According to Virginia Floyd, Eugene O’Neill’s working notebooks refute charges that O’Neill failed to address the pressing social problems of his day: “Ever mindful of the prejudiced attitude of wealthy Yankee New Londoners toward his own Irish family, he planned to write a number of plays depicting discrimination, particularly against nonwhites” (O’Neill at Work xviii). His first play with a black protagonist—“The Dreamy Kid”—deals in part with the black man’s victimization by a specifically white America. His second play with such a protagonist, The Emperor Jones, paints a picture of the American heritage of racism with a broader brush. It places Jones at the mercy of his own personal psychology, the collective unconscious of his own ethnic heritage, and the quantitatively larger scope of the pervasive American capitalist spirit that energizes his efforts to succeed in his unstable island kingdom. Unfortunately for Brutus Jones, the opportunity to view his own plight in a theoretical context is denied. He is too concerned with the immediate need to escape the threat to his physical existence. However, he cannot escape the deterministic force of ethnic prejudice, either outwardly or inwardly applied, that will clash with the American dream of financial success and lead him down the garden path and into his deadly, inescapable jungle.
Eugene O’Neill was familiar with the profound effects of ethnic prejudice. Unable to disregard the bigotry among the New London Yankees toward his own Irish family roots, O’Neill understood the degradation and marginalization often pressed upon ostracized cultural groups. O’Neill’s friendship with Joe Smith, the gambler with whom he often shared lodgings at the Hell Hole in 1915, illustrates the playwright’s keen awareness of the insidious nature of bigotry and the close relationships he established with the black community during his days in Greenwich Village. Smith would serve as a partial basis for several future O’Neill characters, including the complex Joe Mott inThe Iceman Cometh. Almost uncannily foreshadowing the attitudes of Hickey in that play, O’Neill tried to afford Smith the moral support to work his way out of his despair: “Buck up, Joe!” he told Smith. “You’re not going to confess the game has licked you, are you? That isn’t like you! Get a new grip on yourself and you can knock it dead yet!” (O’Neill at Work 176). Clearly, O’Neill felt a personal connection to his down-and-out comrade.
Smith was also the basis for “the Negro gambler” who was the subject of O’Neill’s never-completed play, “Honest Honey Boy,” begun in 1921. The playwright’s italicized notes for another play further indicate his knowledge of the insidious nature of prejudice against black people. In his first recorded notes forAll God’s Chillun Got Wings in 1922, O’Neill reveals that the germ of the play originated in his own knowledge of black life: “Play of Johnny T.—base play on his experience as I have seen it intimately” (O’Neill at Work 176). As we will see in the next chapter, the black protagonist is undone by bigotry, his intelligence and self-esteem are ravaged, and he is reduced to accepting his own incompetence by the machinations of his white wife and by the dominant white culture that ultimately overwhelms him.
Further evidence of the playwright’s sensitivity toward and experience with marginalized ethnic groups lies in the unproduced play, “Bantu Boy.” Between 1927 and 1934, O’Neill worked sporadically on the play, in which a noble African chief is stolen from his homeland, brought to the United States as a slave and eventually proves the superior of his white oppressors. To O’Neill, the play would encapsulate black peoples’ “whole experience in modern times—especially in regard to America” (A New Assessment 181). That the chief/slave in the play proves to exceed the nobility and humanity exhibited by his white captors is significant, especially in regard to many critics’ responses to The Emperor Jones and O’Neill’s allegedly pejorative atavism of black peoples. One might criticize the troubling diminution of characters in their titular nomenclature—“Honest Honey Boy,” “The Dreamy Kid,” “Bantu Boy”—but while there is little support to the supposition that the play about the chief may have been written to appease such critics, it is possible to see that even a cursory glance at the scope of the aforementioned plays indicates that O’Neill was familiar with and concerned with the plight of black people in America beyond their perceived diminished manhood. The plays provide the basis for the characters’ manhood that the titles avoid. However, even his “intimate” familiarity with their experience was necessarily and unavoidably limited.
African and Irish Americans
The effects of ethnic prejudice led to the common doom that pervades the canon of O’Neill’s plays, whether applied to people and characters of African descent or those of his own Irish background, or any other, for that matter. According to Edward L. Shaughnessy, O’Neill’s African and Irish Americans are faithfully realistic in portrayal, though representing as they do the effects of determinism, with fidelity to nuance revealing the characters’ deeper natures. O’Neill was therefore willing to incur doubts about his own sympathies, especially in his powerful depictions of Brutus Jones and Jim Harris (“faithful realism” 161). Without necessarily contradicting Shaughnessy, I suggest that while O’Neill is keenly aware of the isolated effects of such deterministic forces as ethnic intolerance, economics and religion, his characters—whether black or white—are perhaps more notably victims of a larger fatalistic force. Regardless of the structural reliance on chance—or fate—his plays centered on ethnic “others” focus less on their ethnicity per se than on the more pressing challenge of determining what it means to be part of the human race. With this deeper human commonality revealed, O’Neill was able to afford his ethnic characters greater equality, at least in their ultimate shared doom. In providing this equality, O’Neill simultaneously enhanced the image and deepened the complexity of all of his marginalized characters in the face of their inevitable naturalistic despair.
As Shaughnessy also claims, not even Shakespeare was exempt from resorting to stereotype in every instance: “[O’Neill], in his early depictions of Irish Americans, worked too often from a paint-by-the-numbers kit” (“faithful realism” 154). Indeed, it is just such a supposition that I hope to use in an effort to illustrate that O’Neill was no more pointedly damning his black characters to sociocultural inferiority than he was his own Irish people. And just as O’Neill progressed from those early, potentially pejorative representations of the Irish, so did he progress in developing ever deeper characterizations for his significant black characters, with The Emperor Jones as perhaps the single most significant of the steps along the way. Without completely dismissing the claims of critics who challenge O’Neill’s racial sympathies, I hope to illustrate how a close examination of his plays that depend on significant black characters supports a valid critical claim of the success of his achievement even as it supports his claims of a common humanity in which “there are no good people or bad people, just people"”(Gelb 487).
To understand O’Neill’s literary treatment of his Celtic kin is to understand how he developed a sympathy for other ethnic minorities in the United States, and indeed for the whole “misbegotten lot” of humanity. O’Neill admired the wit and storytelling gifts that were acceded to the Irish at the time. O’Neill’s own father, James, combined both the positive and negative influences of his Hibernian heritage, and the simultaneously sympathetic and savage portrayal of the elder O' Neill in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (and the less obviously biographical treatment of Cornelius Melody inA Touch of the Poet) testifies to the playwright’s insight. Similarly, he was familiar with the dark nature of those who were driven from their Irish homeland by hunger or oppression, just as he understood their predilection to seek solace from their despair in alcohol. On the subject of his Elizabethan-age ancestor Hugh O’Neill, the playwright wrote that Hugh (as depicted in The Great O’Neill by Sean O’Faolain) is “fascinatingly complicated” and that Shakespeare himself “might have written a play about him” (Bogard and Bryer 545). The subsequent irony in the latter-day O’Neill’s work is that the playwright, especially in drafting his early Irish characters, refused to tone down the portrayal of some of their stereotyped behaviors: their pride, their melancholy, their humor and their reliance on liquor. According to Shaughnessy, O’Neill’s portrayals often earned him resentment from his Irish contemporaries, especially in his early plays. Apparently, O’Neill’s refusal to reject ethnic stereotypes does not imply a subsequent avoidance of such perceived types, as some stereotypes are indeed based, however tentatively, in reality. It might be assumed that some of those who criticized O’Neill for being anti-Irish were unable to recognize that his fidelity to the actual and often negative portrayals of his own people was more a form of tribute than of shame, that for O’Neill it was “the highest act of love” (Shannon 264) and represented at least general tendencies within the community of his own people.
