Menu Bar


Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. II, No. 1
May, 1978



There is little dispute over the fact that The Emperor Jones is the play which first brought a small, amateur, off-off-Broadway company, the Provincetown Players, into the limelight. Begun as a summer recreation for several bored artists and writers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Players moved their theatre to Greenwich Village’s Macdougal Street. In The Art Theatre (pp. 67-68), Sheldon Cheney sums up the Provincetown Playhouse in one sentence by calling it “a cramped, little stage and a bare and unattractive room of an auditorium.” Indeed, the playhouse, which had at one time been a stable, is written of as barely seating 100; and after the Players’ opening in the fall of 1916, it is their tiny size that characterizes them. (See Norris Houghton, The Exploding Stage.) There they began what they intended as a “Playwright’s Theatre,” a theatre of new works, experimental in nature, for a small subscription audience. Its members, then fairly young and largely unknown, were, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Cleon Throckmorton, George Cram Cook, and Robert Edmond Jones.

The Emperor Jones, directed by Cook, opened on November 1 as the first bill of the 1920-21 season. The program credits Throckmorton with both designing and executing the sets. Not merely was the play a clear departure from the school of naturalism pervading drama in the early part of this century; it was the first major attempt by an American playwright to utilize expressionistic devices. (Although Beyond the Horizon made it to Broadway sometime earlier, The Emperor Jones was the first expressionist play to reach a mass, Broadway audience, following its limited run downtown.) It was the first dramatic play with a white supporting cast to star a black actor. And it was the first production in the United States to utilize the plaster dome, so important in the European art theatre movement of the day. This plaster cyclorama was built especially for the Emperor production. After reading O’Neill’s script, Cook felt that only a version of the European kuppel-horizont would be able to give the stage the sense of infinite depth and, distance so necessary to O’Neill’s work. Written accounts of the dome’s precise dimensions are contradictory; in any case, the dome was an innovative and rare contribution to American theatre. The silhouette and color effects achieved with it were lauded by one New York critic after another.

While Emperor was not the first production of the Provincetown, not even its first New York production, its uniqueness marked a very important period for the group, a time of great plans. Although the Players had dedicated themselves to experiment, few of the new works they had presented prior to this were truly experimental. The Emperor Jones, then, was a beginning, both for the group and for its principal playwright, O’Neill.

Just as the Emperor marked a beginning, The Hairy Ape marked an end. Although the Players were to go on for another few seasons, much had changed. The experimentation begun with Emperor was to lead to one Broadway success after another and to the ultimate death of the Players as a “Playwright’s Theatre.” In 1924 the corporation of Jones, O’Neill, MacGowan and Light controlled not merely the Provincetown but had taken over the Greenwich Village Theatre as well, illustrating their move toward greater commercial recognition and an end, as well, to the avant-garde approach they had shown hitherto. In an unpublished manuscript on file in New York University’s Fales Collection, Edna Kenton refers to “the season of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape" as the last season of the Players’ transformation from a small, amateur group into a professional, big(ger) money concern. What was innovative and avant-garde in 1922 required more than mere novelty in 1924; The Great God Brown, for instance, was written by a playwright who had already come into his own, was a commercial (Broadway) success, and the innocence and naiveté of the early Players’ productions was no longer involved. (By the time All God’s Chillun had been done, the Playhouse had incorporated.)

The Hairy Ape opened on March 9, 1922 with Arthur Hopkins and James Light directing while Jones and Throckmorton together designed the sets and lights. It is, for most critics, the logical development from Emperor both in theme and character. In both is a return to the savagery, the primeval man that Jung claims is a part of all of us. But in Ape O’Neill seems to use lighting and set in a far more naturalistic manner than he had in Jones. Although the stokehole set is an intentionally cramped one (and in this regard I disagree with Travis Bogard’s major premises) and later scenes contain greatly distorted and angular sets, it is still not carried to the expressionist extreme that the Emperor sets had been. The contrasts of light and dark as representing character soul-states are more symbolist than expressionist.

In his use of masks and mask-like makeup, his more complex examination of man’s inability to control his own life, and his borrowings from all the “isms”--expressionism, surrealism, naturalism and symbolism--O’Neill entered a new phase in writing The Hairy Ape. It is the more complete work and, as successful as The Emperor Jones is and was, The Hairy Ape is the final product of the two years of experimentation that both O’Neill and the Players began when The Emperor Jones was in its roughest draft.

--Alice J. Kellman



© Copyright 1999-2007