Theatrical Elements in The Emperor Jones

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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...

(This entire section contains 1926 words.)

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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.

The Two O'Neills

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The other O’Neill, the writer pursuing transcendence rather than domesticity, is also being represented on the New York stage these days, in a production of The Emperor Jones by the Wooster Group. This enterprising experimental troupe has already flexed its O’Neill muscles earlier this season with a powerful version of The Hairy Ape. The Emperor Jones is a reworking of a production that it first presented in 1993.

This relatively early work, written in the same rush of inspiration that produced The Hairy Ape and Anna Christie, would seem to be virtually unplayable today, owing to its clumsy effort to render the black idiom. Look at this typical passage: ‘‘Think dese ign’rent bush niggers dat ain’t even got brains enuff to know deir own names even can catch Brutus Jones? Huh, I s’pects not! Not on yo’ life.’’ Or even worse, when Jones is preparing to flee: ‘‘Feet do yo’ duty!’’ Perhaps recognizing that O’Neill’s tin ear made almost all of his language sound stereotypical (Smitty’s Cockney dialect, even in the mouth of the superb actor Willem Dafoe, is equally clumsy), the Wooster Group meets this problem head on. Brutus Jones, a role once played by the majestic Paul Robeson, is performed not by a black actor but by a white person in black face, and a woman at that (Kate Valk). Rather than normalize Jones’s speech, Valk chooses to exaggerate the already exaggerated dialect into minstrel-show patter.

This is inviting trouble; but then so is the very act of producing the play. The only notes in the Wooster Group program are some generous comments from W.E.B. DuBois, defending O’Neill against those ‘‘preordained and self-appointed’’ judges of how black people should be represented on stage, those who would ‘‘destroy art, religion and good common sense in an effort to make everything that is said or shown propaganda for their ideas.’’ DuBois believed that O’Neill in The Emperor Jones was trying to break through the defensive shells that prevent black people from being represented truthfully in the theater. Today, when even such black artists as Kara Walker and Robert Colescott are being attacked for creating black stereotypes, O’Neill’s early effort at opening the doors of perception looks all the more brave and prescient.

As written, The Emperor Jones is a trip into the heart of darkness by an American black man who has persuaded himself that his Western reason and intelligence are protections against the voodoo spells of his native antagonists. He proves to be wrong. This former Pullman car porter and ex-convict is conquered less by external enemies than by his own terrors. Having set himself up as Emperor of a West Indian island and looted all its treasure, Jones has invented the myth that he can only be killed by a silver bullet. He eventually comes to believe the myth, too. Both the emperor Caesar and the assassin Brutus inhabit the same breast. In Trilling’s words, Jones ‘‘goes backwards through social fears to very fear itself, the fear of the universe which lies in primitive religion.’’ This is a great theme. O’Neill never lacked great themes. He lacked only the art with which to express them.

Once again the Wooster Group, under its visionary director Elizabeth LeCompte, supplies that art by distracting attention from the play and the dialogue to the theatrical medium itself. The stage is bare except for a white linoleum floor, decorated with three television screens and, for one blinding moment, three bright headlights. While the screens register ghost images, Valk and Dafoe engage each other, both displaying great vocal range and variety, sometimes as characters in O’Neill, sometimes as samurai warriors and dancers in a Kabuki drama. Two prop masters solemnly hand them their properties. Each actor carries a microphone, which also has a prop function (a walking stick for Jones, a bat for Smitty). Valk sits in a high chair on wheels, rolling her eyes and roaring her lines through a reddened mouth, a bit like Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame. The mikes and the music (often raucous rock) are set at a high decibel level.

Those who emerge from the theater without a headache can testify to a penetrating, if painful, encounter with the play. The Wooster Group’s deconstructing of classic American drama can some- times come perilously close to desecrating it. But when successful, such approaches can also open up new avenues of understanding. ‘‘O’Neill’s techniques,’’ wrote Trilling, ‘‘like those of any sincere artist, are not fortuitous—they are the result of an attempt to say things which the accepted techniques cannot express.’’ The same might be said for the Wooster Group.

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘The Two O’Neills’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 218, no. 17, April 27, 1998, p. 28.

