Background of “The Emperor Jones”

Background of “The Emperor Jones”

The World of the Fictional Play

Slaves auction. (Charles S. Galpin as Jones). (Scene 5.)
Slaves auction. (Charles S. Galpin as Jones). (Scene 5.)

The action of the play takes place on an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by white Marines. The form of native government is, for the time being, an empire”

Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones starts with the description of a world devoid of white influence. And in the second sentence of directions, that idea(l) is shattered by the mention of imperialism. This native, and perhaps naïve, world has managed to avoid all western influence except for the daunting empire briefly named. But that empire is not the dreadfully looming in the play, but rather quickly coming to an end as Brutus flees from his self-created and corrupted society. The Emperor Jones Expressionism captures the inevitability of confrontation for Brutus most clearly through the always present beating of a tom-tom drum.

From the distant hills comes the faint, steady thump of a tom-tom, low and vibrating. It starts at a rate exactly corresponding to a normal pulse beat–72 to the minute–and continues at a gradually accelerating rate at this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play”

This drum comes to represent that inability to escape. As Jones goes further and further into the forrest to escape the rebellion, the drum still follows, always faster, always nearer. As Jones remembers his past that he has run from, the drum draws closer. The inescapable encounter with his action and immorality is immanent. Jones goes into the forrest for the first time sure of his actions, sure of his escape. And yet, when he reemerges in the same spot from where he left, he no longer possesses that self-assurance present in the first scene with Smithers. As Alexander Woollcott wrote in his New York Times review of the original production: “the forrest has broken him.” Despite his broken spirit, his clammer for the mysticism he created remains as he is killed by the silver bullet that he prophesied to the natives.

The presence of the false mysticism is contrasted throughout the play by the presence of ghosts and other elements of magic. This admittedly untrue tale of Jones’ and the silver bullet appears first in the text only to be followed by Jones’ uncertainty at the world around him in the forrest. While at first Jones was able to convince the islanders of magical influence, now he (and the audience) also suffers from questioning his reality. Smithers criticizes the locals after they have killed Jones in proclaiming that they “s’pose (they) think it’s (their) bleedin’ charms and (their) silly beatin’ drum that made ‘im run in a circle when ‘e’d lost ‘imself” (Scene VIII). Very few physical constants exist in O’Neill’s Expressionistic text, but constants of theme and motivation do persist.

The play maintains an aura of mistrust and immorality throughout the play. However, the differentiating factor in O’Neill’s text is the complete awareness and acceptance of the wrong doings that are told of in the play. The very first interaction between Smithers and the servant of Jones’ creates an atmosphere of falsehood and surrounding awareness of said falsity. The servant is stealing away toward rebellion as Smithers observes her. When Brutus Jones finally enters, Smithers does not immediately inform Jones, but instead toys with him by asking if Jones thinks there will be a rebellion.

More than any other instance in the play, Jones’ answer here is definitive of the tone. Jones does not fain the personage of a successful, honest, or good Emperor, but instead admits that he knows soon there will be an uprising against him. However, he clings to safety because of his manipulation over his subjects. He recognizes his immoral actions and even embraces them to the point of boasting. He insists that his wrong doings will be profitable as soon as he leaves the island. The most striking is the complete lack of regret.

Later in the play we learn Jones came to be Emperor through the means of escaping the persecution he was facing in the United States. While he committed crimes, Jones still claimed to be the subject of unfair treatment. And yet, upon his arrival on the island, he emulates the subjugating nature of White America in his time. He does not attempt to correct this behavior at all, he performs it exactly as an attempt to gain riches before returning again to the States. Smithers, who Jones arrived to the Island with, exhibits the passive and diminutive behavior one would expect from a White observer of the situation.

Smithers, interestingly, does admit and show some respect for Jones. Though he abstains from assisting Jones in his escape or survival, Smithers still holds more respect for the Emperor because of Jones’ self awareness. Smithers abides in the continuation of the dominating White behavior that is now extrapolated to the West Indies by Jones. He pities and mocks the revolutionaries as they still hold to the truths that Jones exploited them with, mainly that Jones can only be killed by a silver bullet. However, his ambivalence at the death of Jones’ also suggests his incapacity to empathize with other races.

