Places Discussed

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Island. The play unfolds on a small, unnamed island in the West Indies that provides O’Neill with an appropriate microcosm for his drama that depicts the primitive forces that close in on a domesticated, avaricious African American. The island bears a loose resemblance to the West Indian nation of Haiti, which had a long and chaotic political history after black slaves wrenched control of the western end of Hispaniola away from France in the early nineteenth century. Like O’Neill’s Brutus Jones, Haiti’s first rulers styled themselves “emperors.”

Jones’s palace

Jones’s palace. The play opens in the lavish palace building of the unnamed island nation, where Jones, an escaped convict and former Pullman porter from the United States, lives. With the help of his Cockney sidekick, Smithers, he rules the island as its “emperor.” Jones and Smithers have tricked the superstitious islanders into thinking that Jones has magical powers and cannot be hurt, except by a silver bullet. Jones keeps one to use on himself if suicide becomes necessary. Having extorted money and services from the impoverished islanders, Jones lives opulently.

Great forest

Great forest. The last six scenes of the play occur at night in the great forest that surrounds the palace. Within this forest, Jones—who is running around in circles—is visited by the apparitions of people whom he has killed or cheated. His past returns to haunt him. Meanwhile, the beating of tom-toms is pervasive, beginning at seventy-two beats a minute, the rate of the human heart, and accelerating as Jones’s terror increases.

The play’s dark and forbidding jungle scenes contrast with the palace scene. O’Neill uses the forest locale and the darkness to highlight Jones’s isolation and desperation. In the final scene, dawn breaks. As angry islanders advance on the deposed emperor, a shot rings out and Jones falls. Lem, the local ruler whom Jones overthrew, explains that the islanders spent the entire night fashioning a silver bullet.

Slave ship

Slave ship. Imaginary vessel that appears in Jones’s hallucination in scene five. To demonstrate his mental deterioration, Jones imagines that he is a slave being auctioned off at a slave sale. In the following scene, wearing only a breech cloth, Jones huddles in the hold of a crowded ship surrounded by shadowy figures, presumably slaves who have been snatched from their homes and are being transported to a market. His groans and cries fill the theater as the light fades. As the hallucination ends, Jones scrambles off into the underbrush of the great consuming forest.


Altar. Structure before which the exhausted, disoriented Jones sinks in scene seven and experiences another hallucination. He imagines that a witch doctor from the Congo appears and does a macabre ritualistic dance, making Jones realize that he is to be sacrificed upon the altar, the symbol of an authority greater than his.

Historical Context

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Expressionism Expressionism is a term used for an artistic movement that initially appeared in painting, as a reaction to Impressionism, near the beginning of the twentieth century. Eventually the term came to be applied to literary forms, including drama, where it served as a reaction against Realism. Expressionism was strongest in drama in the early-1920s.

Basically, Expressionism is an attempt to objectify inner experience, to express the reality of the inner self rather than to copy external reality. Expressionism is most often concerned with representing states of human consciousness and exploring the psychology of complex feelings. Often, the emphasis is on intense and rapidly changing emotional states, since these are considered more interesting than states of...

(This entire section contains 911 words.)

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serenity and calm. In the latenineteenth and early-twentieth century, the famous Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had revolutionized the conception of humanity by introducing the world to the complexities of the subconscious mind. In the twentieth century many artists felt compelled to explore and accurately describe these complexities.

In theatre, expressionism appeared very prominently in the work of Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, whose A Dream Play (1902) and The Ghost Sonata (1907) explored intense feelings of human pain and disappointment. Filled with free association and fantasy, these plays seriously challenged conventional stagecraft with their multitude of characters, shifting scenes, and bizarre settings. Expressionism was even more widely represented by German playwrights like Frank Wedekind, Ernst Toller, and Georg Kaiser, in plays like Spring’s Awakening (1891), Man As the Masses (1921), and From Morn to Midnight (1916).