If it is true that “Irishness” is one of O’Neill’s primary theatrical subjects, then such portrayals, though sometimes perceived as stereotypes, add a sense of authority to all of his characterizations, since O’Neill spoke with “considerable authority” about the Irish (“African and Irish-Americans” 154). Joel Pfister quotes one reviewer ofA Moon for the Misbegotten in 1947, highlighting O’Neill’s reliance on the melodramatic Irishman of legend: “[His] characters . . . . are actually dark, eerie, Celtic symbol-folk. . . . who beat their breasts at the agony of living, battle titanically and drink like Nordic gods, but are finally seen to wear the garb of sainthood and die for love” (17).
As these Irish characters can be understood as figureheads, so too can Brutus Jones be understood—and appreciated—not only as a character, but also as a symbol. One clear point supporting such a claim can be found in examining Brutus Jones as a symbol not of black manhood, but as the doomed agent of capitalism, for example, that played a significant role in his incarceration and eventual desperate grasp for power. While Jones’ faux-royal garb may seem ostentatious, it serves a purpose that Jones himself boasts of to Smithers: “Sho’! De fuss and glory part of it, dat’s only to turn de heads o’de low-flung bush niggers dat’s here. Dey wants de big circus show for deir money. I gives it to ‘em an’ gits de money” (7). In fact, his embracing of a capitalist ethic is impressive. “From stowaway to Emperor in two years,” he boasts to Smithers. “Dat’s goin’ some!” (7). He continues, bragging about how to work the system: “And when I gits a chance to use it I wind up as Emperor in two years” (8).
Similarly, Con Melody in A Touch of the Poet appears to be on the make, though his initial success is decidedly less spectacular than Jones’. Adorned in his own military uniform (which will also be worse for the wear by the end of the play, as is Jones’), preening before a mirror, Melody is, at base, the son of an Irishman who “got rich by moneylendin’ and squeezin’ tenants and every manner of trick” (185). As Jones was spurned by white society in the states, Melody is spurned by the New England Yankees, much as O’Neill himself was. As Jones differentiates between himself and “a common nigger” (15), Melody describes the Irish population around his home with their “damned peasant’s brogue” (201) and later refers to his Irish comrades as “scum” (237). The connections between Jones as early black manifestation and Melody as late Irish manifestation of the pretender to the American capitalist ethic suggest that if O’Neill’s Irish characters can isolate themselves from their stereotypes, then so can their African counterparts.
It is important to note that O’Neill, as discussed above, refused to sentimentalize Irish Americans, rendering portrayals of Celtic immigrants at least as derogatory as many of those by anti-Irish writers (“faithful realism” 154). One of the most extreme examples takes place early in The Hairy Ape, when the stokers ask Paddy to sing “that whisky song.” As O’Neill’s stage directions indicate, “They all turn to an old, wizened Irishman who is dozing, very drunk, on the benches forward. His face is extremely monkey-like with all the sad, patient pathos of that animal in his small eyes” (37). Perhaps not so coincidentally, Jones’ pursuer, Lem is likewise described as being “ape-faced” (30). In this parallel description, O’Neill seems to level his field of play, sparing his own people none of the potentially negative connotations he imposes on others. Mat Burke in Anna Christie is a particularly clear example of O’Neill’s reliance on preconceived images of the Irish: he is a braggart, a heavy drinker, a brawler, and in the words of Margaret Loftus Ranald, “a virgin-idolator” (“From trial”156). In thus fashioning Burke, O’Neill sets up his rhetorical recreation of equality for everyone under a fatalistic determinism. While some of the uncomfortable language in The Emperor Jones may paint O’Neill to today’s reader as insensitive, the portrait he developed in that play was a vital step in his quest to embrace all humanity and spare no one the consequent benefits or penalties. A comparison of Brutus Jones and Cornelius Melody illustrates the parity of O’Neill’s aesthetic.
To begin, each of the protagonists inhabits a contrived social class. For Jones, it is his self-embodied sense of royalty, derived from his ability to bamboozle the islanders; for Melody, it is his status as a gentleman descended from landed Irish aristocracy and his ability to separate himself from the local Irish immigrants. Both Jones and Melody have a vested interested in keeping their exclusive and privileged social positions. Both men’s privileges come at the expense of their own ethnic groups: Jones subjugates the local black population, and Melody imposes domestic and servile chores on his wife and daughter even as he derides his countrymen. It is just such a protected position that must be criticized, for it is ossifying and hinders the existential choices of the characters involved (Dubost 87): Nora’s responsibility for Con’s unchecked bravado; Sara’s sneering intolerance of her father’s behaviors; and Con’s own responsibility for his failure with the inn and his life. O’Neill’s theatrical recreation of their stories provides a critique of their behaviors. Both are essentially tricked and returned to their earlier ethnic selves by the very people whom they choose to scorn. While such a return marks the physical death of Brutus Jones, it leads to psychic death for Con Melody. “Dead as a ‘erring!” Smith crows in recognition of Jones’ demise. “Where’s yer ‘igh an’ mighty airs now, yer bloomin’ Majesty?” (32). Similarly, Con’s daughter Sara derides her father, exclaiming, “May the hero of Talavera rest in peace!” when Melody sheds his pretense, claiming of himself, “But he’s dead now, and his last bit av lyin’ pride is murthered and stinkin’” (273). With the undermining of each character’s hubris, they both succumb. They come face-to-face with their existential selves at their respective crisis points and both fail to overcome the crises. While this admittedly limited comparison may be inadequate to establish any sense of absolute equality—there is also admittedly a qualitative difference between the two forms of death—it does illuminate the commonality of the process itself. Masked by variant characterizations, the looming destruction pervades both characters’ psychic journeys and allows them to inhabit a context in which they have forsaken their established and illusory roles.
For example, Melody repeatedly finds himself drawn to his own reflection in the tavern mirror: “as in the two preceding acts, the mirror attracts him, and as he moves from the bar door to stand before it he assumes his arrogant, Byronic pose again. He repeats in each detail his pantomime before the mirror. He speaks proudly” (244). As for Jones, he is “shrewd, suspicious, evasive. He wears a light blue uniform coat, sprayed with brass buttons, heavy gold chevrons on his shoulders, gold braid on the collar, cuffs, etc. . . .yet there is something not altogether ridiculous about his grandeur. He has a way of carrying it off” (5). Each man in his regalia, either that of His Majesty’s Seventh Dragoons or of the self-styled Emperor of a Caribbean isle, evinces the same type of mask that will be similarly stripped away to reveal the atavistic descent and eventual destruction of each man.
Such a descent can be as clearly seen in O’Neill’s other atavistic Irish clan, the Hogans of A Moon for the Misbegotten. The burly, non-nonsense Josie and her swaggering, disenfranchised father Phil hew close to the rocky, difficult soil, masking the poverty of their meager, subsistence-level existence with bravado and wit. If it is true that the Melodys and the Hogans are both products of the dehumanizing capitalistic ideal that victimized the Irish (and others) in America, then the same can be said of Brutus Jones and other black characters such as Dreamy, Jim Harris and Joe Mott, who illustrate the results of the African diaspora. They are all victims of a promise unfulfilled, a dream deferred. “I stood/Among thim, but not av thim,” Melody quotes Lord Byron (277), almost eerily recalling Jones’ own self-perception. Is either man, in his ruined regalia and ultimately disempowering illusion, more or less tragic? “What I was den is one thing,” Jones brags to Smithers. “What I is now’s another” (6).
