Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. III, No. 3
January, 1980



The Emperor Jones has long been regarded as something of a limited experiment, a tour de force, a probing of the "racial unconscious," a study of atavism and Jungian archetypes, or a documentary of the "Negro mind." Even among O'Neill's more recent and sophisticated critics there is an uneasiness about the play. John Henry Raleigh plainly calls it a "Negro play."1 Timo Tiusanen sees it as a play about "racial memories," a "study of atavistic fear."2 Travis Bogard worries about its "essential racism" and dismisses the thematic interest of the work as basically that of an "ethnic study."3 I propose to argue that O'Neill intended to suggest a great deal more.

"The idea for The Emperor Jones," O'Neill reported, "came from an old circus man I knew ... [who] had been traveling with a tent show through the West Indies. He told me a story current in Haiti concerning the late President Sam. This was to the effect that Sam had said they'd never get him with a lead bullet; that he would get himself first with a silver one.... This notion about the silver bullet struck me, and I made a note of the story."4 In this fragment of a legend, I wish to suggest, beyond its immediate appeal as anecdote, lay the germ of O'Neill's idea for a tragic romance of American history. Its hero would be an Afro-American corrupted by the mercantile mentality of the whites who had enslaved his ancestors, and his flight from the natives on his West Indian island would symbolize a disintegrating culture confronting again the forest primeval that had always haunted its dreams.

My argument rests on the assumption that O'Neill's purpose in The Emperor Jones is best understood when theories of racial psychology are discounted and when the play is set in the context of his sustaining effort of the twenties—an attempt to invent a mythic framework for American history incorporating Nietzsche's insights concerning Greek tragedy and culture.

In The Birth of Tragedy, a book that greatly affected O'Neill, Nietzsche writes that the Greeks, more than any other people, knew and felt the terrors of existence. In order to live at all, they invented the shimmering fantasy of the serene Olympians, chief among them the god Apollo. The same impulse gave rise to art, which, through the creation of pleasurable illusions, seduced the Greeks to a continuation of life. However, as a people the Greeks were fully aware of their subliminations and during their dramatic festivals succumbed once again to the self-oblivion of the Dionysian state:

Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but nature which has become alienated, hostile, or subjugated, celebrates once more her reconciliation with her lost son, man.... Now the slave is a free man: now all the rigid, hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or "impudent convention" have fixed between man and man are broken.5

Through tragedy, a discharge of Dionysian insights in Apollonian images, the Greeks were able to transform their pessimism into passion and idealism. As a result, Athens in the fifth century B.C. gave birth to the greatest age of art and culture that the world had known. But then, with the drama of Euripides, Greek myth collapsed and the final stage of Greek culture appeared: the age of Socrates. A tragic and artistic culture found itself supplanted by a theoretical culture that Nietzsche refers to slightingly as "Alexandrian." Our "modern" culture is a continuation of that event, which began with the enthronement of rationalism.

What makes The Emperor Jones interesting in this connection is O'Neill's attempt to fuse a Nietzschean perspective with the myth of an American Eden. In O'Neill's view, expressed throughout his career but especially in his early work, the New World, stretching to the ocean with its endless forests, offered a promise of renewal (Beyond the Horizon), an opportunity for European culture to shed its masks and to regain its Dionysian energy and wholeness (The Fountain, The Hairy Ape). Yet through material acquisitiveness—not rationalism, as Nietzsche had it—the dream was dashed (Marco Millions). Instead of reuniting man with nature and dissolving the boundaries separating one man from another, the American experience only reinforced the loneliness and competitiveness of the stark soul (Diff'rent, All God's Chillun Got Wings). The mania for owning things (Desire Under the Elms) divided individuals and reestablished under terms of new social relations all those hostile barriers that necessity, caprice, or convention may fix between one human being and another. In the terror of that loneliness, made vivid by the backdrop of the great, dark forests, Americans grew evermore ingrown and repressive (Mourning Becomes Electra). Moreover, instead of rediscovering the possibility of tragic art as the robust manifestation of desperate culture (The Great God Brown), Americans fled for solace to melodrama or the sentimental stage.

