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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. XII, No. 2
Summer-Fall, 1988



The zeal of the worker in the some twenty years preceding The Hairy Ape (1921) may be demonstrated in two contrasting ways: the rise of the corporate structure, which the productivity of labor made possible; and the rise of the workers rebelling against its excesses and injustices. At the turn of the twentieth century, the contribution of labor was certainly evident in what it had helped to create, the giant corporation which, like a leviathan, overwhelmed the country through an economic and political organization "more centralized and powerful than even the nation itself" (Tipple 19). Of the recently formed United States Steel Corporation, an incredulous commentator wrote: "It receives and expends more money every year than any but the very greatest of the world's national governments; its debt is larger than that of many of the lesser nations of Europe..." (Tipple 18).

Yet labor experienced few benefits from these immense corporate gains, the average worker during a 12 to 14 hour day earning wages barely above subsistence levels. In addition, the workers suffered a lofts of pride and personal incentive with the development of the mass assembly line,1 as well as with other improvements in technology and cost-management efficiency. While labor gained some advantages during World War I, employers having to compete from a decreased pool of workers, at the end of the war the gains of labor were practically annihilated (Tipple 45). "The lost generation" should, in fact, refer to the workers of the 1920s.

The worker's response to the corporate monolith--his tragic insistence on retaining a sense of personal power in a system that would convert him to matter or monster--is powerfully revealed through two very different works, a folk-tale and a drama. Though O'Neill describes The Hairy Ape as "a comedy of ancient and modern life" and though Yank does not experience the total anagnorisis, the play is tragic in intent. It recognizes the inability of Yank, of man himself, to "belong" in a world no longer "natural," but alienated from nature by technology; a world in which technical advancement has led only to human degeneration. In the folktale-myth, "Joe Magarac,"2 the character named in the title, has been so conditioned to serve the cause of technical advancement and corporate profit, that he willingly dematerializes, albeit into a powerful substance, flesh and blood changed into the magical formula for a super steel. Joe Magarac is "the ultimate technological folk hero ... the raw material, the process [Bessemer] and the product literally rolled into one" (Walker 114).

In The Hairy Ape, Yank, the most powerful of the stokers, prides himself on having become that ultimate technological hero, the composite of substance, energy and end product, thriving in the Hell-holes of industry. Yank boasts, "Hell, sure, dat's my fav'rite climate" (Sc. 1). Hell, he insists, is his natural element, not the sun and wind and "miles of shiny green ocean" that is Paddy's resurrection of and lamentation for a vision of nature since lost. Yet, Hell is also, as Yank proclaims, the extension of his own nature: "It's me makes it hot! It's me makes it roar! It's me makes it move!" (Sc. 1).3 In Yank's mind, not only does he supply the energy for the action, but he also comprises the elements for fueling the motion; he is both matter and process. Most significant, he is the first cause and the strongest of elements. "I'm steel--steel--steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!" (Sc. 1). This "Magarac" self-image convinces Yank that he "belongs": not slave or pariah, but the giant Atlas, the best able to support the world and exultant in others depending on his power.

Joe Magarac accomplished Yank's self-image, even to his "steel-blue eyes" (Hillard 219). "He was steelmans all right: all over he was steel sam lak is from open hearth, steel hands, steel body, steel everything" (Botkin 252). Some trace Magarac's birth to the inside of an iron mountain. (See the versions by Botkin and Leach.) Like Yank, Joe glories in his strength and his ability to work in the "hell-hole"--working night and day at furnace number seven in the steel mills along the Monongahela River of Pennsylvania. When even the best of the regular mill workers cannot endure the fierce blast from the open hearth, Joe Magarac likes it (Malcolmson 33). Joe, stirs steel with his bare hands, scooping up the molten mass and pouring it into ingot molds, squeezing out in one motion eight fine steel railroad rails from between his fingers (Leach, Rainbow Book, 55). Yank's bending steel bars to escape his prison on Blackwell's Island (Sc. 6) is, perhaps, no less spectacular.