In addition, O’Neill’s notes for the unproduced “Bantu Boy” indicate a similar idea played out in theory before its realization in A Touch of the Poet. His original plan shows that the warrior king in the unfinished play has an ambitious daughter who is ashamed of her father. This schema foreshadows the antipathy between Con Melody and his daughter Sara. Here is yet another parallel between the experiences of white and black characters and their possibly interchangeable dramatic motivations. It is also important to remember that O’Neill included black people in his vision of this country’s history. “Bantu Boy,” for example, takes place from the 1840s to the Civil War postbellum period. By actively (and retroactively) including the participants of the African diaspora as part of American history and by describing the results of displacement and attempts at empowerment, O’Neill appeared to be trying to debunk ethnic prejudice as one of the “life-lies” of the United States.
O’Neill and the Culture of Capitalism
Another significant link between The Emperor Jones and other plays of O’Neill’s canon is the playwright’s critique of the American capitalist ethic that spurred the slave trade, eventually justifying it by creating negative stereotypes of black bestiality and inferiority. These stereotypes would continue to influence the country’s polarized beliefs beyond the final shot of the Civil War. As Frederick Douglass claimed in his self reflexive narrative, “I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (60). For O’Neill, the sentiment may be summed up in the words of the protagonist in “Bantu Boy”: “Freedom is God’s white man” (O’Neill at Work xviii). In fact, O’Neill’s echoing of Douglass may further support claims for O’Neill’s achievement in developing and understanding the black characters that he was portraying on stage. That Brutus Jones shared in the capitalist dream with dozens of O’Neill’s other pipe-dreamers further limns the line of equality drawn by the playwright. An understanding of O’Neill’s own experience and perception of American capitalism will help to foreground our understanding of how he equalizes his characters as hapless in the face of the system and fate. Like the characters in his larger, naturalistic universe, Americans of every stripe are victimized by deterministic forces. According to Henry Schwarz, “the goal of success in America is to ‘become American,’ negating one’s particular personal history in the drive to approximate…[the] ‘typical American’” (9). Such is the goal of Brutus Jones, for whom one of those deterministic forces may be just such a negation of his own history.
The exploitation of the individual worker and the unequal distribution of wealth in the late nineteenth century were, for O’Neill, the unavoidable products of unchecked capitalism. During the early years of O’Neill’s career as dramatist, from the early 1910s and into the 1920s, he saw the utopian goals of anarchism as a possible answer to the dangerous consequences of unchecked capitalism. Among his many friends at the Hell Hole were Terry Carlin and Hippolyte Havel, both of whom were widely recognized for their anarchist sympathies. Another friend, Saxe Commins, was a nephew of the noted anarchist Emma Goldman. In addition, O’Neill established close ties to anarchists who were connected to Goldman, such as Terry Carlin, who spent much time with the playwright in Provincetown and later in Greenwich Village. In fact it was Carlin who was the model for Larry Slade, the disillusioned anarchist in The Iceman Cometh. O’Neill’s artistic recreations of his boyhood showed him espousing anarchist sentiments critical of America. In Ah, Wilderness! the autobiographical character of Richard Miller challenges his father:
The young Miller’s comically exaggerated but still effectively barbed comments illuminate the playwright’s early politics. Another autobiographical character—Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night—espouses a similar philosophy. “It’s all a frame-up,” he tells his brother. “We’re all fall guys and suckers and we can’t beat the game” (758). Later, he confides that it is Tyrone’s capitalist obsession with making money that led to the family’s problems, calling his father a “stinking old miser” (806). Simultaneously with his initial popular success, O’Neill no longer publicly acknowledged such a radical political view, but in a 1939 letter to Bennett Cerf, he reiterated his early philosophy: “anyone who expects anything of governments these days except colossal suicidal stupidity seems to me a moron of optimism. Tell Saxe I am rapidly becoming reconverted to a sterling Anarchism!” (O’Neill at Work xix) And according to Virginia Floyd, O’Neill referred to himself as a “philosophical anarchist” as late as 1946, at his last press conference during rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh (xx). Such a clear anticapitalist philosophy may lead to a logical conclusion that, for O’Neill, any capitalist symbol—James Tyrone, Con Melody, Simon Harford, Brutus Jones, among others—could easily become fair game for criticism, not as a result of the character’s ethnic background, but rather for his adherence to the dehumanizing effects of the national economic identity. If Jones is often seen as a vainglorious despot concerned only with his own survival, it is likely that his behavior is not a comment on his ethnicity but on his social and political inheritance. He is a product of the imperialism that O’Neill
Further examples of O’Neill’s social conscience can be found in his notes for another never-completed play, “Blind Alley Guy.” Begun in December of 1940, its main character is a gangster named, symbolically and ironically enough, Walter White. While the character is white, he is also the namesake of O’Neill’s acquaintance Walter White, then head of the NAACP (who was light-skinned and blue-eyed). Unlike the sympathetic gang member Dreamy, White is deliberately drawn to embody characteristics of the threatening Adolf Hitler: anti-Semitism and an “inability to feel—hatred for Christ” (O’Neill at Work xx). In this instance, “White” is symbolic of the ultimate evil—Hitler—and the most dangerous threat to human freedom in modern times. Clearly, in making White the ultimate villain, O’Neill seemed to be suggesting that he was as able to perceive evil in people of all ethnicities, as he was able to perceive the equality of all peoples.
O’Neill criticizes the thirst for individual, material gain and power throughout his career. Marco Millions is a clear example of the destruction resulting from a selfish pursuit of power. O’Neill’s attempt to expose the truth about Marco Polo illuminates the danger inherent in materialism. O’Neill attempted to demonstrate the same ideas in an earlier play about Juan Ponce de Leon, entitled “The Fountain,” in which Ponce de Leon traces his route to his psychological and cultural origins, as represented by the fountain of youth. Like Jones’ island jungle, Ponce de Leon’s source of power lies in a natural, primordial setting. Brutus Jones also travels back to discover his own life-giving origins in the form of his ethnic heritage. However, when he chooses to deny that heritage in his final invoking of the Christian “Lawd Jesus,” he is denying the primacy of that source. In denying the truth—succumbing to the capitalist, white, Christian American pipe dream—he seals his own fate. It is important also to note that the title character of “Bantu Boy” does not make the same mistake made by Jones. In the play, he cannot accept an all white Christ, so he rebels against Christianity. Eventually, he dies in the wilds, but he experiences a vision in which he sees the spirit of Africa and its black God telling him that the continent belongs to him and his people, that white peoples’ efforts to colonize it are illusory, and that white people will meet their own ruin in trying to co-opt the original inhabitants and lead them into industrial slavery. In this uncompleted play, O’Neill not only echoes escaped slave Frederick Douglass in his claim that he hates the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (120), as well as similar views of many people at the time, but he also seems to recognize Marcus Garvey’s call for a return to Africa in the title character’s own claiming of his motherland. It is perhaps not coincidental that Garvey was also a recognized influence in the development of the character of Brutus Jones (a matter I will discuss later).
