The production of The Emperor Jones by the Provincetown Players in 1920 was a turning point for Eugene O’Neill. The play, a huge success both in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and in New York, represented O’Neill’s first foray into expressionism, the European movement influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung that emphasized presenting psychological reality on stage. With this production, O’Neill earned a reputation as an important playwright both in the United States and in Europe.
The Emperor Jones is a long, tightly constructed, one-act play with eight scenes. The first and last scenes form a realistic frame, beginning with Smithers informing Jones that the natives are preparing to hunt him down to finish his two-year reign as emperor, and ending with the native leader, Lem, and Smithers discussing the death of Jones.
The middle scenes portray a journey into the jungle that is both physical and psychological, for when Jones fearfully plunges into the dark tangle of trees, he is also entering the troubled recesses of his mind. During this journey, he must face hunger and heat, repressed violent incidents from his own past, and his collective racial past—from slave auction to a face-to-face encounter with an African crocodile god. Jones’s journey into racial memory demonstrates O’Neill’s debt to Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.
O’Neill portrays Jones’s psychological...
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