The Hairy Ape: Play Scene 1 - Summary & Analysis

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      The first scene takes place in the “firemen’s forecastle of a transatlantic liner an hour after sailing from New York for the voyage across. The location shows “tiers of narrow, steel bunks, three deep, on all sides”. The room is “crowded with men, shouting, cursing, laughing, singing - a confused, inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning - the bewildered, furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage. Nearly all the men are drunk”. The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads and they cannot stand upright. They are all hairy-chested and look like the primitive, Neanderthals. All the men are powerful figures with muscular arms “and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes”.


      The curtain rises on a tumult of sound. Yank, the hero of the play, is seen sitting in the foreground. He looks “broader, fiercer, more truculent (violent), more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest”. The stokers “respect his superior strength-the ungrudging respect of fear”. This inferno of simian (ape-like) creatures is dominated by the mighty Yank. He is respected for his superior strength-the grudging respect of fear. They regard him as their most highly developed individual. Yank expresses a force of indomitable conviction, the ford of the forecastle, untroubled by doubt or drink. Without his shovel, nothing moves. They propose drink to each other and talk about the effect of drinks on them as well as the deceitful bartenders and whores.

      They frequently indulge in drunken fights and vulgar abuses. He rejects beer as a soft drink meant only for girls and Dutchmen. He wants something strong that can give him a kick. He takes a tremendous gulp from a bottle offered to him and then turns his back on the crowd again. For a second there is a death-like silence.


      Yank is disturbed by the chorus of voices and asks his companions not to disturb him. The sailors hope to reach Southampton after leading a hellish existence in the ship for six days. There is a lively discussion on the merits and demerits of different brands of drinks. Gin is meant for Negroes. Absinthe is drugged and will turn their heads. Therefore, they opt for whisky. They request Paddy, an old Irishman, who is drunk, to sing a whisky song. Paddy sings “Whisky Johnny” but is threatened by Yank to stop that “old ship stuff”.


      For Yank, it is a mere idle and hollow talk which is irrelevant in the modem context. He asks Paddy not to disturb him with his loud noise, since he is trying to think. The word ‘think’ is immediately echoed by the chorus in a tone of cynical, amused mockery:

He, ha, ha!
Drink don’t think!
Drink don’s think!
Drink don’t think!


      Yank is stunned by the mocking tone of the chorus. He asked the sailors not to be sentimental because no body is waiting for them at home: “Home? Home, hell! I’ll make for yuh! I’ll knock yuh dead. Home! Where d’yuh get dat tripe? Dis is home, see?” The girls are like tarts (prostitutes) who wait for none. They are undependable and can “double-cross yuh for a nickel”. Therefore, they should be strictly and roughly treated only.


      Yank has no desire to go back to his home which he had left as a child. For Yank, ship is his home and he cannot think of any other place better than this. Long, fireman, jumps on a bench excitedly. He approves of Yank’s contention that this stinking ship is their home which is a burning hell. They live a hellish life and are doomed forever: “We lives in ‘ell, Comrades-and right enough we’ll die in it”. But they are not to be blamed for this horrible plight, because they are not born “this rotten way”. All men are born free and equal. He exclusively blames the capitalists who drag them “down til we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowls of a bloody ship, sweatin’ up, eatin’ coal dust”!


      The stokers are jolted by Long’s adverse criticism of the Capitalist class. It is a direct criticism of the stokers’ ideology of “Drink, don’t think”. Long is hooted down by a “storm of catcalls, hisses, bood, hard laughter”. The stokers call him a “Tamn fool” for forcing them to “think”. Yank’s timely interference pacifies Long and is advised to avoid any confrontation with the stokers.


      Yank refuses to buy Long’s contention of blaming the Capitalist Class for their miserable conditions. He thinks that neither the Bible nor the Capitalist Class is responsible for their horrible existence. Neither the Salvation Army (Religion) nor Socialism (Social Reform) holds any ready-made answer. He calls them debunking lies which are incapable of improving their lot in any way. No soapbox oratory or sermons of Salvation can tackle this problem of social disparity.


      Yank blames people like Long for their present plight. He pulls him up for underestimating the strength of the stokers. He finds workers far superior to the damned capitalists. For Yank, the capitalists are ‘yellow’ and good for nothing. He asserts that only the stokers can make the ship move: “Dey’re just baggage. Who makes dis old dub run? Ain’t it us guys? Well den we belong. Don’t we? We belong any dey don’t. Dat’s all”.


      Yank dismisses the idea that life on the ship is like that of hell. He observes that only those who have weak would run away from this hell. Only fearless persons like stokers face this hell. There is no place for the weak-hearted persons like Long on the ship. He concludes that Long does not belong.


      The stokers unanimously approves of Yank’s defense of their superior strength. They reject Long’s point-of-view as cheap talk of a coward who has no place in a world dominated by strong men. It is Yank who comes to the rescue of Long when he is about to be attacked by the stokers. He asks them to leave him alone and invites them for drinks. Soon, peace is restored and all become friendly.


      Paddy, who has been sitting in blinking, melancholy daze-suddenly cries out in a voice full of old sorrow. He is nostalgic about the good old days that are no more. He is totally disgusted with the present coal-fed ships. He straightaway rejects Yank’s contention that they belong to the ship and make it move. He invokes God’s pity to save the life of stokers. Paddy is reminded of the romantic says of his youth which unfortunately are no more: “Oh, there was fine beautiful ships them days-clippers wid tall masts touching the sky-fine strong men in them - men that was sons of the sea as if “was the mother that bore them”. He goes on praising them for their “clean skins”, “clear eyes”, “straight backs and full chests”. They were not only brave but also bold. They loved the profession and were fully satisfied by it. It was the time when the sailors belonged to the ships, but presently the sailors do not belong to it: “Twas them days men belonged to ships, not now. ’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one”.