O’Neill’s experimentations with Expressionism were mostly influenced by Strindberg, and in The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape (1922) O’Neill is trying to find dramatic means to express the working of the subconscious mind. Perhaps the easiest places to see this are in O’Neill’s use of the drumbeat to indicate Jones’s heartbeat and in his dramatization of Jones’s ‘‘little formless fears.’’ O’Neill also objectifies Jones’s obsessive memories in the visions of Jeff and the prison experience. But perhaps the most powerful of O’Neill’s dramatizations comes when he shows Jones’s mind coming to grips with racial memories. Deep in the recesses of Jones’s mind he relives black history, the culmination of which leaves him defenseless in the dark forest. From dramatizing fear as a state of mind to capturing the tormented soul of a race, The Emperor Jones earns its title as one of the stage’s successful experiments with expressionistic technique.

By the middle-1920s expressionism in the theatre was losing its immediate impact, but the longlasting effects helped to liberate many generations of artists. Freed from the boundaries of realism, playwrights like Luigi Pirandello (Six Characters in Search of an Author), Bertolt Brecht (Mother Cour age and Her Children), Thornton Wilder (Our Town), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Eugene Ionesco (The Chairs), and Jean Genet (The Balcony) enjoyed a significantly broadened range of dramatic subject matter and technique. Even a play as nominally realistic as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman shows the influence of Expressionism. Miller’s play attempts to dramatize the internal workings of protagonist Willy Loman’s mind (the original title of Miller’s play was ‘‘The Inside of His Head’’).

Novelists as diverse as Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), Franz Kafka (The Trial), James Joyce (Ulysses), William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five), and Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow) show the influence of Expressionism, as do poets like T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Allen Ginsberg. Early films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) were clearly experiments in Expressionistic techniques, and echoes of the influence can be found in the work of later filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal), Federico Fellini (Satyricon), and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point).

The Harlem Renaissance The year 1920 represents the early stages of an important cultural movement in America called the Harlem Renaissance. During the 1920s, an extraordinary number of African American poets, essayists, and novelists suddenly appeared, and their work constituted both a literary and social movement, gaining recognition and respect for black writers while at the same time increasing racial pride among blacks and awareness of black culture among whites. Journals like Crisis, and Opportunity published many of these new works, and influential editors like W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles S. Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson demonstrated that black writers were making genuine contributions to American literary culture. Other black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, have become highly visible figures in the history of twentieth-century American literature.

O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was related to the Harlem Renaissance because it helped to stimulate an increased interest in African-American life. Other white playwrights like Paul Green and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward wrote of African-American life, as in the Heyward’s Porgy (1927), which eventually spawned the still popular folk opera, Porgy and Bess (1935). Ironically, the strength of the Harlem Renaissance destroyed a vital Harlem theatre movement in the 1920s because interest in black stories led to such an array of Broadway musicals dealing with black subjects in the first half of the decade that indigenous Harlem theatre lost much of its audience base.

Later generations of black writers, including Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and many others owed much of their success to the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Literary Style

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Exposition The Emperor Jones is a one-act play in eight scenes. The first and last scenes contain several characters and employ a realistic style while the six scenes in the middle are an expressionistic monologue chroncling Jones’s nightmarish trip through the forest. This middle section is the main part of the play and focuses as much on light, sound, and setting as on Jones’s spoken words. The first and last scenes of the play, then, serve as a framing device, first setting up and then resolving Jones’s night in the forest. However, the first scene of the play is vastly different not only from the middle scenes but also from its companion, frame scene at the end of the play. For it is in this opening scene that O’Neill must provide all of the ‘‘exposition’’ for the play.

