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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IV, No. 3
Winter, 1980


(IN THIS ISSUE)

THE SHIP SCENE IN THE EMPEROR JONES

The Gelbs, in their well-known biography, list the various ship scenes in O'Neill drama as bearing testimony to the deep impact that the playwright's voyage experiences had on his art.1 Quite understandably, though somewhat inconsiderately, they exclude Scene Six of The Emperor Jones from the list.2 In setting as well as in spirit, this scene stands out from all other nautical scenes in O'Neill as something unique, for it introduces the ship only as part of a vision encountered by Brutus Jones in the jungle. Obviously the Gelbs omit it because the ship here is sheer fantasy. But the meaning of this fantasy is not perhaps so simple as many take it to be, and for this reason a closer look at it may not be unavailing.

A major charge leveled against The Emperor Jones is that the implications of the visions in the forest are a little too obvious.3 This is, perhaps, not very true of the ship vision, and some critics, who have either not read the scene very closely or have ventured to infer its pattern from the preceding ones, have even lapsed into a few minor factual errors in their interpretations of it. Doris V. Falk, for example, fails to perceive that the vision consists of a ship and explains it merely as Jones lying down to rest, "surrounded by a group of savages--his ancestors--" in whose desperate wail he actively joins after an initial aversion.4 Clifford Leech, in his otherwise helpful summary, mistakenly assumes that Jones fires a shot at the spectacle of the slave ship,5 whereas in fact this is the only forest vision in the play in which Jones does not use the pistol at all.

What is the significance of this particular vision? That it is a projection of Jones's racial memories and forms a part of his compulsive psychic regression to the past is evident. From the descriptions of the Negroes as "sitting in crumpled, despairing attitudes" (p. 199), and also from the preceding slave market scene, it can be inferred that the Negroes are slaves being carried to the United States. But such an inference raises some difficult questions. A slave ship should have contained a few white men too as slave masters, and O'Neill's inclusion of white men in this scene would only have been in full conformity with the pattern of the earlier scenes. In Scene Four, for example, the laboring Negro prisoners are supervised by a white prison-guard. Scene Five similarly presents a mixture of black slaves brought for sale by white auctioneers and white planters who have come to buy them. In addition to conforming to this pattern of the earlier scenes, the presence of white figures on the vision-ship would further have invested the scene with an element of tension between the white and black cultures, which has all along prevailed in the play. O'Neill's exclusion of the white slave masters from the ship, despite all this, therefore appears to have been deliberate, and the reasons for it are worth investigating.

The first thing to be borne in mind in an interpretation of any scene in the play is that O'Neill's primary intention is not to trace the history of the Negroes as a series of visions but to dramatize the inevitable self-confrontation of an individual of that race through his psychological regression into the personal and atavistic past on an occasion of crisis. History is therefore only the basis, while regression is the essential meaning of the vision of the protagonist. This means that the emphasis in each vision has to fall not so much on the details of history as on the experience undergone by Jones in response to it.

In this connection, it is worth pointing out that even the Negroes in the ship are presented somewhat ambiguously, for their appearance does not fully confirm that they are slaves. They are not visibly fettered but create such an impression only by their gestures and postures:

They are sitting in crumpled, despairing attitudes, hunched, facing one another with their backs touching the forest walls as if they were shackled to them (p. 199, italics mine).

This vagueness of details cannot be explained away as something common to all visions in general because the other five visions in the play are all presented with the utmost clarity. In the prison-guard scene, for example, the Negroes are shown as "shackled to a heavy ball and chain" (p. 194). This is not to contend that the Negroes in the ship are not slaves simply because they are not chained or watched by slave masters. As a matter of fact, O'Neill himself mentions them as slaves retrospectively at the beginning of the next scene (p. 199f). The only point stressed here is that the vision lends itself to more than one level of perception. Taken as pure history, it certainly is the presentation of the voyage of Jones's ancestors from freedom to slavery; but as an experience, a psychic voyage can have implications other than history, and O'Neill's objective in making the historical details incomplete and vague appears to have been to suggest some deeper meanings which the voyage embodies.

A very obvious paradox, which persists in all the vision scenes of the play, is that every step of Jones's advance into the forest becomes a step backward into the past. In this respect, the visionary voyage, in which Jones also joins by taking his seat along with the other Negroes, has the impact on him of a mental regression from America to the Congo; and, strikingly enough, the ship scene functions as a chronological link between the vision of an American slave market and that of a sacrificial altar of the crocodile god in the Congo. The impression that the voyage scene, which is immediately followed by the Congo scene, creates in the audience is that the hero's mind is sailing its way back from the land of civilization to its original land of a primitive culture.

The vision of a few men of his own race voyaging together is, certainly, a revelation to Jones that he too should sail with them and thus accept his racial tradition and its code of beliefs. At least from Jones's behavior it is evident that the vision has upon him the impact of a revelation. His initial reaction to the spectacle of the voyage is one of terror and repulsion. Unable to stand the sight, he "throws himself down" (p. 199). But the next moment, "as if under some uncanny compulsion," he joins the others in the long wail of despair, and then rises to a sitting posture, swaying back and forth like the rest. Thus, after an initial attempt at evasion, he is, by strong subconscious drives, forced to identify himself as one among the Negroes in the ship, and in adopting the pose of a voyager he is in effect undergoing the experience of a mental Odyssey, of a regression to the Congo. Hence the vagueness of scenic details previously noted.

The meaning of a regressive, homeward sailing, as thus perceived in this vision on the basis of textual evidence, has the sanction of Jungian psychology as well. Jung conceives of water as an archetypal symbol of the soul itself and interprets the subconscious longing for a contact with it, manifested often in dreams of swimming or sailing, as suggesting the soul's need for repossessing a lost cultural legacy. He recounts two or three such dreams, dreamt by men on occasions of spiritual crisis, and concludes:

Therefore the way of the soul in search of its lost father--like Sophia seeking Bythos--leads to the water, to the dark mother that reposes at its bottom. Whoever has elected for the state of spiritual poverty ... goes the way of the soul that leads to the water. This water is no figure of speech but a living symbol of the dark psyche.6

Jones's psychological confrontation with the ship is very much like the dreams mentioned
by Jung and becomes an expression of his dormant desire to reinherit his native tradition--a tradition which he had rejected amidst his hectic pursuit of the superficial comforts of civilization. The need to embrace it is what forces him to identify himself with the sailors, instead of defensively shooting at them with the pistol as in all the other vision scenes.

--R. Viswanathan

1 Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), p. 157.

2 The Plays of Eugene O'Neill. 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1954-55), III,
pp. 198-99. This is the edition of the play used in this study and is the one to which subsequent parenthetical page numbers refer.

3 Barrett Clark says, for example, that "the play reveals itself at once."
Eugene O'Neill: The Man and His Plays (New York: Dover, 1947), p. 72. Clifford Leech similarly observes that the play "remains a diagram of regression; once perceived it has no more to offer." O'Neill (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1963), p. 40.

4 Doris V. Falk, Eugene O'Neill and the Tragic Tension (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1958), p. 40.

5 Clifford Leech, p. 39.

6 The Basic Writings of Carl Gustav Jung, trans. R.F.C. Hull, ed. with introd. Violet Staub De Laszlo (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 300.

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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