Review of The Emperor Jones

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Eugene O’Neill, the American dramatist, comes to Europe with a great reputation. Genius, we hear, is not too high a term for him. So that on going to see a new play of his some of us expect to see something ‘‘Diff’rent’’ from the usual. The Emperor Jones, produced last week at the Ambassadors, at first seems unconventional in form; and though few would argue that constructional novelty is any criterion of future fame, praise must always be given to any fresh attempt to loosen the girths of modern drama. In my opinion, the modern technique is too tight. The acquisition by any less vigorous mind than an Ibsen’s of the highly specialised technicalities necessary for the construction of a modern play, is apt to produce a clever juggler rather than an artist. But, remembering always the exception, it is also a general rule that the genius in any art does not invent new forms, but uses to their full extent the forms moulded by others. The fact, then (I quote Mr. C. E. Bechhofer’s preface to Emperor Jones) that ‘‘for years dramatists have been attempting to find a new kind of play, something that would pass the limits of contemporary drama,’’ and that ‘‘in The Emperor Jones O’Neill may be said to have solved this problem,’’ is no evidence of genius in the author, even if it be true. But, to put aside the feeling that G. Bernard Shaw, not to mention the Expressionists, may also be said to have solved this problem, it may be well to examine whether O’Neill is quite so original as some would have us believe.

Readers may remember that a few years ago the Everyman Theatre gave us some of this author’s one-act plays, and a full play, Diff’rent. Afterwards, at a West End theatre, Anna Christie was produced. I should like to point out that O’Neill has written about a dozen one-act plays. Now this is very significant if we take in conjunction the fact (which is obvious to all who have seen or read Diff’rent) that this play is really two one-act plays divided by an interval of thirty years; and that in Anna Christie, which is in four acts, there is a decided declension of interest after the first act. After saying this, and after seeing The Emperor Jones, I am prepared to suggest that O’Neill is strictly a one-act playwright, and probably has not enough creative impetus to carry him the length of a full play. Of course, there is nothing derogatory to O’Neill in saying this. We cannot all be major artists. We cannot all be Shakespeares and Ibsens. The perfect painter of miniatures is no less to be admired than he who fills a mighty canvas with his genius. The miniaturist we do not admire is only he who, despising the real talent he possesses, endeavours to use a larger brush. In all the arts the same rules apply, and the same results obtain when they are forgotten. The perfect short story writer is rarely the great novelist as well. Just so, the one-act playwright may attain perfection in his own medium even while he fails in each attempt to write a full-length play. And he fails, as all like him must fail, because he is fluttering at the bars of his own talent, attempting to win a freedom that he will never be able to use. How many artists have been spoilt because they have tried, or have been persuaded that they ought to try, to do ‘‘important’’ work? It will be a pity if O’Neill is spoilt in this way, for he has an undoubted talent for the short piece; and if he does not, perhaps cannot, make his characters very significant, he is certainly a master of emotional effect, even if the emotions he plays upon are the very crudest.

With the suggestion in mind that this author’s proper medium is the one-act play, let us examine The Emperor Jones. The action takes place on an island in the West Indies. Brutus Jones, an unusually intelligent and self-reliant negro of tall and powerful build, has made himself ‘‘Emperor’’ over the ‘‘trash’’ niggers. For years he had been in the States. Owing to a quarrel in which he killed his negro opponent, Jones had been given a twenty years’ sentence; but he had escaped, after killing his warder, and had fled to this island. His personality and intelligence have enabled him to dominate the other negroes. As ‘‘Emperor,’’ he has ground them down with taxes and appropriated the money. But he realises that they will sometime rise against him, and he has made all arrangements for a hurried departure.

