Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Island. The play unfolds on a small, unnamed island in the West Indies that provides O’Neill with an appropriate microcosm for his drama that depicts the primitive forces that close in on a domesticated, avaricious African American. The island bears a loose resemblance to the West Indian nation of Haiti, which had a long and chaotic political history after black slaves wrenched control of the western end of Hispaniola away from France in the early nineteenth century. Like O’Neill’s Brutus Jones, Haiti’s first rulers styled themselves “emperors.”
Jones’s palace. The play opens in the lavish palace building of the unnamed island nation, where Jones, an escaped convict and former Pullman porter from the United States, lives. With the help of his Cockney sidekick, Smithers, he rules the island as its “emperor.” Jones and Smithers have tricked the superstitious islanders into thinking that Jones has magical powers and cannot be hurt, except by a silver bullet. Jones keeps one to use on himself if suicide becomes necessary. Having extorted money and services from the impoverished islanders, Jones lives opulently.
Great forest. The last six scenes of the play occur at night in the great forest that surrounds the palace. Within this forest, Jones—who is running around in circles—is visited by the apparitions of people whom he has killed...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Expressionism is a term used for an artistic movement that initially appeared in painting, as a reaction to Impressionism, near the beginning of the twentieth century. Eventually the term came to be applied to literary forms, including drama, where it served as a reaction against Realism. Expressionism was strongest in drama in the early-1920s.
Basically, Expressionism is an attempt to objectify inner experience, to express the reality of the inner self rather than to copy external reality. Expressionism is most often concerned with representing states of human consciousness and exploring the psychology of complex feelings. Often, the emphasis is on intense and rapidly changing emotional states, since these are considered more interesting than states of serenity and calm. In the latenineteenth and early-twentieth century, the famous Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had revolutionized the conception of humanity by introducing the world to the complexities of the subconscious mind. In the twentieth century many artists felt compelled to explore and accurately describe these complexities.
In theatre, expressionism appeared very prominently in the work of Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, whose A Dream Play (1902) and The Ghost Sonata (1907) explored intense feelings of human pain and disappointment. Filled with free association and fantasy, these plays seriously challenged conventional stagecraft...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
The Emperor Jones is a one-act play in eight scenes. The first and last scenes contain several characters and employ a realistic style while the six scenes in the middle are an expressionistic monologue chroncling Jones’s nightmarish trip through the forest. This middle section is the main part of the play and focuses as much on light, sound, and setting as on Jones’s spoken words. The first and last scenes of the play, then, serve as a framing device, first setting up and then resolving Jones’s night in the forest. However, the first scene of the play is vastly different not only from the middle scenes but also from its companion, frame scene at the end of the play. For it is in this opening scene that O’Neill must provide all of the ‘‘exposition’’ for the play.
‘‘Exposition’’ is the term used for that part of a play that must give the audience the necessary background information for the main action. It is a very demanding aspect of the playwright’s craft and can be performed expertly or inexpertly, depending on whether or not the information is woven subtly into the dramatic flow of the initial action. The Emperor Jones focuses on the last twenty-four hours in the life of Brutus Jones, but in the first scene O’Neill must inform the audience of Jones’s past—that he is a non-native black man from America, that he has only been on the island for two years, and that in his former life he was a train...
(The entire section is 1015 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1920: The African American population in the United States is about 10.5 million, or nearly 10% of the American population. The average life expectancy for African American males is 45.5 years, compared to 54.4 for whites. For females the comparable figures are 45.2 and 55.6.
Today: The African American population in the United States is about 32 million, or nearly 12% of the American population. The average life expectancy for African American males is 67.5 years, compared to about 73.4 for whites. For females the comparable figures are 75.8 and 79.6.
1920: After race riots break out in twenty-six U.S. cities in 1919, the recently rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan experiences tremendous growth in 1920, expanding to 100,000 members in twenty-seven states. According to Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, the Klan will mushroom to 4.5 million by 1924. There are sixty-one documented lynchings of African Americans in 1920.
Today: Klanwatch is an organization founded in 1980 to monitor residual Klan terrorism. In 1986, they estimated that there were only six to seven thousand active Klan members in the United States. In 1998, police and hate-group watchers in South Carolina estimated they had only two state Klan groups with fewer than fifty members, diminished from four groups of several hundred in the early-1990s. However, over the years the Klan has been joined by a hundreds of other hate groups. One group, the...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Research the history of Expressionism in both painting and theatre in the early-twentieth century and discuss how The Emperor Jones illustrates expressionistic subject matter and technique.
Research the lives of Charles Gilpin (1878- 1930) and Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the black actors who portrayed Brutus Jones in the original stage (1920) and film (1933) versions of The Emperor Jones. Discuss the ways in which their skin color had an effect on their personal and professional lives.
Research the history of how African Americans were portrayed in drama and film during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Compare these portrayals with the one O’Neill creates in The Emperor Jones.