O’Neill also criticizes the pre-capitalism that justified slavery and lent to the feudalism of the slave South. It is no wonder, then, that a character such as Brutus Jones, an archetypal capitalist on the make, fails in his quest, regardless of his ethnicity. It seems as if critics have largely ignored the importance of the ethnic character’s historical and political experience, choosing to emphasize cultural stereotyping rather than the equally valid economic and politically historic influences which enable the characters to be seen as individuals, rather than strictly as members of a certain ethnic group.
The two history plays (though such a term obviates the dramatic license taken with the subject matter) about Polo and Ponce de Leon also mirror The Emperor Jones in their structural and thematic concerns. Each is a picaresque tale centering on the journey of a European hero into exotic, alien locales and analogizes the spiritual quest of the protagonists in physical terms. The same can be said, though in less specific terms, of other O’Neill plays, such as The Hairy Ape and Lazarus Laughed, with each protagonist searching for his place in alien, or at least threatening, environments. Even in construction, O’Neill validates the journey of Brutus Jones by fashioning it as an extended dramatic picaresque narrative similar to his stories about significant white figures, historical or otherwise.
In writing about The Hairy Ape, for example, O’Neill noted that the play was not about labor conditions or politics, but rather “about Man, the state we are all in of frustrated bewilderment” (Bogard and Bryer 522). The state of “frustrated bewilderment” is perhaps the exact state that Brutus Jones is in, and it’s a state that O’Neill is saying we are trapped within. Here his comment is a perfect example that illustrates, despite the playwright’s trouble with language and the inescapable cultural discourse of black primitivism that many blacks as well as whites subscribed to during the decade of the 1920, his dedication to universal inclusion.
It is possible that two of O’Neill’s favorite authors may have helped contribute to the development of Jones’ status as a universal avatar, beyond the general concept of reversion that was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to Travis Bogard, the recollection of Jack London’s “Buck” in The Call of the Wild may have suggested the racial atavism that plagues Jones at the end of his life (Bogard 135). Furthermore, he suggests that another influence may have been Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, in its depiction of man’s victimization by the primeval darkness of the African jungle. As the British represented a depraved sense of capitalistic exploitation, so too is their representative, Kurtz, reduced as a result of his own greed to a state of primitivism. The direct comparison illuminates the parity in Kurtz’s and Jones’ respective struggles in that neither the white nor the black man is able to escape the psychological depths that he is plunged into as a result of his hubris. The jungle atmosphere also contributes to the parallel nature of their experiences. The metaphoric setting extends its power over humanity, functioning with a naturalistic apathy for humanity’s fate, regardless of the victims’ cultural backgrounds. If Jones is criticized for being a caricature of ethnic atavism, then Kurtz deserves to be criticized similarly for his own, for their journeys are remarkably alike. The primitivism is not just inherent within Jones, but it is symbolic and thematic on a grander scale, as we can see in this comparison to Kurtz, in that they both wear, either literally or figuratively, the corrupting garb of capitalism.
The Emperor Jones in Context
While Jones may be seen, too easily, as an unacceptable stereotype of black masculinity in his role as a murderous, gambling opportunist, the play does create a sympathetic portrayal of the man, refusing to qualify his character in any terms other than his status as a victim of circumstance and society and pride. He does appear to be only a few steps removed from the rank of primitive (much like London’s dog-cum-wolf), but if such is the case, so is Yank in The Hairy Ape a savage at base, reduced at the end of his own journey to existence in the monkey house before his brutal death. His marked similarity to Jones—including their final rejections by animals that symbolize their atavism—indicates that savagery. However it is Yank who seems to regress further, finally embodying an animalistic atavism that Jones stops shy of. Bogard claims, however, that while O’Neill has “evidently read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, [he] makes no generalization that there is a savagery in the hearts of all men” (Bogard 139). I question Bogard’s conclusion by interrogating the status of the capitalist persona throughout O’Neill’s canon. Why is he so degraded, even before he takes any sort of journey into his own heart of darkness?
In The Emperor Jones, the white trader, Smithers, is painted much less flatteringly than Jones. Smithers’ “little, wash-blue eyes are red-rimmed and dart about him like a ferret’s,” and he is “stoop-shouldered” and has a “pasty face with its small, sharp features. . . .” (3-4). Shortly after securing some information from the servant, Smithers spies Jones entering the throne room. As opposed to the withered Smithers, Jones is “a tall, powerfully-built, full-blooded negro of middle age.” O’Neill continues, and the critics begin the frenzy: “His features are typically negroid, yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face—an underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect. His eyes are alive with a keen, cunning intelligence” (5). While an initial reading might indicate the positive physical description, the use of the term “yet” has introduced a linguistic land mine. It may indeed be read to suggest that “Negroid” does not generally imply distinctiveness or the other, subsequent positive connotations (though it does suggest the biological determinant in societal perception of “race” at the time). Clearly, O’Neill is emphasizing Jones’ greater grandeur and vitality. Is Smithers, like Conrad’s Marlowe, to be corrupted by the jungle if he never embraces it? Or is the trader Smithers more like the trader Kurtz? O’Neill certainly seems to suggest that the comparatively weaker Smithers, described in pejorative physical terms quoted above, would be even more easily victimized in the jungle’s clutches, though of course he will not enter the jungle. If Jones and Smithers represent their respective races in the play’s blatantly expressionistic terms, I suggest that O’Neill’s so-called generalization about what Bogard calls the “savagery in the hearts of all men” is indeed present and universal.
In fact, it is that very schism between physical appearance and inner character that leads to Jones’ downfall. Like the salesman Hickey, the innkeeper Con Melody or the businessman Simon Harford, Brutus Jones manifests the contrast between inner and outer, further linking him to the greater body of humanity in O’Neill’s corpus. For Jones, that schism is also reflected in the division of past and present. Keya Ganguly states that the process of enacting one’s essential self introduces the split “between the traditionalist culturalist demand for a model, a tradition, a community, a stable system of reference, and the necessary negation of the certitude in the articulation of new cultural demands, meanings, strategies in the political present.…as a practice of domination, or resistance” (114). According to Bhabha, the performance of cultural difference problematizes such binary divisions of past and present “at the level of cultural representation and its authoritative address” (“Commitment” 19). Brutus Jones, then, is fighting to reconcile both inner and outer, past and present into an authoritative whole that continues to resist incorporation.
Another figure parallel in character and experience to Jones can be found in Captain Bartlett, a subject of both Gold and “Where the Cross is Made.” At the end of Gold, Bartlett admits before he dies that the treasure he has sought is worthless, overwhelmed as he is by guilt and retribution, especially after the death of his wife. His admission of the sustaining lie of the treasure echoes that of Jones’ own final act, in which he decries, in succumbing to his atavistic self, his self-definition in terms of white, capitalist society. Bartlett, too, allows his treasure hunt, his greed, to overwhelm his grasp of reality. Like Captain Keeney in “Ile”–another Irishman driven by a primarily economic goal—Bartlett gives up his life-lie in exchange for his life, but too late. Just as Bartlett is driven by his lust for his golden treasure and Keeney by his own lust for the “ile” [oil] that will make his journey financially successful, Jones is driven by his need for power and money until he has been both united with and destroyed by a projection of himself as the wielder of absolute power. The masks are striped from these characters in classic O’Neillian fashion; they slowly realize the man behind the mask, “the hollow evil in which his true self has been lost” (Falk 65). This is the same “exercise in unmasking” that informs O’Neill’s aesthetic.