In this context we can better understand why in the twenties O'Neill was always talking of getting back as far as it was possible in modern times to the Dionysian origin of theater.6 But from a Marxian perspective it might be argued that O'Neill's reliance on Nietzsche for a framework of historical analysis was unfortunate. For whatever its value as a literary document, The Birth of Tragedy—indeed a work of psychological insight—completely avoids economic discussion and thus ignores the extent to which the material basis of Greek society may have been responsible for the conditions of tragic art and the culture that produced it. No doubt the "terrors of existence" experienced by the Greeks must have been to some degree economic as well as metaphysical, but Nietzsche is uninterested in this aspect of reality. With Nietzsche it is important to underline that only "under the charm of the Dionysian"—that is, only through the experience of tragic art and its complement of pleasurable illusion—does the slave become a free man; only in contrast to quotidian reality (Greece was, after all, a slave-owning society) is the primal union between man and man affirmed. Despite the ontogenetic title of his essay, Nietzsche is more interested in the affects of tragedy than in its origin. As an aesthetician he is original and brilliant, but as a historian his focus is dangerously narrow. Slavery is not simply a psychological phenomenon.

By contrast, however, O'Neill's mythologizing of American history does at least contain a basis in economic and historic specificity. Although O'Neill claimed to be little interested in political problems and would have described himself as anything but a materialist, he was above all a moralist, and for the moralist—liberal or Marxist—there remains one glaring issue in American history that cannot be ignored: the bondage of an entire people, an economic institution located precisely in time and place. As an American dramatist O'Neill was determined to explore the psychological effects of such a perverse social arrangement on both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Thus, while The Emperor Jones may be described as O'Neill's first real attempt to deal with tragedy in Nietzsche's terms, the play at the same time documents his first attempt to deal conceptually with American experience as a whole. Indeed, like Yank Smith, Jim Harris, Ephraim Cabot, Dion Anthony, and other characters to follow, Brutus Jones is animated by Nietzsche's Dionysian pulse, a force surging beneath the twentieth century's mask of shrewdness and materialism. Like so many other O'Neill characters, Jones is at once an incarnation and a destroyer of this vital force. But what is significant here is that his journey on stage is one into history as well as into the unconscious, a flight backwards in time toward the uncovering of the original sin that, in O'Neill's view, marred the Edenic harmony of the New World. That sin was slavery: the possession of those who cleared the wilderness as well as of the wilderness itself. In this respect, then, O'Neill is not exploring in The Emperor Jones "the collective unconscious of the American Negro" so much as he is exploring the collective conscience of Americans. To O'Neill Jones is America almost in the same sense that Oedipus "is" Thebes. He therefore is a character invested with tremendous dignity and power, entrusted to embrace and purge a moral plague afflicting not simply his little island empire, but the spirit of the nation that corrupted him. Brutus, O'Neill begs us to remember, "has a way of carrying it off."

Jones's opening speech ("Who dare wake up de Emperor?"7) already is an invitation to unmasking, the first step into a spiritual enclosure from which there is no exit. Unlike Oedipus, Jones is wily but incapable of introspection. This may be a flaw in the play's structure, for it mars the action by eliminating the possibility of the protagonist acquiring complete self-knowledge. Yet O'Neill's goal is for his hero to spark a shock of recognition in the spectator. Toward this end Brutus is thrust into a series of encounters which eventually lead him back, like Oedipus, toward the hidden meaning of his past. In O'Neill's play Jones's "messengers" are his visions.

This progressive uncovering of identity is pre-figured symbolically in the pattern of color imagery set forth in the opening scene. The entire setting is a projected wish fulfillment of Jones's power-craving self. His place is situated on "high ground with "bare, white-washed walls," white floor tiles, and a "portico with white pillars." The other major color in the decor is the "eye-smiting scarlet" of the painted throne, a huge chair made of uncut wood. The palace carpet is bright scarlet; so are Jones's trousers. But red also is the color of the native woman's bandana handkerchief, Smithers' nose when colored by the "native rum," and the painted body of the witch doctor who accosts Jones in the forest. Scarlet, then, suggests the Dionysian phase of Jones's divided nature, linking him not only with a lost past, but with the vitality of the native community over which he presumes to rule. The extent to which Jones has estranged himself from that community is revealed by his having to ask Smithers, the white trader, the meaning of the drums that have awakened him. Smithers, who functions as the play's ironic chorus, has to tell him, "That means the bleedin' ceremony 'as started" (I, p. 14).