Both Joe Magarac and Yank are tragic parodies of the "strong man" hero, their tremendous brawn providing each with the illusion of capability and control neither can effect, their very strength the source and foil for their failures. When Long explains to Yank that Yank's best retaliation against Mildred's insult lies in opposing the capitalist class she represents, that he needs to seek political action, Yank derides Long's idea and calls him "yellow." For Yank, successful opposition depends on assault--verbal abuse and knock-down fight. He challenges the Fifth Avenue "marionettes" of the upper class to a brawl (Sc. 5) and thumps his chest, anticipating their feeble blows and his victory. But their impassiveness, expressionistically realized, makes them invulnerable--armored as they are by wealth, police protection and distance from the poor. Yank is easily defeated and arrested.

Joe Magarac's triumph, too, is really a form of defeat. After Steve Mestrovich, a steel-mill worker, arranges for a contest to determine the man who will make the best husband for his daughter Mary, Magarac enters the contest and succeeds at the feat that none of the other suitors can even attempt, effortlessly lifting the third and heaviest pair of steel dolly bars to the wonder of all. Yet he refuses the prize, sending Mary into the arms of another suitor, and claims a disinterest in marriage as he has no time for anything in his life but work (cf. Billard, Botkin, Leach, Malcolmson). Sometimes his interest extends to eating (in Billard, Malcolmson), for a strong man needs remarkable sustenance to perform his Herculean tasks.

Ultimately, both Magarac and Yank make no contribution to bettering conditions for their fellow workers, their very physical strength being, in part, the cause of their failure. Because Joe Magarac is so adept at squeezing hot steel into rails, the mill has to shut down--too many rails to sell--and the workers are, at least temporarily, displaced (Malcolmson, Stoutenberg). Yank's potential service to the I.W.W. is immediately curtailed when, in the belief that the I.W.W. is a terrorist gang (a belief fostered by his hearing the fulminations against the I.W.W. of a right wing senator), he suggests to the secretary at I.W.W. headquarters that he has the gumption to "blow tings up ... Blow it offen de oith--steel--all de cages--all de factories, steamers, buildings, jails--de Steel Trust and all dat makes it go" (Sc. 7). Yank's only interest is in revenge for Mildred's seeing him as, and calling him, a filthy beast, an ape. The alarmed I.W.W. members, who believe in political action rather than terrorism, kick him out of the office, as Yank is only a menace to the working class and a "brainless ape" to boot.

Both Magarac and Yank are identified with animals that express their dominant traits--metaphorically or metaphysically as the contest suggests. While the word magarac is equivalent to "jackass" and the name "Magarac" considered Slovak or Hungarian in all the folk tales named for him,4 the word and name are actually Croatian for "donkey" (Reutter 35). In all versions, Joe Magarac is a "work donkey," a beast of burden; yet for all his limited focus, he is not considered stupid. His single-minded devotion to his work is admired until his over-zealous effort leads to the mill's closing (Leach, Stoutenberg). Later, however, he is restored to hero status when his determination (and subsequent death) creates a new mill and more jobs, as well as superlative steel. Joe's body melted into the steel is the new element in a steel so smooth and straight that it is without seam or pipe; the workers are proud of this new steel, and work with renewed energy--work just like magaracs, with diligence, dedication, integrity. The powerful beast of burden has poured himself into his work and has improved its quality.

While Yank's real name is Robert Smith (as we discover only in Sc. 7), he is always "Yank" or, as the play progresses, "the hairy ape," for the ape, the lower animal from which man has ascended, the beast of the jungle that lives by instinct rather than reason, becomes the image Yank has of himself after Mildred has "baptized" him a beast. Earlier the ape image is used without reference to Yank. In Scene One, Paddy, in recalling how in the days of clipper ships men belonged to the ships and the sea, refutes Yank's vaunting sense of his own and the stokers' power; the stokers, Paddy scoffs, are "caged in by steel from a sight of the sky like bloody apes in the zoo." Later, O'Neill in his notes for Scene Three describes the men shoveling in the stokehole as crouching in the "inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas." When the steel heiress, Mildred, enters the stokehole in Scene Three, Yank, unaware of her presence, has just become infuriated by the engineer's whistle signaling a work speedup. He threatens the invisible engineer by raising his shovel in the air and "pounding on his chest gorilla-like [my italics]," and shouts scurrilous terms at the engineer when suddenly he sees Mildred who "looks at his gorilla [my italics] face." Later (Sc. 4) Paddy interprets Mildred's expression of horror: "Sure 'twas as if she'd seen a great hairy ape escaped from the zoo!" Here Yank is first identified with the "hairy ape."

