THE "FORMLESS FEAR" OF O'NEILL'S EMPEROR AND TENNYSON'S KING
The Emperor Jones has long been viewed as the product of O'Neill's interest in the psychoanalytic movement of the early twentieth century. Most critics, both those who reviewed it in November of 1920 and those who have studied it since, have tended to agree with Kenneth Macgowan that The Emperor Jones is, in effect, "a study of personal and racial psychology" largely indebted to Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious.2 And while O'Neill often bridled at this notion and cited an old circus performer's story of a Haitian king and an article describing religious feasts in the Congo as the direct sources of The Emperor Jones,3 both the text and O'Neill's admitted familiarity with Jung's work would seem to substantiate Macgowan's statement.4
However, Psychology of the Unconscious, albeit useful in explaining Jones's fatal journey through a dark forest of superstitions and the anxiety-ridden hallucinations they induce, is not very helpful in illuminating one of the play's most significant moments--the appearance of the "Little Formless Fears" in Scene Two. Perhaps no single direct source exists for the term "formless fears"; O'Neill may have coined the phrase particularly for this play (he uses it in no other). Or perhaps, as both the phrase and the context in which it appears suggest, O'Neill intends this scene to echo Arthur's confusion in the misty battles of "The Passing of Arthur" in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Both Jones and Arthur see the "formless fears" inherent in their declines. Both men have reached the ends of their reigns, both are being pursued by their former subjects, and both approach a ritualistic "passing." In addition, a good deal of biographical evidence hints at the influence of nineteenth-century poetry on O'Neill's work. As an undergraduate at Princeton, O'Neill was noted for his ability to recite poetry from memory.5 And in the years immediately preceding the composition of The Emperor Jones, O'Neill's first wife reports that his reading "consisted of nothing but poetry, Nietzsche, Ibsen, especially Strindberg—and The Saturday Evening Post."6 Certainly, O'Neill might have found "formless fears" almost anywhere; however, as I have mentioned above, Tennyson employs the phrase once (and only once) in a context remark-ably similar to that of Jones's long day's journey into death. The echo of influence resonates too loudly to ignore.
Regarding Idylls of the King as an antecedent, though not necessarily a direct source, of The Emperor Jones could prove valuable in a number of ways. In a general sense, establishing significant parallels between O'Neill's plays and the nineteenth-century poetry he devoured as a young man might serve as a necessary corrective to a large body of criticism which narrowly views O'Neill as being influenced only by Nietzsche, the modern stage, and psychoanalysis. Further, a comparison of Brutus Jones with King Arthur would vitiate the claims that O'Neill consciously demeans Blacks through his depiction of Jones's extreme anxiety. Admittedly these claims seem to be disappearing from modern criticism of the play. Yet if we view Jones's fears as analogous to Arthur's, critics like Robert Stebbins would have difficulty persuading us that Jones is an emblem of what "all Negroes are supposed to be—creatures who stand trembling in a murky land of shadow, peopled with the ghosts that rise up out of swamps and jungles of primitive mud."7 The spectre of racial slur that has haunted this play would be expelled if we chose to consider Jones not as a stereotypic, knee-knocking Black plagued with laughable' superstitions, but as a man, like Arthur, who sees the "formless fears" involved with being a man. O'Neill's point, as I construe it, is that these fears attack all men—black and white, medieval and modern, great and small.
—Stephen M. Watt
1 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Passing of Arthur" (11. 95-98), in A Variorum Edition of Tennyson's Idylls of The King, ed. John Pfordresher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), p. 976.
2 Kenneth MacGowan, "The New Season," Theatre Arts Monthly, 5 (1921), 6. For further discussion of Jung's influence on O'Neill, see Oscar Cargill, "Fusion-Point of Jung and Nietzsche," in O'Neill and His Plays, ed. Oscar Cargill, N. Bryllion Fagin, and William J. Fisher (New York: New York University Press, 1961), pp. 408-414
3 For O'Neill's discussion of direct sources for The Emperor Jones, see Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O'Neill (New York: Harper, 1962), pp. 438-441.
4 For further discussion of O'Neill's familiarity with psychoanalytic theory, see Arthur Nethercott, "The Psychoanalyzing of Eugene O'Neill," Modern Drama, 3 (1960), 242-256; see also Nethercott, "The Psychoanalyzing of Eugene O'Neill": Postscript," Modern Drama, 8 (1965), 150-155.
5 Louis Sheaffer, O'Neill: Son and Playwright (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), p. 120.
6 Nethercott, "The Psychoanalyzing of Eugene O'Neill" (1960), p. 251.
7 Robert Stebbins, "Review," New Theatre (1935), as quoted in Norman Kagan, "The Return of The Emperor Jones," Negro History Bulletin, 34 (1971), 162.
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