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.
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