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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 6
2011


(CONTENTS)

Eugene O’Neill Reconsidered:
Trauma and the Tragic in The Emperor Jones[1]

Radmila Nastić
University of Kragujevac Serbia

There is a lot of reason to read some of O’Neill’s plays as dramatizations of trauma, as some critics have indeed done, to mention Michael Cotsell, Susan H. Smith, Stephen Watts and James R. Dawes. The issue was also treated by this author in another paper dealing with O’Neill’s two plays, The Hairy Ape and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

Before we begin the examination of O’Neill’s “trauma plays”, some initial theoretical clarifications of the concept of trauma are necessary. In addition to Ruth Leys’s widely accepted study Trauma, A Genealogy[2] which gives not only elucidation of the subject of trauma across the scientific fields, but also the history of the term, and was used in the discussion of O’Neill’s two plays as mentioned before[3], some more theoretical considerations will be applied as a starting point of discussion in this article. In her “Trauma Theory Abbreviated”[4] Sandra L. Bloom describes how at the time of trauma people become trapped in “speechless terror” and their capacity for speech and memory are separated. As a result they develop “amnesia” for the traumatic event – the memory is there but there are no words attached to it, so it cannot be either talked about or even thought about. Instead the memory sometimes presents itself as a behavioral enactment of a previous event, or a flashback. “When someone experiences a flashback,” continues Bloom, they do not remember the experience, they relive it.”[5]

Psychiatrists underline that it is very important to understand traumatic memory, which is very difficult, thus the traumatized subject is destined to reenact what he/she cannot remember. Freud called this “the repetition compulsion.”[6] “Based on what we know about the split between verbal and nonverbal thought, it may be that the most useful way of understanding traumatic reenactment is through the language of drama. Shakespeare told us that the whole world is our stage,” writes Bloom.[7] And “for healing to occur, we must give words and meaning to our overwhelming experiences.”

Among the critics who examined O’Neill’s plays in the light of trauma drama is James R. Dawes. In the article “Drama and Ethics, Grief and Privacy: The Case of Eugene O’Neill,” he looks at O’Neill’s work on Long Day’s Journey Into Night as, what LaCapra would call, working-through his own family trauma: not only understanding and coming to terms with it, but also attaining a critical angle on it. That this was the case was witnessed by O’Neill’s wife Carlotta and recorded in biographical writings about O’Neill[8]. This play, central to the O’Neill canon, offers dramatic representation of the major trauma of the author’s life, that of the painful relationships within his original family.

In the earlier paper on this subject we dealt mostly with individual psychic traumas in O’Neill’s two plays, though they, too, had wider consequences. The present paper will shift its focus to the collective trauma as dramatized primarily in The Emperor Jones, and partly in the short play Shell Shock. Therefore, in addition to the theoretical studies of individual psychic traumas, relevant writing on communal and national traumas will be considered, in the first place within the framework of the theory of historical narratives. Historical narrative, writes Hayden White, may be spoken of as an extended metaphor. “As a symbolic structure, the historical narrative does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction to think about the events and charges our thought about the events with different emotional valences. The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates; it calls to mind images of the things it indicates; in the same way that a metaphor does.” “The metaphor does not image the thing it seeks to characterize, it gives directions for finding the set of images that are intended to be associated with that thing.”[9] We have undertaken to show how in The Emperor Jones, Eugene O’Neill reconstructs an issue from the American history of slavery by evoking vivid images which strongly affect the imagination of the reader and spectator. Apart from White we should mention Dominick LaCapra, considered to be one of today's foremost experts on trauma, who in his Writing History, Writing Trauma, gives a critical inquiry into the problem of trauma, especially with respect to major historical events. In a series of essays, he explores theoretical and literary-critical attempts to come to terms with trauma as well as the crucial role of post-traumatic testimonies, particularly Holocaust testimonies. The book's concluding essay, "Writing (About) Trauma," examines the various ways in which the voice of trauma emerges in written and oral accounts of historical events.[10]

