New York Times, November 7, 1920
The New O'Neill Play
By ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com