The image becomes fastened to him, for Yank mentions "hairy ape" six times in Scene Four, as if desperately trying to extricate himself from the vision. It is also significant that the scene begins with Yank seated in the attitude of Rodin's powerful "The Thinker"; thus, the designation of "ape," while causing Yank's disintegration, also provides for his evolution, his rudimentary efforts to "tink" about his place, or lack of it, in the world. "Beauty" has, unknowingly, transformed the "Beast." Later references to "ape" and appearances of related animals--"monkey" (monkey fur)--ironically echo Yank's plight until his final encounter with the gorilla in the zoo symbolizes his metaphysical struggle to belong, to fit into the world somehow.5

O'Neill based Yank on his friend Driscoll, a stoker of massive strength, capable of grueling labor. Both sailed on the luxury liner Philadelphia in 1911, O'Neill as a member of the deck crew (Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright 197). Driscoll dominated the stokehole, proud he could outwork all the others (Gelb 166). When O'Neill later learned of Driscoll's suicide (on Aug. 12, 1915), he puzzled over the reasons for such a tough, capable man ending his life (Bowen 32). Another person who may have suggested Yank was O'Neill's elder brother Jamie, who was "haunted by feelings of 'not belonging'" (Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Artist 389).

It is also possible that Terence O'Carolan--or Terry Carlin, as he called himself--provided at least an influence on the character of Yank. Terry, a skilled tanner, developed an improved process of tanning which his employer profitably used without giving Terry compensation. Recognizing how others had been similarly exploited, Terry became an anarchist and joined the I.W.W. Later, fearing for the loss of workers' individualism should they gain industrial control, Carlin became a mystic (Alexander 211-14).

Although Joe Magarac is regarded as a folk-tale hero (genuine or manufactured), his character may have a factual basis. According to Jules B. Billard, Joe may be the composite of William Wiehe, a powerful seven-foot-tall president of a steelworkers' union, and Captain Bill Jones, a dynamic worker, then superintendent, in 1874, for Andrew Carnegie at the J. Edgar Thomson works in Pennsylvania. Jones died in his mill during a blast furnace explosion.6 Another factual basis for the character may be a Croatian named Mestrovic who originally came from the mining region of Petrova Goro, a "Josip" who in America became "Joe" (Reutter 35, examining a theory provided by George J. Prpic). While tales about. Joe Magarac supposedly appeared as early as 1909, the character's real entry into public consciousness came in 1931 with the publication of "The Saga of Joe Magarac: Steelman" in Scribner's Magazine by Owen Francis. From the 1930s to 1950, "Joe" was used as a marketing device for U.S. Steel. He made a 1937 appearance in a narrative by Ernest J. Wright, a writer for the Federal Writers Project (Kahn 17-18). In 1950 Carnegie-Illinois Steel put out a comic book titled "Joe, the Genie of Steel."

Steel for Yank is, first, a magical shield which he uses to conceal from himself the gap that exists between. himself and the natural world. He can never fully understand that, by having identified with steel, he has become his own prison. "Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain't steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can't see--it's all dark, get me. It's all wrong!" (Sc. 7). (Even those like Mildred, the heiress to Nazareth Steel, have been converted into waste products in the Bessemer process, their natural strength atrophied as their industrial empire expanded.) The bowels of Yank's ship are "imprisoned by white steel" (Sc. 1). On Blackwell's Island Yank is crouched behind heavy steel bars (Sc. 6); and at the monkey house, Yank addresses the gorilla in the steel cage--the scene for Yank's determined regression and the ape's and Yank's mutual "release."