Michael Cotsell is the author who had written a lot on the subject of trauma in O’Neill’s plays is. In his book The Theater of Trauma: American Modernist Drama and the Psychological Struggle for the American Mind, he highlights the significance of the concept of dissociation for the American Modernism and what he calls the ‘theater of therapeutics’, and the ‘theater of war in Greenwich Village.’[11] The concept of dissociation, which we owe to Pierre Janet, indicates the effect of trauma expressed in the necessity to dissociate or suppress the traumatic event from the memory, in contrast to Freud’s view that trauma can be cured by facing and acting out the repressed traumatic shock. As a matter of fact, Janet was unique among his colleagues in insisting on the importance of both dissociation and memory. In The Emperor Jones O’Neill dramatizes how centuries long repression of the trauma of racism must ultimately come to the surface in order to be dealt with.

Cotsell further expounds his ideas from the book in the online article ‘’Modernism without Janet?” Though Modernism has been automatically and always associated with Freud, Cotsell undertakes to give an account of the influence of Janet’s psychiatry on Modernist authors T.S.Eliot, James Joyce and Franz Kafka. He also points out that although O’Neill was the rare case among modernist dramatists in the US who seems to have experienced no direct or indirect influence with dissociation psychiatry, his work was, nevertheless, deeply involved with the themes of that psychiatry – doubles (The Great God Brown, Days Without End), dissociated states (Strange Interlude), traumatic terror (The Emperor Jones) etc.

Considerations of trauma became prominent during and immediately after World War I with the urgent demand to cure the soldiers suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder, the term which will be recognized in 1980), and then again after World War II and the victims of the Holocaust (‘the crucial trauma of the century’); in the US also after the Vietnam War. Little known is the fact that O’Neill contributed a dramatization of World War I trauma in a short play, Shell Shock. Cotsell calls O’Neill ‘’the great genius of the American Theater of Trauma,”[12] and in his book discusses this early play[13] which dealt with war trauma, and The Great God Brown for the problem of doubling.

Shell Shock portrays an American soldier who was traumatized by the war in Europe, but the irony, which is not discovered until the very end, is in the fact that this did not happen because of his actions in battle. The opening of the play with the dialogue between the medical officer Wayne, specialized in treating victims of shell-shock, and a soldier, Roylston, who has just returned from the war front and who bears visible signs of suffering, leads us to believe that the latter is the shell-shocked hero of the play. However, further conversation between the two discovers that the doctor actually worries about Roylston’s comrade in arms, Jack Arnold, who risked his life to save the severely wounded Roylston from  No Mans Land. When we eventually meet Arnold, it is obvious that he is suffering from a repetition compulsion manifested in his “queer mannerism of continually raising the fore and middle fingers of his right hand to his lips as though he were smoking an invisible cigarette.”[14] It appears that Arnold has been haunted by the fact that he risked his life not to save the soldier, but to pick up cigarette butts, the lack of which on the battlefield made his nervous tension unbearable. After he had finally admitted the truth to himself and to Wayne, he is set free of his obsession and healed of his trauma, which is symbolically represented at the end of the play by his reverting to simple human exchange with his friend: “How are you, Herb, you old son of a gun?”[15]

Shell Shock was commented by Robert Vorlicky in terms of how important a contribution it is to O’Neill’s art of the portrayal of male characters:

“O'Neill would come back to American male characters alone among themselves in Shell Shock (1918), a dramatic work that focuses on a returning war hero's unresolved conflict over a comrade's presumed death and his motivation for trying to rescue the soldier from the battlefield.  Set in “the grill of the New York club of a large Eastern University” (657), Shell Shock captures the gradual restoration of Jack Arnold's psychological and emotional health, which is realistically and dramatically revealed in its otherwise shell-shocked state for much of the play via Arnold's obsessive behavior toward and addiction to cigarettes.  As in the later Iceman Cometh, drug and alcohol abuse—let alone mental instability—loosen American men's tongues; early on in Shell Shock, therefore, O'Neill linked the dramatic feature of, and characters' responses to, “addictions” to the liberation of American men's dialogue, dialogue that otherwise often remained restrained, veiled and impersonal.”[16]