‘‘Exposition’’ is the term used for that part of a play that must give the audience the necessary background information for the main action. It is a very demanding aspect of the playwright’s craft and can be performed expertly or inexpertly, depending on whether or not the information is woven subtly into the dramatic flow of the initial action. The Emperor Jones focuses on the last twenty-four hours in the life of Brutus Jones, but in the first scene O’Neill must inform the audience of Jones’s past—that he is a non-native black man from America, that he has only been on the island for two years, and that in his former life he was a train car worker who killed a friend in a craps game, went to prison, and then killed a white guard in order to escape. O’Neill must also indicate that Jones’s quick rise to ‘‘emperor’’ included a period where he served Smithers as an associate and survived an assassin’s bullet. All of this and more must be indicated quickly and efficiently in order to effectively set up the middle scenes and Jones’s experience in the forest.

At times in this first scene, O’Neill is not very subtle or clever as he reveals Jones’s background. For example, Smithers says, ‘‘I wasn’t afraid to hire yer like the rest was—’count of the story about your breakin’ jail back in the States.’’ At other times, however, O’Neill delivers this exposition very adroitly, as when he reveals much of Jones’s background in a single speech. Jones is responding to Smithers’s skepticism about his claim that he killed a white man in the United States when he says:

Maybe I goes to jail dere for gettin’ in an argument wid razors ovah a crap game. Maybe I gits twenty years when dat colored man die. Maybe I gits in ’nother argument wid de prison guard who was overseer ovah us when we’re walkin’ de roads. Maybe he hits me wid a whip an’ I splits his head wid a shovel an’ runs away an’ files de chain off my leg an’ gits away safe. Maybe I does all dat an’ maybe I don’t. It’s a story I tells you so’s you knows I’se de kind of man dat if you evah repeats one word of it, I ends yo’ stealin’ on dis yearth mighty damn quick!

With the simple addition of the single, repeated word, ‘‘maybe,’’ O’Neill conveys much of the necessary background while at the same time suggesting that the information might be false, thus creating an air of mystery about this ‘‘emperor.’’

Of special interest in regard to the exposition in The Emperor Jones is that the 1933 movie version of the play drastically expanded O’Neill’s script by fully dramatizing this background information. The movie added scenes in America and on the island that showed the entire process whereby Jones proceeded to his fateful last day. Thus, over half of the movie is an elaboration of the exposition that O’Neill provided so briefly in the play’s first scene.

Symbolism Jones’s night in the forest is a symbolic journey that represents not only his process of personal selfT destruction but also a confrontation with his racial past. Once he gets to the island, Jones tries to deny what he has been in order to imitate the successful white men he once served on the train in America. Like his former white oppressors, Jones wants to dominate and be all-powerful, treating other people like inferior ‘‘trash’’ and exploiting them for personal gain. In overcompensating excess, however,

Jones tries to set himself apart from all other human beings, only to discover during his nightmare journey that he cannot escape his connection with other people or even with his repressed inner life.

The first scenes in the forest show Jones confronting his personal past—his killing of Jeff, his time in prison, and his lethal attack on the prison guard. After reliving these personal experiences, Jones begins to confront the history of his race. He re-enacts the experience of his ancestors coming to America in slave ships and being sold at auction like property. Then he goes even deeper into his racial past and confronts the primitive witch doctor who claims him as a sacrifice for the crocodile god. Jones’s trip through the forest, then, becomes a trip back through time, perhaps even an expiation for his attempted denial of self as a member of the black race.

And the symbolism culminates in the strange figure of the crocodile god, which is the most evocative and puzzling symbol in the play. As the climax of Jones’s journey, the crocodile might be seen as a symbol of Jones’s primitive self or as a symbol of evil—either the evil of Jones or of humanity in general; perhaps it represents the pagan, non-Christian response to the world; perhaps it is a symbol of Jones’s inner being, which he can’t accept. Any number of interpretations can be made of this figure whose presence brings Jones to his final destruction.

Compare and Contrast

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1920: The African American population in the United States is about 10.5 million, or nearly 10% of the American population. The average life expectancy for African American males is 45.5 years, compared to 54.4 for whites. For females the comparable figures are 45.2 and 55.6.

Today: The African American population in the United States is about 32 million, or nearly 12% of the American population. The average life expectancy for African American males is 67.5 years, compared to about 73.4 for whites. For females the comparable figures are 75.8 and 79.6.