Steel in 1920 had appeared as a metaphor for human progress in Carl Sandburg's Smoke and Steel (and recall that Stalin means steel). The metaphor of steel as progress may have acted as a catalyst for The Hairy Ape (Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright 73). "Progress," for O'Neill, was decidedly ironic. In 1913 as a cub reporter on the New London Telegraph, O'Neill had satirized the perverse effects of "progress" on the workers in poems about the exploitive practices of corporations such as U.S. Steel (Sheaffer, O'Neill, Son and Playwright 230).

Joe Magarac's transformation from hybrid steel-man into pure steel has an uncanny resemblance to Yank's "final solution" to resolve his "in-between" status. Joe finally becomes the "complete company man," imbedded in metal and in the metallic foundation of the mill, an archetypal sacrificial figure whose blood insures the strength of the edifice under which he is buried (see Leach and Fried 553). Magarac closes the gap between self and nature by plunging into a steel furnace. Relinquishing both self and nature, Joe becomes the complete expression of O'Neill's description of The Hairy Ape: his exploit is "A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life."

In both works, the woman is crucial to exposing the non-human qualities in the characters. Mildred Douglas is a Medusa, fixing Yank to an image from which he cannot escape; and he starts "down the road to self-extinction" (Raleigh 126). While Mary Mestrovich as a folk character "belongs,"7 and while Mildred serves no pronounced thematic function, in at least one version of "Joe Magarac" Mary responds to Joe with the same revulsion Mildred shows to Yank. Learning that Joe is her intended groom, Mary recoils in fear and nearly faints (Malcolmson 32). (In none of the versions does Mary look on Joe as a possible husband.) While Joe prefers working to wives in all the versions I have seen, it is also clear that Mary prefers Pete Pussick over a steel-chested giant. Since Magarac considers marriage an imposition--entering the contest not for her hand, but for his own delight in ousting the competitors--he is not devastated by Mary's response, as Yank is by Mildred's look. Nonetheless, it is significant that once Mary's marriage is settled, Joe's dedication to making steel--and doing nothing else--is clarified; at this point he, like Yank, relinquishes the life force. (See Goldberg in Cargill, Fagin and Fischer 242 for a discussion of the "ironic life force" in The Hairy Ape.)

At least two versions (Malcolmson and Stoutenberg) suggest that Joe Magarac's reason for melting himself down was his inability to confront the emptiness of "no work." After the mill closed, he did not "belong." Unlike Yank, he could not even attempt "to think"; he could only act--if he was no-body, he could enter "the body" of his work, steel. The tale, then, in spite of U.S. Steel's use of it to exalt the loyal and productive worker, suggests the entrapment of modern man. Whether he be confined in steelmill or stokehole, his psychic nature becomes irretrievably lost in the materials he uses (the loss of Man in his work lamented by Emerson in the opening paragraphs of The American Scholar, 1837). His subconscious is consumed by the furnaces of technology, and he lives in a perpetual present, without memory and without a means of projection. (See Raleigh 170; in The Iceman Cometh, Hickey considers that living exclusively in the present is a panacea.)

Without a past or a future, how can man belong? Magarac exults in his decision, and his "bubbling laughter" comes from the furnace as he sinks beneath the surface of the hot steel mass. As Yank is releasing the gorilla from his cage at the zoo, Yank speaks in a "mocking tone"; later his derision of the ape changes to self-derision when he realizes he's been mortally crushed. The passionate despair he expresses in asking the question "Where do I fit in?" is soon replaced by habitual toughness. Assuming the role of a circus barker advertising a freak, he burlesques his own death. He urges the imaginary audience to look at the "one and original Hairy Ape...." Both Joe Magarac and Yank are "macho" to the end; both tragically succeed in splitting off the self neither can find.

