On the night of November 1, 1920, The Emperor Jones took O’Neill and the Provincetown Players beyond any horizon they had envisioned. Against Cook’s plaster dome, moving in chiaroscuro through Cleon Throckmorton’s silhouetted setting, and energized by the performances of Charles Gilpin and Jasper Deeter, the play amply repaid the faith that had been lavished upon it. It was proof that the Players had fostered a truly American playwright; it was proof that O’Neill’s dedication to his art was in fact a true vocation; and it demonstrated conclusively that there was an untouched world of theatre yet to be explored in America. What Beyond the Horizon had suggested—that an ordinary American could become a subject of pathetic concern and on occasion could rise to the height of a tragic figure—was abundantly demonstrated in the account of the rise and fall of Brutus Jones. Moreover, the technical excitements of the play, with its drums, its sustained monologue, its rapidly shifting settings framed into a single desperate action were almost blinding in their virtuosity and in their assurance of important theatrical things to come. Not only the literate American drama, but the American theatre came of age with this play.
The play was an overnight success. The Provincetown had had no experience with a run-away hit and coped bewilderedly with the long lines waiting to buy tickets the morning after the opening. Operating on a subscription system, the box office sold a thousand subscriptions during the first week of the run, and extra performances were scheduled to accommodate the demand. By late December, the little playhouse was overwhelmed, and under the management of Adolph Klauber, the play moved to an uptown engagement, somewhat hesitantly offered at a series of special matinees like those with which Beyond the Horizon had been launched. The matinees were scheduled for December 27, 28, 30 and 31, and again the play triumphed. The special engagement was extended for five weeks, until on January 29, it began a regular run, that climaxed with a two-year road tour.1
The success was the rock on which the Players foundered, yet their demise was inevitable from the very nature of their idealism. More important in considering the development of O’Neill’s work is that The Emperor Jones, while it confirmed O’Neill’s direction and justified his dedication, set him on a path that at its farthest end was to prove artistically perilous. For with the play, O’Neill accepted the dicta of the American Art Theatre movement and began to write plays that moved far from his realistic style. He became a writer from whom “experiment” was expected, and one who would sometimes put the dictates of style over the development of theme and character.
The Emperor Jones charts a difficult course between expressionism and realism. In its inception, it was little different from the realistic plays of the past. The figure of Brutus Jones was suggested, O’Neill said, by the character of a bartender he had known, but other acquaintances and the figures of Henri Christophe and Haiti’s President Sam, who, like Jones, had a silver bullet, contributed elements to the portrait. A prospecting expedition to Honduras in 1909 gave O’Neill a sense of the reality of a jungle, and he claimed that the pulse of blood in his eardrums during a bout with malaria on that trip gave him the idea of the drum beat used throughout the play.2 Another important influence was a book of photographs of primitive African sculpture by Charles Sheeler.3
The parallels between The Emperor Jones and Peer Gynt are many and specific. Both plays are about fugitives, running in desperation through the shards of their lives toward a dimly seen salvation whose discovery depends on their learning their essential identities. Much compressed and less oriented toward allegory, O’Neill’s play is no more intense than Ibsen’s, particularly in those scenes where Peer is alone and in flight—at first from the Trolls, then in the Arabian desert, and finally from the Button-Moulder and his sentence of damnation. The actions of both plays focus on terror and self-discovery, and the crucial moment in both are acted in brief scenes by the protagonists alone onstage, speaking in monologue.
Not only in their
dramatic rhythm, emotional pattern and general shape of the action,
but in specific episodes, similarities occur. The most notable is
Jones’s meeting with the Little Formless Fears at the beginning of
his flight. As O’Neill describes them,
When they are dispersed by his revolver shot, Jones reassures himself that “Dey was only little animals—little wild pigs, I reckon.”
The Fears are a compound of many of the mysteries Peer meets on his forest run: the formless Boyg, the leaves that talk in the voices of children and the trolls themselves, who, when truly seen, are pigs.