While this short play was O’Neill’s exercise in trauma representation, it might be said that The Emperor Jones is central to O’Neill’s dramatization of national trauma, as much as Long Day’s Journey Into Night is central to the representation of personal trauma. The play begins as an individual drama, but ends on a note of a communal drama. We all know the story, but for better focusing let it be summed up once again: Brutus Jones, a black American and an escaped convict from the U.S.A, has become emperor of a small country in the West Indies, by the combination of force and trick, but the moment has come when his subjects rebel against his tyranny, run to the hills, and with their drums signal the beginning of a ritual of expulsion of what they consider to be an evil spirit of Jones. The uniqueness of The Emperor Jones is in the titular character who is not so much a typical representative of his own race, as a product of the white man’s civilization whose bluffs and methods he has adopted. “Ain’t  a man’s talkin’ big what makes him big – long as he makes foks believe it?  I talks large when I ain’t got nothin’ to back it up…” – This is what Jone’s white collaborator Smithers calls “Yanke bluff”[17] and is related to the way Brutus persuaded the native people that no ordinary but a silver bullet can only kill him. His ethics has been derived from listening to the white people’s talk while working as a Pullman porter, and its basics are summarized in the sentence: “Dere’s a little stealing’ like you does, and dere’s big stealing like I does. For the little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For the big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in the Hall o’ Fame when you croaks.”[18] He has a revolver with five regular bullets and one silver to kill himself if the time ever comes. Faced with the revolution in his ‘empire,’ he tries to escape through the forest to the other coast and board a ship. This forest is the dividing line between the reality and the nightmare, “a wall of darkness dividing the world,”[19] and his journey through the forest becomes a psychological trip through his own subconscious, discovering layers of not only individual but also of collective past. He shoots five bullets at the five apparitions that he encounters: the Little Formless Fears, Jeff, the Pullman porter he killed, the white prison guard with the whip who watches over a small gang of Negroes, the auctioneer and the planter who sell and buy black slaves. Each step increases his traumatic fear while the forest seems to close in on him and the road disappear. In the stage directions his progressive trauma is described with the words: ‘bewildered voice’, ‘frightened gasp’, ‘yell of terror’, ‘trembling, ’winces with pain,’ ‘cries despairingly,’ ‘baffled, terrified rage, ’frantically, ’paralyzed with horror,’ ‘convulsed with raging hatred and fear.’ At the final stage he finds himself in front of a sacrificial altar, while the rhythmic beat of a tom-tom ‘grows to a fierce, exultant boom whose throbs seem to fill the air with vibrating rhythm.’ In front of a Witch-Doctor Jones becomes completely hypnotized. His voice joins the Doctor’s incantation to ‘allay the fierceness of some implacable deity demanding sacrifice.’  His physical look matches the psychological state in that he becomes shabbier after each nightmare. His last silver bullet is shot at a huge crocodile who symbolizes his own inflated ego, and the last scene presents local chief and Smithers in front of Jones’s dead body. The reader and/or the spectator has travelled together with Jones a painful journey to the roots of modern civilization’s tremendous guilt of slavery, and to a hopefully sobering realization of the complicity of the white race in the tragedy of the black people.