If this is the dramatic strategy that informs so many of his plays, thenThe Emperor Jones and its protagonist are not only operating clearly within O’Neill’s aesthetic, but also may be the most distinct example of them. Jones is treated with the same respect by O’Neill and disinterest by the universe as are O’Neill’s other protagonists. The link among the plays is the sustaining lie of the pipe dream they share, which connects Jones to the larger white world and illustrates how O’Neill engages his characters in similar dramatic situations and subjects them to similar deterministic forces regardless of ethnicity. If Jones does lose his way, literally or figuratively, in his own psychological jungle, O’Neill also seems to be aware of the character’s nature as a victim of the political and historical forces of American capitalism and its related deterministic force, racism.
However, within his attempt at universality in his plays, the playwright focused primarily, in both style and content, on a nationalistic American perspective. With the exception of the legendary Lazarus and Marco Polo as perhaps his only two major characters without a direct link to an American experience, the vast majority of his characters inhabit a distinctive capitalist culture, one that subscribes to the Protestant ethic demanding hard work and moral rectitude. This sustained effort to amass wealth while maintaining a moral persona is what seems to motivate the dramatist’s characters even as it disrupts and even polarizes the national character. Such a tension is especially evident in The Great God Brown, in which the “capable, college-bred American businessman” William Brown slowly and subtly co-opts the ethics and behavior of the dissolute Dion Anthony. As Dion tells Brown early in the play, which depends heavily on the use of masks, “When Pan was forbidden the light and warmth of the sun he grew sensitive and self-conscious and proud and revengeful—and became Prince of Darkness” (329). So too does Dion’s despair overrun Brown’s, until Brown himself is literally and figuratively switching masks—and personae—to account for and justify his behavior, to the point where his lover/muse charges, “You are Dion Brown!” (352). This same distortion and fragmentation of the American national character informs Brutus Jones’ psychological journey. Slowly but surely, his civilized mask is stripped away, replaced by the primal face he had tried to deny all along. While the mask is not literal in The Emperor Jones, the stripping off of the regalia serves the same purpose: it reveals the person underneath. Since O’Neill did not conceive of The Emperor Jones as a masked drama (his mask period would come later and culminate with the “mask-like” faces of the Mannon family in Mourning Becomes Electra), he was left with only Jones’ removal of clothing as the physical representation of the psychological transformation. Yank, the hairy ape himself, would shortly strip away his humanity to the same effect,1 leaving him alone with his primal self.
Such a concentration on the psychological basis for the effect also contributes to the pronounced naturalism of O’Neill’s universe. Except for the deterministic forces—genetics, psychology, economics, nature and so on— that play out in the lives of all his characters, the universe is basically an indifferent element throughout O’Neill’s career and his characters’ existence. Part of this indifference can be supported by noting the isolation endemic to many of his primary settings: the desolation of the rock-bound Cabot farm; the darkness of the forecastle on Yank’s transatlantic steamer; the fog-bound Tyrone cottage; the blank marble steps and face of the Mannon manse; the despair-laden bareness of Harry Hope’s saloon; the expressionistically divided street corner where Jim Harris and Ella Downey meet; even the sun-bleached raft of “Thirst,” where the angry eye of God peers down but, like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” inThe Great Gatsby, can only watch. According to the Gelbs, other forces—jealousy, anger, revenge, and despair, among others—occasionally do act upon human beings in O’Neill’s plays, but only when the characters must bridge the gap between the two aspects of themselves or between themselves and someone else, such as in the case of William Brown and Dion Anthony. O’Neill’s universe, then, is primarily a mirror reflecting the contents of the human psyche, “and if negative forces come into action, they mainly reflect those emanating from within the characters” (216). Perhaps the idea can be summed up in James Tyrone’s recitation—aping Shakespeare—in Long Day’s Journey into Night: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings” (810-11).
This mantra seems to reflect, according to the Gelbs, the idea of the individual as part of a collective unconscious, a “suggestion that excited O’Neill” (66), based as it was on a general collective unconscious. This idea supports the hypothesis that cohesion within an individual results from a character’s understanding of his or her role in the greater scheme of humanity. At the moment when the character recognizes that unity, other characters begin to disrupt the harmony and isolate themselves from the group to which they belong, resulting in a despair that the character tries to overcome in order to recapture that sense of harmony. For O’Neill, then, achieving of the awareness of unity implies a simultaneous (and seemingly contradictory) isolation. Since this is the search in which all of his protagonists engage, the search for unity becomes one of the functioning principles for what the Gelbs term “Homo O’Neillius” (229). It is, despite our awareness of the hopelessness of the characters’ causes, a hopeful and positive characteristic of the playwright himself. For Brutus Jones, the search for inclusion and coherence is as vital as it is for other European-American characters.
This qualified optimism marks itself in a letter to Sophus Winther, in which O’Neill writes, “ I am sorry if I have said something to affront your faith in an upward spiral of mankind” (Bogard and Bryer 539). O’Neill seems to be echoing the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who also shared O’Neill’s interest in the psychological origins of human action, especially its darker aspects. In The House of the Seven Gables, for example, Clifford Pyncheon declaims to a fellow train passenger, “You are aware, my dear sir—you must have observed it in your own experience—that all human progress is in a circle; or to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve” (199). At this point in the story, Clifford is echoing what Hawthorne himself claims in the preface to the romance. The “ascending spiral” indicates the contradictions inherent in progress—no matter where we go, we will return to the same place, but only a little further along in history—and also the contradictions that O’Neill’s characters face. In recognizing their harmony with humanity, the characters must face the realization that the unification brings a simultaneous fragmentation.
What makes the Hawthorne quotation even more pointed in terms of this study is that Hawthorne, while not a Transcendentalist, was familiar with Transcendentalism’s tenets. His close ties to Thoreau, Emerson, and his wife Sophie—Transcendentalists all—suggest that he was able to examine its precepts insightfully. One of the primary operating ideas of the philosophy was the unity of all things in the universe, a literaryE pluribus unum that dictated the individual as indicator of the collective, as well as the equal divinity of both and the acceptance of both natural forces and divine presence.
When Jones, like so many of O’Neill’s major dramatic creations, denies his responsibility to the collective and those who subscribe to it, he is drawn to his death by denying his individual, innate consciousness. But all such characters condemn themselves in the act of denial:
Therefore, in asking whether his characters’ salvation lies in the social contract, we must recognize O’Neill’s respect for the individual as a single aspect of the greater society even as he or she seems to reject that society. O’Neill seems to concern himself with the fate of those who have chosen their own respective exiles—Mary Tyrone’s conscious decision to revive her reliance on morphine, or Robert Mayo’s choice to work the family farm rather than sail beyond the horizon, for example. Notable too is Brutus Jones, who chooses to rely on his non-native white Christian capitalist views of what it means to succeed. Like Yank, the hairy ape, Jones abandons his own heritage but finds where he does belong only after his choices have left him no escape.
If Jones can be seen by critics to be an unfair avatar of black primitivism, Yank may be similarly criticized for his embodiment of its white counterpart, a stereotypical lower class working slob. However, Jones appears to retreat into an ethnic consciousness, while Yank embraces a less specific and even more primitive state. Is O’Neill saying that white primitivism is primary, with black primitivism as a kind of subset? I question such an assumption, for the opening scene in The Hairy Ape indicates a wide variety of men in similar positions, universalizing the claim to an equally primitive state:
There are two specific rhetorical choices here that invite examination for our purpose. First, the fact that all of the men are built and appear the same. There is no significant differentiation among the different aspects of humanity in this common hell. The second is O’Neill’s specific description of “all the civilized white races,” which can be interpreted in at least two significant ways.