The first title of The Emperor Jones was The Silver Bullet, an indication of the importance of the bullet in the play’s design. Jones’s bullet is his emperorhood epitomized in a single destructive symbol; it is his talisman, his rabbit’s foot, his fate. When it is gone, he must go to his death. In Peer Gynt, the bullet is paralleled by the silver button, Peer’s legacy from his father, his squandered inheritance, his wasted soul. Peer, like the silver button, must be melted down again into the mass.4
Both button and bullet symbolize the essence of the self of the protagonists, and in both, that self is called an “Emperor.” Peer is the Emperor of the Gyntian Self, dreaming of ruling Peeropolis in the kingdom of Gyntiana, but he is crowned in a Cairo madhouse and his government, founded on “wishes, appetites and desires,” controls a kingdom of lies, dreams and cheating illusions. The Emperor of Self is an Emperor of self-deception, whose life-lie forms the trumpery substance of his existence. At the end of his life, he realizes that he is empty, an onion stripped of exterior covering to reveal nothing at the center. Down on all fours in the forest, he compares himself to an animal and writes his own mock-epitaph, “Here lies Peer Gynt, a decent chap, who was Emperor of all the beasts.”5 At the play’s end, Peer will discover where his Empire lay, but although Ibsen’s ending in tone and meaning is very different from O’Neill’s, both playwrights reduce their Emperor-heroes to the condition of groveling animals.
The conformity of the two works in shape and theme is close, although it is difficult to estimate whether O’Neill was aware of the parallels. Ibsen’s stage images seem to have formed part of the storaged material on which he drew just as he used his memory of life on the waterfront and at sea. In the end, whatever its indebtedness, The Emperor Jones is authentically O’Neill’s in form and statement, an outgrowth of many of the experiments he had undertaken in the years before. The long monologue, developed to a self-conscious point in Before Breakfast, is now used superbly to its fullest extent. The concentration of light in surrounding darkness to suggest the spiritual isolation of his characters becomes now a significant stage image. The Negro dialect, with which he had experimented crudely in The Dreamy Kid, is made an authentic language. Finally, the attempt with the ghosts in Where the Cross Is Made to catch an audience up into madness is repeated in the form of the visions Jones sees and in the drum beat directed as much toward the audience as toward Jones.
O’Neill’s success with all of his stage devices, his conscious skill at controlling the effects he needs, mark the play, despite its reliance on Ibsen, as an original work. It was the first major drama of the new American theatre, and it has remained vital, although, in retrospect, it is not so easy to say why as it is to assess the historical and permanent values of other works of literature that appeared in 1920, such as Lewis’s Main Street, Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise or T. S. Eliot’s Poems. In comparison with these, The Emperor Jones lies a little outside its time, showing small interest in the war-ruined world of the early twenties nor in man’s attempt at new social formulations. Such relevance as it has to its period lies in its production history, rather than its qualities as a work of art. The excited praise of the performance of the black actor, Charles Gilpin, whose performance as Brutus Jones brought him immediate stardom, led to a series of serio-comic encounters as the Drama League of New York City awarded him an accolade for being one of those who had contributed significantly to the drama during the year but then refused to invite him to the testimonial dinner. The League’s president was quoted as saying that “Mr. Gilpin would not wish to sit down at table with the other prizewinners,” and he added that this was especially true since his performance, although distinguished, had shown his race to bad advantage. The fact that the play’s author was among the invited prizewinners capped the illogic of the argument. The immediate response was a boycott of the dinner loudly announced by most of the prizewinners. Miss Mary Garden stated flatly, “I would be willing to sit with Mr. Gilpin. I would like to know who in New York would not sit with him.” Not to be outdone, Miss Gilda Varesi, star of Enter Madame, announced her willingness as well. Gilpin remained cool, the nonsense was resolved with the appearance of amicability and the awards dinner was a success.
