The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Eugene O’Neill's The Hairy Ape. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill was born in a hotel in New York City to Irish immigrants. Both of his parents toured with a theater company and O’Neill attended a Catholic boarding school. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was addicted to morphine, a family situation that influenced his later theatrical works. As a young man, he began working on ships and became involved with unions and labor movements in the US. He became ill with tuberculosis in his early twenties, after which he decided to dedicate himself to writing full-time. His first play, Beyond the Horizon, opened in 1920, and The Emperor Jones premiered later that year. Jones was his first big hit, and expressed O’Neill’s thoughts on the US’s occupation of Haiti. O’Neill was married three times and had three children. In 1943, after suffering for most of his life from depression and alcoholism, O’Neill’s hands began to tremble and he was mostly unable to write for the last ten years of his life. He died in a hotel room in Boston. Though he asked his third wife to wait 25 years to publish Long Day’s Journey into Night (which O’Neill wrote in 1941-42), she published the play in 1956, and it won a Tony Award for Best Play and posthumously earned O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
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Historical Context of The Hairy Ape

Although O’Neill does not specify when The Hairy Ape takes place, it’s most likely set during the early 20th century, since Yank tries to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a labor union that was not established until 1905. This means that Yank and his fellow stokers are working during what’s known as the Second Industrial Revolution, which took place roughly between 1870 and 1914. Whereas the original Industrial Revolution introduced a number of machines that changed the way the world operated, the Second Industrial Revolution saw the general refinement of these inventions, as smaller innovations improved upon the time period’s pre-existing technology. One major advancement during this time was the invention of the Bessemer process, which enabled companies to mass-produce steel. Mildred mentions this process in the second act of The Hairy Ape, solidifying the notion that her family made its wealth as pioneers of the Second Industrial Revolution. There were also a number of improvements made to large ocean liners during this time, though these boats still used steam power and, thus, still required people like Yank to shovel coal into furnaces. It is largely because of this disparity between wealthy industrialists and impoverished laborers that unions like IWW formed in the first place.

Other Books Related to The Hairy Ape

With its examination of the isolating qualities of machinery and emergent technologies, The Hairy Ape is similar to Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, a play that premiered in 1928, just six years after the first production of The Hairy Ape. Using a barrage of alienating mechanical noises, Treadwell depicts the negative effects that technological advancement can have on human beings. Like O’Neill, she suggests that progress and innovation often have problematic consequences even when they result in a nation’s growth. The Hairy Ape is also related to Elmer Rice’s 1923 play, The Adding Machine, a work that shares O’Neill’s interest in how machines can replace humans as valuable workers.
Key Facts about The Hairy Ape
  • Full Title: The Hairy Ape
  • When Published: The Hairy Ape was published in 1921 and premiered in 1922
  • Literary Period: Expressionism, Realism
  • Genre: Drama, Expressionism
  • Setting: The play begins on an ocean liner presumably sometime around the beginning of the 20th century. The setting later shifts to New York City.
  • Climax: Mildred visits the stokehole, sees Yank raving like a lunatic with his shovel raised violently over his head, and calls him a “filthy beast” before fainting.
  • Antagonist: The competitive, individualistic worldview that prevents Yank from recognizing the nature of his own oppression

Extra Credit for The Hairy Ape

Marrying Mildred. In 1929, O’Neill left his second wife and two children to marry Carlotta Monterey, who portrayed Mildred Douglas in the 1922 production of The Hairy Ape.

Chaplin. O’Neill disowned his daughter Oona—whom he had with his second wife—when she was 18 because she married Charlie Chaplin, who was at that time 54 (a mere six months younger than O’Neill himself). They remained married until Chaplin’s death 34 years later.