The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones

(First Called The Silver Bullet)

Charles S. Gilpin as Jones fires at the auctioneer and the planter. (Scene 5.)
The first production of The Emperor Jones. Charles S. Gilpin as Jones fires at the auctioneer and the planter. (Scene 5.)

Written by Eugene O’Neill



HENRY SMITHERS, a Cockney Trader


LEM, a Native Chief

SOLDIERS, adherents of Lem

Defiance by Aaron Douglas for The Emperor Jones production

The Little Formless Fears; Jeff; The Negro Convicts; The Prison Guard; The Planters; The Auctioneer; The Slaves; The Congo Witch-Doctor; The Crocodile God

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.


Dear Director,

The play you are about to approach is one filled with a strong history born from American culture that grew during the modernization of the 1920s. Issues of racism, and corruption fill this story with the heavy weight of tragedy. Modern tragedy, according to O’Neill, is the psychological kind that eats away at a human. We cannot escape our doomed fate or our history that has been built by a western civilization that tells humanity to conquer and control those around you. This history is told through the story of the main character Brutus Jones, an African American Pullman car porter who has traveled to an island in the Southern Pacific and named himself the emperor of the tribal villagers. The play begins with Brutus Jones fleeing from the tribes which have risen up to murder him. Thinking he can escape he runs into a jungle hoping to reach a boat on the other side. A gun with silver bullets is his only form of protection but his bullets are quickly wasted as he relives his past through hallucinations which cause him to pull the trigger in fear. He is unable to escape and loses his life to the tribal villagers he had once controlled.

The play sets up a African American male who has experienced imperialism first hand through the oppression of prison. It also sets up the African Americans experience through hallucinations or visions that Jones has. Jones experiences himself at a slave auction, face to face with a crocodile god and a, “Congo witch doctor who wore the traditional tribal mask” (Gleb 495). O’Neill creates a reflection of our society by causing us to see an African American in power only to lose it through a rebellion against his empire. Brutus should not be blamed, for everything he knows was given to him by white civilization which is a narrative created through slavery. This play is in a sense Jones’ journey through his past and “it is a kind of unfolding, in the reverse order, of the epic of the American Negro” (Clark 57). Brutus is unable to relinquish himself to his history or his own identity and this is what brings about his downfall. The play details his struggle as we see and hear him relive his own story. “Far from representing Jones as a stereotypical stage Negro driven by a fear of ghosts, O’Neill was using the character to explore the nature of human fear” (Murphy 181).

The Emperor Jones was the first play to feature an African American man in a lead role. This allowed a black man to finally live in a role that did not submit him to bowing down before others. It was a role filled with strength and power and while the language might shock some O’Neill was hoping to focus more “its attempt to see a black protagonist not simply as a natural primitive but in terms of a larger human tragedy” (Murphy 181). Today the discussion of race will need to play an important role because we are always in fear of offending someone. However I would hesitate to change the language or dialect because it would remove the character of Brutus Jones from his past. He did not grow up in a cultured society so he hasn’t learned to speak with a proper accent. In fact his language comments on how little he has gotten from American culture. However, this culture is the only one he knows and the fear of letting go of this identity in order to live through his African roots scares him. What Jones has been taught is that as an African American he has no power. White males were considered masculine not black males at the time Emperor Jones was written. His refusal to relinquish his power or guilt could be equated to a white man’s privileges and guilt toward slavery. Maybe Jones was really trying to escape from a world where he couldn’t win and his death was a form of redemption.

The play digs deep into the psychology of what we fear as humans. I believe that O’Neill wanted us to know the fear that is caused by the lose of our identity. At the beginning of the twentieth century modernization and industrialization were vastly changing the landscape of American society. “His plays embodied the ideas and conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, assimilated its advances in dramatic art and theatrical technique, and expressed its uneasy aspirations toward tragic insights and dramatic vision” (Gassner 6). The Emperor Jones could be a warning against the lust found in materialistic desire. Jones’ own lose of all his property and even the actual stripping of his figure as he wanders through the jungle might be asking us to let go of any materialistic notions. It could also be a warning against our greed for power because of the unwillingness of white society to level themselves with African Americans.

