Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
Race and Racism
The Emperor Jones examines race and racism on a number of levels. Most simply, it calls attention to the racial oppression that actually existed in America in 1920. In Scene I, Smithers expresses skepticism over Jones’s claim that he killed a white man before coming to the island: ‘‘from what I’ve ’eard, it ain’t ’ealthy for a black to kill a white man in the States. They burn ’em in oil, don’t they?’’ And though Smithers is an Englishman, he clearly represents racist attitudes that were present in O’Neill’s contemporary society. At times Smithers reveals his racism somewhat subtly, as in the opening moments of the play when he assumes that the peasant woman sneaking through the throne room must have been ‘‘stealin’ a bit.’’ At other times, Smithers is much less subtle, as when he delivers the vicious curtain line at the end of the play, dismissing all dark-skinned people as ‘‘Stupid as ’ogs, the lot of ’em! Blarsted niggers!’’
And as Jones re-enacts in the forest the horrors of the slave trade that brought Africans to America, O’Neill’s implication is that Jones is also a victim of American racism. However, at this point O’Neill takes the racism theme to another level of complexity: he reveals that Jones himself has become a racist on this distant isle. After he becomes ‘‘emperor,’’ Jones thinks of himself as being separate from and superior to the natives of the island, whom he characterizes as ‘‘de low-flung bush niggers,’’ ‘‘dese fool woods’ niggers,’’ and ‘‘black trash.’’ He sees himself as civilized, and he is contemptuous of ‘‘dis raggedy country.’’ In Scene IV, as he is recovering from his vision of Jeff, Jones says to himself, ‘‘Is yo’ civilized, or is yo’ like dese ign’rent black niggers, heah?’’ And Jones is also contemptuously racist toward Smithers: ‘‘Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I’m boss heah now, is you forgettin’?’’ The suggestion that O’Neill seems to be making is that anyone who succumbs to the temptations of power is susceptible to racism, even those who themselves have so poignantly suffered from it.
But the most extraordinary feature of this theme is that even as O’Neill is attempting to expose the horrors of racism he seems himself to be guilty of it to some extent. His representation of the black dialect throughout the play, though an attempt to capture a unique vocal quality, perpetuates linguistic stereotypes about black speakers. And in Scene IV, when Jones sees the gang of prison convicts, O’Neill says of Jones in his stage directions that ‘‘his eyes pop out,’’ relying on a stereotypical image of fear that is seldom applied to white characters. O’Neill’s characterization of Lem in the final scene is especially insensitive. He describes Lem as ‘‘a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth.’’ And Lem’s naive belief in the magic of the silver bullet is expressed in words that make him sound like a caricatured Native American Indian: ‘‘lead bullet no kill him. He got um strong charm. I took um money, make um silver bullet, make um strong charm, too. . . . Yes. Him got strong charm. Lead no good.’’ Charles Gilpin, the original actor playing Jones, was so sensitive to the implied racism of the play that as the production continued he changed many of the lines, refusing at times to use the frequently repeated word ‘‘nigger.’’ When United Artists made its 1933 movie version of the play they even cut Smithers’s last line, a clear concession to the play’s excessively vivid racism.
Change and Transformation
In addition to its treatment of racism, The Emperor Jones focuses on the disintegration of Brutus Jones and his transformation from an apparently self-confident human being to a whimpering shadow of his former self.
When Jones first appears in Scene I and reports on his past, it is clear that there has already been a great transformation for Jones: ‘‘from stowaway to Emperor in two years!’’ he says. He is proud of his transformation and appears to be confident in its durability. When Smithers challenges him, Jones menaces the white trader and says ‘‘No use’n you rakin’ up ole times. What I was den is one thing. What I is now’s another.’’ Jones defends himself against the charge that his transformation has been the result of luck, asserting instead that it has been the result of diligence, intelligence, quick thinking, and careful planning. He wants to be seen as a man in complete control, one whose transformation has put a former and inferior self far behind him. Expressing ‘‘real admiration’’ Smithers says, ‘‘Blimey, but you’re a cool bird, and no mistake.’’
But the opening scene reveals at the same time that Jones’s confidence in his transformation from oppressed black man to ‘‘emperor’’ of this small island is really quite shallow and fragile. Very subtle and early indications of Jones’s tenuous hold on his new status appear throughout Scene I in O’Neill’s stage directions. When Jones shows Smithers his silver bullet, Jones holds it in his hand and looks at it, ‘‘strangely fascinated,’’ as if he can’t quite believe in its power himself. And when Smithers dares him in the opening scene to ring his throne room bell and summon the natives, Jones is ‘‘startled to alertness but [preserves] the same careless tone.’’ He is ‘‘alarmed for a second’’ over Smithers’s news that all of the horses have been taken away by Lem and his men, but Jones is soon ‘‘shaking off his nervousness—with a confident laugh.’’ When the tom-tom is first heard, Jones ‘‘starts at the sound,’’ and ‘‘a strange look of apprehension creeps into his face for a moment as he listens.’’ Then he asks, ‘‘with an attempt to regain his most casual manner: What’s dat drum beatin’ fo’?’’ He is ‘‘a tiny bit awed and shaken in spite of himself;’’ his carelessness is ‘‘studied.’’
So, when Jones disintegrates so thoroughly during his night in the forest, it does not come as a total surprise. In Scene II he is already a man whistling past the graveyard. ‘‘With a chuckle’’ he says, ‘‘cheah up, nigger, der worst is yet to come,’’ and then ‘‘his chuckle peters out abruptly.’’ With the first serious reversal of fortunes, his inability to find his hidden food, Jones begins to crumble and his ‘‘little formless fears’’ appear. O’Neill is suggesting that confidence so manufactured and hollow often responds to reversals with a desperation that is deep and long-lasting.
At the end of the play Smithers says of Jones, ‘‘he’d lost ’imself,’’ and Jones is indeed a man in conflict with his past and the self he created to hide from it. The exalted position he claims for himself in order to obliterate that past has no real roots, and his inner self can’t match the postured self that he aspires to. In spite of his blustering behavior, it is clear in the opening scene that Jones’s status as ‘‘emperor’’ is fraudulent, and when this fiction gets sufficiently tested, Jones’s recently assumed status crumbles because he is not aware of the power of his own self-doubts. Only dimly aware of the conflict between his real self and his postured self, Jones is like the schoolyard bully who is unaware of his basic fears. When forced to his knees, there is no genuine strength to call forth in defense.