The initial response might be O’Neill’s specifying that only white “races” are civilized. However, as this study has clearly illustrated, O’Neill’s respect for the individual and his concern with the equality of all men would disqualify such a simplistic interpretation. It should more appropriately be read as a claim that there are also uncivilized “white races,” thereby opening the scope of his vision of humanity and minimizing claims that his characters are intentionally treated differently on the basis of race. The ironic opening description in The Hairy Ape should be ample proof that O’Neill consciously developed and submitted his ethnic characters to the same forces and fates suffered by white characters. His description of the animalistic and potentially negative view of the stokers is reminiscent of some of the language used to describe characters in The Emperor Jones, but it is also more straightforward. His use of the conjunction—“yet”—in his description of Jones may be interpreted as implying inherent inferiority, but the overtly animalistic “Neanderthal” stokers are more clearly presented as beasts in their white steel cage. The ship’s hold is a kind of menagerie, a zoo in which the stokers are dehumanized to a greater degree than Jones ever is. Even as Jones reels to his death, his humanity remains. It is his blindness that dooms him.
In fact, the final stage direction in The Hairy Ape provides finality to the white protagonist’s situation—his location in the vast universe—that Jones never achieves. In the final scene, the hopeless and hapless Yank retreats to the zoo and communes with the apes in the monkey house. Upon freeing one ape, he is squeezed to his death and thrown into the cage: “The monkeys set up a chattering, whimpering wail. And, perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs” (81). No such embracing of a natural (nor any less basic) atavism occurs in Jones’ tragedy. The audience is left to assume the fallen emperor’s final failure or regression, as well as to guess what the expressionistic pantomime signifies. Both Jones and Yank find less and less to link them to their present circumstances within their respective societies, yet the latter is reduced to a dictated primitivism, while the former is led to a re-emergence of his collective—and not necessarily ethnic—unconscious. If, as O’Neill wrote to Beatrice Ashe in 1914, “Life….is a bitter concoction at best but our cup seems to be unnecessarily dosed with wormwood” (Bogard and Bryer 30), then that cup was shared by all of his characters.1
In fact, O’Neill justifies his subject matter and entire career in a letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn:
Here, O’Neill is indicating his belief in the common plight of all people to attain their nobility in the face of the inevitable. He also indicates an awareness that audiences—primarily the white Broadway audiences who supported his work at the time—might not see beauty “where beauty apparently isn’t.” His use of the qualifier indicates not a blindness to beauty within the black American culture of the time, but rather cognition that it might not be recognized easily by those who were not aware of its presence, in spite of the growing achievements of the Harlem Renaissance.
More importantly, rather than singling out black people by signifying a primitivism, O’Neill opened up the issue to a more inclusive premise. Rather than saying that a psychological primitivism informed the current condition of African Americans, O’Neill implied, in his universalization of the idea, that psychological primitivism informed the current condition of all Americans. This co-opting seemed to be O’Neill’s answer to the concerns of the black intellectuals of the day who, according to Joel Pfister, “hoped that the new psychology’s concepts of repression could be deployed to resignify the primitivism long associated with black as an emotional depth that all [italics mine] humans need to acknowledge as a creative energy that could enliven and reinvent the arts” (131). Thus the discourse of ethnic primitivism that represented blacks as possessing a unique psychology had to be overcome.
O’Neill’s solution was not to eliminate the primitive base, but to expand its reach to include all people. Louis Sheaffer suggests that O’Neill was not trying to illustrate how black Americans were only a short step from their African ancestors, if one can even accept such a claim without clarification as to what might constitute such a “step.” Rather he was saying “something more universal—that an apprehensive primitive being lurks just below the surface of us all” (Son and Playwright 30), as can be seen with particular resonance in The Hairy Ape.
There may be a claim that Jones’ characterization echoes the stereotypical portrayal of black Americans’ lack of standard white verbal skills, perceived tendencies (or at least perceived potential) toward violence and greater emotionality, and adherence to superstitious beliefs, in addition to the admittedly problematic dialect, much as what happened with Mark Twain’s runaway slave, Jim, inThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Some black literary voices of the day claimed that the black people whom O’Neill considered himself to be ennobling were still commercial stereotypes, and such claims cannot be ignored. While renowned white critic Alexander Wollcott was lauding the play as “an extraordinarily striking and dramatic study of panic fear” (qtd. in Bowen 132), Langston Hughes described an “unfortunate” Harlem production of the play: “And when the Emperor started running naked through the forest, hearing the Little Frightened [sic] Fears, naturally they howled with laughter” (The Big Sea 258), though the laughter may be easily understood as the response of an audience unfamiliar with the techniques of expressionism or without a grasp of the larger literary universe O’Neill was developing. On the other hand, The Negro World’s Caswell Crews declaimed, “To be sure it is pronounced a great play by the critics, but they are white, and will pronounce anything good that has white supremacy as its theme” (Krasner 486). And while W.E.B. DuBois initially called the play “a splendid tragedy” (ibid 487), he later revised his stance, saying that the blacks in the play were “still handicapped and put forth with much hesitation. . . .” (ibid).
Either way, the white preoccupation with the black culture was building up to its Jazz Age consummation in the Harlem Renaissance, wherein black artists and critics made a serious effort to recreate the black experience from their own point-of-view, expressing “a growing objection to ‘counterfeit’ portraits of black life.”1 According to black commentator George C. Morse, the co-opting of black life by white authors was detrimental: “They are legion who believe that if a native band from the jungles of Africa should parade the streets beating their tom-toms, all the black inhabitants of our city would lose their acquired dignity and dance to its rhythm by virtue of inheritance alone” (678-79). But as even a cursory a study of The Hairy Ape indicates, not only blacks would be losing “their acquired dignity.” Rather, there is in O’Neill’s universe a common primitivism that all humans subscribe to. In fact, Edwin Engle in The Haunted Heroes of Eugene O’Neill claims that it is The Hairy Ape, more than The Emperor Jones, that is the playwright’s most successful delineation of primitivism and atavism (54). And as Nathan Irvin Huggins states in Harlem Renaissance, “O’Neill used Negro characters in The Emperor Jones. . . .to make general statements about humanity through them” (297).
However, in an effort to prevent this study from focusing on whether or not Eugene O’Neill was at least in part subject to prevalent ethnic bigotry of the time—an argument which assumes that he could somehow overcome his own socialization—I hope to posit a new epistemology for The Emperor Jones. In examining the text of the play, as well as its development and reception, I hope to indicate how much further O'Neill reaches in this play to create a figure of mythic proportions that subscribes more pointedly to his dramatic aesthetic than to a subconscious capitulation to contemporary and largely unavoidable social views. As John R. Cooley questions in regard to Brutus Jones, “If a man is plagued and tormented by his own past and his unconscious, how can he expect to cope with his conscious mind and external reality?” (“In Pursuit” 57) Is this question any less pertinent when focused on The Iceman Cometh orLong Day’s Journey Into Night? Whatever resolution Jones seeks will come only at the expense of his sense of self and its accompanying literal and figurative masks, an attempt to belong, and a simultaneous failure at the attempt that Travis Bogard calls “the same action that O’Neill had traced in Beyond the Horizon. . . .” (142). What I hope to indicate in examining the play is that O’Neill is less successful—indeed, less concerned—in showing the power of any sort of “racial” unconscious than in illustrating how the power of the greater collective unconscious of a larger humanity can be applied to an often undervalued cultural population. After all, The Emperor Jones is O’Neill’s single take on black ethnic atavism, and while it may be argued that All God’s Chillun Got Wings also invokes similar forces through its reliance on the jungle mask, it is important to remember that it is the white Ella who is most directly and overwhelmingly affected by the mask’s presence. O’Neill will later regret not making greater use of masks: “All the figures in Jones’s flight through the forest should be masked. Masks would dramatically stress their phantasmal quality, as contrasted with the unmasked Jones, intensify the supernatural menace of the tom-tom” (Son and Artist 81). In linking the idea to his greater body of work, he added that The Hairy Ape would also benefit from a more extensive use of masks, that they would be “of the greatest value in emphasizing the theme of the play” (ibid). Clearly, the expressionistic use of masks would further heighten the theatricality, undermine the naturalistic reality, and focus on the symbolic, rather than literal, nature of the play, simultaneously suggesting that his use of jungle motifs was merely allegorically, not ethnically, charged.