Emperor Jones was Eugene O’Neill’s first attempt at the stylistic form of expressionism because of his growing interest in the human psyche. The use of fear played a big role in forming the expressionism by allowing us to see into the mind of the character Brutus Jones. Single character thought and stream of consciousness are examples of expressionism. Other examples in Emperor Jones were the use of drums which never ceased throughout the play until the end. In an introduction by A. R Gurney he hints at the connection between the drums and expressionism. “The offstage tom-tom beat in The Emperor Jones, which, according to O’Neill’s stages directions “starts at a rate exactly corresponding to a normal pulse beat…and continues at a gradually accelerating rate…to the end of the play,” is not only an ingenious attempt to establish a physiological synchronicity between actor and audience, but also becomes an image for the inescapable pull of Jones’s African roots as he wades deeper and deeper into his psychological and historical beginnings” (12).

Since the drums are heard by both the audience and the character, expressionism allows us to imagine that we are inside the mind of the character. The constant scene changes that flow from one to the next as well as the mystical occurrences shape an experience that only becomes believable because of the state of mind that the character is in. The use of this expressionistic style as well as the other forms O’Neill used allowed this play to reach popularity in 1920 even when it was well in a category of its own.

O’Neill also attracted attention with two styles of theater rather than one, being equally adept in the styles of realism and expressionism, and with two radically disproportionate types of drama, since he was equally effective in one-act plays and in cyclopean dramas twice the length of modern plays. His search for expressive form, in his case a combination of private compulsions and public ambitions to incorporate modern ideas and notions about life and dramatic art, led him to undertake numerous experiments with symbolic figures, masks, interior monologues, split personalities, choruses, scenic effects, rhythms, and schematizations.” (Gassner 5).

Through all these experiments that first began in Emperor Jones, O’Neill was able to develop himself into the playwright that completed a number of plays on the psychological aspects of human relationships. It also helped him mold his particular taste for modern tragedies.

When staging this production today one should stay true to the expressionistic form that allows us to imagine we are a part of Brutus Jones’ mind. This is crucial into making the play less about race and more about humankind’s own insecurities. However race should not be ignored as well as the history that is presented through Jones’ visions. The use of rebellion against imperialism could be used in a fashion to comment on the current issues going on in the Middle East, as well as in Ukraine and Russia. Perhaps you might play Brutus as a homosexual athlete fleeing from discrimination after the result of Russia’s new anti-gay law. Or perhaps the play takes place on a plantation farm where Brutus has set himself up as the emperor of the slaves and the white character Henry Smithers is just trying to get rid of those most powerful. I believe setting this play in a futuristic world would create an interesting juxtaposition to the language used. Expressionistic qualities could dictate a digital world that has little structure and has trapped characters within their own digitally consumed minds.

Eugene O’Neill during an interview from Eugene O’Neill by Barrett H. Clark:
Eugene O’Neill during an interview from Eugene O’Neill by Barrett H. Clark:
Eugene O’Neill during an interview from Eugene O’Neill by Barrett H. Clark:

The idea of The Emperor Jones came from an old circus man I knew. This man told me a story current in Hayti 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. 

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 (57).

Boughton, Alice. Portrait of Eugene O’Neill. N.d. Eugene O’Neill Wikipedia. Web.

Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill; The Man and His Plays. New York: Robert M. Mac Bride &, 1927. Print.

Clark, Mary Dale, and Vandamm Studio. N.d. NYPL Digital Gallery- The Emperor Jones. Web.

Douglas, Aaron. Defiance. 1926. Beyond the Blues. Copyright © 2009 Amistad Research Center, Inc. Web.

Gassner, John. Eugene O’Neill. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1965. Print.

Murphy, Brenda. The Provincetown Players and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

Page Authored by Ben Swenson-Klatt