When Eugene O'Neil wrote The Hairy Ape in 1922, he was already a well known American playwright with the publication of two consecutive Pulitzer winning plays such as Beyond the Horizon (1920) and Anna Christie (1921). His Emperor Jones (1920) which came in between the Pulitzer plays shared a similar vision as that of The Hairy Ape which was essentialy a tragic vision of man struggling to "belong." In The Hairy Ape, O' Neil vividly presents the loneliness of an individual who can belong neither in society nor in nature. The frustration and anger of this sense of outcaste turns him into a savage animal which only reinforces his awkward conspicuosness in any class and condemns him to alienation. Yank is a strong fire stoker in a ship and is the strongest voice among the other men, spurring and edging them on against the frustration of their hard labour while the upper classes, shown through Mildred and her aunt, sit comfortably on the deck and looking at smoke patterns in the sky.
Yank and Paddy compare visions of the lower classes from within. Yank makes a priviledge and an opportunity for flaunting his superiority out of the injustice of labour. While Paddy protests and condems the ill treatement of the lower classes, Yank maintains status quo by convincing his shipmates that they are the ones who 'belong' as they are the ones who move and give speed to the ship. They carry the weight of upper class frivolities and pay for their expensive luxuries.
The hypocrasies of the upper classes is equally revealed through Mildred who has taken up 'Sociology' in college and wants to help 'the other half.' Her relationship with her Aunt is fraught with an animaline sense of kinship and she is rude and even slaps her before leaving. O' Neil seems to suggest that no matter how much we evolve, or how high the classes might seem we shall always bear traces of the savage within us.
Mildred can afford to be philanthropic as long as it suits her fancy and feeds her illusion of doing something for society. However, the moment she actually comes in contact with the fire stokers, she is shocked out of her wits and runs out immediately as she sees Yank brandishing a shovel over his head and cursing an engineer for blowing a whistle intermittenly.
Mildred also represents the idleness of the upper classes; even though she has a vague idea that she wants to contribute something to the world, she had no clue how she can be useful. It this is dilemma that seems to prevail in a lot of priviledged minds, too priviledged to have ever seen the necessity to work. Her Aunt on the other hand is the picture of caution and expresses every standard in conformity with her classes and the typical sterotype of the upholder of the tradition of capitalism.
The scene of Yank encountering people after church is a powerful scene as nobody listens to him and scoffs him with a 'I beg your pardon.' The greatest irony is also seen when the most vociferous champions of justice of his own class fail to recognise him and turn him out thinking him to be a spy. The International Workers of the World is a simple organisation, much to Yank's dismay who expects something dramatic in proportion with his own anger and eagerness for vengence on Mildred who never reenters the play after the initial encounter.