Eugene O'Neill and Paul Robeson:
Glenda E. Gill
These words of Paul Robeson express the true condition of the African American actor in 1935 when Robeson uttered them, and now, in 2005. In a collaborative effort to begin the process of integrating the American stage, African American actor Paul Robeson and Caucasian playwright Eugene O'Neill had an uneasy alliance. Robeson made the initial advances to the playwright in 1923, but O'Neill became an active participant in their collaboration. However, O'Neill and Robeson each had extremely different visions as to how the African American male should be constructed for the theatre. Robeson sought to debunk the stereotypes which minstrelsy had created; O'Neill, however well-intentioned, perpetuated them, although the playwright was heroic in promoting the casting of black actors in his plays. One could even say that O'Neill endured serious harassment and threats to his life in defending Robeson's right to portray his characters. O'Neill, in this regard, was unbending.
This paper will examine the differences as well as similar goals the actor and playwright had in productions of three of O'Neill's early plays: All God's Chillun God Wings (1924), The Emperor Jones (1924), and The Hairy Ape (1931). There was discussion of Robeson playing the lead in Lazarus Laughed, but such a production never materialized. Non-traditional casting was extremely rare in the American theatre in the 1920s and early 1930s. Robeson and O'Neill were brave pioneers.
As a man who was a quintessential intellectual and activist, Robeson found it impossible to believe that a large number of African Americans spoke in dialect, resembled Jim Harris in low self-esteem, or Brutus Jones in being a totally power-drunk tyrant. Felicia Hardison Londré wrote:
Peach Pittenger in comparing Charles Gilpin's 1920 portrayal of The Emperor Jones and Paul Robeson's 1924 one, spoke of Robeson as "more compliant," a term seldom, if ever, used to describe the actor. But in what may be a clear case of supreme diplomacy, Robeson wrote in the black journal, Opportunity, in December, 1924:
According to Robeson's son, O'Neill and Robeson perhaps most disagreed about Brutus Jones, but they both did so privately. In the press, they spoke positives about the other. Robeson, also according to his son, "remained steadfast in his view that O'Neill's tragic hero was a transitional figure in popular culture—a first step away from the all-pervasive 'Sambo' caricature" (Robeson, Jr. 78-79). Today, these roles appear blatantly stereotypical and, indeed, are. However, they must be viewed in the context of the times. In the early years of O'Neill and the Provincetown Players, America went to fight in World War I, saw widespread lynching, and endured major race riots. Jim Crow reigned as water fountains, schools, cemeteries, theatres, hospitals, and hotels were all rigidly segregated.
In such a racial climate Robeson undertook a sustained effort to become a part of the Provincetown Players. In March of 1923, he wrote Otto Kahn, a trustee of Rutgers and a banker who had supported several black artists and who was a major philanthropist to the Provincetown Players. Robeson's letter asked that Kahn introduce him to the playwrights of Provincetown, specifically Eugene O'Neill. Robeson also asked for a letter of recommendation which Kahn declined to provide (Robeson, Jr. 73). The actor had also approached Augustin Duncan who wrote O'Neill on the actor's behalf. The playwright responded, inviting Robeson to keep in touch.
Kenneth Macgowan, director of the Provincetown Players, invited Robeson to audition for the role of Jim Harris in what was then O'Neill's new play, All God's Chillun Got Wings, the tragic story of two souls in an interracial marriage trying to understand one another and the world around them. The title comes from the Negro spiritual:
Robeson's son said,
Robeson got the part. The controversy surrounding the production is legend. In an effort to assuage controversy, the Provincetown Players revived The Emperor Jones.
The Emperor Jones was as problematic as Chillun, however. In private, O'Neill expressed strong favoritism for African American Charles Gilpin's 1920 portrayal as being much truer to the playwright's vision than Robeson's, although O'Neill praised Robeson in public. "On May 6, [ 1924]. The Emperor Jones opened" (Robeson. Jr. 76). Robeson's wife, Eslanda, attended and wrote in her diary: Paul was superb. Applause and stomping and whistling, deafening after final curtain. [He] got five curtain calls. Performance really fine" (cited in Paul Robeson, Jr. 76). The twenty-six year old Robeson also wrote in the December 1924 Opportunity, "To have had the opportunity to appear in two of the finest plays of America's most distinguished playwright is a good fortune, that to me seems hardly credible" (368). A year later in London at the Ambassadors Theatre, Robeson received 12 ovations for playing the Emperor Jones. But what does the role of Brutus Jones do in a world that then and now strongly fears the African American male? That still imprisons two million of them? That incarcerates more black men than it educates? What did it do in 1920 and 1924?
