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Character Analysis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

SMITHERS, Henry. The Cockney trader, "a tall, stoop-shouldered man of about forty," bald, with a long neck and a large Adam's apple. His dress is that commonly associated with colonial oppressors. His pasty-yellow face and rum-reddened nose are set off by his dirty white drill riding suit, puttees, spurs, and pith helmet. He wears a cartridge belt and an automatic revolver around his waist. He carries a riding whip. His eyes are pale blue, red-rimmed and ferretty. He is unscrupulous, mean, "cowardly and dangerous." He took in Brutus Jones when the latter landed on the island, hiring him despite his gaol record, or perhaps because of it since Jones accuses Smithers of having once been in prison, an accusation he vehemently denies. Basically he is an expository device in the play, serving to introduce information and at the end delivers the epitaph on Jones, for whom he has some curious respect. Smithers sees Jones as a more advanced person than the natives of the island, represented by Lem.

JONES, Brutus. He is the main character. "A tall, powerfully built negro of middle age. His features are typically negroid, yet there is . . . an underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect." He has an air of intelligence, yet at the same time he is "shrewd, suspicious, evasive." He wears a somewhat garish uniform of a pale blue coat, "sprayed with buttons" and covered with gold braid, and red trousers, with a light blue stripe at the side; he sports patent leather boots with spurs, and carries a pearl-handled revolver in his belt. Nonetheless, he still projects an air of dignity rather than the merely ridiculous.

Brutus Jones had arrived on this unnamed island two years ago as a stowaway, fleeing from the consequences of having killed a prison guard with a shovel during road work while serving time for killing a fellow Pullman porter, Jeff, in a gambling dispute. Helped along by Henry Smithers, Jones moves "from stowaway to Emperor in two years." At the beginning of the play he is supremely self-confident, making sure that Smithers realizes who is in charge and suggesting that the white man has himself been in prison, an allegation the cockney trader denies. Smithers offers a shock to this confidence by revealing that Lem, a native chief who had previously tried to have Jones killed, is plotting a revolution in the hills. Jones, however, has nothing but contempt for his subjects, whom he calls "low-flung bush niggers," and he has played on their superstition by claiming that he can be killed only by a silver bullet. He has even had one made and tells his simple subjects that he will kill himself when the time comes, " `cause I'm de on'y man in de world big enuff to git me. No use deir tryin.' " Jones, however, underestimates the cunning of Lem, who melts down coins and makes some silver bullets, one of which finally kills Jones. This is only the skeleton of Jones's character which is gradually revealed throughout the course of this expressionistic monodrama.

After hearing Smithers's warning, Jones hears a tom-tom in the distant hills beating at seventy-two per minute, the "normal pulse beat," a drumming that will continue with accelerating beat and increasing volume without interruption throughout the play. He then decides it is time to put his plan of escape into effect, and to Smithers's rather "puzzled admiration," he leaves by the front door as the Emperor Jones, conscious of his own intellectual superiority and sure of his ability to outwit the forest. However, he is wrong, and the next six scenes of the eight-scene play demonstrate the decline of Brutus Jones from self-sufficient ruler who had easily put away his Baptist religion and laid "Jesus on de shelf" into a panic-stricken, almost naked creature calling, "Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer!" In the course of those scenes, Jones is driven almost mad by the obsessive and incessant drumming which has pursued him through reenactment of his own crimes and the history of the black race in the United States. First, Jones confronts the ghost of Jeff, the Pullman porter he had murdered with a razor, and fires his first bullet at him. Next, in another part of the forest, he reenacts the killing of the prison guard and disperses this image with another shot. His own personal history then goes back into the collective unconscious of the black race following the theories of C. G. Jung, in which O'Neill was then interested, and Jones is placed on the auction block and bid for by a planter. In terror and rage, Jones asserts his rights as "a free nigger" and shoots both the auctioneer and the planter. His clothing reduced now to little more than a breech cloth, and maddened by the drumming, Jones, with only a single silver bullet left, reenacts the horrifying experience of the slave ship.

Finally, he finds himself on the banks of the Congo, almost naked, before a low stone altar. Feeling that he has been in this sacred place before, he kneels fearfully before it, and the Congo Witch-Doctor comes to dance out a supplication to a malevolent deity who requires sacrifice. Jones, now hypnotized by the drumming and the dancing, sways with the Witch-Doctor, who indicates that Jones is to be the sacrifice to the dark god who comes up from the water in the form of a huge crocodile. Jones writhes toward the crocodile, which slowly advances toward him, as Jones calls not upon the gods of the Witch-Doctor, but upon that Baptist God, whom he had put aside in Scene i, yet repeatedly invoked against the forces of the supernatural. Finally, as he calls on Jesus, he remembers his revolver and the silver bullet. With that last shot the crocodile disappears, a deity of darkness vanquished by a silver bullet. In the next scene Jones himself is killed, also by a silver bullet, this one cast by Lem and his allies.

It is exceedingly easy to see this play as one which shows that Jones's thin veneer of civilized intelligence is quickly stripped away to reveal the true nature of the man, a creature of superstition and instinct rather than reason. Yet it is also a parable of a different nature, because Jones as a character has shown also the falseness of modern civilization. From the "white quality" he met on the Pullmans, then a high-status unionized job for blacks, he has learned how to survive in modern society, by crime and by exploiting others lower than himself. He has adopted the "new" God of Christianity, whom he will quickly put aside when He becomes inconvenient. However, Jones is not a complete member of modern society, as the garish furnishings of his throne room and the faintly ridiculous nature of his uniform indicate. In the play he is taken back to his very roots, and the Witch-Doctor leads him toward a submission to the dark gods of his racial unconscious. But unlike Yank in The Hairy Ape, Jones does not choose to "belong" in this environment and calls upon his new God for aid. But the crocodile god will nonetheless be revenged; the forces of darkness will not be denied. Hence it is fitting that Jones also dies by a silver bullet.

Notable performances of this exceedingly difficult role were by Charles Gilpin, the creator of the role, and later by Paul Robeson in the 1924 New York revival and in London in 1925. Robeson also performed the role in a film adaptation.

LEM, A native chief, a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth." He leads the opposition to Brutus Jones, even deputing someone to kill the emperor. As a result of a misfire, Jones kills his would-be assassin and proclaims that he could only he harmed by a silver bullet. Lem, whom O'Neill does not consider intelligent, believes this piece of superstition and manages to manufacture silver bullets of his own by melting down coins. It is with one of these that Jones is killed. As emperor, Jones had contempt for the "low flung bush niggers," yet they manage to kill him.

 

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