A cacophony of sound swirls through the firemen’s forecastle of an ocean liner making its way from New York City to England. Inside the forecastle there is a horde of laborers, all of whom work below deck as stokers (people who shovel coal into furnaces to power steam engines). The room they occupy is full of bunks and steel, with a ceiling so low that the men are forced to hunch over—a position that “accentuates the natural stooping posture which shoveling coal and the resultant over-development of back and shoulder muscles have given them.” In fact, these men look like “Neanderthal[s],” their chests hairy, their arms enormous and strong, their brows low, and their eyes “small, fierce,” and “resentful.” As the stokers shout and sing and grunt, Yank sits by himself. He is stronger than his coworkers, who see him as “their most highly developed individual.”
Eugene O’Neill’s description of the forecastle—the part of a ship where the crew lives—calls attention to the primal and brutish qualities of life as a stoker. Indeed, these men are loud and strong, and the fact that they resemble “Neanderthals” implies a certain lack of intelligence. As such, O’Neill prepares his audience to view the stokers as lacking in nuance, ultimately portraying the laborers as primarily physical beings. This initial portrayal is worth remembering, as The Hairy Ape is largely about the ways in which these men are treated not like humans, but as mere animals required to make the ocean liner run efficiently.
The stokers yell about drinking and aggressively challenge one another to fights, but Yank tells them to “Choke off dat noise,” demanding that somebody bring him a bottle of liquor. With this, multiple men rush forward to offer alcohol. The men then encourage an “old, wizened Irishman” named Paddy to sing. Paddy has an “extremely monkey-like” face and is exceedingly drunk, though the Irishman insists that he’ll always be able to sing and promptly launches into an old sailor’s song. “Aw hell!” Yank shouts. “Nix on dat old sailing ship stuff! All dat bull’s dead, see? And you’re dead, too, yuh damned old Harp, on’y yuh don’t know it. Take it easy, see. Give us a rest. Nix on de loud noise. Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to t’ink?” In response, the group of stokers laugh loudly, repeating the word, “Think!” and telling Yank not to strain himself.
Yank’s scorn for Paddy’s “old sailing ship” attitude signals his belief in forward momentum and progress. For Yank, thinking about the past only holds a person back, which is why he calls Paddy “dead.” What’s more, it’s worth noting how surprised his fellow stokers are when he tells them he’s trying to “think,” a reaction that suggests intellectual thought is not highly valued in the challenging physical world of the stokehole, where strength and power are what gain a person respect.
As another stoker launches into an old song about a loved one waiting for him at home, Yank cuts him off, telling him to shut up and criticizing him for romanticizing the idea of home. “Home?” he asks. “Home, hell! I’ll make a home for yuh! I’ll knock yuh dead. Home! T’hell wit home! Where d’yuh get dat tripe? Dis is home, see?” Yank goes on to say that he ran away from his home when he was only a child because his father used to beat him. “But yuh can bet your shoit no one ain’t never licked me since!” he declares. “Wanter try it, any of youse?”
Yank responds to his coworker by suddenly becoming violent, a reaction that suggests he uses aggression to avoid thinking about deep or emotional ideas like “home” or the past. Indeed, he asks if any of his peers want to fight him, as if he must prove his physical prowess. What’s more, he reveals his dedication to his identity as a stoker, saying that the engine room is his “home,” despite the fact that its conditions are undoubtedly terrible.
Agreeing with Yank’s idea of the ship as a home, a stoker named Long jumps up and drunkenly says, “Listen ’ere, Comrades! Yank ’ere is right. ’E says this ’ere stinkin’ ship is our ’ome. And ’e says as ’ome is ’ell. And ’e’s right! This is ’ell. We lives in ’ell,—Comrades—and right enough we’ll die in it.” Shouting furiously, Long points out that it’s not the stokers’ fault that they have to live in such misery. “We wasn’t born this rotten way,” he says, adding that men are born free and equal in the Bible but the “lazy, bloated swine” in the first cabin have forced them down. Now, they’re only “slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin’, burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust!” They aren’t to blame for their situation instead, it’s “the damned Capitalist clarss!”
In this moment, Long completely misinterprets what Yank has said about the stokehole being “home.” Having heard Yank say, “Home, hell!”, he assumes that Yank is calling the engine room hellish, when in reality Yank believes that he and his fellow stokers belong in the stokehole. Nonetheless, he makes a good point regarding the fact that their poor working conditions are the result of capitalist exploitation. Emphasizing the disparity between the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) and the lower class (the proletariat), he tries to make his coworkers see that they have become “wage slaves” despite the fact that they do the important work of shoveling the very “coal” that makes the ocean liner run.
Along with his fellow stokers, Yank tells Long to be quiet, saying that he’ll “knock” him down if he doesn’t shut up. “De Bible, huh?” he says. “De Cap’tlist class, huh? Aw nix on dat Salvation Army-Socialist bull.” He tells Long that he’s “listened to lots of guys” like him before and that he has determined they’re all “wrong” and cowardly (or “yellow”) to boot. He insists that they’re better men than “dem slobs in de foist cabin,” adding that a single stoker could easily “clean up de whole mob wit one mitt.” One first cabin man wouldn’t last one watch in the stokehole, he continues; “Dey’d carry him off on a stretcher.” Concluding, he says, “We belong and dey don’t.”
Yank is unable to acknowledge the nature of his own oppression. Instead of stopping to consider what Long has said about the exploitative measures of the capitalist class, he focuses on his prideful identity as a stoker, bragging that he is braver and stronger than the rich people who live above deck. What’s more, he boasts that he could “clean up” an entire “mob” of wealthy people with just one hand, once again calling upon his violent and aggressive predilections instead of engaging in intellectual thought. Furthermore, his idea that he “belong[s]” in the stokehole is exactly why he’s unable to identify the ways in which he’s being treated unfairly.
Having listened to Yank’s ideas about “belonging” in the stokehole, Paddy says that if they’re so important to the ship, then “that Almighty God have pity on us!” He wishes “to be back in the fine days of [his] youth,” when beautiful ships were manned by “fine strong men […] men that was sons of the sea as if ’twas the mother that bore them.” Reminiscing about his days before working on the ocean liner, Paddy waxes poetic about toiling beneath the sun with the wind in his face and clean men all around him, insisting that back then he and his mates were “free men.” “Work—aye, hard work—but who’d mind that at all?” he says. “Sure, you worked under the sky and ’twas work wid skill and daring to it.”
Unlike Yank, Paddy has no qualms about thinking nostalgically about the past. Indeed, he isn’t concerned with the idea of progress, instead mourning the days before the effects of industrialization touched his life, when he was able to work outside in a capacity that was not only enjoyable, but rewarding, too. Unfortunately, he now works under dismal conditions that require brute strength but no skill, rendering the job both unfulfilling and physically taxing.
As he speaks, Paddy sees he isn’t getting through to Yank. “’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea,” he says, “and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one. Is it one wid this you’d be, Yank—black smoke from the funnels smudging the sea, smudging the decks—the bloody engines pounding and throbbing and shaking—wid divil a sight of sun or a breath of clean air—choking our lungs wid coal dust—breaking our backs and hearts in the hell of the stokehole—feeding the bloody furnace—feeding our lives along wid the coal, I’m thinking—caged in by steel from a sight of the sky like bloody apes in the Zoo!” Laughing at this idea, Paddy asks if Yank wants to be a “flesh and blood wheel of the engines.”
When Paddy asks Yank if he wants to be “one” with the “black smoke from the funnels” and the “bloody engines pounding and throbbing and shaking,” he suggests that working as a stoker is an all-consuming job, one that “break[s]” a person’s “back” and requires him to “feed” his entire life into the furnaces. Indeed, he frames this kind of work as so demanding that it becomes oppressive, intimating that such thankless toiling turns the workers into “apes.” When he asks Yank if he wants to be a “flesh and blood wheel of the engines,” he references the fact that the capitalist class depends upon people like him to operate the machinery that makes them rich, requiring proletarians like Yank and Paddy to sacrifice their livelihood without ever truly benefitting from their efforts.
Paddy’s words have no effect on Yank, and so he resignedly says that he hopes a large wave will take him overboard someday soon. For a moment, Yank comes at him as if to hurt him, but then he stops and admits that Paddy is “aw right,” suggesting that the old Irishman has simply grown “too old” to work in the stokehole. Turning to the other stokers, Yank says, “I belong and he don’t. He’s dead but I’m livin’. Listen to me! Sure I’m part of de engines! Why de hell not! Dey move, don’t dey? Dey’re speed, ain’t dey! Dey smash trou, don’t dey? Twenty-five knots a hour! Dat’s goin’ some! Dat’s new stuff! Dat belongs! But him, he’s too old.” Going on, he insists that he is the lifeblood of the engine room, saying that he’s what makes everything move.
Once again, Yank demonstrates his devotion to the notion of progress and forward momentum. In this moment, he uses this obsession to discount Long’s ideas about exploitation and happiness, which he would otherwise be forced to admit are troubling. This is perhaps why his first instinct is to become violent with Paddy: before deciding to ignore Paddy based on the fact that he is “too old,” he has no way of denying his own oppression, and so he lashes out. Once he reasserts his commitment to “new stuff,” though, he finds himself capable of calling Paddy “aw right.” As such, both Yank’s aggressive tendencies and his refusal to acknowledge his exploitative circumstances appear to be nothing more than defense mechanisms that he employs in order to protect himself from the harsh realities of his life.
“Hell in de stokehole?” Yank asks. “Sure! It takes a man to work in hell. Hell, sure, dat’s my fav’rite climate. I eat it up! I git fat on it! It’s me makes it hot! It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move!” Going on, he says that people like him are what make engines run, and engines are what make the world run, meaning that he himself is what keeps everything moving forward. “I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de woild moves!” he brags. “It—dat’s me! de new dat’s moiderin’ de old! I’m de ting in coal dat makes in boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines.” He even says that he’s “steel,” which he claims is what “stands for de whole ting.”
In this brief monologue, Yank reasserts his commitment to progress, clearly deriving a sense of power from the idea of forward movement. This is evident by the fact that he says he’s the thing that makes the world “move.” As such, the audience begins to understand why he’s so invested in his identity as a stoker. Indeed, whereas Paddy dislikes life in the stokehole because the hellish conditions leave him feeling unfulfilled, Yank squeezes a sense of purpose out of this dismal existence, ultimately feeling rewarded by his job.
Yank scoffs at the idea that he and his fellow stokers are “slaves.” Instead, he maintains that they “run de whole woiks.” As he speaks, Paddy sips begrudgingly from the bottle, as if trying to drink himself into a stupor. As Yank finishes his speech, Paddy starts to sing an old folk song called “Miller of Dee,” belting out: “I care for nobody, no, not I, / And nobody cares for me.” Hearing this, Yank says, “Now yuh’re getting’ wise to somep’n. Care for nobody, dat’s de dope! To hell wit ’em all! And nix on nobody else carin’. I kin care for myself, get me!”
Although Paddy sings “Miller of Dee” ironically, Yank fails to see that his coworker is making fun of his individualistic attitude. By singing this song, Paddy emphasizes the extent to which Yank has internalized the competitive spirit of capitalism. Indeed, Yank doesn’t “care” about anyone, and this is the exact kind of attitude that keeps workers like him from uniting against exploitative employers. As such, Yank plays into the mechanisms of his own oppression, taking pride in the kind of attitude that makes it easier for his bosses to exploit his labor in the first place.
At this point, bells in the forecastle ring, signaling to the stokers that it’s time for them to return to the engine room. However, Paddy refuses to leave, saying that he’ll stay sitting in the forecastle “drinking” and “thinking” and “dreaming dreams.” On his way out, Yank turns around and says, “Tinkin’ and dreamin’, what’ll that get yuh? What’s tinkin’ got to do wit it? We move, don’t we? Speed, ain’t it?”
Despite the fact that Yank has already expressed a desire to “think,” he now offers Paddy the same anti-intellectual worldview that his fellow stokers forced upon him when he told them he was trying to work something out in his head. In this way, O’Neill shows the audience how hard it is for the intellect to triumph in hostile environments that only promote notions of power and strength.