days men belonged to ships, not now. 'Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one." Now, the dirty smoke from the funnels and the hellish conditions in the stokehole offer a violation of that ancient order of things. Paddy wishes to return to that lost harmony of existence, and he asks, "Is it a flesh and blood wheel of the engines you'd be?"

Yank seizes on this comment and praises the wonder of machinery and those who serve it. He glorifies speed, not "all dat crazy tripe about suns and winds, fresh air and de rest of it." That is a dream of the past, and Paddy as its representative is too old to belong to the present. Yank makes the ship move, as something makes everything else in the world move: "Den yuh get down to me. I'm at de bottom, get me! Dere ain't nothin' foither. I'm de end! I'm de start! I start somep'n and de world moves!" Yank sees himself as the spirit of steel, the first mover of the mechanized universe—the one indispensable creature of modern times who glories in his strength and his ability to absorb hardship. As the next watch is called into the stokehole, Paddy remains to drink and dream while Yank strides out to the stokehole delivering his crowning insult, "Yuh don't belong!"

Scene ii: "Two days out. A section of the promenade deck." Mildred Douglas and her Aunt are discovered reclining in deck chairs. Mildred is a pale, delicate, twenty-year-old dressed in white, whose pretty face has a "self-conscious superiority." She looks "fretful, nervous and discontented." Her Aunt is the stereotypical dowager, with "double chin and lorgnettes. She is dressed pretentiously." The day is bright, the air is clear and fresh, but "these two incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious" mar the picture. Their conversation is effete, with bitchy literate snobbishness. Mildred recalls the great-grandmother who smoked a clay pipe and the grandfather who "puddled steel." But now her father is the head of Nazareth Steel and obviously a millionaire. All energy seems to have disappeared from Mildred, and her air of affectation and boredom is very self-conscious. Her Aunt is acting as chaperone on this ocean voyage, and from her the audience discovers that Mildred has been playing at social work on the Lower East Side of New York: "how they must have hated you, by the way, the poor that you made so much poorer in their eyes." She has now transferred her attention to London's Whitechapel district and intends to investigate conditions there. There is a possibility that Mildred may wish to be sincere, but feeling has been bred out of her: "I'm afraid I have neither the vitality nor integrity." She has made arrangements to visit the stokehole to see how the other half lives and to experience "a new thrill" as well as to garner further social service credentials. Both the captain and the chief engineer have been opposed, but Mildred has exerted influence and has won permission. The Second Engineer comes to escort her. "He is a husky fine-looking man of thirty-five or so," whom Mildred later characterizes as "an oaf—but a handsome virile oaf," in order to enrage her Aunt. The Second Engineer tries to talk Mildred out of this whim by accentuating the problems of heat, access, and dirt, particularly dirt on her white dress, but she brushes all objections aside. With some subliminal and titillating wish for sexual assault, she sets off as her aunt calls her "Poser." With that, Mildred slaps her across the face; "Old hag," she says, as her Aunt again screams the insult after her.

Scene iii: The Stokehole. There is one large electric light, barely sufficient to illuminate the murky atmosphere, the outlines of furnaces and boilers, and the shadows of coal piles and working men. The men work like automata, moving "with a strange, awkward, swinging rhythm," their shovels almost appearing to be part of them. "There is a tumult of noise . . . with [a] rending dissonance." Yet at the same time "there is order in it, a mechanical regulated recurrence, a tempo" and a "quiver of liberated energy." As the curtain rises, the furnace doors are shut and the men are either resting or rearranging the coal into heaps. Paddy is complaining about his back, and Yank upbraids him scornfully. Then a whistle is heard, and the men swing into action, opening the furnace doors so that a red glow lights the stage from the back. Yank rallies the men in words that have obvious sexual overtones: "Sling it into her! Let her ride! Shoot de piece now! Call de toin on her! Drive her into it! Feel her move!" Then the tempo quickens and the words sound like those of "the gallery gods at the six�day bike race." "Let's see yuh sprint! Dig in and gain a lap! Dere she go—o—es!" With that he slams his furnace door shut and the others do likewise. But the pause is only momentary, and the whistle sounds again. This time Yank is contemptuous: "Take it easy dere, you! Who d'yuh tink's runnin' dis game, me or you? When I get ready, we move. Not before! When I get ready, get me!" The other stokers growl approvingly at Yank, and then he again starts to work—but for himself and "de baby," not for those above: "Him and his whistle, dey don't belong. But we belong, see!"

