Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

On the night of November 1, 1920, The Emperor Jones opened Off-Broadway for a short run at the 200-seat Provincetown Players’ Playwright’s Theatre on Macdougal Street, and it was an immediate and huge success. The first-night audience refused to leave even after repeated curtain calls, and early the next morning long lines formed at the box office. Because one had to be a ‘‘member’’ to see the company’s productions, the group’s subscription list doubled within days and the projected twoweek run was extended. In part the play was a great novelty as it presented an integrated cast and a captivating black actor in the lead role, but an unusually powerful script and startling scenic effects for such a small theatre contributed greatly to the play’s success. First-line theatre critics had been busy earlier in the week at Broadway openings and didn’t see the play for three days, but when they arrived they generally concurred with the audiences.

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Writing for the New York Times, Alexander Woollcott called The Emperor Jones ‘‘an extraordinarily striking and dramatic study of panic fear.’’ Production values were not first-rate—there were clumsy and irritating transitions between scene changes that interrupted the drum beat and produced long, silent blackouts—but even with these flaws Woollcott found that the play ‘‘weaves a most potent spell.’’ Charles Gilpin was singled out for praise, and Woollcott concluded that the play ‘‘reinforces the impression that for strength and originality [O’Neill] has no rival among the American writers for the stage.’’

New York Tribune critic Heywood Broun agreed with Woollcott, calling The Emperor Jones ‘‘just about the most interesting play which has yet come from the most promising playwright in America’’ and reiterated the high praise for Gilpin’s performance. Broun also complained about the scene changes: ‘‘unfortunately, production in the tiny Provincetown Theatre is difficult and the waits between these scenes are often several minutes in length. Each wait is a vulture which preys upon the attention. With the beginning of each new scene, contact must again be established and all this unquestionably hurts.’’

Other critics concured—like Kenneth Macgowan of the New York Globe, Maida Castellun of the New York Call, and Stephen Rathbun of the New York Sun—and by the end of December the play was on Broadway in a series of special matinees at the Selwyn Theatre. There, the critics generally repeated their praise. Woollcott proclaimed that in the larger and better equipped space the play was still ‘‘exciting and terrifying’’ and ‘‘quite as astonishing,’’ with Gilpin continuing to be ‘‘amazing and unforgettable.’’ The move ‘‘uptown’’ seemed to improve the production because better facilities eliminated the long waits between scenes. Later, the production shifted to the Princess Theatre, where it enjoyed an unusually long and successful run followed by a two-year national road tour featuring Gilpin and numerous international productions. Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo were some of the foreign cities it visited, and on the basis of The Emperor Jones, Eugene O’Neill was now the first American playwright with an international reputation.

In 1924 the play was revived at the Provincetown Playhouse, but this time O’Neill chose newcomer Paul Robeson to play the role of Brutus Jones. During the original run, O’Neill had become impatient with Gilpin’s drinking during performances and with Gilpin’s habit of changing the play’s dialogue. Gilpin played Brutus Jones in two more 1926 revivals of the play, but he never recovered his commanding ownership of the role. After the 1924 revival, Robeson went on to play the role in London and also in the 1933 film version. Robeson’s portrayal was praised almost as much as Gilpin’s, especially because of Robeson’s physical stature and deep bass voice, but contemporary observers and even O’Neill himself finally admitted that Gilpin’s portrayal of Jones was more authentic and powerful. Still, in part because of Robeson’s appearance in the enduring film version, Robeson’s portrayal has come to be the one most closely associated with the role.

Ironically, the tremendous success of The Emperor Jones was both the best and the worst thing to happen to the Provincetown Players. Overnight they went from an experimental theatre struggling on a small budget to a profitable venture that could pay all its actors a salary. But they divided over the issue of moving The Emperor Jones to Broadway. Originated in 1915 as an informal group dedicated to art rather than commerce, some of the actors and managers wanted to exploit the commercial success initiated by O’Neill’s play while others wanted to retreat from it in order to stay small, amateurish, experimental, and faithful to their original vision.

When the production finally moved uptown, the original cast and most of the group’s working actors went with it, leaving a depleted crew to continue the season downtown. Rising expenses and personal jealousies eventually destroyed the small group. Their leader, George Cram (Jig) Cook, finally declared a year’s moratorium on productions, left for Greece, and died in 1924 after bitterly severing ties with his theatre. A new organization was formed in 1923, led by O’Neill, but the idealistic and non-commercial spirit of the original Provincetown Players was gone forever.

Today, The Emperor Jones is still recognized as one of O’Neill’s finest plays. In 1921 it was considered ‘‘a splendid achievement, easily the author’s finest work to date,’’ as O’Neill’s biographer Sheaffer put it. However, O’Neill’s major triumphs with autobiographical materials near the end of his life led to powerful full-length plays like The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) that have put O’Neill’s early one-act play in a subordinate position.

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