The world of this play is sewn with ambition and honesty. With those two in combination, however, the immoral deeds and motivation fail to condemn the characters enacting them as much as the society that produced such characters.

–John Knapp

Works Cited:

O’Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997. Print.

Woollcott, Alexander. “The New O’Neill Play.” The New York Times 07 Nov. 1920. Web. 10 April. 2014.


The World of the Playwright

World War I had already been over for just close to two years when The Emperor Jones first premiered in New York City on November 1, 1920.  World War I began on July 28, 1914, after an Austria-Hungary ultimatum to The Kingdom of Serbia expired. The ultimatum came after a young Serb named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.  This assassination was only the spark to ignite the growing tensions in Europe at this time. One of the reasons for the war was the rise of imperialism and European and American colonization of many overseas territories. The war ended with the allies victorious, and the war officially ended on November 11, 1918. Imperialism and colonization is portrayed in The Emperor Jones and is an influence in the story arch of the play.

Eugene O’Neill had said that a major influence for The Emperor Jones came from the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. The U.S. entered Haiti in order to protect U.S. interests in the Carribean, as well as to help control the conflict that had been occuring in the weak government that Haiti had. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the U.S. military to enter Haiti in 1915 to try and prevent the Germans from taking over the island during World War I. While in Haiti, the U.S. had installed puppet governments and ran many public works during the occupation, running the police force, health services, and agriculture. The U.S. also wrote Haiti a new constitution, with no help from any native Haitians. The U.S. Occupation of Haiti ended in 1934.

A purely American form of theater were minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were made up of white performers who performed in blackface in order to portray African American characters onstage, heavily relying on the stereotypes of African Americans that were known during this era. African Americans also had minstrel troupes, but they would often have to perform the racial stereotypes that the white actors made well known. Other than minstrel shows, African Americans did not have a theatrical genre to call their own or that wasn’t encouraging racial stereotypes. The Emperor Jones was groundbreaking for African Americans in the theater. This was the first play that had a black man play a leading role for a white theater company.This play was praised by the African American community, even though it was written by O’Neill, a white playwright, who still used lots of racial stereotypes. A New York Times review discussed the performance of Charles S. Gilpin, the man who played Brutus Jones. Alexander Woollcott said of Gilpin,

His is an uncommonly powerful and imaginative performance, in several respects unsurpassed this season in New York. Mr Gilpin is a negro.

The Emperor Jones is one of the first Expressionism plays in America. Expressionism is an art movement that was developed in Germany before World War I, and later in America. Expressionism is a modernist movement in which the writer seeks to express emotional experience rather than impressions of the external world. Traditional ideas of beauty and harmony are rejected and distortion, exaggeration, and other unnatural devices are used in order to express those inner emotions in the story. Even though O’Neill is cited as one of the first American dramatists to explore the genre of Expressionism, O’Neill himself said that The Emperor Jones was written “long before I had ever heard of Expressionism,”. According to Julia Walter in her book, Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theater: Bodies, Voices, Words, O’Neill’s denial of being influenced by Expressionist playwrights from Germany could have been due to the fact that there were still very tense relations with Germany during and after World War I.

-Katie Johns

Works Cited:

Dowling, Robert M. “Emperor Jones, The.” Critical Companion to Eugene O’Neill: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Facts On File, 2009. 146-57. Print.
Gainor, J. Ellen, Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner. “Theater in the United States.” The Norton Anthology of Drama. Vol. 2. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 58-60. Print.
Walker, Julia A. Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies, Voices, Words. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.
Woollcott, Alexander. “The New O’Neill Play.” The New York Times 07 Nov. 1920. Web. 10 April. 2014.
“Haiti: The US Occupation, 1915-1934.” Latin American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.