He starts on his own furnace, and at this moment Mildred, accompanied by both the Second and Fourth engineers, enters. At first she is frightened, and her pose is about to crumble, but she forces herself to move further in, and out from between the two men. The other men see her and they stop, dumbfounded, while Yank, hearing the whistle again, starts to rage at it, waving his shovel in the air, beating on his chest like a gorilla, and shouting obscenities (mild by today's standards) at it. Suddenly he becomes conscious of the other men staring at something behind him, and he turns around to see "Mildred, like a white apparition in the full light from the open furnace doors." He utters "a snarling, murderous growl, crouching to spring, . . . He glares into her eyes, turned to stone." The effect on Mildred is appalling. As his eyes bore into her, her personality collapses; she puts her hands before her eyes. Yank's mouth falls open and he looks bewildered as she says, "Take me away! Oh, the filthy beast!" and faints. The Engineers remove Mildred, and the sound of an iron door clanging shut is heard. Yank, somehow assaulted in the depth of his being, furiously shouts, "God damn yuh!" and "hurls his shovel after them." It hits the bulkhead and clashes to the ground, while the whistle begins again.

Scene iv: The firemen's forecastle, just after Yank and his watch have come off duty. All except Yank have washed, though coal dust still clings around their eyes. Yank remains apart from them. "He is seated forward on a bench in the exact attitude of Rodin's 'The Thinker'. " The others are smoking, sitting around, and looking fearfully at Yank as if they are expecting another outburst. They tell him to wash, and Yank tells them he's trying to think. They pick up on his words in the same mechanical manner detailed in Scene I, and then they respond similarly to Paddy's suggestion that he has fallen in love. Yank snorts, "Love, Hell! Hate, dat's what. I've fallen in hate, get me?" Paddy starts assessing Mildred's behavior with ironical scorn, and Long calls it insult, falling into the rhetoric of the union leader and the politician. As before, words are picked up and repeated: "Governments!" "God!" Paddy continues to tease Yank, claiming that he has fallen in love with Mildred, but Yank insists that he had thought he was seeing a ghost. He asks Paddy if she had called him "a hairy ape," and Paddy says, "She looked it at you if she didn't say the word itself." This starts Yank off into a rage-filled monologue, punctuated with comments from the forecastle. He says that her ghostly appearance at first scared him, and then when he realized the way she was looking at him, anger took over. Now he wants some kind of vengeance. "She don't belong, get me!" But at the same time he realizes that "she grinds the organ and I'm on de string." He threatens to throw her into the furnace: "Speed, dat'll be her! She'll belong den!" He then threatens to take off to look for her but is held down by the other men. The curtain falls as Yank cries out, "She done me doit! . . . Lemme up! I'll show her who's a ape!"

