In the structure and the staging, and to some extent in the subject matter, The Emperor Jones can be seen as Expressionist theatrical work. The play retains a semblance of conventional plotting, and it seems that Eugene O’Neill initially presents Brutus Jones’ rule over the island as a realistic topic. But once Jones abdicates and flees into the jungle it becomes clear that the whole play is a departure from naturalism. Even the notion of his being an emperor is shown to be a sham, as from the outset he and Smithers had been deceiving the people.
In many respects it is a psychological drama, and the staging devices are intrinsically connected with the thematic development. Jones is shown to have a slender grasp on reality, and he quickly spirals out of control as his practical situation grows worse. In the dark, forbidding jungle, he sees one vision after another and imagines himself participating in each one.
In subject matter and in time, each incident takes Jones and the audience further from the present and from reality. Especially significant are the drums, tom-toms that O’Neill’s stage directions indicate should begin beating at the human heart rate, and accelerate and grow louder to approximate his panic. The passage of time through the night, and the association of the increasing darkness with Jones’ mental deterioration, is also precisely scripted.
Even the rebels and their approach to capturing and killing the former leader are steeped in unreality: Lem, their leader, has apparently delayed in pursuing him because of his ostensible magic powers, which require killing him with a silver bullet. Lem’s shooting is an anti-climax; by the time they find Jones, his fears had already caused his demise.