The firemen have gathered in the ship's forecastle, the crew's cramped quarters in the bow of the ship, on break from shoveling coal. The ocean liner has sailed an hour out of New York. The men are sitting around on their bunks drinking beer, carrying on with each other and singing in a clamorous uproar. Yank, "broader, fiercer, more truculent, more powerful, more sure of himself than the rest" turns his attention to the mob and asks for a beer. When Yank speaks the men are immediately quiet, they don't hesitate to hand him two drinks. Yank, satisfied, turns away and the rowdy men cajole an older fireman, Paddy to sing his "Whisky Song." Intoxicated, swaying and clutching his bunk he wails "Whisky! O Johnny!" and is quickly joined by the other men. Yank again turns his attention to the crowd and commands them to be quiet as he is trying to "tink." The men, in unison, repeat after him mockingly, "Think!"
Above the men's noise a tenor voice is heard singing, about a "lass who fondly waits/Making a home for me—." Yank silences the tenor and fiercely tells him that the ship is his home, nowhere else. A drunken Long jumps on a table in support of what Yank has said, but adds to it. Long declares that the ship is home, home is hell and the first class passengers, the "capitalist class" is to blame. Yank stands and threatens to knock Long down calling his ideas "Salvation Army—socialist bull." He defiantly states that the firemen are superior to the first class passengers because they are physically stronger and they "belong" to the ship. Paddy emerges from his stupor and cries out, "We belong to this you're saying? We make the ship go, you're saying? God have pity on us!" Paddy persists in a lengthy and passionate speech, detailing his former life on the sea. Paddy explains that in his youth men had reason to be proud to work on ships. The tall clipper ships, powered by sails rather than coal were, "clean" and "free." The ship gave Paddy a fantastic feeling of freedom and speed, rather than entrapment and slavery in the coal steamers. Paddy argues that working aboard the clipper ship required skill and guts. Men could belong to clipper ships, but do not belong to steamers. Paddy concludes that the men aboard the steam ship shoveling coal are caged in by steel, without the sight of land or sea like "apes in the Zoo!"
Yank gets up to fight Paddy, but controls himself. He tells Paddy to calm down, that he is crazy and too old to understand. Excitedly, Yank suddenly cries out that he belongs to the ship and Paddy does not, Paddy is dead and he is alive. Yank declares that he is part of the engines: he moves, he breathes coal dust and he eats it up. Without Yank, without the engines, everything would stop. Like Long, Yank describes the bottom of the ship as hell, but it "takes a man to work in hell." Yank equates himself with steel, the "muscles" and the "punch behind it."
Through the plight and struggle of an ocean liner fireman, Eugene O'Neill exposes the regression of civilized man to an animalistic state. The firemen are reduced to work animals, caged and abused. The ocean liner functions as a metaphor for the larger confinement and oppression of blue-collar workers into a tight niche in the bottom of society. The cage-like forecastle is representative or the cramped world, void of opportunity, that the men exist in. O'Neill suggests that the men should "resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal man is guessed at." The tight quarters of the forecastle and low ceilings force men to stoop low, preventing the men from having normal, upright posture. Only valued for their physical might, their ability to shovel coal into the ship's furnace, the men have abandoned the need for modern or complex thought and have regressed into a Neanderthal state.
O'Neill reinforces the firemen's Neanderthal state in the firemen's speech patterns. O'Neill carefully spells out the broken words and vocal patterns of the men to ensure that the actor will effectively use speech as another barrier and divide between the firemen and the higher class characters. With the exception of Paddy and Long, the men speak in short, simple phrases in broken English. Paddy and Long also have thick accents, but express complex though through their dialogue. In this scene the dialogue between the firemen comes in waves of exclamations:
"Gif me trink dere, you! 'Ave a wet! Salute! Gasundheit! Skoal! Drunk as a lord, God stiffen you! Here's How! Luck!"
The firemen's lines are like animal sounds, void of structure or cohesiveness. This is not to ignore the fact that the firemen, in a life outside the play may communicate full sentences and ideas, but within the text the firemen are characterized like a pack of dogs. The men are reactive and easily bothered, defensive and constantly ready to put up a fight. Yank, the leader of the pack, gains respect not because he is the smartest, but because he is physically the strongest.
The repetition and mockery of Yank's language is a clear indication that the men do not respect Yank for his brainpower. When Yank tells the men to "nix on de loud noise" because he is trying to "tink" the men to repeat in unison "think!" The men purposefully point out the irony of Yank, barely able to form the word, attempting to think. In a wave of barking exclamations, the men warn Yank not to crack his head thinking, "You gat headache, py yingo! One thing about it—it rhymes with drink!" The men equate thought with physical labor and alcohol, the factors which posses and drive their lives. The chorus that erupts reinforces this, "Drink, don't think" repeated three times.
Whether by necessity or comfort physical labor and alcohol allow the men to exist within their societal niche and confines of the ship. Yank's reaction to the tenor who sings of his home and lassie is deeply offensive to Yank because it suggests thought and life beyond that of a laborer. Yank is equally offended by Paddy, who reminisces about life on a clipper ship. Yank desperately attempts to weight his existence, reverse societal structure on the basis of "belonging," a theme that is developed extensively in the play.