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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.
Character Analysis by Margaret Loftus Ranald. 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.
Clinical Social Work Journal. Experiences of isolation, alienation, and self-fragmentation have been expressed by literary artists throughout this century. Many of the plays of Eugene O'Neill depict human suffering in these terms.
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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.
Publication of the play occurred that same year. By this time O'Neill was already an established playwright, having won two Pulitzer Prizes. 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.