I do not personally criticize Paul Robeson for playing Brutus Jones. I do not criticize Eugene O'Neill for his creative imagination. The play was clearly a mixed blessing. Robeson, again in the December 1924 Opportunity, wrote:
At this stage of his life, Robeson, in my opinion, was somewhat culturally blind. I am pleased that the play was so well received in many areas of Europe. 1 do agree with Robeson that all great plays have a universal dimension, but in America, most people were familiar with the Pullman Porter and, in my opinion, this portrayal is damaging.
The famous Pullman cars created in 1867 by George Pullman "were staffed with recently freed slaves" (Pullman Porters/Chicago Stories 1). "In their home neighborhoods, to be a Pullman Porter was considered a prestigious position... But the porters were also mistreated, underpaid, overworked and subjected to countless indignities on the job... and paid ...low wages—in 1926, [they were paid] an average of $810 per year" (Pullman Porter/Chicago Stories).
Pullman Porters often worked for movie stars. According to African American scholar Thomas D. Pawley, Brutus Jones "aped the behavior of those he served," making the "culture he has acquired only a veneer, as if he has had little if any formal education. which is insufficient to harness his primitive impulses" (quoted in Liu 147). Pawley reiterates what many sociologists have said about African American behavior, including E. Franklin Frazier in his famous and scathing 1957 work, Black Bourgeoisie. In it, Frazier . an African American, himself, accused middle-class black America of imitating white America in almost every aspect of the black American's existence. Robeson had friends across all color and class lines. O'Neill had little experience with middle-class African Americans.
If, indeed, African Americans were/are offended by what O'Neill, perhaps, naively, wrote, the playwright, himself, urged African Americans to write their own plays:
African American playwrights were writing in the 1920s, but not getting produced or published as often as O'Neill or Paul Green. Langston Hughes, Garland Anderson, Angelina Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Georgia Douglas Johnson and S. Randolph Edmonds were major playwrights of the 1920s. Robeson, also in the December 1924 issue of Opportunity wrote: "I am sure that there will come Negro playwrights of great power and I trust I shall have some part in interpreting that most interesting and much needed addition to the drama of America" (370). African American playwrights had already come and had already written, but they were not being published. They were not being produced in the commercial theatres or even on the stages of the historically black colleges with any regularity. Theatre historian James V. Hatch wrote about Garland Anderson's 1925 Appearances:
Restricting the African American to black theatre and barring him or her from work in the classics. i.e., dramas of European influence and dramas by Caucasian American playwrights such as O'Neill, remains controversial even in 2005. Long before African American August Wilson in 1996 said that we do not need color blind casting, African American Ward Courtney, in 1937, wrote:
African American actor/director Mica! Whitaker who has directed or acted in over 200 plays, and who played the sad clown Malvolio, believes this thinking to be insulting and yet sensitive.
O'Neill's intention was to acknowledge Negro tragedies, but his plays, in his lifetime, seemed to create black characters unknown to most people of color. This created problems for Robeson and O'Neill. Listen to Jim's speech after proposing to Ella in Act I, scene iii:
Thomas Pawley wrote "Why does he so completely debase himself? What is the motivation? is he so deeply in love with her that he does not recognize her denigrating treatment of him? In my view the suggestion by the playwright that a black male could be so completely obsessed in his love for a white woman strains credulity—unless he is in fact neurotic" (77).
Marcus Garvey, the famous Black nationalist of the 1920s, severely criticized Robeson for playing Jim Harris and Brutus Jones. So did the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, arguably the most influential black church in America at that time, Robeson and O'Neill were under fire from African American and Caucasian critics, audiences, community leaders, and the Ku Klux Klan. Arthur and Barbara Gelb in their groundbreaking work, O'Neill, devote several pages to the furor. Errol Hill stated of the 1924 Chillun:
As a result of Robeson's continuing success, O'Neill in a letter of April 27, 1930, asked:
Ironically, Lazarus Laughed, with Robeson as the white lead, never materialized. However, Robeson did play the role of Yank in The Hairy Ape, not a role designated as black. Clearly with O'Neill's influence in getting him cast, Robeson played the role in London, on May 11, 1931. One review, reprinted in The New York Times, read:
Robeson ironically believed (or said he believed) that Jim Harris had "provided the greatest scope for expressing intrinsic dignity, unlike the brutish stoker in The Hairy Ape who was . . . a `symbol of primitive humanity'' (Robeson Jr. 203).
The London Times review of The Hairy Ape declared: "We need not hope to see the part . ..played better than Mr. Robeson plays it. Nobody will watch [his] progress. . from the stokehold...to the gorilla's cage. . without thinking better of the play, ..." (Robeson, Jr. 203-204). Robeson remained in London to play Jim Harris in 1933, and, back in America, filmed The Emperor Jones that same year.