Scene v: Three weeks later on a corner of Fifth Avenue on a fine sunny Sunday morning. The whole atmosphere is one of cleanliness, tidiness, and opulence. There are shop windows in the background, a jewelry establishment, and a furrier's. There "the adornments of extreme wealth are tantalizingly displayed," each with enormous price tags whose numbers wink on and off. This scene is an expressionistic one and is, in effect, seen through the eyes of Yank. Yank enters with Long; he has not washed and is wearing his fireman's cap on the side of his head and dirty dungarees. Long is dressed in shore clothes and with an expansive gesture announces, "Fif' Avenoo. This 'ere's their bleedin' private lane, as you might say. We're trespassers 'ere. Proletarians keep orf the grass." Yank then tells Long about his childhood and upbringing on the Brooklyn waterfront. He says that nothing "belongs" as far as his life is concerned except his time in the stokehole. He is impressed with the cleanliness and elegance of the neighborhood as Long tries to explain to him that "we pays for it wiv our bloody sweat." When they look into the jeweler's window, he tries to raise Yank's class consciousness. One single piece is "more'n our 'ole bloody stokehole makes in ten voyages sweatin' in 'ell. . . . One of these 'ere would buy scoff for a starvin' family for a year." If Yank wants to get his back at Mildred, he will have to fight " 'er class," the whole capitalist class. From the jeweler's they move to the furrier's, and Yank notes a price of two thousand dollars for monkey fur with a sense of "queer excitement."

At that moment a church lets out, and a company of capitalists emerges. They are all overdressed, especially the women, with the men in Prince Alberts, complete with accoutrements of elegance of a bygone age: "hats, spats, canes, etc." They all speak in "toneless simpering voices." Obviously, they are not realistic; rather they are stereotypes of capitalists, as seen through Yank's eyes. As they approach, Yank's hostility increases, and he bumps into one man who merely replies, "I beg your pardon." He then lasciviously approaches a lady who passes on without seeming to see him. Gradually he moves into another monologue expressing his feeling of "belonging" in this modern industrial society. He perceives himself as the moving force not only of the ship but also of high steel construction: "I'm steel and steam and smoke and de rest of it." As his rage increases, he bumps viciously into one after another of the men, "not jarring them the least bit." He is the one who is pushed off balance. Finally he hears a lady announce ecstatically, "monkey fur," and the tone of her voice recalls Mildred. He tries to uproot a lamp post to use as a weapon and then attempts to punch in the face a man who has knocked him down while trying to get a bus. The punch has no effect on the man, who first complains about missing his bus and then calls for the police, who club Yank to the ground. None of the crowd seems to notice anything amiss: they are totally oblivious to Yank. Long, in the meantime, has fled the scene as Yank becomes violent.

Scene vi: "Night of the following day. A row of cells in the prison of Blackwell's Island." The cells stretch diagonally back endlessly. There is one electric bulb which illuminates a portion of the cell in which Yank, who has been given a thirty-day sentence, sits on the edge of his cot "in the attitude of Rodin's 'The Thinker'." He is bruised, and a bloodstained bandage is wrapped around his head. Looking around him at the bars of the cell, Yank announces, "Steel. Dis is de Zoo, huh?" a comment which brings forth the same "hard, barking laughter" familiar from Scenes I and IV. Yank attempts to communicate what had happened to him, explaining that a woman is to blame, and then he identifies her as the daughter of Douglas of the Steel Trust. At this, one of the prisoners suggests that he ought to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) if he wants to get even with the likes of Douglas. He reads from an article hostile to the IWW which concludes by saying that they plan to "make of our sweet and lovely civilization a shambles, a desolation where man, God's masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape." This comment reaches Yank; he asks for the newspaper to find out more about the IWW because "dey blow up tings, . . . Dey turn tings around." He sits down again in the attitude of "The Thinker" and then has a revelation: Douglas is the president of the Steel Trust, and by making half the steel in the world, he oppresses and imprisons Yank. At this, he starts to pull on the cell bars: "Steel! It don't belong, dat's what! Cages, cells, locks, bolts, bars—lat's what it means—holdin' me down wit him at de top!" He resolves to be the fire that drives through and melts steel, "fire dat never goes out—hot as hell—breakin' out in de night." He seizes one bar with his hands and braces against it with his feet—like an ape. The bar bends, and the guards enter with a hose to subdue him, astonished to see the damage Yank has done with his brute strength.

