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Synopsis
by Margaret Loftus Ranald

An expressionist play in eight scenes; a monodrama.  The action "takes place on an Island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White Marines.  The form of native government is, for the time being, an Empire."

Scene i:  The audience chamber of the palace of the Emperor Jones, late in the afternoon of an oppressive tropical day.  Brutus Jones is a black former Pullman porter (then a high-status, unionized, black monopoly).  He has murdered two people, one black and one white, and is a gaolbird, but he has risen "from stowaway to Emperor in tow years" by means of his cunning.  He treats the "low-flung bush niggers" with contempt and has convinced them that he can be killed only with a silver bullet.  He has actually had one made, telling his "subjects" that when the time comes, he will kill himself with it.  He enjoys exploiting his people, and in lining his pockets he has quite cynically put aside his Baptist religion and laid his "Jesus on de shelf for de time bein'."  His manner exudes self-confidence, but it is attacked when Henry Smithers, a seedy white cockney trader, tells him of a rebellion brewing against him in the hills under the leadership of Lem.  At first taken aback, Jones recovers himself, but then he hears the sound of a tom-tom at exactly seventy-two beats per minute, the rate of the normal pulse beat.  This drumming continues throughout the play, and its speed and volume increase.  With a certain bravado, Jones decides he had better carry out his escape plan, certain that he can defeat the forest.  To Smithers's amazement, Jones insists on walking out through the front dooródeparting as the Emperor Jones, not sneaking out the back way like a fugitive.  He takes his revolver with him.

Scene ii:  At "the end of the plain where the Great Forest begins."  It is night, and the wind moans in the trees.  Jones, dog-tired, has lost his way and cannot find the cache of food he had prepared for himself.  No longer confident of his ability to defeat the jungle, he once again becomes conscious of the tom-tom, and the "Little Formless Fears" with their glittering eyes creep around him.  As fear starts to overcome Jones, they utter "low mocking laughter like a rustling of leaves."  In panic Jones shoots once at them, but as the Fears hurry back into the forest, the tom-tom quickens.  Jones forces himself into the forest, trying to convince himself "ain't nothin' dere but de trees!"

Scenes iii:  Different parts of the forest at night.  By the light of the just risen moon, Jones meets the ghost of Jeff, the Pullman porter he had killed with a razor after a gaming dispute.  At first Jones thinks he is seeing a living human being, but then he realizes the truth as the ghost of Jeff continues to play dice in an automatic way.  In panic, he fires at the ghost, who disappears, but in response the beat of the "tom-tom is perceptibly louder and more rapid."  Jones, realizing that he has revealed his whereabouts with the shots, "lunges wildly into the underbrush."

Scene iv:  In another part of the now fully moonlit forest, Jones's uniform is ragged and torn.  He is trying to escape the sound of the tom-tom, which seems to be getting closer.  He tears off his uniform coat and spurs in order to travel lighter, and suddenly he asks himself, "How'd dis road evah gid heah?"  He is afraid of meeting more ghosts but then recalls that "de Baptist parson" had told him there are no such things; after all, Jones knows himself to be civilized, not "like dese ign'rent black niggers heah."  However, he still hopes that he won't meet any more of them.  Suddenly a black prison road gang enters, and Jones chokes with fear, "Lawd Jesus!" as the prison guard cracks his whip and Jones almost hypnotically obeys the guard's motion to join the others.  He goes through the motions of shoveling dirt until the Prison Guard approaches him angrily and cuts at him with his whip.  As the guard turns contemptuously away, Jones rushes at him as if he is indeed carrying a shovel but realized his hands are empty.  Struggling with his rage, he frees his revolver and shoots the guard, thus reenacting his second murder.  The walls of the forest close in, darkness falls, and Jones flees in terror as the sound of the distant tom-tom increases in volume and beat.

Scene v:  Jones is in a clearing in the woods where another chapter in the history of American blacks is replayed.  This time it is a slave auction, and Jones, "his pants...in tatters, his shoes cut and misshapen," is placed on a tree stump that serves as an auction block and is bid for.  In rage, Jones asserts his rights as "a free nigger" and fires two shots at the Auctioneer and the Planter.  Darkness descends as Jones exits, crying with fear, followed "by the quickened, even louder beat of the tom-tom."

Scene vi:  Jones's clothing has been so torn away that he is wearing little more than a breech-cloth made out of the remnants of his pants.  The clearing in the forest is surrounded by tree trunks and creepers so that it looks like the hold of an ancient ship.  Two rows of seated figures, apparently shackled to the trees, are rocking back and forth with despairing moans.  Yet another scene in black history is being dramatizedóthis time the slave ship, with Jones as one of the participants.  The low melancholy murmur which rises to a cry of pain seems almost to be directed by the insistent tom-tom in the distance.  As Jones joins with the others, "his voice reaches the highest pitch of sorrow, of desolation."  The light fades slowly, and Jones moves away as "the tom-tom beats louder, quicker, with a more insistent, triumphant pulsation."

Scene vii:  Jones is "at the foot of a gigantic tree by the edge of a great river," the Congo.  Jones's voice is heard in the wail of the despairing slaves, delivered to the bear of the tom-tom.  He enters bewildered, almost like a somnambulist, and falls on his knees before a moonlit, rough stone altar.  Fearfully, he discovers some latent memory of this frightening place as he invokes the Christian God, "Oh Lawd, pertect dis sinner!"  As he cowers to the ground in hysterical fear, the Congo Witch-Doctor appears, dancing to the "fierce, exultant boom" that his stamping seems to have evoked from the tom-tom.  He sways, swings his rattle, dances, and croons to the ever-insistent beat in a dance that is clearly meant to pacify an "implacable deity demanding sacrifice."  Jones, by now completely hypnotized, joins with the Witch-Doctor, crooning, beating time with his hands, swaying from the waist.  The Witch-Doctor indicates that Jones must be that sacrifice, but the fallen emperor is terrified and continues to ask "Mercy, Oh, Lawd! Mercy! Mercy on dis po' sinner."  At this moment, a huge crocodile appears from the river and fixes its eyes on Jones, who stares, fascinated.  The Witch-Doctor touches Jones with his want, and Jones squirms on his belly toward the crocodile, still pleading, "Mercy, Lawd! Mercy!"  The monster heaves itself on land, Jones moves toward him, the Witch-Doctor "shrills out in furious exultation the tom-tom beats madly," and Jones calls, "Lawd, save me! Lawd Jesus, heah my prayer!"  With that cry, Jones has come full circle from the first scene in which he boasted of having laid his Jesus on the shelf, and he remembers the silver bullet, the only one left him and with it he shoots the crocodile.  The symbolism of the silver bullet used to exorcise a god is quite clear.  The Witch-Doctor disappears, and Jones lies on the ground "whimpering with fear as the throb of the tom-tom fills the silence about him with a somber pulsation, a baffled but revengeful power."

Scene viii:  The final scene is the same as Scene II, "the dividing line of forest and plain."  Lem, "a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type," appears dressed in a loin cloth, followed by a small squad of nearly naked soldiers carrying rifles.  Smithers is there also, contemptuously telling the primitive Lem that they will never catch the resourceful Brutus Jones.  A shot is heard in the forest, and Lem announces "We cotch him," revealing that they have made silver bullets by melting down coins.  The play ends as Jones's dead body is carried in and Smithers delivers an awe-struck epitaph; "Silver bullets! Gawd blimey, but yer died in the 'eighth o' style any 'ow!"  Jones's psychic journey has ended in a return to the real world which brings him death.

 

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