Theatrical Elements in The Emperor Jones

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1926

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The critical enthusiasm for O’Neill’s drama has always been tempered by a recognition that he was limited as a writer. As his foremost biographer, Louis Sheaffer, put it in O’Neill: Son and Playwright, ‘‘of all the major playwrights, O’Neill is, with little doubt, the most uneven. During the larger part of his career . . . he kept producing, almost alternately, good plays and bad.’’ And even O’Neill’s good plays sometimes seem to display his major faults: he is often melodramatic, clumsy and heavyhanded with dialogue, unpoetic in his use of language, obsessed with regional and ethnic dialects, verbose, unsubtle, labored, and simplistic.

But there is one area where O’Neill’s skills are seldom questioned—he had an uncommon ability to create compelling theatrical effects. He was, as Croswell Bowen described it in The Curse of the Misbegotten, ‘‘the most theatrical playwright of his time.’’ And The Emperor Jones is perhaps the clearest example of O’Neill’s unequivocal strength as a ‘‘theatrical’’ playwright.

It is often said that O’Neill’s dramas ‘‘play’’ better than they ‘‘read,’’ that what sometimes appears lifeless and labored on the page often becomes quite vibrant in a theatrical performance. At their best, O’Neill’s plays create an effective blueprint for his theatrical collaborators: actors, directors, set, sound, light, and costume designers take his script and help transform the page into a thrilling theatrical experience.

In his introduction to O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, the venerable scholar John Gassner expressed this commonly held appraisal of O’Neill. He said that O’Neill is ‘‘disproportionately effective on the stage and disappointing in print.’’ As Gassner said of O’Neill, however:

He acquired a strong aptitude for dramatic writing and theatrical effect. He was able to compensate for his defects as a writer with the power of his stage action; had he elected to write novels and been forced to rely on description and narration rather than dramatization and visualization, he might have proved a second-rate author. . . . Dramatic action, pictorial composition, and sound-effects such as the beating of the tom-toms in The Emperor Jones concealed, or minimized his literary infelicities, and sustained his intense—often, indeed, over-intense—dramatic intentions.

Where, then, in The Emperor Jones do we see this aptitude for theatrical effect? Perhaps it is most obvious in the simple idea of indicating Jones’s emotional state through the beating of the drum. As Doris Falk wrote in Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension, ‘‘Nowhere in O’Neill’s work is his theatrical skill more evident than in Jones’s flight through the jungle to the drumbeat which begins at normal pulse rhythm, growing faster and faster, louder and louder.’’ In fact, the drumbeat was one of the first ideas that led O’Neill to write The Emperor Jones. In a 1924 interview with the New York World O’Neill said, ‘‘One day I was reading of the religious feasts in the Congo and the uses to which the drum is put there; how it starts at a normal pulsebeat and is slowly intensified until the heart-beat of every one present corresponds to the frenzied beat of the drum. There was an idea and an experiment. How would this sort of thing work on an audience in a theatre?’’

In Scene I, the sound of the drumbeat begins just as Jones boasts to Smithers that he is not afraid. The initial sound is faint but steady, beating ‘‘at a rate exactly corresponding to normal pulse-beat— 72 to the minute.’’ As the drumbeat continues ‘‘at a gradually accelerating rate from this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play,’’ it represents Jones’s state of mind. But the art of the drumbeat is even more complex. It begins literally as a war drum and always remains so, even after the sound comes to represent Jones’s increasing anxiety. But in Scene VI, the sound also becomes the cadence for the moaning black slaves being carried by ship to America. Ultimately, the sound becomes as well the heartbeat of the audience itself as they get caught up in the action. At the end of each scene in the written text, O’Neill reminds the reader that the drumbeat is intensifying. In a theatrical production no audience member would have to be reminded, but adept readers have to be more imaginative to hear the constant drum and follow its complex theatrical effects.

The next most powerful theatrical element is perhaps light, for the shifting of light during the play is not only varied and complex but highly indicative of Jones’s changing frame of mind. The play begins in late-afternoon light, still bright but on the edge of sunset, communicating heat and languor. As the play progresses, varieties of light become more and more oppressive for Jones. A ‘‘wall of darkness’’ greets him at the forest’s edge in Scene II, and a ‘‘barely perceptible, suffused eerie glow’’ of moonlight envelops him as he encounters Jeff in Scene III. A ‘‘veil of bluish mist’’ colors the river in the final scene with the witch doctor and crocodile. In every scene the light is changing, reflecting Jones’s mental state and providing the theatre audience with an immediately perceptible visual experience that the reader of the play must try to imagine. But as challenging as O’Neill’s script is to the reader, it is even more so for the lighting designer. In Scene IV, for example, O’Neill specifies that ‘‘the road glimmers ghastly and unreal’’ in the moonlight, ‘‘as if the forest had stood aside momentarily to let the road pass through and accomplish its veiled purpose. This done, the forest will fold in upon itself again and the road will be no more.’’ This light cue and set design would be more appropriate for a film project than for a stage designer!