In a recent article Susan H.Smith gave an extensive analysis of O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones within the theoretical framework of trauma theory. Quoting Peter Saiz,[20] Smith opens her article with the statement that the titular protagonist is a representation of “the black man in bondage, imprisoned by a false consciousness, both colonizer and colonized.”[21]She further proposes that The Emperor Jones also be considered in a wider context, in line with Michael Hinden’s view which claimed that Jone’s “journey on stage, is one into history as well as the unconscious, a flight backward in time toward the uncovering of the original sin that in O’Neill’s view, marred the Edenic harmony of the new World. The sin was slavery…”[22] Jones, however, is not a typical tragic hero capable of introspection and self-knowledge, but the audience who share his experience must be endowed with such capacities in order that this play may succeed as a tragic drama. Both Smith and this author in another article on this subject, refer to the opposite views of O’Neill’s play which do not regard it as tragic, in the first place Travis Bogard’s. In Contours in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill,[23]  Travis Bogard interpreted O’Neill’s plays in the light of the traditional theory of tragedy and O’Neill’s own views on the subject.  He compared The Emperor Jones with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, emphasizing O’Neill’s expressionistic use of the symbolism of Little Formless Fears. “The Fears”, thinks Bogard, “are a compound of many of the mysteries Peer meets on his forest run: the formless Boyg, the leaves that talk in the voices of children and the trolls themselves, who, when truly seen, are pigs.”[24]  But this is not the only analogy. Both plays, says Travis, “are about fugitives, running in desperation through the shards of their lives toward a dimly seen salvation whose discovery depends on their learning their essential identities….The actions of both plays focus on terror and self-discovery, and the crucial moments in both are acted in brief scenes by the protagonists alone onstage, speaking in monologue.’’[25] Yet although Bogard claims its unquestionable greatness, he later in the text states that The Emperor Jones, “divorced of its theatricality and its superficial social concerns,” “reads as a theological melodrama rather than as a play about the racial heritage of the American Negro.” As to the play’s style, Bogard’s position seems to be ambiguous: while he first admits that “O’Neill turns the play successfully toward expressionism,” in the next paragraph he goes on to claim that “however,”…”after the action has ended, much in the manner of a Gothic novelist whose whole purpose is to scare his readers with seemingly supernatural horrors, O’Neill provides an explanation for the visions that Jones has seen,” which are grounded in “reality.” It is in this part of his analysis that he states “It cannot go both ways”[26], and characterizes the play as being stylistically ambiguous.

Chaman Ahuja was also rather skeptical of O’Neill’s tragic achievement. Ahuja admits that O’Neill’s first modernistic success, The Emperor Jones, is a great play, but that, “whether O’Neill intended it or not, “what pervades the play is irony,”[27] not tragedy, and this view is not unique (Christopher Bigsby, for instance, is of the same opinion[28]). Instead of effecting tragic synthesis, continues Ahuja, (O’Neill’s) expressionism “reveals existence of many levels, counterpoints illusion against reality, and shows the past in clash with the present. By the use of the tom-tom sound in the expressionistic scenes, O’Neill does succeed to have the audience not only empathized, but actually participating. But in the “reality scenes,” Emperor Jones is “unworthy of our sympathy.” Thus “we may be said to have shared our ancestral terror, but that is not the experience of tragic exaltation”[29]!

It is our opinion that the definition of tragedy has undergone certain transformation in the course of time, and that tragedy should be regarded in a more flexible way. To start with, many authors propose to replace the historical term “tragedy” with a more appropriate term “the tragic.” Richard B.Sewall’s is among those who asks for a distinction between Tragedy and “the tragic” – the latter term, according to him, being more appropriate in considerations of contemporary drama. Because “…tragedy as a term in criticism is in danger of becoming exclusive and academic. I have found the adjective more useful,” wrote Sewall.[30] “The tragic demands the element of self, while tragedy demands the element of agent or character,” writes Storm,[31]  it focuses on disunion and separation, like The Emperor Jones, we may add, and obviously the trauma drama can provide successful representation of the possibility of transcending the terrible fragmentation.

“Tragedy refers to an object’s literary form,” writes Murray Krieger, “the tragic vision” to a subject’s psychology, his view and version of reality.”[32] Dramatization of trauma is most frequently a representation of psychological states and therefore most appropriately realized in a mixture of realism and expressionism that Bogard and Ahuja seem to deplore, but which successful stage productions of O’Neill’s plays prove right, including the production of The Emperor Jones.

