The Emperor Jones was part of an amazing first year for O’Neill as a Broadway playwright. His very first Broadway play, Beyond the Horizon, had appeared in February of 1920 and eventually won him the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but The Emperor Jones was so successful in its Off-Broadway production in November that it moved to Broadway by the end of the same year and became another highprofile success for the newly acclaimed playwright. By 1930, at the end of an astoundingly productive first decade, O’Neill was widely recognized as America’s greatest dramatist.
The Emperor Jones was also the first of several experiments with Expressionism for O’Neill. O’Neill found inspiration for Expressionism in the work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912), whose A Dream Play (1902) and The Ghost Sonata (1907) explored and represented on stage complex states of mind, eschewing realistic style and imitating instead the fluid associative structure of human consciousness. After The Emperor Jones, O’Neill used expressionistic techniques most fully in The Hairy Ape (1922) and to some extent in Strange Interlude (1928), where his five-hour play focused on the interior monologue of its main character, Nina Leeds.
The Emperor Jones was also the first American play to offer an racially integrated cast to a Broadway audience and feature a black actor in its leading role. Prior to O’Neill’s ground breaking drama, black roles in integrated productions were played by Caucasians in black-face makeup. But O’Neill insisted that black actor Charles Gilpin play Brutus Jones in the Provincetown Playhouse premiere of The Emperor Jones, and a precedent was set that would eventually lead to this country’s present level of racial equality in the arts.