BY Edward L. Shaughnessy
In June of 1922 Eugene O'Neill wrote to theater historian Arthur Hobson Quinn about an unusual staging of The Emperor Jones. "Yes, another negro played the part for one performance at the Little Theatre in Indianapolis. Permission for this was given when the play was still downtown with no thought of its moving further in N.Y. or elsewhere. Long, I think the man's name was. At any rate, he made a big hit in it although only an amateur" (Selected Letters 170).
The production to which O'Neill referred was extraordinary in three ways. The first was the play's experimental nature, a challenge even to established companies. Seldom will theatre organizations undertake to produce a major play only to give it a single performance. This is especially true of amateur companies, of course, for whom so great an investment in time and effort would seem imprudent. Yet the Little Theatre of Indianapolis did just that. Fledgling but brave, it had been modeled on avant-garde art theatres already operating in Europe: the Moscow Art Theatre, the Abbey Theater of Dublin, the Manchester Players in England, Théâtre Libre in Paris.
In defiance of its cornbelt stereotype, Indianapolis offered a surprisingly propitious climate for such bold experimentation. It is worth noting, for example, that the Irish Players, led by Abbey cofounder Augusta Gregory, performed in Indianapolis on a first American tour in 1911-1912. Like the Dublin Drama League (an Abbey spinoff), most Little Theatres began by offering the works of vanguard European and American playwrights. In addition, the Indiana company could claim an early history paralleling that of the trailblazing Provincetown Theatre, founded by the scholar, George Cram Cook, and his playwright-wife, Susan Glaspell. Between 1915-1920 the Little Theatre had already presented three plays by Lady Gregory, two by her fellow Abbey founder, William Butler Yeats, and one by John Millington Synge. The Indianapolis experiment was further enhanced in the fact that its first director, George Somnes, had been a star with the Stuart Walker Stock Company of New York. (The year after Brutus Jones had ruled over the Little Theatre in the midlands, Somnes mounted a production of Beyond the Horizon, O'Neill's first Pulitzer Prize winning tragedy.) Here was a personage. It is hardly surprising, then, that the playwright had taken note when The Emperor Jones was produced in the Indiana capital. Local critics also noted the occasion and uniformly applauded the company's daring. Walter D. Hickman of the Indianapolis Times established the significance of the moment.
The second unusual feature of the production was the play's controversial subject matter. In that day it was hardly commonplace to see a black protagonist in a mainline Broadway production. (Ironically, O'Neill's "negro" plays are seldom revived today for a nearly opposite reason: that there are looked upon as "politically incorrect.") When they were first staged in the 1920's, however, severest criticism of The Emperor Jones may have been registered in African-American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. In The Negro World, voice of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey denounced both the playwright and the black actors who took part in his plays. In truth, racial issues per se were never O'Neill's focus. His undeviating theme was the human soul in its tragic destiny. He had wished, of course, to provide opportunities in the legitimate theater for talented black artists. And he did this: first for Charles Gilpin, and then for Paul Robeson, who succeeded Gilpin in the role of Brutus Jones and who also starred as the gallant but baffled Jim Harris in All God's Chillun Got Wings. Here were roles that offered worthy challenges. Both actors accepted their opportunities confidently.
The son of matinée idol James O'Neill, Eugene had set about to revolutionize that "hateful theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up" (Barnes 53-54). With his colleagues, the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players, young O'Neill achieved precisely that. For a time he and the Provincetown created a happy chemistry. But their very success eventually proved a burden. Jones drew so much attention when it was produced in the Players' Greenwich Village venue (November, 1920) that it was moved uptown and, just after Christmas, became a Broadway hit. Shortly thereafter Cook, the dedicated classicist, left for Greece, where he died in 1924. But in 1920 The Emperor Jones had proved a triumph for both O'Neill and the Provincetown Players.
Unhappily, Hoosier soil also proved fertile for the cultivation of racial hatred. The Ku Klux Klan, which grew rapidly from 1920 to 1925, achieved considerable political influence in Indiana in those years. Thus it is a remarkable happenstance that the single performance of Jones in Indianapolis should have occurred in the very month that the Klan was established there. Although nothing directly connects these disparate events, we may suppose that the coincidence would have pleased O'Neill. For the Klan had every reason to hate his success. He surely would have smiled as Brutus Jones strode into the heartland a mere three months after the play's Broadway premiere.
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Now to the third unusual feature of the Indianapolis production: the presence of the black actor mentioned in O'Neill's letter to Quinn. His name was Arthur T. Long, an exceptionally talented man. Reports by those who witnessed his portrayal of Jones on March 16, 1921, suggest that he acquitted himself brilliantly in a role that demands a nearly impossible balance of poise and panache. But who was he, in fact? How had he come to the role? What was his background?
Permit an attempt to sketch this thespian-for-a-night. Because the record that remains is both discouragingly incomplete and massively suggestive, I will grant that my account may be touched lightly by the brush of imagination. Even so, the portrait derives from the available biographical data and from what has been said of Long by those who were privileged to witness his only appearance in the Little Theatre.
Arthur Theodore Long was born on December 31, 1884, just two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation (and four years before O'Neill's birth in October of 1888). The son of Henry and Nattie (Buckner) Long, Arthur was a native of Morrillton, Conway County, Arkansas. The outlines of his career are recorded in the 6th edition of Who's Who in Colored America (1941-1944). Long is credited with having earned both elementary and secondary diplomas in the public schools of St. Louis, Missouri: the Dumas School in 1900, and Sumner High School in 1904. Then, nearing twenty years old, he entered the University of Illinois, where he took a bachelor of art's degree in 1908. Arthur went on to take "special" work at Indiana and Butler universities. He took extensive work at the University of Chicago, but the record is unclear whether that enterprise resulted in a master's degree. Long earned teaching credentials in history, civics, English, music, and mathematics.
