The Emperor Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

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 quest in striking stage images. The first scene features Jones’s throne room, blindingly white except for accents of red and a huge rough throne dominating the stage. Jones enters in a red uniform, an imposing figure who clearly inspires fear in the cowardly Smithers, to whom he displays his pistol with its six bullets, the last one being silver, for Jones has convinced the natives that only a silver bullet can kill him.

When Jones leaves his palace and enters the jungle, he finds himself in an area of shadows and increasing darkness, the fading of the light paralleling Jones’s movement into his own blackness. Sounds are also important. Before Jones leaves his palace, Lem’s men start beating their drums at the tempo of a normal heartbeat, increasing this as Jones progresses, feeding his nervousness and the audience’s tension. The pistol shots, which Jones uses to dispel his hallucinations, punctuate several scenes. The audience counts the shots (as Lem is surely doing as well), realizing that when the sixth shot, the silver bullet, is fired, Jones is defenseless—ready to become the sacrifice demanded by the crocodile god.

Another significant stage image is Jones’s gradual loss of pieces of his uniform, a...

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