Uncivil Civilization in The Hairy Ape

Examining the impact of living in the industrialized society of the early 20th century


Key Staff

Primary instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique


Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape presents a disheartening assessment of the impact of living in the industrialized society of the early 20th century. This lesson explores the ways O'Neill portrays a world in which spiritual, communal, and behavioral values of the past have been displaced by the lure of technology and materialism and by patterns of cultural barbarism. It also explores the way O'Neill's play resonates with influential theories and thinkers of his day. This lesson may be used in conjunction with the Illusion and Reality in American Drama unit concerning Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Gain increasing awareness of how societal issues can be the centerpiece for themes and forms of drama.
  • Probe the ways philosophical and psychological theories shape themes and forms of drama.
  • Explore the nature of the modern “tragic hero.”
  • Explicate and appreciate the power of visual and auditory expressionistic elements to help shape set design, narrative, characterization, and theme in the building of dramatic scripts.
  • Craft essays of critical analysis.
  • Recognize elements that build artistic tension in dramatic scripts.

Teaching Approach

  • Arts Integration
  • Thematic

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with O’Neill’s work.

O'Neill, Eugene. Four Plays by Eugene O'Neill: Anna Christie; The Hairy Ape; The Emperor Jones; Beyond the Horizon. Signet Classics, 1998.

If you are teaching an 11th or 12th grade class, and/or an AP/IB class, you may wish to introduce the lesson with a more complicated but valuable Introductory Activity, which uses The Education of Henry Adams (1918) to introduce ideas and themes about industrialized society in the early 20th century.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with O’Neill and the types of plays he wrote.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Have students read the Biographical Information of Eugene O'Neill located within the Resource Carousel.

Arrange students into small collaborative groups and have them research one of the following topics:

  • American immigration during the last half of the 19th century, with particular attention to the ethnic origins of those coming.
  • The concept of Social Darwinism as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th century in America.
  • The “Robber Barons” of the late 19th and first decades of 20th century America.
  • Transatlantic luxury ocean liners of the late 19th century and first decade of the 20th century, with particular attention to how they were powered and who traveled on them.
  • The growth and purpose of labor unions, including attention to the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World).
  • The connotative implications associated with 5th Avenue in New York City.

You may wish to distribute the Vocabulary handout to the students before they conduct their research. You may find the handout in the Resource Carousel.

Build Knowledge

1. Have students read as much of the play as possible aloud in class.

If time does not allow for a complete read-through of the play, read at least the first several scenes, as well as the final scene, aloud in class. Assign the additional material as homework. Following are some suggestions to help guide the in-class reading.

  • Explain to the class that reading the role of Yank, the protagonist, requires handling tricky dialect. Ask for a volunteer or select someone whom you think can handle dialect. Keep in mind that an effective reading of Yank’s role is the centerpiece for helping turn the study of O’Neill’s play into a memorable classroom experience.
  • Consider having the “Voices” section be read by impromptu one-line responses coming from different parts of the room. Allow for one or two rehearsals of the first “Voices” speech, so that students can develop a rhythm.
  • As you progress through the play, ask students to pay attention not only to the movement of the narrative, but also to the expressionistic devices used in the play.

2. After reading the play, have students explore one or more of the Study Topics from the Study Topics handout for The Hairy Ape. The handout may be found within the Resource Carousel.

You may also choose to use these topics as a basis for quizzes, brief in-class writing assignments, oral discussion and/or testing, or formal essay assignments.


1. Ask two or three students to go to the board. Ask each participant to draw some kind of line diagram that represents the basic structural movement of the play. Ask each participant to clarify the rationale behind his/her graphic representation. (Note: there is no right or wrong answer, and each student's diagram and explanation will likely vary.) You may wish to model this activity for students. Some possible diagram options might include:

  • A line diagram that starts with scene I as the high point and goes in a diagonal line downwards, with scene VIII as the lowest point, representing Yank’s increasing rejection—even by the gorilla. This structure focuses on Yank's progression from a state of "belonging" to "not belonging," to complete destruction of his original self-image.
  • A diagram that starts with scene I as the lowest point and moves diagonally in a straight line upward, the end of scene VIII representing the high point. This pattern could be perceived as reflecting the building of intensity in the play.
  • A diagram that starts with scene I as the low point, builds diagonally upward to the end of scene V, then goes diagonally (or straight) down, with scene VIII being the low point. This pattern could be perceived as reflecting Yank’s confidence of “belonging” as holding well until the Fifth Avenue scene, then rapidly deteriorating.

2. Discuss the patterns that emerge from the diagrams. Ask students to think about what they illuminate about the structural or thematic impact of the play. You also may wish to have the students compare the line diagrams of The Hairy Ape with the traditional Shakespearean pattern: rising action in the first three acts; climax at the end of Act III; beginning of denouement in Act IV; and denouement in Act V. What differences emerge?

3. If appropriate, you could also use the diagram activity as a springboard into a discussion of the Darwinian theory of evolution. Ask students whether they see any parallels between this theory and the themes and forms of O'Neill's drama. Students can use this site as a resource to learn more about Darwin.


Have students answer one or more of the Essay Questions from the cooresponding handout that can be found within the Resource Carousel as a culminating assignment.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 1: Script writing through improvising, writing, and refining scripts based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 2: Acting by developing, communicating, and sustaining characters in improvisations and informal or formal productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 3: Designing and producing by conceptualizing and realizing artistic interpretations for informal or formal productions

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 5: Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices

Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 6: Comparing and integrating art forms by analyzing traditional theatre, dance, music, visual arts, and new art forms

National Standards in Other Subjects
Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Language Arts Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

United States History

US History Standard 12: Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period

US History Standard 14: Understands the course and character of the Civil War and its effects on the American people

US History Standard 16: Understands how the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society

US History Standard 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity

US History Standard 18: Understands the rise of the American labor movement and how political issues reflected social and economic changes

US History Standard 20: Understands how Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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