Jones's purpose is to outwit the natives by taking refuge in the forest. ("Trees an' me, we'se friends.") He scoffs at the power of their heathen witch doctors ("De Baptist church done pertect me and land dem all in hell"), although, business being business, "I'se after de coin, an' I lays my Jesus on de shelf for de time bein'" (I, p. 15). Should all else fail, he will bank on a myth of his own creation (invented earlier to keep the natives awed) that he can be killed only by a silver bullet. He has five lead bullets in his revolver "good enuff fo' common bush niggers—and after dat I got de silver bullet left to cheat 'em out o' gittin' me" (I, p. 14). At the very least he will die unbowed as befitting an emperor—in the height of style.

But no sooner does Jones enter "the Great Forest" than he is lost, the supposedly friendly trees now "enormous pillars of deeper blackness." "Can't tell nothin' from dem trees! Gorry, nothin' round heah looks like I evah seed it befo'" (II, p. 17). Jones is correct in more ways than he can understand, for he has entered now a symbolic forest of the psyche, endowed, as it were, in Nietzsche's words, with the power to discharge itself ever anew in a dream world of Apollonian images. (In the stage directions for Scene IV, the forest specifically is granted volitional powers; it stands aside momentarily "to let the road pass through and accomplish its veiled purpose. This done, the forest will fold in upon itself again and the road will be no more.") What follows may have been suggested by this passage in The Birth of Tragedy:

In several successive discharges this primal ground of tragedy radiates this vision of the drama which is by all means a dream apparition and to that extent epic in nature; but on the other hand, being the objectification of a Dionysian state, it represents not Apollonian redemption through mere appearance, but, on the contrary, the shattering of the individual and his fusion with primal being. (BT, p. 65)

As Jones begins to hallucinate, his mask of Apollonian control progressively is shattered, and Dionysian ritual takes over. "Woods," the Emperor asks defiantly, "is you tryin' to put somethin' ovah on me?" (II, p. 20).

Equally important, the forest into which Jones has wandered is symbolically American, a mythic testing ground toward which characters have been drawn since the earliest days of our national literature. As John Henry Raleigh points out, O'Neill is very much an American writer, and for American writers the wilderness is mythical.8 It is always in the forest where masks are shed, where truth breaks out. The play may be set in the West Indies, and its conception may be Nietzschean, but along with Cooper, Hawthorne, Twain and Faulkner, we have visited this place before. (It can be said in passing that O'Neill's symbolic portrait of a self-absorbed protagonist, alone in the forest, cut off from the community and searching for the meaning of experience, is prefigured in Cooper's "Leather-Stocking" novels, Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and Henry Fleming's flight in The Red Badge of Courage; while it also anticipates Nick Adams in "Big Two-Hearted River" and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! crashing through the woods in pursuit of his strayed architect.) For O'Neill the forest represents the loss of self-assurance. It contains also the glimmer of a golden past.

When Jones fires his pistol at the first apparition, "The Little Formless Fears," he initiates a pattern that contributes directly to his inevitable downfall. Each time he fires he illustrates a refusal to face truth. In this lies the great irony of the plot, for Jones's determination not to submit to the revelations of his visions only drives him deeper into the forest and brings him closer to the brink of panic. At the end Jones wastes his silver bullet, the symbol of his myth-making ability, his creative imagination, by firing at the apparition of the crocodile—the final clue to his identity. That croc, O'Neill suggests, is the symbolic epiphany of the false god Mammon, upon whose altar Jones has sacrificed throughout his life: "the long green," a perversion of the green life force of the forest. "I gives it to 'em an' I gits de money. (With a grin) De long green, dat's me every time!" (I, p. 7). In the end the natives mimic their emperor's ingenuity and hoist him with his own petard. As Lem tells Smithers: "Lead bullet no kill him. He got um strong charm. I cook um money, make um silver bullet, make um strong charm, too" (VIII, p. 34).

