Commentary by Eugene O’Neill
The United States occupation of Haiti was an influence on O’Neill’s writing of The Emperor Jones. In an interview found in Barret H. Clark’s book, Eugene O’Neill, The Man and His Plays, O’Neill discusses where he got the inspiration to write The Emperor Jones,
The idea of The Emperor Jones came from an old circus man I knew. This man told me a story current in Haiti conceding 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. About six months later I got the idea of the woods, but I could’t see how it could be done on the stage, and I passed it up again.
O’Neill incorporated the use of a tom-tom drum to propel the action of the play forward. When researching the play, O’Neill made a discovery about traditions at feasts in the Congo.
A year elapsed. One day I was reading of the religious feasts in the Congo and the uses to which the drum is put there: how it starts at a normal pulse and is slowly intensified until the heart-beat of every one present corresponds to the frenzied beat of the drum. There was an idea and an experiment. How would this sort of things on an audience in a theater? The effect of the tropical forest on the human imagination was honestly come by. It was the result of my own experiences while prospecting for gold in Spanish Honduras.