One of the most recent ones, that have been met with both audience’s and critical acclaim, are The Wooster Group’s 2001 experimental production transposed to video, resulting in a new creation “combining the methodology of video with the Group’s continued exploration of mask in American theatrical iconography,” and “setting up a dialogue between contrasting modes of representation.”[33] Ben Brantley thought that this “fiercely articulate interpretation” which presented a depiction of black culture “perceived through a white man’s distorting, contemptuous and uneasy gaze” might be the last word on The Emperor Jones before he saw the London production at the Gate Theatre in 2005, and especially the The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production in New York in 2009.[34]

The latter performance was a highly poetic achievement in which “an ember of real magnificence has been uncovered and fanned, gently and artfully, into a blazing flame.” Brantley particularly praised the setting of “a fluid, shadowy dreamscape” through which the leading actor John Douglas Thomspon moved majestically, so that the audience could not but identify with the protagonist Jones, and the story digging deep into “the recesses of the every mind,” descending into primal fear, a painful allegory of both Jones’ own criminal past and the collective cultural past. The expressionistic “little formless fears” according to Brantley, had the “disturbing beauty and internal logic of a symbolist painting.” And the production offered a “complete vision of interior doubts erupting into a dominating external life.” The visions, admitted Brantley, “surprised and rattled me.”

We may conclude with Susan H.Smith’s arguments for reading The Emperor Jones in the light of trauma theory. O’Neill, writes Smith, “disturbed the master narrative of ‘naturalized’ racism and national amnesia,” “to consider the dramatic and theatrical ways in which the trauma to the nation is both embodied in the trauma to Jones and extended to include the audience.”[35] Racism, thus, needed to be spoken theatrically and to invite audience’s engagement in order to bear witness to its national history as a belated experience in a flashback, in an imagined participation.[36]

NOTES

[1] This article is one of the two papers derived from the presentation at the O’Neill in Bohemia Conference, New York, 22-26 June 2011. The other, “Eugene O’Neill Reconsidered: Trauma and the Tragic in The Hairy Ape and All God’s Chillun Got Wings” has been submitted to Eugene O’Neill Review to be considered for publication.

[2] Leys, Ruth, Trauma, A Genealogy, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2000.

 

[3] “Eugene O’Neill Reconsidered: Trauma and the Tragic in The Hairy Ape and All God’s Chillun Got Wings

 

[4] Bloom, Sandra L. 2004 (1999). "Trauma Theory Abbreviated, Philadelphia, 1999. Community Works. <http://www.sanctuaryweb.com.

 

[5] Ibid., p.6.

 

[6] Ibid., 10.

 

[7] Ibid., 11.

 

[8] Dawes, James R., “Drama and Ethics, Grief and Privacy: The Case of Eugene O’Neill,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, Volume 17, Nos.1&2, Spring/Fall,1993.

 

[9] Hayden White, The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, a revised version of a lecture given before the Comparative Literature Quolloqium of Yale University, 24 January 1974, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, London, 2001, p.1717-1721.

 

[10] Dominic LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London, 2000.

[11] Cotsell, Michael,  The Theater of Trauma: American Modernist Drama and the Psychological Struggle for the American Mind, 1900-1930, New York: Peter Lang, 2005.
 

[12] Cotsell, Michael, “Modernism without Janet?,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/16266171/Modernism-Without-Janet, 2005, 11/08/2011.

 

[13] O’Neill, Eugene, Shell Shock, eOneill.com, http://www.eoneill.com/texts/shell/contents.htm, 11/08/2011.

 

[14] Ibid.

 

[15] Ibid.

 

[16] Robert H. Vorlicky, O'Neill's First Play: A Wife for a Life, The Eugene O’Neill Review, Editor: Frederick Wilkins, Suffolk University, Boston, Volume 20, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 1996.

 

[17]  Eugene O’Neill, The Emperor Jones, in Nine Plays, Random House, New York, 1959, p.9. All further references to the play are to this edition.