Unmasking the Origins of Brutus Jones
The Emperor Jones has its genesis in O’Neill’s own experiences, as well as events of the day. Perhaps the earliest source was the playwright’s own excursion to Honduras in 1909 in search of gold. After being told that early Spanish colonists removed most of the gold from the land, O’Neill and his party entered the jungle in search of ore deposits. O’Neill hated the jungle, complaining that he had never been free from flea, gnat and mosquito bites since arriving. He suffered a recurring fever and “rotten…vilely cooked food” that caused digestive problems. His summation of his experience indicates a strong visceral response: “I give it as my candid opinion and fixed belief that God got his inspiration for Hell after creating Honduras. . . Until some just Fate grows weary of watching the gropings in the dark of these human maggots and exterminates them, until the Universe shakes these human lice from its sides, Honduras has no future” (Bogard
and Bryer 19-20). His profound misery stemmed from his loathing of everything the country offered, however, not just from its people, whom he initially seemed to feel fondness for. In fact, he wrote: “Taking it all in all, I like the country and the people and think there is every chance in the world for making good” (ibid 18). At one point, he and his companions were led through some wild country on a promise of gold that went unfulfilled. According to Stephen Black, O’Neill was taken by himself to a place where the jungle was impenetrable and where he felt lost and panic-stricken: “His first reaction was the rage expressed in the letter toward the natives who had toyed with him. Much later he gave his panic to the Emperor Jones, whom he caused to become lost in a similar jungle” (104). Logically then, Jones’ fear is an extension of the playwright’s and did not originate in a caricatured, minstrel-like fear of the dark, despite allegations that O’Neill was guilty of such minstrelsy.
In addition, O’Neill basically recapitulates the jungle voyage narrated in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, telling a very similar tale of an outsider’s terrifying destruction in the primordial jungle. “The effect of the tropical forest on the human imagination was honestly come by,” O’Neill writes; “it was the result of my own experience while prospecting for gold in Spanish Honduras” (Gelb 438-39). Similarly, the method Jones employed to free himself from the chain gang was a matter of personal knowledge: among O’Neill’s circle of mates was a former member of a chain gang (438). O’Neill was not creating his version of a life, but rather blending real-world experiences with thematic concerns, countering the idea that Jones’ behavior was merely the result of O’Neill’s reliance on stereotype, though we cannot assume that all audiences of the day grasped the playwright’s intent and methods.
The idea of the steady drumbeat that accompanied the action of the play also derives from O’Neill’s Honduran excursion, though its actual source remains a question. Bogard and the Gelbs indicate that O’Neill hit upon the idea of the intensifying drumbeat from the pulse of blood in his eardrums during his bout with malaria (Bogard 135). Alternatively, Sheaffer quotes one of O’Neill’s own letters: “One day I was reading of the religious feasts in the Congo and the uses to which the drum is put there; how it starts at a normal pulse-beat and is slowly intensified until the heart-beat of every one present corresponds to the frenzied beat of the drum” (Son and Artist 27). Either way, it is clear that O’Neill picked the device from the real world, and claims that the drum was some kind of white writer’s reliance on a concept of the primitive are left on shaky ground.
The idea for Jones himself came from an acquaintance of O’Neill who told him of Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, a former president of Haiti, who had boasted that he would never allow his enemies to kill him, “that if he were overthrown he would kill himself, but not with an ordinary lead bullet; only a silver one was worthy of that honor” (Son and Artist 27). It is hardly surprising that Sam, who ruled ruthlessly, was murdered by a “voo-doo maddened mob” (Gelb 439). Again, O’Neill is using historical events, not relying on stereotype, though it is important to understand that audiences may not be able to separate artistic intention from its realization on stage.
Brutus Jones also had another, earlier historical precedent: Henri Christophe, a slave who declared himself king of one portion of Haiti in 1811. He ruled dictatorially, as Sam would later do, and eventually shot himself in the head when he became ill.
Jones seems to be an amalgam of both Haitian despots, as well as a literary take on a more recognizable contemporary figure, Marcus Garvey. A proponent of the new awakening or ethnic consciousness among black Americans in the early 20th century and founder of the “back to Africa” movement, Garvey, who was often photographed in military regalia and plumed hat similar to Jones’, was a Jamaican-born social activist whose ideas continue to influence African American social and political issues. Garvey’s ideology—called “Garveyism”—suggested that social mobility for blacks into the white world leads to self-hate and ethnic ambivalence. In 1920, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, an organization of his own creation, appointed him president of their hoped-for future homeland, the Empire of Africa.1 At odds with black intellectual of the day W.E.B. DuBois, Garvey did bombastically galvanize a sense of black solidarity or nationalism. However, James Weldon Johnson, in comparing Garvey to Jones, stated that even O’Neill’s creation never played the imperial role nor assumed the imperiousness that Garvey did in real life (254). Again, Jones is in a sense vindicated by his basis in reality. O’Neill did not create the character nor his experience nor even the physical setting out of whole cloth, but rather as a reflection of a very specific set of real world incidents. In doing so, he also contributed his own psychological discourse, unifying the elements and bringing them into line with his philosophy.
One aspect of the character of Brutus Jones that continues to incite strong reactions is the burlesque nature of his name. Joel Pfister discusses how slave-owners sometimes “mocked the abject condition” (129) of the slaves by naming them after famous political leaders, particularly of the Roman empire, such as Caesar, Pompey, Cato or Brutus. However, as this study has so far indicated, there is nothing to support a claim that O’Neill would mock black people. A concept of the playwright as immune to cultural attitudes of the day is difficult to imagine, equally as difficult as imagining O’Neill intentionally mocking black people in the sense that Pfister describes. Rather, a focus on the rhetorical purpose of the nomenclature would more strongly hint at the irony in O’Neill’s use of such a name, the same dramatic irony inherent in other O’Neillian protagonists like Con Melody, Nina Leeds, Robert “Yank” Smith, Abe “Dreamy” Saunders, among others. In fact, the irony in Jones’ given name stems from his inability to overcome his master. In Jones’ case, he remains tragically subject to the white forces that control him, whereas the historical Brutus succeeds in killing Caesar. Considering O’Neill’s familiarity with classical theatre, the playwright would be well aware of the significance of such irony. Brutus Jones prides himself on taking the tools of the oppressor and using them to his own benefit, as his ability to speak white and black is empowering but also forces him to assume the antithetical cultures of both languages (Mendelssohn 21). The cultural conflict is too powerful for Jones, however, and he cannot complete the final step to secure success in either population.