In two genres so dissimilar, what finally is the confluence of "Joe Magarac" and The Hairy Ape? More evidently "Joe Magarac" is an attempt by industry to create the do-and-die hero. The reader, considering the tale from this socio-economic perspective, sees the tale as exploitive and dangerous,8 even tragic in the realization that the message was once widely believed (as a reverse-perverse Horatio Alger myth). Today, while we can reflect on how workers of the past were duped by the "Joe Magarac" mentality, we ourselves have bought into "workaholic" schemes designed by others and by ourselves to keep us too busy to recognize our own spiritual demise. From that vantage point, "J.M." is a myth for the "melt down" of the twentieth century self. The Hairy Ape is, in large part, evidence for the same type of protest, O'Neill recognizing how materialistic America destroys man's spirit, "divorcing him from the qualities of humanity which gave him dignity and the sense of manhood" (Bogard 249). Whether man has not evolved sufficiently to change his own and others' conditions or whether his environment has not allowed him "to think" in order to create means for more life-giving conditions, falsely posits too wide a separation between the nature of man and his environment. If the environment is destructive, man is deformed; if that deformity prevents the emergence of a healthful environment, man is doomed. The man of steel becomes the beast of clay till, "burnt out," he becomes mere ash. Nothing left. No fire of thought or imagination to kindle understanding, to illuminate future lives. In becoming the comic equivalents of Yank and Joe Magarac, we inherit their tragedies.

-- Marilyn Jurich

* Without the enthusiastic assistance of Warren R. Hull, Director of Communications Services, Public Affairs Department, United States Steel Corporation, I would not have recognized the powerful connection between Joe Magarac and the steel industry. Mr... Hull provided materials from the corporate files of U.S. Steel and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, including reprints valuable for suggesting theories on the origin of Joe Magarac as "steel hero." -- M.J.


1Initiated by Henry Ford in 1913-14, the moving assembly line was widely adopted by industry in the 1920s (Link and Catton 252).

2Folklorists disagree on the authenticity of Joe Magarac as a genuine folk hero. In a 1953 article entitled "Joe Magarac...Hoax and Humbug!" (in The Pittsburgh Press), George Swetnam discusses the study by Hyman Richman, a Pittsburgh folklorist, which reveals that as an oral tale, the story was completely unknown by the mill workers in the very towns where the Magarac narrative was supposed to be widely circulated. While a few inhabitants in these southwestern Pennsylvania towns had read the tale in some version, no spoken variants of the tale existed (in 1953).

More revealing, when Richman spoke the Croatian term magarac to Slays who recognized its meaning, not one regarded its equivalent "jackass" favorably--as "a hard-working dependable, stalwart laborer," the sense intended in the tale. Rather, the Slays regarded the term to be downright abusive. Richman concluded that "Joe Magarac" was never a folk-tale, that the character was, instead, a manufactured hero, both character and tale derived from a story by Owen Francis published in Scribner's Magazine in 1931, though Francis may himself have heard it from others. (Sometimes the tale is regarded as "legend" or "myth.")

3In this respect it is interesting to refer to Jean Piaget's The Child's Conception of Physical Causality to explain Yank's concept of nature: "...the more primitive the ideas of the child, the further removed are they from the physical environment as we know it.... The starting point of causality is a nondifferentiation between inner and outer experience: the world is explained in terms of the self" (in Gruber and Vonèche 146).

4Two sources suggest that an Irish name for the hero may exist: Leach names a "Joe McGarrick" and Gibbons refers to "Joseph Patrick McGarrick."

5Mildred's feeble attempt to belong is also expressed symbolically through her identification with a leopard (Scene Two). In a jungle, she admits, she can remain camouflaged; but in a cage, she becomes conspicuous. Her willingness to become vulnerable so as to use power for others' benefit, ends in inertia.

6Roy Kahn in Real Pittsburgh (Nov., 1985) regards this factual explanation as a U.S. Steel promotional gambit.

7See H331 "Suitor Contest: bride offered as prize" in Stith Thompson, Vol. 3.

8The tale is currently available in many versions for children.


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Billard, Jules B. "Ever Hear of Joe Magarac?" The Saturday Evening Post (Feb. 22, 1947), p. 41.

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O'Neill, Eugene. Three Plays: Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones, The Hairy Ape. New York: The Modern Library, 1964.

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Walker, Robert H. "John Henry, John Luther and Joe: Technology and the Human Spirit." Hayes Historical Journal, III, 1 & 2 (1978), 105-15.



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