Film historian Donald Bogle wrote: "Robeson's greatest contribution to black film history ... was his proud, defiant portrait of The Emperor Jones (1933)." For Robeson, playing O'Neill's characters was a compromise—a serious compromise, but one that even he saw as a necessary compromise for the actor of color to play more universal roles. "Robeson's legacy, as actor/director Sidney Poi tier notes, was profound. `Before him, no black man or woman had been portrayed in American movies as anything but a racist stereotype' (quoted in Current Biography  345-46).
Scholar Rena Fraden believes that the theatre remains inhospitable to ethnic representation (Gill 144-145). However. when Edna Thomas played Lady Macbeth in the Federal Theatre's 1936 Macbeth, when Ruby Dee essayed Cordelia opposite Morris Carnovsky in Shakespeare's King Lear in 1965, when James Earl Jones portrayed Hickey, in Circle in the Square's 1973 production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, and when Denzel Washington plays a modem-day Brutus in an updated version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar on Broadway in 2005, Eugene O'Neill and Paul Robeson, in great measure, are responsible.
"To expect the Negro artist to reject every role with which he is not ideologically in agreement is to expect the Negro artist under our present scheme of things to give up work entirely." Thanks to O'Neill. Robeson and others. he or she, one day, may no longer have to.
WORKS CITED OR CONSULTED
Abdo. Diya M. "The Emperor Jones: A Struggle for Individuality," The Eugene O'Neill Review, Vol. 24, Nos. I and 2. Spring/Fall 2000, 28-42.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 1996.
Brietzke, Zander. The Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001.
Connolly, Thomas. "The Hairy Ape in the Context of Early 20th Century American Modernism," The Eugene O'Neill Review, Vol. 25, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring/Fall 2001, 76-79.
Courtney, Ward. Flyer from Trilogy in Black, a Federal Theatre production, 1937, (courtesy of Winona L. Fletcher).
Duberman, Martin B. Paul Robeson. New York: New Press, 1989.
Fraden. Rena. Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1994.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives. New York: Oxford UP, 2004.
Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Gill, Glenda E. Rev. of Blueprints For a Black Federal Theatre, 1935-1939. By Rena Fraden. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP. 1994, in Theatre Survey, Vol. 36, No. 1, May, 1995, 144-145.
Hatch, James V. And Ted Shine. Black Theatre, USA, Revised and Expanded Edition, The Early Period, 1847-1938. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Hill, Errol. Shakespeare in Sable. Amherst: The U of Massachusetts P, 1984.
Liu, Haiping and Lowell Swortzell, eds. Eugene O'Neill in China: An International Centenary Celebration. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Londré, Felicia Hardison. The History of World Theater: From the English Restoration to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1991.
Marx, Lesley. "Souls Under Skins: Robeson, O'Neill and Everyman," Juxtapositions: The Harlem Renaissance and the Lost Generation. Capetown, South Africa: University of Capetown, 67-76.
Nine Plays By Eugene O'Neill. New York: The Modern Library, 1941.
Pawley, Thomas D. "Eugene O'Neill and American Race Relations," Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol 9 (Winter 1997), 66-87.
Pittenger, Peach. "Ethel Waters and Racial Stereotypes: Crafting a Career in the Pre-Civil Rights Era," Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol 17, No. 1, Winter 2005, 25-45.
Plunka, Gene. "Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape and the Legacy of Andrew Carnegie," The Eugene O'Neill Review, Vol. 23, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring/Fall 1999, 31-48.
Pullman Porters, The. (Chicago Stories) <http://www.wttw.com>.
Robeson, Paul. "Reflections on O'Neill's Plays," Opportunity, December, 1924, 368-370.
Robeson, Paul, Jr. The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2001.
"Robeson Acclaimed in The Hairy Ape," Special Cable to The New York Times May 12, 1931, located in ProQuest Historical Newspapers, 33. (courtesy of David Bezotte)
Shaughnessy, Edward L. "O'Neill's African and Irish-Americans: Stereotypes or 'Faithful Realism'?," The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O'Neill, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Sheaffer. Louis. O'Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.
Thompson, Lisa. Rev. Stories of Freedom in Black New York. By Shane White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2002.Whitaker, Mical. Tel. Conversation with author. 27 May 2005.
paper was originally presented at the Sixth
International Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Society
in Provincetown, Massachusetts in June, 2005.]
Would you be able to tell me more regarding the origin of the character Jim Harris? My great uncle had this name, was half African-American and Irish and lived in Greenwich Village in the 1920's. Uncle Jim was also a friend of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston among others.
I regret that I do not know more about the origin of the character, Jim Harris. I am sorry.
Would it be
at all possible for you to tell me where you found the
information for Garvey's dislike of The Emperor Jones?
Was it in one of his editorials perhaps?
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