Eugene O'Neill Eugene O'Neill Drama Analysis
by Eugene O’Neill

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Eugene O'Neill Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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Eugene O’Neill has often been criticized for his choice of characters, for their aberrant psychologies, and for their emotionalism. Certainly he dealt with emotions, but he did so because he believed that emotions were a better guide than thoughts in the search for truth. The struggles of his characters frequently take place, therefore, within themselves, so that there is little real action performed on the stage. Victories, consequently, are in the mind, not quantifiable. The ephemeral nature of such victories has been, for some critics, insufficient.

The popularity of O’Neill’s work, however, continues to grow. His plays have been performed throughout the world and transformed into film and opera because they concern truths of human existence. For O’Neill, life is a tragedy—but human beings have the resources with which to confront it. The dramatic presentation of that struggle was O’Neill’s lifework.

The Emperor Jones

Although O’Neill was fortunate in having several of his earliest plays produced, his first real success was The Emperor Jones, produced by the Provincetown Players in 1920. The play was an immense success for the small theater, for O’Neill, and for Charles Gilpin, who performed as America’s first black tragic hero in a role later played by Paul Robeson. Devoted to the final hours in the life of Brutus Jones, a former convict who, in the course of two years, comes to be emperor of an island in the West Indies, O’Neill’s expressionist play won immediate acclaim, both popular and critical.

The form of the play is particularly interesting, for it is composed essentially of one act with eight scenes. The six interior monologue scenes take place in the forest and in Jones’s mind and are peopled by the ghosts and phantoms that plague Jones. These six scenes are enveloped by opening and closing scenes that occur outside the forest and that present real characters. The movement of the play is thus a journey from the civilized world into the primitive world of the forest and of the mind, and a journey for Jones to self-knowledge and to death.

The play’s expository opening scene reveals that Jones, who arrived on the island two years earlier as a stowaway and who has come to rule the island, has exploited the natives; has enriched himself by manipulation, thievery, and cruel taxation; and has, as a consequence, become so hated that the natives have withdrawn into the hills to stage a revolution. Jones believes, however, that he is prepared for all possibilities: Should he need to escape suddenly, he has hidden food and has learned the paths of the forest. He has also removed vast amounts of money from the island to a safe place. As he explains, he has learned from white people to steal big, and he proudly asserts that he makes his own good luck by using his brain. Jones has, moreover, created among the islanders a mystique and a mythology for himself; distancing himself completely from the natives, whom he terms “bush niggers” and to whom he feels vastly superior, Jones has propagated the myth that he is magically protected from lead bullets and can be killed only by one of silver. Furthermore, having made for himself a silver bullet that he carries as the sixth in his gun, he has spread the companion tale that he is invulnerable to native assaults because he is the only man big enough to kill himself. Having learned that the natives are rebelling, he congratulates himself on his precautions, boasts about how easy it is to outwit them, and makes his way to the forest through which he must go that night in order to meet the boat that will take him to safety.

When, in the second scene, Jones reaches the edge of the forest, the audience begins to see some of O’Neill’s experimental techniques. The edge of the forest, O’Neill tells the audience, is a “wall of darkness dividing the world,” a point at which Jones begins to understand the uselessness of his precautions: He cannot find his store of...

(The entire section is 5,287 words.)