Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
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 costume parody of white power and grandeur that Jones “has a way of carrying . . . off.” When he is finally stripped to a remnant of clothing resembling a breechcloth, Jones has lost the overlay of white civilization and seems ready for his journey on a slave ship and a confrontation with the African culture of his ancestors.
The figure of Brutus Jones himself is a significant stage image. In 1920, American audiences were accustomed to the “stage Negro” stereotype, but O’Neill shatters expectations in two ways. The stereotype is a comic one. (On the rare occasions when African Americans were serious characters, they were portrayed as light-skinned, sometimes even “passing” as white.) The usual theatrical practice was also to cast white actors, who played black roles in blackface. Instead, O’Neill presented a black actor, Charles Gilpin, as a character who could be viewed as a tragic hero.
Jones displays a number of attributes of the Aristotelian hero. His status is elevated, and he is intelligent. He has learned the native language and has skillfully used the opportunities that have presented themselves. When a shot from a would-be assassin misses Jones, he quickly invents the myth of the silver bullet, keeping the natives under his control for a longer period of time. Jones also demonstrates the typical pride, and his hamartia, or tragic error in judgment, is clear. He has adopted the “garments” of the white civilization that had oppressed him in the United States, cutting himself off from his own culture.
Chief among these overlays are his greed and his emphasis on material gain for himself without consideration of the effect his rapacity will have on the native people for whom he should feel kinship. Instead, he contemptuously refers to them as “bush niggers” and “bleeds em dry,” sending money to European bank accounts while planning his own escape. He tells Smithers he has learned his methods by listening to the “white quality” on the Pullman cars where he served as a porter. Another overlay of white society is the Christian religion. Although Jones “lays [his] Jesus on the shelf” as he exploits the natives, he expects “Lawd Jesus” will rescue him from the ghosts of his past. This does not happen, and he becomes the sacrifice demanded by the African god, slain by the natives he has exploited. They use a silver bullet made from melted money, an appropriate symbol for the fallen would-be capitalist.
O’Neill’s use of dialect and of some stereotypical attributes has been seen as problematic, as is the fact that Jones’s dialect becomes “blacker” as he progresses in his psychological journey, moving away from the trappings of “civilization” that he has assumed. Both Jones and the white Smithers are outsiders, speaking what is considered by insiders to be debased forms of the language. O’Neill’s interest in sympathetically portraying outsiders is a consistent thread running through his plays, often attributed to his own experience with prejudice as part of the Irish minority in New England.
In addition to the theme of the outsider, O’Neill was concerned with the emphasis that American society places on materialism, which he viewed as a dangerously destructive force. Jones’s fall becomes more tragic when one considers that, if Jones had resisted the values of white American society, he might have provided positive leadership for the natives on “his” island, thus advancing his people. From a historical perspective, it may be significant that O’Neill was inspired to create Jones in part by his knowledge of two Haitian dictators: President Sam, who spread the rumor that he could be killed only by a silver bullet, and Henri Christophe, who proclaimed himself emperor of part of Haiti, then later committed suicide.
The Emperor Jones marked the beginning of O’Neill’s experimentation with expressionism and related theatrical devices. The success of this experimentation was mixed, but this play, with its interesting blend of realism and expressionism, is clearly a theatrical success.