 

[18] Ibid., p.8.

 

[19] Ibid., 17.

 

[20] Saiz, Peter R., “The Colonial Story in The Emperor Jones,” The Eugene O’Neill Review 17.1 &2 (Spring/Fall 1993). 8 August 2008. Quotes Susan H. Smith, “The Emperor Jones and National Trauma,” Modern Drama, Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 2009, p.57.

 

[21] Smith, 57.

 

[22] Ibid, quoting Michael Hinden, “The Emperor Jones: O’Neill, Nietzsche, and the American past,” The Eugene O’Neill Review III.3 (Jan.1980). 8 August 2008, http://www.eoneill.com/library/newsletter/iii_/iii-3b.htm, n.p.

 

[23] Bogard, Travis, Contours in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, New York Oxford University Press, 1972. Bogard’s views were also dealt with in the paper on The Hairy Ape and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.

 

[24] Ibid., 136.

 

[25] Ibid.

 

[26] Ibid., 143-144.

 

[27] Ibid., 60.

 

[28] Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Volume  One, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p.13-14.

 

[29] Ibid., 61.

 

[30] Sewall, Richard B., “Eugene O’Neill and the Sense of the Tragic,” Eugene O’Neill’s Century, Centennial Views on America’s Foremost Tragic Dramatist, edited by Richard F. Moorton, Jr., Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, Number 36, Greenwood Press, New York • Westport, Connecticut • London, 1988.

 

[31] William Storm, After Dionysus, A Theory of the Tragic, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1998, p.49.

 

[32] Murray Krieger, The Tragic Vision, Variations on a Theme in Literary Interpretation, Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago press, Chicago and London, 1960, p.2.

 

[35] Smith, 66.

 

[36] Smith, 67.

WORKS CITED

Bigsby, Christopher, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama, Volume  One, 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996

Bloom, Sandra L. 2004 (1999). "Trauma Theory Abbreviated, Philadelphia, 1999. Community Works. <http://www.sanctuaryweb.com.

Bogard, Travis, Contours in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill, New York Oxford University Press, 1972.

Cotsell, Michael,  The Theater of Trauma: American Modernist Drama and the Psychological Struggle for the American Mind, 1900-1930, New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

Cotsell, Michael, “Modernism without Janet?,” http://www.scribd.com/doc/16266171/Modernism-Without-Janet, 2005, 11/08/2011.

 

Dawes, James R., “Drama and Ethics, Grief and Privacy: The Case of Eugene O’Neill,” The Eugene O’Neill Review, Volume 17, Nos.1&2, Spring/Fall,1993.Leys, Ruth, Trauma, A Genealogy, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2000.

Hayden White, The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”, a revised version of a lecture given before the Comparative Literature Quolloqium of Yale University, 24 January 1974, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, London, 2001, p.1717-1721.

Krieger, Murray, The Tragic Vision, Variations on a Theme in Literary Interpretation, Phoenix Books, The University of Chicago press, Chicago and London, 1960.

 

LaCapra, Dominic, Writing History, Writing Trauma, Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London, 2000.

 

O’Neill, Eugene, Shell Shock, eO’Neill.com, http://www.eoneill.com/texts/shell/contents.htm
 

O’Neill, Eugene, The Emperor Jones, in Nine Plays, Random House, New York, 1959.

 

Sewall, Richard B., “Eugene O’Neill and the Sense of the Tragic,” Eugene O’Neill’s Century, Centennial Views on America’s Foremost Tragic Dramatist, edited by Richard F. Moorton, Jr., Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, Number 36, Greenwood Press, New York • Westport, Connecticut • London, 1988.

 

Storm, William, After Dionysus, A Theory of the Tragic, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1998.

 

Vorlicky, Robert H., O'Neill's First Play: A Wife for a Life, The Eugene O’Neill Review, Editor: Frederick Wilkins, Suffolk University, Boston, Volume 20, Nos. 1 & 2, Spring/Fall 1996.

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