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The Emperor Jones

1920

The action of The Emperor Jones is played over the constant beat of a tom-tom, first heard as Brutus Jones, the former Pullman porter, decides the time has come for him to escape from the vengeance of the exploited natives of the West Indian Island on which he has created his "empire." O'Neill said that the idea for the drum came to him from the pounding of blood in his ears when he was down with malaria fever during a gold-prospecting expedition in Honduras. True or not, the device made for exciting theatre. The drum is the sound of the voodoo magic of the unseen pursuers haunting Jones as he runs through the jungle. O'Neill is specific as to how it is to be played. It is to begin at a normal pulse beat 72 to the minute and increase slowly in tempo without interruption to a frenzied moment when Jones is ambushed and shot. At this point the sound stops abruptly. The tom-tom was one of O'Neill's most sensational attempts to involve his audiences deeply in the action of the play, and it became the subject of commentary, both laudatory and satiric, for years after it was first heard.

In addition to the tom-tom, O'Neill calls for a choric wail of lamentation from the slaves in the apparition of the slave ship in scene 6 and a "monotonous croon without word di-visions" from the witch doctor in scene 7. Both, presumably, are to be improvised.

In letters to his lawyer, Harry Weinberger, dated June 4 and July 9, 1933, O'Neill stated that in a revival of the play at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1924, music was added. Paul Robeson starred in the revival and, said O'Neill, "sang part of 'John Henry,' chain gang song, also (I think) a snatch of spiritual." Although "John Henry" is not about a chain gang, O'Neill's comment suggests that Robeson sang it in scene 4, the chain gang sequence, when Jones joins in the work of the phantom convicts.


John Henry - traditional ca. 1873

 

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