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Behind the Tomtoms of the Emperor Jones
by Louis Sheaffer

"The idea," O'Neill once said about the conception of his plays, "usually begins in a small way.  I may have it sort of hanging around in my mind for a long time before it grows into anything definite enough to work on.  The idea for The Emperor Jones was in my mind for two years before I wrote the play.  I never try to force an idea.  I think about it, off and on.  If nothing seems to come of it, I put it away and forget it.  But apparently my subconscious mind keeps working on it; for all of a sudden, some day, it comes back to my conscious mind as a pretty well-formed scheme."

The original inspiration for Emperor Jones came from an anecdote told to O'Neill by a friend of his, an old-time circus worker named Jack Croak.   It seems that Croak, while touring the West Indies with a tent show, heard of the boast of Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, onetime President of Haiti, that "his enemies would never get him—that if he were overthrown he would kill himself, but not with an ordinary lead bullet; only a silver one was worthy of that honor."  The image of the black potentate and the silver bullet touched a responsive chord in the playwright's imagination, and he made a note of it.  Months later he conceived the idea of having a dethroned ruler in flight through the jungle, "but I couldn't see how it could be done on a stage, and I passed it up again.  A year elapsed.  One day I was reading of the religious feasts in the Congo and the uses to which the drum is put there; how it starts at a normal pulse-beat and is slowly intensified until the heart-beat of everyone present corresponds to the frenzied beat of the drum.  There was an idea and an experiment.  How would this sort of thing work on an audience in a theatre?"

O'Neill's physical surroundings also contributed something to the play taking shape in his mind.  He was living at the time, in 1920, in a former Coast Guard station just outside Provincetown, Cape Cod, with "the Atlantic for a front lawn, miles of sand dunes for a back yard."  At one point the road into the dunes going toward O'Neill's home passed through a clump of woods in which the over-arching trees were so thick that they shut out the sky.  Even in daytime the area seemed uncannily quiet and dim but at night "the dark place," as Provincetowners called it was altogether spooky.  Whenever O'Neill traversed "the dark place" it reminded him, he said, of the time he went gold prospecting in Spanish Honduras—specifically, of the bottomless black nights in the Honduran forests.

In addition to his own jungle experience, the playwright, who had read practically all of Joseph Conrad, was apparently influenced by the other man's The Heart of Darkness.  Like the playwright, the novelist dwells on the oppressive nature of the jungle ("The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed doors of a prison") and conjures up the unsettling sound of tomtoms ("The monotonous beating of a drum filled the air with muffled shocks and a lingering vibration . . . the beat of a drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness").  Even more to the point, both the novelette and the play tell essentially the same story: the disintegration of a man, an outsider, in an aboriginal land.

The entire scheme for The Emperor Jones, originally entitled The Silver Bullet, was so clear in O'Neill's mind as he began that he wrote the play in a few weeks.  For his protagonist he drew on various sources: his acquaintance with the "black belt" Greenwich Village (an aspect of the New York scene that faded as more and more Negroes flocked to Harlem); things he had read about Henri Christrophe and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Jamaican blacks, strapping men, with whom he had shipped during his sailor days.

Placed on a West Indian island "as yet not self-determined by White Marines," the story dramatizes the downfall of Brutus Jones, an ex-Pullman porter from Harlem who has set himself over the natives through luck and guile; they believe he possesses supernatural powers.  As the play opens, he swaggers about, resplendent in a red-and-blue uniform with gold chevrons and paten leather boots; his pearl-handled revolver contains five lead bullets and a silver one—only a silver bullet, he brags, can kill him.  The palace, he soon learns, is ominously empty, for the people have at last revolted, and he begins his flight as a drumming, low yet insistent, is heard from the distant hills.  The rebels are working up courage to hunt him down, and their drumming will continue, without surcease, until his death.

Brutus Jones still feels sure of himself as he enters the jungle, aiming to follow an escape route he had once marked out in anticipation of his day of reckoning.  His is a journey, however, not only in space and time but into the darkest recesses of his soul; he is hounded less by his enemies—except for their tomtoms, which steadily grow faster and louder—than by nightmarish images conjured up by his own mind.  In brief cinema-like scenes the play projects his hallucinations.  Episodes from his criminal past return to haunt him, then scenes epitomizing the tragic history of the Negro in America, and at last Jones, stripped of his veneer of civilization, reverts to the primitive, fear-ridden conditions of his Congo forebears.  Each ghostly encounter in the jungle ends with his firing in panic, until all his bullets are gone.  Throughout the night, as the tomtoms accelerate, he has been running in a great circle and he finally returns to his starting point, where his enemies greet his with a gun and silver bullets.

Originally, imaginative, richly theatrical, with an undercurrent of dark lyricism, The Emperor Jones was a splendid achievement, easily the author's finest work at the time.  Various sides of O'Neill—the poet, the experimentalist, the born dramatist, the dreamer in love with strange exotic places—all found expression in Jones.  Nothing else that he had written before then signaled so clearly that he was his own man, blazing his own trail in the theater.  The play, ignoring all the rules and conventions of the day, had a black man as a protagonist, there was no love interest, and even its form and length were unorthodox—no intermission, lasting only about an hour.  The play is, moreover, almost a monologue; except in the first and final scenes, Jones is isolated among phantoms born of his memories and atavistic fears.

To some extent the portrait of Brutus Jones conforms to the old stereotype of the American black—superstitious, only half-civilized, prone to violence.  But at the same time he is endowed with a quick intelligence, a strong will and, despite his rather comic airs as monarch of the island, innate dignity, a commanding personality.  All in all, an impressive figure.  Essentially, O'Neill, who had a deep streak of atavism in his own makeup, was not trying to demonstrate that the American black is only a short step form his African bush ancestors; he was suggesting something more universal—that an apprehensive primitive being lurks just below the surface of us all.

The Theatre Recording Society, 1971.


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