Scene vii: "Nearly a month later. An IWW Local near the waterfront." There is moonlight and the room is minimally lit, but it is dingy, cheap, commonplace, and certainly not mysterious. A secretary is making entries in a ledger, and eight or ten men, "longshoremen, iron workers, and the like, are grouped about the table. Two are playing checkers. One is writing a letter." This scene is announced by a signboard as "Industrial Workers of the World—Local No. 57." Yank appears, knocks carefully, and enters. He asks to join the organization, and for the first time the audience learns his real name, Robert Smith. To his surprise, all he has to do to become a member is sign his name and pay fifty cents. The Secretary welcomes Yank as a representative of an as yet barely organized group of workers and tells him to take some literature for his friends. Yank cannot understand this bureaucratic approach from what he thinks to be a revolutionary enterprise and explains that he is interested in blowing things up, particularly the factory belonging to Douglas of the Steel Trust. "Dat's what I'm after—to blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de world up to de moon." He doesn't care if he gets caught: "I'll soive life for it�and give `em de laugh! and I'll write her a letter and tell her de hairy ape done it. Dat'll square zings." With this, the Secretary moves away, signaling to his goons who pinion Yank and search him. The Secretary then accuses him of being an "agent provocator" and tells him that whoever has sent him is wasting his time. Yank wouldn't be able to do anything anyway: "You're a brainless ape." Even as a revolutionary, Yank does not belong, and he is thrown out of the office. He starts to attack the closed door of the office but then stops, confused and powerless, sitting down in the attitude of "The Thinker" once again, trying to understand. The IWW is as impotent as the Salvation Army. He tries to figure out what runs the world. He has thought himself to be the motive principle, but "I don't tick, see?—I'm a busted Ingersoll [watch], dat's what. Steel was me, and I owned de world. Now I ain't steel, and de world owns me." Everything is "dark" to him, and so he asks the man in the moon for "the inside dope from de stable—where do I get off at, huh!" With this a Policeman arrives and tells Yank to move along or else he'll be arrested. "Lock me up! Put me in a cage," says Yank. His only offense was that he was born. The Policeman tells him he's drunk and to move along.

Scene viii: The monkey house at the zoo, the next day. One cage is visible and it is labeled "Gorilla." Inside, the huge animal is squatting rather in the manner of "The Thinker" as Yank enters. The gorilla eyes him but remains soundless and motionless. Yank looks at him and starts a long monologue, beginning with admiration of the gorilla's strength, and the animal seems to respond as Yank claims kinship: "Ain't we both members of de same club—de Hairy Apes?" Now he realizes what Mildred saw as she looked at him. He has been sitting on a bench in Battery Park all night; he has seen the sun rise, and it was as beautiful as Paddy had said, but he didn't belong, so he came up to visit the gorilla to see how he feels: "On'y yuh're lucky, see? Yuh don't belong wit 'em and yuh know it. But me, I belong wit 'em—but I don't, see? Dey don't belong wit me, dat's what." At least the gorilla has memories of the past, the jungle, but Yank has nothing: "I ai't on oith and I ain't in heaven, get me? I'm in de middle trying to separate 'em, takin' all de woist punches from bot' of 'em." That is his definition of hell. But the gorilla is fortunate because he really does belong at the bottom, and he is the only one who does. That's why "they" have had to put him in a cage. The gorilla has become for Yank the symbol of his own oppression, and therefore Yank decides to release him so that the two of them may get even: "Wanter wind up like a sport 'stead of croakin' slow in dere?" Between them they will take on the world. Yank then jimmies the lock on the cage door and throws it open: "Pardon from de governor! . . . I'll take yuh for a walk down Fif' Avenoo." In answer to Yank's invitation to shake hands, the gorilla embraces him, crushing his ribs, and then, after looking around uncertainly, shuffles off. Yank drags himself to his feet, realizing that he is finished: "Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?" Then he painfully crawls into the gorilla's cage and stands holding the bars: "Croak wit your boots on," and "in the strident tones of a circus barker," he announces, "Ladies and gents, step forward and take a slant at de one and only—one and original—Hairy Ape from de wilds of—" and slips to the ground dead. "And," says the stage direction, "perhaps the Hairy Ape at last belongs."

 

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