Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Henry Smithers, a Cockney adventurer, learns from a woman that the followers of Brutus Jones, the self-styled emperor of a West Indian island, are about to desert their ruler. With Smithers’s help, Jones, a former Pullman porter and escaped convict, duped the natives into believing that he is a magician. The superstitious natives make him emperor of the island. Smithers discloses to the emperor the disaffection of his subjects, who are taxed and cheated by the pair beyond human endurance. Jones judges that he has six more months of power before the natives catch on to his skullduggery. He had a silver bullet cast as a good luck charm; it will be a useful tool if he is ever caught by his subjects.
At Smithers’s suggestion, Jones rings a bell for his attendants; no one appears. Jones resigns his position as emperor on the spot and makes immediate plans to escape through the jungle to the coast. Drums begin to beat in the hills. The former emperor gives the palace to Smithers, takes up his white Panama hat, and walks boldly out the front door.
At the edge of the jungle, Jones searches unsuccessfully for the canned food he cached for such an emergency. The drums continue to beat, louder and more insistent. Night falls, and formless fears come out of the jungle to beset Jones. The moon rises. Jones comes into a clearing and there in the moonlight sees Jeff, a Pullman porter he killed in a razor duel. Jeff is throwing dice. When the kneeling figure refuses to answer him, Jones shoots at him. The phantom disappears. Drums still thud in the distance. Jones, now sick with fright, plunges into the inky jungle.
After a while, he comes upon a road and pauses to rest. A chain gang comes out of the forest. The guard of the gang motions to Jones to take his place in the gang and to get to work. When the guard whips him, Jones lifts...
(The entire section is 760 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Emperor Jones, which ran for 204 performances at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, represented the first major success by a black actor on the American stage; it also made O’Neill famous.
Almost medieval in structure, this long one-act play in eight scenes details the fall from power of a corrupt ruler, former Pullman porter Brutus Jones, who has made himself emperor of a West Indian island and greedily exploited the natives. As the play opens, the populace has revolted, and Jones realizes he must flee. In his egocentricity, he believes that the legend he has created—that he can be killed only with a silver bullet—will protect him and that his planned escape route through the forest will take him to a waiting ship and safety with the riches intact that he has extorted from the people.
As Jones travels through the forest, he is stripped physically, mentally, and emotionally of the trappings of civilization and forced back through his racial memory to a tribal past, where, naked and hysterical before the Crocodile God, he uses his silver bullet to reject the possessive god as the natives approach to kill him, ironically, with their own silver bullets. The play permits several levels of interpretation. Socially, a proud, greedy, corrupt ruler is deposed by the downtrodden people. Psychologically, a person regresses through individual memory to his racial unconscious. Philosophically, a human being fights the...
(The entire section is 533 words.)