Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones was banned or in some way saw in a bad way because it was certainly controversial. But why it was critically acclaimed, because it could include African American actors or create some point about the race?
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Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was performed to positive reviews because it critics responded to its subject matter, to the playwright’s reputation, and because of the power of the performance in the lead role of African American actor Charles Gilpin. As noted in the Alexander Woollcott 1920 review for the New York Times, "[O’Neill’s play] reinforces the impression that for strength and originality he has no rival among the American writers for the stage. As Woollcott further added, “His (Gilpin’s) is an uncommonly powerful and imaginative performance, in several respects unsurpassed this season in New York.” So, when he have one of the most highly-respected critics in the country, writing for the most prestigious newspaper in the world about a play written by one of the most highly-esteemed playwrights in the United States, one could logically conclude that The Emperor Jones was critically-praised. That the play was produced utilizing an actual African American actor in the title role, rather than a Caucasian actor in black face-paint, added to the production’s value and effectiveness. As O’Neill’s play continues to be produced from time to time, perhaps the following quote from the Times review written for the play’s 1998 revival will help put its critical reception into a more timely context. Of the revival of The Emperor Jones after 70 years, the critics praised the producers “ability to relocate the play in a contemporary context while holding on to the shadowy, hypnotic qualities that first unsettled audiences of the 1920's.”
Finally, the following passage from the Enclopaedia Britannica summarizes well the play’s enduring appeal, without exaggerating its actual quality:
“Originally called The Silver Bullet, the play is highly effective as pure theater through its use of such elements as pulsing drums, gunshots, and the dramatic jungle setting. Dialogue does little to advance the action. Jones serves as a symbol for a debased humanity; the primeval jungle has been said to stand for modern civilization or the unconscious mind. While not considered one of O’Neill’s finest plays, the work was a sensation and remains a staple of small theatre groups.”
In short, judged on its own merits, The Emperor Jones was and is considered a fine play worthy of continued performances. To the extent some of the play’s praise was a product of its groundbreaking casting decisions, that is simply a matter for interpretation within the proper historical context.
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