Jones's journey into the forest, then, is a journey of missed opportunities, a series of failures to discover the reality of his condition. But as the dream sequences progress, his personal encounters are transformed into a ritual pattern of communal significance. His encounter with Jeff, the Pullman porter, is a first step in this direction. Jones had killed Jeff in a dice game in which Jeff had cheated for "the long green." Jones, too, has cheated the island's natives for "the long green," but he "remurders" Jeff's apparition, repressing its significance rather than confronting it. In the following scene he reenacts his error by firing at the white overseer of the chain gang instead of pausing to determine what he too may have meant to the formation of his character. The "white debil" actually is a key to Jones's will to power, his "Emperor Self"; but again he simply fires at the apparition.

In the next scene, perhaps the most important in the play, Jones's stature as a communal representative grows clearer. He stumbles into a large circular clearing in which a slave auction is being held, the ghostly figures of the scene all dressed in Southern costumes of the 1850's. "The planters raise their fingers, make their bids. They are apparently all eager to possess Jones," the stage directions tell us—thus laying bare the key to the whole enterprise. As O'Neill has written elsewhere:

I'm going on the theory that the United States, instead of being the most successful country in the world, is the greatest failure.... Its main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it, too. America is the prime example of this because it happened so quickly and with such immense resources. This was really said in the Bible much better. We are the greatest example of "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own, soul?"9

Jones is an embodiment of that original violation of America's communal spirit, the introduction of slavery (the vilest manifestation of the profit motive) to a fresh and vital land. In O'Neill's eyes he is both victim and victimizer, for he has reenacted that original violation by enslaving the natives of his West Indian empire. He has tried to redeem his wounded selfhood by adopting the mask of his oppressors, but in thus attempting to possess his soul, he has corrupted the vital force sustaining it—beyond redemption. Here Jones attains at least a glimmer of recognition, for he seems on the verge of beginning to understand the meaning of his past: "I knows I done wrong, I knows it!" (V, p. 26). Yet once again he panics and fires his revolver at the Planter and the Auctioneer.

In the final scenes, however, Jones's power-craving fantasies are destroyed, and he is transformed into an agent of ritual purgation compelled to submit to the mysterious Force in the forest that is determining his destiny. Stripped to a breech cloth, he mingles his own voice with a chorus of slaves chanting in the hold of a ghostly slave ship, divorced from time, drifting forever toward a New World yet untainted. This time he does not fire. The apparition fades of its own accord, but Jones no longer may be considered, a free agent. "The expression of his face is fixed and stony, his eyes have an obsessed glare, he moves with a strange deliberation like a sleepwalker or one in a trance" (VII, p. 30). He has evidently reached his final destination, an altar at the foot of a "sacred tree" by the edge of a great river.

Here the Congo Witch Doctor materializes and summons Jones by his motions "to allay the fierceness of some implacable deity, demanding sacrifice" by joining in his dance (VII, p. 31). Still hypnotized, Jones participates with Dionysian frenzy until "the whole spirit and meaning of the dance has entered into him, has become his spirit" (VII, p. 32). At the climax of the dance the Witch Doctor offers Jones salvation by commanding him to sacrifice himself to the force embodied by the crocodile—and then the spell is broken, the journey truncated. In anguish Jones cries out to Jesus to save him, but the white man's god proves false. "Immediately in answer to his prayer, comes the thought of the one bullet left him" (VII, p. 32). The silver bullet reserved for his own suicide thus is fired at the croc, and, helpless now, robbed of his dignity, Jones is caught and murdered by the natives. They find him at the place where he originally entered the forest; apparently he had gone round in a circle.