Working closely with the theatre’s lighting designer, then, is the set designer, who must create throne room and forest environments that complement the nightmarish quality of the play’s light. The throne room is spacious and speciously elegant with its high ceilings, white walls, white floor, and garishly red throne. With the distant hills in the background, the white and spacious throne room contrasts with the dark forest environment that will gradually enclose Jones in ever smaller spaces. When he crouches in Scene VI in a tiny space that becomes the galley of a slave ship, Jones has retreated to an almost womb-like environment, and Scenes IV and V both end with the walls of the forest once again folding in on him.

Given the importance of the set in The Emperor Jones, it is ironic that the play was first produced in a tiny Off-Broadway theatre whose budget could not accommodate elaborate scene design. But George Cram (Jig) Cook, the leader of the Provincetown Players and the director of the original production, saw immediately that the staging would require something special to capture its atmospheric qualities. As Ronald Wainscott put it in Staging O’Neill, ‘‘Cook’s problem was finding a way to present O’Neill’s sweeping nightmare on a stage the size of an ordinary living room.’’ Cook insisted that an elaborate ‘‘dome’’ or cyclorama be built on stage to give the effect of great distances. He had seen such domes in small European theatres, and working with plaster, concrete, and iron, he created a sky against which hanging cloth and canvas could represent the forest. When light was bounced off the dome’s textured surface, it gave an illusion of infinity.

Arthur and Barbara Gelb reported in their biography, O’Neill, that ‘‘viewers seated three feet from the stage had the illusion of vast distance; an actor could stretch his hand to within inches of its plaster surface and still seem to be far away from it.’’ But Cook had to construct the dome over the protests of the other members of the theatre group because in building it he had to spend the theatre’s entire budget on its first play of the season. According to Helen Deutsch and Stella Hanau, authors of The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre, ‘‘Cook left just $6.40 in the treasury, drained the last measure of strength from his workers, and sacrificed eight feet of very limited floor space of the stage to build the first dome in New York.’’ However, the dome was spectacularly successful and the visual effect one of the sources of the play’s tremendous success.

Last, but certainly not least, the effects of the play’s costume design have an enormous impact on a theatre audience. When Jones first appears, he is dressed in an outlandish military uniform that re- flects his tenuous standing as emperor. As he bolts through the forest, pieces of this uniform are gradually torn away and then discarded until he is left in the last scene in a loincloth, and the primitive witch doctor now has, ironically, all the sartorial accouterments of high status. Timo Tiusanen speculated in O’Neill’s Scenic Images that O’Neill might have specified Jones’s light blue uniform as a way of further indicating Jones’s disorientation. The uniform, he says, would fit well with the scarlet and white throne room but clash and be ‘‘out of harmony’’ with the dark green forest. ‘‘It is possible that O’Neill knew the physical qualities of light well enough to choose light blue for Jones, a color that remains visible on a relatively dark stage where green trees are turned into a menacing darkness.’’

Other examples of ‘‘theatrical’’ elements abound in the play. In an adept production, the ‘‘Little Formless Fears’’ of Scene II are almost spooky in their unearthly quality, moving noiselessly ‘‘but with deliberate, painful effort, striving to raise themselves on end, failing and sinking prone again.’’ Their mocking laughter ‘‘like a rustling of leaves’’ contrast sharply with the loud report of Jones’s gunshot, and those gunshots echo against the castanet- like clicking of Jeff’s dice in Scene III and the silence of the guard’s whip and the convicts’ picks and shovels in Scene IV. The disappearance of the various hallucinations is a difficult visual effect to achieve on stage, but it gives a dream-like quality to the play. The film technology in 1933 was obviously not sufficient to make the hallucinations and their disappearance even the slightest bit convincing or powerful, but the technology of contemporary stage and (especially) film could make the hallucinations appear and disappear effectively.

Taken together, these theatrical effects make The Emperor Jones ‘‘a striking series of scenic images,’’ and O’Neill’s ‘‘early masterpiece,’’ according to Tiusanan. But it is the theatrical elements working all together that creates the impact on an audience in a theatre. As Tiusanan asserted, ‘‘It is not the tom-tom, striking as this repetitious sound effect is; it is not the presence of the visions as such. It is the fusion of the scenic means employed; it is the interaction of the scenic images . . . the abundance of imaginatively used scenic means of expression within the space of thirty-odd pages or about an hour and a half of acting time.’’ Croswell Bowen summed up The Emperor Jones in The Curse of the Misbegotten by saying, ‘‘Although not the best play that Eugene O’Neill ever wrote, it is in many ways the most theatrical—the most theatrical play by the most theatrical playwright of his time.’’

Source: Terry R. Nienhuis, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.


Critical Overview