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Commentary
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

This play gave the Provincetown Players their first big hit, and it ironically led to their demise.  It attempts to probe the collective unconscious of the black race, following the principles of C. G. Jung, in whose theories O'Neill was then much interested.  Gradually the veneer of civilization is stripped from Jones as he falls from his high imperial estate, through reenactment of his crimes, of injustices perpetrated against blacks, to the primitive, instinctive, superstition of the Congo Witch-Doctor.  But there is more to this play than a simplistic racist statement showing the black man regressing to the jungle, for in some ways it looks ahead to The Hairy Ape, to Yank who crawls in with the ape, seeking in its fatal embrace a chance to belong.  Brutus Jones is forced to relive his own history and the history of his people and in so doing is ultimately forced to make a choice between accepting the old, dark gods or the new.  As he squirms toward the crocodile, he is about to accept his sacrificial fate, to accept himself as being at one with the old gods before whom he had instinctively knelt.  But instead of submitting to that sacrifice, Jones rejects the old god, calling upon that Christian Savior he had so flippantly dismissed in Scene i, and he uses his silver bullet to destroy the crocodile god, the god who had called him and whom he had refused. As it is with vampires, to too with this crocodile god. Two divergent interpretations are possible here: (1) that Jones, by refusing to accept the crocodile god, condemns himself to a spiritual as well as a physical death, for he has denied his own inner being; (2) Jones in this action has asserted his own will, and thus he is a symbol for modem man attempting to break the chains of history, though in reality he is forging new fetters. In either case, the crocodile god gets his revenge, and Jones dies by a silver bullet.

Technically, this expressionist play is a development of O'Neill's earlier at-tempt to involve his audience instinctually, as well as intellectually, to make them participants in a shared experience rather than be mere spectators. In Where the Cross Is Made, the audience shared the hallucination of Captain Isaiah Bartlett and his son, Nat. In The Emperor Jones, O'Neill experiments with the power of music, the hypnotic sound of the tom-tom, first keyed to the normal pulse beat but then played with increased volume and rapidity so that one's entire physical and emotional being responds. This music, devised by Austin Strong, is of paramount importance to this play.

The Emperor Jones is essentially a monodrama, for only the first and last scenes, as the realistic frame of the play, contain dialogue. Throughout, it is the psyche of Jones that is revealed, and his thoughts, visions, hallucinations, fears, his conscious and unconscious memories are played out for the audience. O'Neill makes skillful use of black English, but he is less successful with his cockney Smithers. The character of the Emperor Jones is modeled after Toussaint L'Ouverture (1746-1803), the Haitian revolutionary leader and former slave, treacherously mistreated by the French and also Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, of Haiti. O'Neill's character is a man of "cunning intelligence," one who has attributes of shrewdness but has learned evasions and suspicion in order to survive. He seems also to have understood the desire of his "subjects" for grandeur, and that (in a slightly garish way) he provides, but he also possesses intelligence and manipulative ability, qualities that emphasize his declension into atavistic fears and superstitions.

Clearly, this play requires an extraordinary actor for its main role, and O'Neill was most fortunate in its creator, Charles Gilpin, the first black actor to star with a white company on Broadway. The role was played by Paul Robeson in the 1924 revival prior to All God's Chillun Got Wings.  Robeson also played the role in the London production of 1925 and the New York revival of 1933. Robeson's performance was also filmed in a bastardized adaptation, but it is a record of this great artist. However, those who saw both actors claim that although Robeson did a fine job, he lacked the passionate intensity of Gilpin.

As a play for today's audience, The Emperor Jones presents serious difficulties because of its racist overtones. It is all too easy to see Brutus Jones and Lem as little removed from the jungle life of instinct rather than as intelligent human beings. The play also projects an air of condescension, and today the continued repetition of the word "nigger" grates. Nonetheless, it should be taken as a serious attempt at the use of the new theme, the black psyche. There is also the implicit suggestion that modern civilization has not helped the black man at all, first enslaving him and then showing him little more than a life of crime and manipulation, so that when Jones is in control he is no better than his original oppressors. Overall, the play's greatest strength lies in its successful blending of disparate influences, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness through the Vachel Lindsay poem, "The Congo," and the well-known power of music to engender frenzy—as modern devotees of rock-and-roll can testify. O'Neill's original title for this play was "The Silver Bullet", but it was never performed under that name.

 

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