That dinner was perhaps the climactic moments of the actor’s career, for Gilpin ran afoul of O’Neill’s temper by altering lines and permitting himself careless performances. O’Neill refused to hire him for the London production and cast instead a young actor, Paul Robeson. Robeson’s star rose as Gilpin’s fell. Moss Hart’s account of Gilpin’s agonizing drunken performances in a 1926 revival of the play tells the tragic end of the story.6 Whatever talent burned in Gilpin was consumed inwardly by the inevitable frustration that followed upon such success as he had had. He was a somber-spirited, restrained man, who damped his fires with rueful humor and with silence. That he was the first black to achieve a major success in the legitimate theatre in the United States did not become for him a matter for public comment. Contemporary interviews suggest only his personal satisfaction in receiving his just due as an actor, not as a representative of his race. His comment on the Provincetown’s 1924 revival with Paul Robeson carries no sense of social crusade: “I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play.”7
O’Neill later praised Gilpin as being one of the few actors who had fully realized his own vision of the role, but Gilpin did not make the play. The central social and artistic point lay in the role itself. Taken as an ethnic study displaying the racial characteristics of the American Negro, the part by present-day perspectives is an unacceptable stereotype of the Negro in terms of a crap-shooting, razor-cutting Pullman porter. Its sympathetic point of view toward Jones, and the extension of his personal history into a broader perspective so that Jones becomes a crude personification of black history, does not significantly alter matters. Like Vachel Lindsay in The Congo, O’Neill attempted to depict the forces that come “creeping through the black,” and he suggests that the Negro is, like London’s Buck, only a step removed from the brute. Although he has evidently read Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, O’Neill makes no generalization such as Conrad does that there is a savagery in the hearts of all men. Instead, it is the Negro who is essentially uncivilized, wearing contemporary sophistications as a loosely fitting mask over an incorrigibly savage countenance. In its own time, the point of view was possible, and, when disguised by theatrical excitements, acceptable, but today, the ethnic and social implications of the play can no longer command respectful attention.
Yet what held
attention, and to a degree disguised the essential racism, was the
fact that Brutus Jones was the first important role written for a
Negro actor that was more than a walk-on part, a comic turn, a
vaudeville sketch. Such a play as James Forbes’s The Travelling Salesman, in which O’Neill’s brother appeared, is
typical. In the second act of the comedy, a black waiter—played by a
white actor in minstrel-show blackface—appears for a pair of scenes
intended to provide comic embellishment. A single example suffices:
By contrast with such vile stuff as this, one of many such scenes that held the stage beyond the time of The Emperor Jones, O’Neill provides for the black actor a true action: a movement both psychological and physical toward a goal whose achievement is fulfilling and complete. Like all valid dramatic action, it forms the core of the play’s meaning and its unity. Gilpin’s success came in part from the fact that he was the first black to play a role instead of a routine. His despair arose fundamentally because no other play offered him a similar opportunity.
What the action of Brutus Jones means, set apart from its stereotypical embellishments, is not entirely obvious. As with the outer covering of many of O’Neill’s major works—the overly simple Freudianism of Strange Interlude, for example, or the Nietzschean exultation of Lazarus Laughed—the explicit thematic content is not the real source of the play’s energy nor is it a determinant of the play’s final meaning. Like Beyond the Horizon, The Emperor Jones is a play about man’s relationship with a possessive God, and in pursuit of this theme, O’Neill turns the play away from its more obvious symbols, toward a highly personal statement.
The heart of the matter, as O’Neill felt it, lay in the book of photographs of African Negro sculpture by Charles Sheeler. Sheeler’s photographs are handsome, and do full justice to the shadows and mysteries which the masks and wooden effigies configure. The heart of darkness resides in these images. Even today, when African folk art is much more widely to be seen than in 1920, the photographs stir the imagination, make a darkness visible. Here Lem has sat for his portrait and the mask of the witch doctor holds terror.
Looking at them for the first time, one might well feel that the African Negro is a simple and relatively unsophisticated being, only a few generations removed from the jungle. It would not be difficult to call his sophistications “primitive” and to assume that the heirs of such artists had some powerful and distinctive affiliation with the Gods who look out from the pages of Sheeler’s book. In the pulse of the contemporary black, one might maintain, jungle drums beat and recall the service his ancestors paid to these Gods. Yet, the argument might run, the Negro no longer serves these Gods. In white civilization, he has become a new entity, an individual, not one of a horde, howling in communal self-abandonment. He has acquired a white man’s name, an occupation, and has assumed the responsibilities of law, judgment, punishment. Evolving from the primitive, he has become something other than his anonymous native essence and has superimposed a new self on his truth.
In doing this, he has denied the primordial God, just as Robert Mayo, in a quite different context, denies the sea. The action of The Emperor Jones lies as does that of Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven in flight, but it is flight toward something, an action responsive to the movement of the primitive God to reach forth and claim its own. Jones’s acts of will, his pride, his conscious individuality as Emperor are the false masks of a white savage. At the end, the black must cast himself upon the God and return home.
moments in scene seven suggest that Jones’s homecoming is a form of
salvation. As the scene begins, and as he meets the Witch Doctor, he
moves slowly and in puzzled fashion. “As if in obedience to some
obscure impulse, he sinks into a kneeling, devotional posture before
the altar.” He withdraws from his devotions, but then, stirred
by the incantations of the Witch Doctor, he turns again to the altar,
completely hypnotized: “His
voice joins in the incantation, in the cries, he beats time with his
hands and sways his body to and fro from the waist. The whole spirit
and meaning of the dance has entered into him, has become his spirit.