1920: After race riots break out in twenty-six U.S. cities in 1919, the recently rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan experiences tremendous growth in 1920, expanding to 100,000 members in twenty-seven states. According to Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday, the Klan will mushroom to 4.5 million by 1924. There are sixty-one documented lynchings of African Americans in 1920.

Today: Klanwatch is an organization founded in 1980 to monitor residual Klan terrorism. In 1986, they estimated that there were only six to seven thousand active Klan members in the United States. In 1998, police and hate-group watchers in South Carolina estimated they had only two state Klan groups with fewer than fifty members, diminished from four groups of several hundred in the early-1990s. However, over the years the Klan has been joined by a hundreds of other hate groups. One group, the Skinheads, numbered about 3,500 members in the early-1990s and were considered by many to be a greater racist threat than the Klan.

1920: Though proposals are defeated for regular cooperation between white and black labor leaders, the national convention of the American Federation of Labor (the AFL) officially opposes discrimination and votes in support of the unionization of blacks. The Brotherhood of Railroad Clerks is asked to change their ‘‘whites only’’ membership policy. The Brotherhood of Dining Car Employees is organized on a national basis.

Today: The AFL-CIO is the most powerful labor organization in the United States. The merger of the AFL with the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1955 brought both skilled and unskilled or semi-skilled workers together. Under the leadership of its president, George Meany, the AFL-CIO became completely integrated and openly supported civil rights initiatives in the 1960s.

1920: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—founded in 1909 by an interracial group—makes James Weldon Johnson the Secretary and the first African-American on the national board. The original organization, though headed by W. E. B. DuBois, was predominantly white.

Today: The NAACP remains one of the preeminent organizations attempting to assure black Americans their constitutional rights. Considered a radical organization in 1920, the NAACP is now considered much less radical than other civil rights groups born in the 1960s and 70s. Focusing mainly on litigation, legislation, and education, the NAACP has won numerous victories for civil rights in the federal courts, including the landmark legislation ending school segregation in 1954.

Media Adaptations

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The Emperor Jones was adapted as a full-length feature film in 1933 and starred Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones and Dudley Digges as Smithers. The screenplay adaptation for this black and white, seventy-two-minute film was written by Du Bose Heyward and directed by Dudley Murphy for United Artists. In 1980 the film was released on videocassette by Hollywood Home Theatre. In 1993, Janus Films joined Voyager Press to issue the 1933 film coupled with a thirtyminute documentary of Paul Robeson’s life taken from the Janus Film Collection and originally released in 1980. The documentary, in color, is narrated by actor Sidney Poitier.

In 1933, an operatic version of the play had its World Premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. The composer and librettist was Louis Gruenberg, the conductor Tullio Serafin. The set was designed by Jo Mielziner, and the role of Brutus Jones was sung by baritone Lawrence Tibbett. The opera followed O’Neill’s script faithfully except for the omission of the final scene and the changing of Jones’s death to suicide (using his last silver bullet on himself). O’Neill approved the changes. As a result of the orchestration, the drum-beat was less effective.

In 1971, Everett and Edwards released a thirtytwo- minute audiocassette lecture on the play as part of their Modern Drama Cassette Curriculum Series. The lecturer is Jordan Yale Miller. In 1976, Everett and Edwards released a thirty-sixminute audiocassette lecture on the play as part of their World Literature Cassette Curriculum Series. The lecturer is Howard F. Stein.

In 1974, Jeffrey Norton Publishers released a fifty-five-minute audiocassette interview between Heywood Hale Broun and O’Neill biographer Louis Sheaffer as part of the Jeffrey Norton Publishers Avid Readers in the Arts tape library.

In 1975, Educational Dimensions Corporation released an eighteen-minute audiovisual filmstrip that examines and analyzes O’Neill’s play.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bowen, Croswell. The Curse of the Misbegotten, McGraw- Hill, 1959, p. 132.