Research the physiology and psychology of hallucinations. What is happening in the human brain when people ‘‘see’’ and experience phenomena that are not actually present? Compare this information with what you see happening to Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones.
Research several biographies of Eugene O’Neill to see how his father, James O’Neill, had his promising acting career ‘‘ruined’’ by his extraordinary success in the stageplay, The Count of Monte Cristo. Then research in biographies (and the autobiography) of twentieth-century actor, Basil Rathbone, who had a similar experience with his success in the Sherlock Holmes film series. Finally, read O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and...
(The entire section is 241 words.)
The Emperor Jones was adapted as a full-length feature film in 1933 and starred Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones and Dudley Digges as Smithers. The screenplay adaptation for this black and white, seventy-two-minute film was written by Du Bose Heyward and directed by Dudley Murphy for United Artists. In 1980 the film was released on videocassette by Hollywood Home Theatre. In 1993, Janus Films joined Voyager Press to issue the 1933 film coupled with a thirtyminute documentary of Paul Robeson’s life taken from the Janus Film Collection and originally released in 1980. The documentary, in color, is narrated by actor Sidney Poitier.
In 1933, an operatic version of the play had its World Premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. The composer and librettist was Louis Gruenberg, the conductor Tullio Serafin. The set was designed by Jo Mielziner, and the role of Brutus Jones was sung by baritone Lawrence Tibbett. The opera followed O’Neill’s script faithfully except for the omission of the final scene and the changing of Jones’s death to suicide (using his last silver bullet on himself). O’Neill approved the changes. As a result of the orchestration, the drum-beat was less effective.
In 1971, Everett and Edwards released a thirtytwo- minute audiocassette lecture on the play as part of their Modern Drama Cassette Curriculum Series. The lecturer is Jordan Yale Miller. In 1976, Everett and Edwards released a thirty-sixminute...
(The entire section is 301 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
The German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) is one of the classic examples of expressionistic technique in film. Odd angles of vision, distorted sets, and hypnotic acting enhance the dream-like portrayal of insanity in this film.
The Hairy Ape (1922) is O’Neill’s most completely expressionistic play. Set initially on an ocean liner and focusing on the social snub felt by the brutish, below-deck worker, Yank, the play creates a nightmare atmosphere as Yank searches for a place where he can ‘‘belong.’’
All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1924) is another of O’Neill’s plays dealing with the black experience. The play caused a tremendous controversy because of the interracial kissing of a hand and the portrayal of an interracial marriage.
In the history of theatre, A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry is one of the most famous and commercially successful dramas focusing on black life. A poignant protest against racial injustice, the play features a black family and its attempt to rise into the middle class.
Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) by Adrienne Kennedy is a one-act play that portrays the disturbed mind of a mulatto woman named Sarah as she contemplates suicide. Surreal, poetic, and mythic in its presentation, the play shows Sarah hallucinating and shifting between various alter egos—black and white, male and female—as she resists her Negro...
(The entire section is 291 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten, McGraw- Hill, 1959, p. 132.
Broun, Heywood. Review of The Emperor Jones in the New York Tribune, November 4, 1920, reprinted in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, New York University Press, 1961, pp. 144-46.
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension, Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 67-68.
Gassner, John. ‘‘Introduction’’ in O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Gassner, Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 2, 4.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Harper, 1960, p. 444.
O’Neill, Eugene. Interview with Charles P. Sweeney in the New York World, November 9, 1924, p. 5M, reprinted in Conversations with Eugene O’Neill, edited by Mark W.
Estrin, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 57-58. Tiusanen, Timo. O’Neill’s Scenic Images, Princeton, 1968, pp. 104, 106, 338.
Woollcott, Alexander. ‘‘The Emperor Jones’’ in the New York Times, December 28, 1920, sec. 9, p. 1.
Woollcott, Alexander. ‘‘The New O’Neill Play’’ in the New York Times, November 7, 1920, sec 1, p. 1.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, Blue Ribbon Books, 1931. One of...
(The entire section is 459 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Bogard’s study of O’Neill’s plays revolves around his assertion that O’Neill’s experiments with theatrical devices were part of his attempt to create theater from his quest for identity. The section on The Emperor Jones compares the play to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867).
Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958. A study of O’Neill’s plays with emphasis on the psychoanalytic theories of depth psychology, noting the influence of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious on The Emperor Jones.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. This study for general readers features analyses of fifty plays, supplemented with information from O’Neill’s notebooks. The section on The Emperor Jones discusses O’Neill’s use of expressionism, noting similarities to August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1907). Floyd considers this a “landmark drama” for the American stage, with its first use of an African American actor in a leading role in New York theater.
Frenz, Horst. Eugene O’Neill. Translated by Helen Sebba....
(The entire section is 321 words.)