Eugene O'Neill
 

New York Times, November 7, 1920

The New O'Neill Play

By ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT

The Provincetown Players began their new season in Macdougal Street last week with the impetus of a new play by the as yet unbridled Eugene O’Neill, an extraordinarily striking and dramatic study of panic fear which is called “The Emperor Jones.”  It reinforces the impression that for strength and originality he has no rival among the American writers for the stage.

Though this new play of his is so clumsily produced that its presentation consists largely of long, unventilated intermissions interspersed with fragmentary scenes, it weaves a most potent spell, thanks partly to the force and cunning of the author, thanks partly in the admirable playing of Charles S. Gilpin in a title role so predominant that the play is little more than a dramatic monologue.  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 a burly darky from the States who has broken jail there and escaped as a stowaway to what the program describes as “a West Indian island not yet self-determined by white marines.”  There, thanks a good deal to the American business philosophy he had picked up as a half-preoccupied porter listening wide-eyed in the smoking rooms of the Pullman cars back home, he is sufficiently bold, ingenious and unscrupulous to make himself ruler within two years.  He has moved unharmed among his sullen subjects by virtue of a legend of his invention that only a silver bullet could harm in – this part of the play, at least, is not Mr. O’Neill’s invention – but now, when he has squeezed from his domain just about all the wealth it will yield, he suspects it would be well for him to take flight.  As the play begins, the measured sound of a beating tom-tom in the hills gives warning that the natives are in conclave there, using all manner of incantations to work up their courage to the point of rebellion.

The hour of Emperor Jones has come, and nightfall finds him already at the edge of the distant forest, through whose trackless waste he knows a way to safety and freedom.  He has food hidden there and, anyway, his revolver carries five bullets for his enemies and one of silver for himself in case he is ever really cornered.

It is a bold, self-reliant adventurer who strikes out into the jungle at sunset.  It is a confused, broken, naked, half-crazed creature who, at dawn, stumbles blindly back to his starting place, only to find the natives calmly waiting there to shoot him down with bullets they have been piously molding according to his own prescription.

The forest has broken him.  Full of strange sounds and shadows, it conjures up visions of his own and his ancestral past.  These haunt him, and it each crises of fear he fires wildly into the darkness and goes crashing on through the underbrush, losing his way, wasting all of his defense, signaling his path, and waking a thousand sinister echoes to work still more upon his terrible fear.

It begins with the rattle of invisible dice in the darkness, and then, as in a little clearing, he suddenly sees the squatting darky he had slain back home in a gamblers’ quarrel.  He plunges on, but only to find himself once more strangely caught in the old chain gang, while the guard cracks that same whip whose stinging lash had goaded him to another murder.  Then, as his fear quickens, the forest fills with old-fashioned people who stare at him and bid for him.  They seem to be standing him on some sort of block.  They examine his teeth, test his strength, flex his biceps.  The scene yields only to the galley of a slave ship, and h is own cries of terror take up the rhythmic lamentation of his people.  Finally, it is a race memory of old Congo fears which drives him shrieking back through the forest to the very clearing whence he had started and where now his death so complacently awaits him.

From first to last, through all of the agonizing circle of his flight, he is followed by the dull beat, beat, beat, of the tom-tom, ever nearer, ever faster, till it seems to be playing an ominous accompaniment to his mounting panic.  The heightening effect of this device is much as you might imagine.

The Provincetown Players have squanderously invested in cushions for their celebrated seats and a concrete dome to catch and dissolve their lights, so that even on their little stage they can now get such illusions of distance and the wide outdoors as few of their uptown rivals can achieve.  But of immeasurably greater importance in their present enterprise, they have acquired an actor, one who has it in him to invoke the pity and the terror and indescribable foreboding which are part of the secret of “The Emperor Jones.”

 

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