The scene opens in a spacious audience chamber, bare of all furniture except a bright scarlet wooden throne. Through archways can be seen an unclouded sky of intense blue. This setting is very simple and very good. After an unnecessary scene between a negress and a white-livered, shiftless, aitchless Cockney trader who acts as chorus to the play, Emperor Jones appears. There follows a wellwritten scene of great interest. As the huge negro talks to the comic and sickly representative of Europe, we hear the necessary antecedent facts at the same time as we learn to appreciate the vigour of the negro. He boasts and swaggers, but O’Neill makes us believe that he has something to boast about. The trader tells Jones that his game is up, that the rebellion has started. Jones, incredulous, clangs the attendance bell. No one comes. After a moment of anger he accepts the situation, and decides ‘‘to resign de job of Emperor right dis minute.’’ It is late afternoon, and a tropical sun burns hotly. He will have to reach the edge of the great forest by running over the plain, before evening. After resting, and eating the food he has buried there in readiness, he is going to run all night through the forest to the coast. And as he boasts to the Cockney of his cunning foresight, there comes from the distant hills the low vibrant throb of the tom-tom. It is the ‘‘trash’’ niggers weaving spells to aid them in their attack. It brings a moment’s breath of fear to the superstitious negro in Jones. But he waves the fear away, and starts his flight from the palace, grandiloquently, through ‘‘the front door.’’

The rest of the play consists of seven very short scenes, in which we see Jones in various parts of the forest. Physically exhausted by hunger, mentally harassed by fear of the ghostly visions which appear every time he rests, he loses his way. Each vision disappears when he shoots, but every time be shoots he remembers that he has only six bullets and that he is also indicating his position. Throughout these scenes sounds the gradually accelerating thump of the tom-tom, which also quickens at each ghostly appearance, giving us out loud, as it were, the negro’s heart-beats quickened by fear. The last scene is at the edge of the forest. Some natives are there, one frantically beating the tom-tom, the others armed with rifles. The Cockney is also there. ‘‘Ain’t yer goin’ in an’ ’unt ’im in the woods?’’ he asks. ‘‘We cotch him,’’ answers the chief. There is a sound of snapping twigs. The natives shoot. The dead body of Brutus Jones is dragged in. By losing his way he had run in a circle, and he comes out of the forest where he went in.

All this reads much better than it acts. Indeed, the scenes in the wood are scarcely dramatic, and being almost repetitions of each other certainly do not create a crescendo of interest. Besides, ghosts and supernatural visions are hardly ever successful in the theatre. Shakespeare is the only dramatist who has dared to bring on a ghost three times in one play. He managed, it is true, to make the third visitation more effective than the first, but there are few dramatists who could do likewise. The first act of The Emperor Jones is good, and could almost stand by itself. The rest of the play is a monologue in a series of anticlimaxes. The author has found a good theme; but the play will never be a famous one because there are so many plays with good ideas spoilt by wrong treatment. It is worth seeing, if only for the first act; but mainly you ought to see it because of Mr. Paul Robeson in the leading part. I have nothing but admiration for his performance. Where the author was good he was magnificent. He failed, I think, only in those pitfalls of the author’s which only a personality of the greatest magnetism could have o’erleaped. Mr. Robeson’s voice, intelligence, physique, and sense of the stage immediately made me want to see him in Othello.

Of those readers who see this play many, I hope, will agree that the theory that O’Neill is a oneact dramatist holds good in Emperor Jones as in Diff’rent. And that in any case a series of monologues on a theme of fear hardly passes beyond the limits of contemporary drama. What are most plays written round a ‘‘star’’ actor but monologues on that well-known theme, the capabilities of that particular ‘‘star’’? But it is unfortunate for the theory that O’Neill is a good one-act dramatist that the curtainraiser should have been The Long Voyage Home. For in this piece is exposed to view the simple and conventional mind of the author, who at first sight surprises us by the unusualness of his characters, and his literal transcription of their language, but who is soon found to be developing them so conventionally that we know exactly what they will do and say next. So that although he ‘‘piles on the agony,’’ letting us know that the quiet, simple sailor about to be drugged, robbed, and put on to an outgoing ship, has all the virtues, that he has been saving up for two years to buy a farm, and that his aged mother is waiting for him, we are not very interested in him, and watch him being drugged, robbed and carried off without emotion. As in other plays and books of this kind, to use Wilde’s perfect phrase: it is the suspense of the author which becomes unbearable.

Source: John Shand, review of The Emperor Jones in the New Statesman, Vol. XXV, no. 647, September 19, 1925, pp. 628–29.


Critical Overview