      Paddy then presents the darkest picture of the present-day sailors which shows his dislike of it. It is a life of boredom and suffocation which denies them any fresh air. They eat coal dust while feeding the “bloody furnaces”. They look like hairy apes caged in the stokehole. Paddy declares that he cannot belong to this and the same is applicable to other stokers. Even Yank cannot belong to it because it gives no aesthetic or physical satisfaction.


      Paddy longs to work on a ship driven not by coal or steam but by the power of fresh Trade Wind, sailing on gloriously through nights and days. He would get an opportunity to sail in full moonlight and see the foam-Hake produced in the water by the swiftly moving ship. Then they could see the ship sailing through the gray night, with her sails stretching into the sky in silver white sheen, silence prevailing all around, and stokers and sailors dreaming dreams, till they would be enchanted with the belief that they were not in a real ship but in a ghost ship like the Flying Dutchman which is supposed to be roaming the seas forever Without touching any port. In those days, the day-time was equally enthralling. They experienced the warmth of the sun on the deck stirring their blood and fresh sea-blown-wind working like a tonic drink to their lungs. They enjoyed working hard without resentment. They were professionally competent and filled with courage. They had sufficient time to relax, enjoy the beauty of Nature and refresh themselves. Suddenly he realizes the futility of glorifying the life of sailors and stokers in the past. Everything is over and cannot be revived.


      Yank ridicules Paddy’s sentiment-soaked cry and tells Paddy that he belongs to the ship. He is fed up with Paddy’s blind glorification of the past. He becomes furious and advances on Paddy threateningly, but stops when he realizes the conflict in his mind. He concedes a little point to Paddy and observes that he is right in his glorification of the life of sailors in the past. But he is crazy and over obsessed with the idea. He has forgotten that the past is all dead and is irrelevant to the present-day realities of life. He declares that Paddy-a product of the past cannot belong to the present and a misfit in this world of machines and smoke. He is too old to appreciate the beauty of the modern technology. Yank condemns the life of thinking and dreaming but glorifies the life of reality: “But we drive trou dat, don’t we? We spit dat up and smash trou-twenty-five knots a hour!” He turns his back scornfully on Paddy scornfully and remarks: “Aw, yuh make me sick! Yuh don’t belong!” And saying this he heads towards the door leaving Paddy behind humming to him, blinking drowsily.



      The setting of the first scene is not naturalistic but highly suggestive and expressionistic. The stokehole is like a cage in a zoo where the stokers are forcibly caged like animals. The “room is crowded with men, shouting, cursing, laughing, singing - a confused, inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning - the bewildered, furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage”. It is a cramped space where life is totally dehumanized. All the inhabitants are dressed in dungaree pants, heavy ugly shoes and almost stripped to the waist.
The stokehole is a cramped space in the bowls of a ship, imprisoned by white steel. The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads. They cannot stand upright. All are hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power and having fierce, resentful eyes.


      The stokers who mechanically repeat the words of Yank after him constitute the chorus in The Hairy Ape. The chorused word has a brazen metallic quality as if their throat were phonograph horns. It is followed by a general uproar of hard, barking laughter. This shows that the stokers have no distinct identity and act in a mechanical manner. They bark and behave like caged animals and are completely dehumanized. They are also cut-off from the mainstream of life and are totally lost in the world of dreams and illusions.


      All the leading characters are introduced in the first scene.

      Yank, the hero of the play, enjoys absolute power and authority over his fellow stokers. Unlike other stokers, Yank is presented as a highly developed individual who is proud of his indispensable position on the ship. He is critical of the capitalists who thrive on behalf of the workers but deny them any credit for the industrial growth. Yank feels that he belongs to the ship because he makes it move and not the owner of the ship, Douglas. He lives in the present and does not suffer from any sense of alienation. For Yank, ship is his only home and he feels perfectly at home in it. He snubs those who are keen to go back home to be united with their families: “Home? Home, hell!..Dis is home, see”?


      Paddy is rooted in the past and never feels tired of glorifying it. He is critical of the modem life of the stokers which is totally isolated from Nature. He is reminded of the times when sailors belonged to the ship, enjoyed sound health and relished the beauty of Nature: “’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was a part of the ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one”. Unfortunately that sense of togetherness is all lost in the modern times. He rejects Yank’s contention that ship is the only of the stokers and they must identify with it wholeheartedly. For Paddy, ship is not the ‘home’ but the ‘hell’ where he is gradually inching towards death. He nostalgically recalls the by gone, happy days when the workers freely interacted with Nature and enjoyed complete job-satisfaction. He frankly admits that the workers belonged to the ship in the past and not in the present.


      Long is the voice of protest against capitalism in The Hairy Ape. He criticizes the capitalists for the horrible plight of the workers in the modern times. For Long, the life in the stokehole is like that of hell which will finally suffocate the stokers to death. He tells his fellow stokers: “This is ‘ell. We lives in ‘ell. Comrades-the right enough we’ll die in it”. He blames the “damned Capitalist class” for making them wage slaves in the “bowls of bloody ship”.

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