Text: Eugene O’Neill, Early Plays, edited by Jeffrey H. Richards; New York: Penguin Books, 2001, pp. 265-292.
Race, power, greed, and empire are the central themes of Eugene O’Neill’s first great Expressionist play and perhaps the first great American play The Emperor Jones (O’Neill characterized it as a tragedy), which premiered at the Provincetown Playhouse under the direction of George Cram Cook on November 1, 1920, with Charles Gilpin in the lead role. A month later the production headed north to Broadway, where it found a home at the Selwyn and Princess Theatres.
Whether or not one agrees with Travis Bogard’s assessment of The Emperor Jones that “Not only the literate American drama, but the American theatre came of age with this play,” it suggested the thematic contours of a native American drama which remain with us today. The play was a landmark in several other ways as well, not least in its featuring a person of color in a lead role in a serious American play on Broadway for the first time. As its themes suggest, this may have been the first explicitly political American play (“The action of the play takes place on an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White Marines,” O’Neill writes in a headnote), but its expressionist mode permits it to seek the universal in the local, the metaphysical in the real. Its aesthetic and political radicalism has guaranteed its continuing relevance; it is still frequently revived.
Brutus Jones is a former Pullman Porter who, after a murder and a prison escape, has lucked his way into the leadership of a small West Indian island; he then, with the help of a Cockney trader, seeks to plunder the island and its inhabitants for all they’re worth. “Ain’t I the Emperor? De laws don’t go for him,” he tells Smithers in the play’s first scene:
Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. If day’s one thing I learns in ten years on the Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.
As Jones lucks into his position, America has lucked into its position as a colonialist empire-builder; and like America, Jones has developed a sense of immunity from harm. As he seeks to escape from the island’s rebel forces, he plunges deep into a forest that separates him from a French gunboat on the island’s coastline. There he experiences a Conradian journey into a heart of human darkness; progressing through the forest, he regresses through his personal and racial history, through the murders he committed through the experience of slavery through the journey in a slaveship from Africa to America and finally to the nameless metaphysical fear that haunts the human race. By the end of the play, he has come full circle — when the rebels search for him, they find him not far from where he’d entered the forest the night before.
This is certainly among the most abstract and theatrical of O’Neill’s plays, and among the least literary: scenography, costume, music, and dumbshow bear just as heavy a narrative and expressive burden as the language (in his path through the forest, Jones gradually loses his ceremonial, ostentatious uniform — the symbol of his power and pride — as he progresses through the past, for example). But in marrying an expressionist dramaturgy which seeks universals in the particular case to the American political and social issue of race, O’Neill tempted and arguably succumbed to a form of condescending racial essentialism not unlike the risks that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin invited. “To be mounted today,” Jeffrey Richards writes, “the play would … need to be staged in such a way that audiences did not interpret Jones’s behavior as racially essentialist.” He continues:
This could be done by stressing the reverse history of Africans in America that the middle scenes provide. Brutus Jones envisions not only his own violent history but the history of violence against his ancestors. In those scenes, O’Neill shows awareness that Jones’s behavior is as much culturally conditioned as it is the product of some atavistic yearning for or fear of the jungle. … Obviously informed by Jung’s concept of racial memory, Emperor Jones both reaches for a new expression of psychological torment and exploits comfortable (to whites) if demeaning (to blacks) stereotypes of the theater. As a play, it brings new resonances to the theater, but all too painfully carries in its belly the carcass of a discarded and hurtful concept of race. (xxxix)
Indeed, Charles Gilpin, who created the role of Brutus Jones in the first production, recognized the smell of this carcass. When he began to object to the depiction of black Americans in the play and especially the use of the epithet “nigger,” O’Neill had him replaced with Paul Robeson, with whom the role has been identified since.
The Emperor Jones has continued to stimulate debate about racial stereotyping in American theatre practice even as it has demonstrated its enduring relevance as the American empire itself decays, not least in Elizabeth LeCompte’s controversial Wooster Group production which starred Kate Valk (certainly one of the most memorable and accomplished Brutus Joneses of recent years). But America is engaged itself in a continuing journey to a heart of darkness which includes its own Civil War, its expansionist and mercantile ambitions of the early 20th century, Vietnam, Iraq and the Middle East; in the post-9/11 era, O’Neill’s plays retain their power as uniquely American dramatic expressions more than those of any other American playwright, even a hundred years after their premieres.
An online version of the text of The Emperor Jones can be found here, and other material of interest can be found here. For more on O’Neill’s position as an American political tragedian, read John Patrick Diggins’ fine Eugene O’Neill’s America: Desire Under Democracy. I wrote about O’Neill’s first tentative attempts at an expressionist form in Beyond the Horizon here.