In 1909 Long was hired to teach at P.S. 26 (one of the "colored schools") in Indianapolis. He served there as assistant principal from 1910-1915 and as principal from 1915-1923. He then took a position at the new Lincoln School in Trenton, New Jersey, where he served as principal for a decade. Through the kindness of Dr. Jack Washington, educator and historian (The Quest for Equality: Trenton's Black Community: 1890-1965), I have been introduced to Robert Queen. Mr. Queen, an eminent and now retired African-American journalist, was once a student in Arthur Long's Lincoln School.
Queen remembers the principal quite vividly. "Mr. Long was a rather imposing man," Robert Queen recalls, "and could be a severe disciplinarian. I was called before him more than once. And he could be just as hard on teachers as on the students. He brought one young woman to tears before her class, a woman he scolded for wearing a skimpy, low-cut dress." But Queen also recalled the Arthur T. Long who promoted the arts—dance, music, and dramatic skits. "He was tall and light skinned and liked to play the piano for the students in the mornings. In good weather, he'd light up the playground at night. The students then enacted tableaux vivants that were focused on black heroes like Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Banneker. The students had to remain perfectly still when the heroes came to life. I was once Booker T. and found it very hard to keep from snickering in front of all my classmates, who were trying to remain silent." Arthur Long would book no mischief.
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The Little Theatre Society of Indiana staged the event at the Masonic Temple in Indianapolis in March of 1921. By all accounts still available to us, this production marked a high moment in Indiana theater history. None could deny the mesmerizing effects of the drama. All hailed the boldness of the undertaking and the high standards of directing and acting. The summaries were freighted with a predictable racial stereotype, of course. But, considering the Klan's venomous influence in Indiana in those days, the accolades for such a play (and for Mr. Long in particular) seem quite remarkable. Each review is dated 17 March 1921.
Once again, from the Indianapolis Times:
From the News:
And from the Star:
The critiques could not have been rendered with greater enthusiasm. But O'Neill himself was viewed as a troubled spirit, an artist obsessed with the underside of human experience. That he was making a revolutionary's imprint in the modern theater could not be disputed. Whether his impact was altogether wholesome, however, was another question. W. F. McDermott, drama editor of the Indianapolis News, registered an awareness of O'Neill's dark vision.
Whatever their judgments of O'Neill's temperament and philosophy, the Indianapolis critics gave unqualified praise to the Little Theatre's production and to Arthur Long's portrayal of the ill-fated Jones. Here was an amateur to be reckoned with.
Long's personnel dossier contains a document unlikely to have been fathomed by the local Klan Wizard. In November of 1921 the principal submitted a most unusual petition to the Indianapolis school board. Perhaps the letter elicits a certain poignancy today, in view of Mr. Long's performance as Jones in the Little Theatre production earlier that year.
It was in this period that Marcus Garvey was crusading vigorously for a return by African Americans to the land of their roots. Perhaps Arthur Long had been invited to join one of the negotiating teams travelling to west Africa.
Long left his position in Trenton in November of 1933, just two months before his fiftieth birthday. The timing suggests that he left under a cloud. "He brought to the Trenton district considerable experience as a teacher and administrator, having served in Crawfordsville, Indiana, as a principal and later as a teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana. Later Long served as a supervisor for principals in Indiana before accepting the position in the City of Trenton. Some years later, a controversy surrounding Long (who was not a city resident) arose and he was forced to resign" (Washington 67). Perhaps there is a story here that New Jersey historians might wish to pursue. What seems important for the moment, however, is to evoke the spirit of a man whom Eugene O'Neill knew to have "made a big hit" in an early outland production of his Broadway success, The Emperor Jones.
Nothing in his file reveals whether Long's request to the Indianapolis School Commissioners was granted. What further turns his career took may be left as a subject for speculation. The 1950 edition of Who's Who carries no entry for Arthur Theodore Long. Even so, part of his achievement may now be said to rest on the fact that he played the role of Brutus Jones some three years before Paul Robeson took it up. Perhaps more important was that O'Neill had heard about it. And what he heard, he had liked.
Works Cited and Consulted
"Arthur T. Long Will Head New Lincoln School." Trenton Evening Times, 7 June 1923: l.
Barnes, Eric W. The Man Who Lived Twice. New York: Scribner's, 1956.
Cheney, Sheldon. The Art Theater: Its Characteristics as Differentiated from the Commercial Theater, Its Ideals and Organization. New York: Knopf, 1925.
Dickinson, Thomas H. The Insurgent Theatre. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1907.
Hickman, Walter D. Rev. of The Emperor Jones, by Eugene O'Neill. Indianapolis News, 17 March 1921: 3.
Lutholtz, M. William. Grand Dragon: D. C. Stephenson and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1991.
MacKaye, Percy. Community Drama: Its Motive and Method of Neighborliness: An Interpretation. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1917.
O'Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones in Nine Plays by Eugene O'Neill. New York: Random House, 1954.
O'Neill, Eugene. The Selected Letters of Eugene O'Neill. Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Queen, Robert. Telephone interview. 6 January 1995.
Rev. of The Emperor Jones. Indianapolis Star, 17 March 1921: 8.
Rev. of The Emperor Jones. Indianapolis Times, 17 March 1921: 6.
Stanley, Colleen. An Historical Study of the Development of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre of Indianapolis. M.A. Thesis, U. Southern California, 1956.
Washington, Jack. The Quest for Equality: Trenton's Black Community, 1890-1965. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993.
Who's Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-1944 (6th edition). Thomas Yenser, editor and publisher: Brooklyn, 1945.
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