Broun, Heywood. Review of The Emperor Jones in the New York Tribune, November 4, 1920, reprinted in O’Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism, edited by Oscar Cargill, New York University Press, 1961, pp. 144-46.

Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension, Rutgers University Press, 1958, pp. 67-68.

Gassner, John. ‘‘Introduction’’ in O’Neill: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Gassner, Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 2, 4.

Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill, Harper, 1960, p. 444.

O’Neill, Eugene. Interview with Charles P. Sweeney in the New York World, November 9, 1924, p. 5M, reprinted in Conversations with Eugene O’Neill, edited by Mark W.

Estrin, University Press of Mississippi, 1990, pp. 57-58. Tiusanen, Timo. O’Neill’s Scenic Images, Princeton, 1968, pp. 104, 106, 338.

Woollcott, Alexander. ‘‘The Emperor Jones’’ in the New York Times, December 28, 1920, sec. 9, p. 1.

Woollcott, Alexander. ‘‘The New O’Neill Play’’ in the New York Times, November 7, 1920, sec 1, p. 1.

Further Reading Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties, Blue Ribbon Books, 1931. One of the classic accounts of the ‘‘roaring twenties,’’ this very readable book discusses everything from daily life to the great stock market crash in 1929.

Deutsch, Helen, and Hanau, Stella. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre, Farrar and Rinehart, 1931. A history of the Provincetown Players with a chapter focusing on the production of The Emperor Jones. Appendices include reproductions of the company’s theatre programs from 1916 to 1929.

Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971. A basic treatment of this important movement in American literary history.

Miller, Jordan Y. Eugene O’Neill and the American Critic: A Bibliographical Checklist, Archon Books, 1973. A reference book that lists detailed publication and production data for all of O’Neill’s plays along with an annotated list of contemporary reviews of these productions.

Pfister, Joel. Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse, University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Despite its foreboding title, a very readable book with an unusually detailed multi-disciplinary slant on O’Neill and the times in which he wrote.

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. The Eugene O’Neill Companion, Greenwood Press, 1984. This encyclopedia dedicated to O’Neill has entries for plays, characters, and important individuals and organizations in O’Neill’s life and much more. Contains several valuable appendices.

Sheaffer, Louis. O’Neill: Son and Playwright, Paragon House, 1968, and O’Neill: Son and Artist, Little, Brown, 1973. These two-volumes constitute the best of the many biographies of O’Neill.

Turnqvist, Egil. A Drama of Souls: Studies in O’Neill’s Super-naturalistic Technique, Yale, 1969. A very close reading of the plays, giving special attention to theatrical effects.

Wainscott, Ronald H. Staging O’Neill, Yale, 1988. Includes an unusually detailed chapter focusing on the theatrical elements of The Emperor Jones.


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Bogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Bogard’s study of O’Neill’s plays revolves around his assertion that O’Neill’s experiments with theatrical devices were part of his attempt to create theater from his quest for identity. The section on The Emperor Jones compares the play to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867).

Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958. A study of O’Neill’s plays with emphasis on the psychoanalytic theories of depth psychology, noting the influence of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious on The Emperor Jones.

Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. This study for general readers features analyses of fifty plays, supplemented with information from O’Neill’s notebooks. The section on The Emperor Jones discusses O’Neill’s use of expressionism, noting similarities to August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1907). Floyd considers this a “landmark drama” for the American stage, with its first use of an African American actor in a leading role in New York theater.

Frenz, Horst. Eugene O’Neill. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971. Provides an assessment of the man whose experiments transformed American drama. In his analysis of The Emperor Jones as one of O’Neill’s expressionist experiments, Frenz compares the play to Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight (1917).

Martine, James J., ed. Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Two essays in this collection are of interest to students of The Emperor Jones. Frank R. Cunningham’s “Romantic Elements in Early O’Neill” views Jones as one of O’Neill’s failed romantics. Lisa M. Swerdt’s “Blueprint for the Future” examines the play as a seminal work, introducing themes that O’Neill would develop more fully in later plays.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide