It is about a beastly, unthinking laborer known as Yank, the protagonist of the play, as he searches for a sense of belonging in a world controlled by the rich. At first, Yank feels secure as he stokes the engines of an ocean liner, and is highly confident in his physical power over the ship's engines and his men. However, when the rich daughter of an industrialist in the steel business refers to him as a "filthy beast", Yank undergoes a crisis of identity and so starts his mental and physical deterioration.
It is considered one of the prime achievements of Expressionism on stage. Yank Smith, a brutish stoker on a transatlantic liner, bullies and despises everyone around him, considering himself superior. Yank wanders into a zoo.
Publication of the play occurred that same year. The Hairy Ape represented something of a departure for him, being an exploration into a more expressionistic style than his previous plays. The Hairy Ape had been written rather quickly inand the first production left little time between the final draft and the start of rehearsals.
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The Hairy Ape tells the story of the fall of Yank, a proud and powerful stoker working aboard a steamship. Though respected by his fellow workers, a chance encounter with a millionaire's daughter who disdains him as an "ape" leads to a vain quest for vengeance and the breakdown of his personality, leading eventually to a confrontation with a real gorilla who kills him. O'Neill based the play in part on a real man, an Irish sailor named Driscoll, whom he roomed with in New York.
Tiers of narrow, steel bunks, three deep, on all sides. An entrance in rear. Benches on the floor before the bunks.
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The distortion of perspective and the inflation of emotional state that we may enjoy in paintings often feel onstage like gloomy satire. We are mostly realists — not in reality, of course, just in our popular entertainment. We are more comfortable with the couch and the bedroom than the jail and the smokestack. Not that there is much content.