Finally the theme of the pantomime halts on a howl of despair, and is
taken up again in a note of savage hope. There is a salvation. The
forces of evil demand sacrifice.” (201) At once, Jones realizes
he must become the sacrifice. He crawls toward the Crocodile God,
close to an acceptance of his end. In the last moment, however, he
draws back, refuses to be possessed by the God and fires the silver
bullet. The God disappears, and Jones, the last vestige of his
emperorhood expended, lies whimpering in the deserted circle, “as
the throb of the tom-tom fills the silence about him with somber
pulsation, a baffled but revengeful power.” (202)
In firing the shot, Jones has sought to be Emperor to the end, but, as O’Neill’s description of the dance makes clear, by insisting on his sense of conscious self, he has denied finally the God whose creature he rightfully is, has refused to enter where he belongs. In one view, perhaps, Jones’s refusal to surrender is heroic for the force is called “evil.” In another it is folly, for whatever salvation, whatever true identity he seeks will not come until he loses his emperorhood, the false and fugitive self. Now, however, although he has fled toward his home, he has cut himself from the source of his being. The dark God turns punitive and brutal, and Jones must die without benison or the hope of return.
Divorced of its theatricality and its superficial social concerns, The Emperor Jones reads as a theological melodrama rather than as a play about the racial heritage of the American Negro. The attempt to belong to the God and the failure of the attempt is the same action that O’Neill had traced in Beyond the Horizon and that he was evolving at the same moment in the draft versions of “Anna Christie.” Only in its exotic decor, in its use of the black actor, and in its seemingly novel theatrical style did the play do more than O’Neill had accomplished earlier.
The play’s style, of course, seemed highly experimental and can still be looked upon as the first major American drama in the expressionist mode.** Clearly, when Jones’s visionary encounters are projected beyond the range of his own memory, O’Neill moves past the limits of the realistic stage, opening surfaces to reveal the forces underlying his action, detailing the racial origins of his protagonist’s fear. As he does so, the visions become less specific, more emblematic, and the spectator, at once roused and hypnotized by the drum-beats, is asked to enter into the irrational experience, to feel the panic, to lose his own sense of orientation. To the degree that he is able to divorce his action and his spectators from their own spatial and temporal reality, O’Neill turns his play successfully toward expressionism.
The difficulty, however, is that, after the action has ended, much in the manner of a Gothic novelist whose whole purpose is to scare his readers with seemingly supernatural horrors, O’Neill provides an explanation for the visions that Jones has seen and brings the entire play safely to harbor in “reality.” The explanation lies in the voodoo magic of the native chief, Lem. Lem’s magic has sent the devils and ghosts hounding after Jones. Lem’s tribe has cast the spell with the drums, and they have spent the night melting coins to make another silver bullet. Lem weaves the web that captures Jones, and states flatly: “We cotch him.” Expressionism or realism? It cannot go both ways. Either the visions come from Jones as part of his racial heritage, or they come from Lem and the magic of the vengeful natives. Once the fact of magic is accepted, the play becomes explicable in realistic terms throughout and its theological meanings are lessened if not vitiated.
As the play moves in theatre, the ambiguity of its mode is not really important. O’Neill’s drums worked as he hoped they would to involve the audience. The devices seemed modern and suggested that dramatic point of view could be shifted as Strindberg had done in The Dream Play or The Spook Sonata, but in the end they led to what was really an old-fashioned theatre. James O’Neill would never have understood a performance that did not seek to make the audience weep, cringe, cry out or cheer. O’Neill in this was his father’s inheritor, asking his audiences to commit themselves totally, but with the aim of accepting his action as entirely real. The stylistic ambiguity of The Emperor Jones is the first important sign of a problem of mode that had arisen earlier, of a crisis of dramaturgy occasioned by the use of the techniques of expressionism to effect the ends of the realistic theatre.
* The relationship is mentioned without detailed elaboration in an interesting short study by Egil Törnqvist, “Ibsen and O’Neill, A Study in Influence.” Scandinavian Studies (August, 1965, Vol. 37, No, 3), 221.
** It antedates Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine by three years and e. e. cummings’s him by eight.
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