At this point one might object that if O'Neill truly intended the play to represent a criticism of American values, he could have made Jones a more acquiescent, sympathetic figure, a victim rather than a self-destroyer. But from his earliest one-act plays up to and including his late autobiographical masterpieces, O'Neill remained incapable of writing thesis drama. "The tragic alone," he would argue, "has that significant beauty which is truth. It is the meaning of life—and the hope."10 By "the tragic" O'Neill clearly meant that drama of character (not situation) in which disaster, representative and communally significant, stems from excessive power-craving and misguided strength (not from excessive weakness and naivety). In a series of plays including The Emperor Jones, Desire Under the Elms, The Great God Brown, Marco Millions, Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, and A Touch of the Poet, O'Neill sought to create a grouping of American characters who, through their own self-aggrandizement and visions of "Manifest Destiny," illustrate the tragic pattern of American life.

To be sure, even when judged on its own terms as an American tragedy, The Emperor Jones is not a fully realized success. Jones lacks the power to articulate his vision, and despite the play's symbolic bravura, his journey fails in its ultimate endeavor to unite a fragmented community and spark a rekindling of the spirit. Another corrupt emperor (probably Lem) will take Brutus' place. In this sense O'Neill's design falls short of emulating the lofty vision of the Greeks. The tragic hero, Nietzsche writes, "though every law, every natural order, even the moral world may perish through his actions, ... [also produces] a higher magical circle of effects which found a new world on the ruins of the old one that has been overthrown. That is what the poet wants to say to us insofar as he is at the same time a religious thinker" (BT, p. 68). O'Neill does not pretend to offer himself as a religious thinker, and his sense of pessimistic irony prevents him, at this early stage of his career, from arriving at any positive affirmation. It could be said, too, that O'Neill's vision of American history, replete with a lost Eden and original sin, is overly simplistic.

But it is a mistake to impute to the play a racial intention that O'Neill never would have endorsed. Granted, there are uncomfortable moments when filaments of stereotyped speech enlace the monologues. The play is obviously a work of the early twenties and might have been written differently (for example, without dialect) at a later date. Still, I have tried to demonstrate that for O'Neill The Emperor Jones explores not racial psychology—if by that term one means "black psychology" as opposed to "white"—but the nature of the American past. Like Yank of The Hairy Ape, who speaks a working-class, "white" dialect, Brutus was intended to represent all of us. "Yank," O'Neill wrote, "is really yourself, and myself.... But, apparently, very few people seem to get this. They have written, picking out one thing or another in the play, 'how true' it is. But no one has said, 'I am Yank. Yank is my own self.'"11 So it is with Brutus Jones, the first in a line of tragic protagonists of several races and nationalities who, in O'Neill's eyes, share in common the American fault: desire to possess. It is interesting to note that at his death O'Neill left unfinished a cycle of plays about American history the title of which, A Tale of Possessors, Self-Dispossessed indicates the theme that most preoccupied him. The Emperor Jones prefigures and possibly encapsulates that great, unwritten project. It would be a pity if the play were lost to the American stage as the result of misperceived intentions.

--Michael Hinden

1 The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965), p. 107.

2 O'Neill's Scenic Images (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 107, p. 111.

3 Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O'Neill (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 139.

4 Barbara and Arthur Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Delta, 1964), p. 438.

5 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967), p. 36. Additional references are cited parenthetically in the text. O'Neill's debt to Nietzsche is well documented, though Nietzschean ideas have not generally been applied to The Emperor Jones. For an extended discussion of the influence of The Birth of Tragedy on O'Neill's plays of the twenties, see my essay, "The Birth of Tragedy and The Great God Brown," Modern Drama (September, 1973), pp. 129-140.

6 Gelb, op. cit., p. 520.

7 Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill (New York: Modern Library, 1954), The Emperor Jones, Scene I, p. 6. Additional references to the play are cited parenthetically in the text.

8 See Raleigh's chapter, "O'Neill as an American Writer," in The Plays of Eugene O'Neill, op. cit. Oddly, Raleigh does not consider The Emperor Jones in his otherwise excellent discussion of O'Neill and history in the same volume.

9 Quoted in Barrett Clark, Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947), pp. 152-153.

10 Quoted in Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin and William J. Fisher, ed., O'Neill and His Plays: Four Decades of Criticism (New York: New York University Press, 1963), p. 104.

11 Quoted in Toby Cole, Playwrights on Playwriting (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 236.



© Copyright 1999-2007