Egil Tornqvist claims that when a dramatist “baptizes” his fictitious characters, “he can do for them what he cannot do for his own offspring: give them fitting names” (362). In The Emperor Jones, the given—or, significantly—Christian name and the common surname reveal the dichotomy between what Jones wants to be and what he is. Whereas the name “Brutus” may be seen as a demeaning reflection of minstrelsy, connoting that which is “stupid” or “irrational,” and while his irrationality becomes his dominant trait the deeper he sinks into his psychological jungle, he is also, like Caesar, an emperor, worshipped by his minions. Lionel Trilling suggests how the ironic use of the combined names indicates much more than the pejorative origins of the name might suggest, how this combined Brutus/Caesar “contains within himself his own assassin whose gradual ascendancy makes the story of the play” (xi). O’Neill was simply reflecting nomenclature of the time, not creating it arbitrarily, and simultaneously using it to provide greater depth of meaning to the character. Contrast Jones’ naming with that of “Mister” Smithers, the physically weaker character. Because both “Smith” and “Jones” can be seen as equally common surnames, their respective titles carry the load in suggesting the basic difference between the two. It is apparent that O’Neill has taken great care to give suggestive names to his characters, expressing the characters’ inner natures as expressively as their outward appearances, rather than simply aping cultural stereotypes of the day. The possibilities are far richer than limited interpretation may suggest.
As with his other protagonists, the irony of Jones’ name reflects a vital component of his character and is indicative of his fatal flaw. The underlying causes of the tragedies on the raft in “Thirst” or James Tyrone’s love for money that leads to his family’s downfall or the source of the oppression in The Hairy Ape all suggest howThe Emperor Jones fits seamlessly into the thematic arc of O’Neill’s career. If Jones fails, it’s not because of his ethnicity, but because everyone is a victim of the deterministic social forces—in Jones’ case, significantly economic—of O’Neill’s world. His failure is an individual failure, not a failure of ethnicity.
Exploring The Emperor Jones
As Richard Long claims of white writers who wrote about “black folk” in the twenties, whether the black characters were central or simply ancillary to the plot, the writers were writing mainly for a white audience. The social position which supported the social dynamic would tend to inhibit such writers from leaving “the well established terrain on which the black played his simple and simpleminded destiny, an endless cycle of dancing and laughing, of joy and sorrow, of frenzied loving, of shooting and knifing, and occasionally, of spectacular, back-breaking toil” ( 71). Clearly, O’Neill was not treading the same well-worn path. A closer study of the text itself will indicate O’Neill’s success at avoiding any intentional diminution of Jones’ ethnicity even as he validated its existence. While some critics maintain that O’Neill was suggesting that the possibility of an atavistic return is greater for people of black African descent “because of the black man’s more recent jungle past” (“Jones and the Harlem Renaissance” 80), some often also suggest that Jones is his own greatest enemy. According to Gabriel Poole, Jones’ pride is the hubris of a tragic hero who views his superiority as indisputable (24). Yes, Jones may indeed be his own greatest enemy. That is the fate of tragic heroes. They succumb not to other people’s fatal flaws, but their own. I suggest that Jones’ hamartia is not ethnic primitivism, but rather his underestimation of his own people and overestimation of himself. His flight is not from the natives but from his own creation as an exploiting colonial to a fundamental self, that is, a less theatrical and more performative being. His death results from his final loss of his true and performative self, the revelation of the self-created image as false.
Perhaps not so curiously, it is a dramatic unmasking central to other O’Neill plays, most particularly The Iceman Cometh, which is much more inclusive in its multicultural brotherhood, as represented by the inhabitants of Harry Hope’s saloon. Seen this way, The Emperor Jones is O’Neill’s significant first step in universalizing human experience and lays even more valid claim to his message of ethnic equality. In his personal quest for self-identity, Jones reflects a central trope of the classic antebellum slave narrative: the search for manhood though the achievement of freedom. O’Neill shows here great awareness of such a significant characteristic of African American indigenous literature.
In describing the general location of the play’s setting, O’Neill describes “an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White Marines” (2). Clearly, from the very first line of his description, O’Neill is slyly suggesting that the white Marines’ presence is unnatural, an ironic self-determination that disregards the presence of the native population and their ability to take care of themselves. As the play reveals, there is great power in what may, at the time, have been considered a relatively underdeveloped culture, since it is their beliefs and practices that root Jones out of the jungle and out of his fascist rule. The only visible white human presence in the play (not part of Jones’ atavistic fantasy) is Smithers, who also doubts the effectiveness of the natives’ efforts. Indeed, Smithers forms a large part of the very negative portrayal of white people in this play.
O’Neill’s physical description of Smithers, the trader, is even more explicitly pejorative than that of Jones, whose description engenders so much resistance. Smithers is“a tall, stoop-shouldered man about forty. His bald head, perched on a long neck with an enormous Adam’s apple, looks like an egg.” In addition, he has a “naturally pasty face” of a “sickly yellow” with “small, sharp features.” To Smithers’ previously mentioned “pointed nose” that is “a startling red” and his “little, washy-blue eyes,” O’Neill adds that Smithers’ “expression is one of scrupulous meanness, cowardly and dangerous” (3-4). Clearly, O’Neill is painting Smithers as somehow less suited to success than Jones— intellectually, psychologically, morally, perhaps—and if representative of a particular group—a common strategy in Expressionism—he represents the less suited white culture, at least in this context. Furthermore, while Jones had been Smithers’ employee before his self-declared royalty, he tells the trader, “I done de dirty work fo’ you—and most o’ de brain work, too, fo’ dat matter—and I was wuth money to you….” (6), emphasizing his role as a capitalist functionary as well as his intellectual superiority. Additionally, Smithers’ speaks in a heavy Cockney dialect—one based on class rather than ethnicity— that is at least as pejorative as that of Jones’: “Gawd blimey, you was glad enough for me ter take yer in on it when you landed here first. You didn’ ‘ave no ‘igh and mighty airs in them days!” (6)
Even before Jones enters the first scene in act one, O’Neill continues to develop the dramatic context that will support his tragic view of humanity as exemplified by Brutus Jones. In speaking to a native servant, Smithers charges with “mean satisfaction” and “extreme vindictiveness,” Serve ‘im right! Puttin’ on airs, the stinkin’ nigger!” (7) Using the word “nigger” may be dramatically correct for Smithers, but critics and actors in the play alike have censured O’Neill. The original Brutus Jones, Charles Gilpin, balked at what he felt was an inappropriate use of the term “nigger,” preferring such terms as “black-baby,” “Negro” or “colored man” ( Krasner 484). Indeed, the word “nigger” remains a charged linguistic lightning rod and has since attracted much criticism to the play and its author. Even with O’Neill’s best intentions, the term is criticized as reflective of the outdated view of black people, as opposed to the “New Negro” of Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, and W.E.B. DuBois. However, Jones’ use of the term—never found in O’Neill’s authorial voice— supports the self-loathing that dooms him, as we will see shortly.
One example of the playwright’s attitudes is reflected in the apocryphal story of O’Neill’s anger against his original Brutus Jones, Charles Gilpin. While Gilpin was hailed by critics and the playwright for his towering portrayal, O’Neill’s patience with him began to wear thin when the actor began altering the lines, especially the use of “nigger,” to suit his own tastes. Recapitulations of O’Neill’s response vary. According to the Gelbs, O’Neill is charged with saying, “If I ever catch you rewriting my lines again, you black bastard, I’m going to beat you up” (449). However, Louis Sheaffer’s biography, considered more authoritative by such O’Neill scholars as David Krasner (484), omits the “black bastard” epithet: “If you change the lines again, I’ll beat the hell out of you!” (35). Later O’Neill would lend support to the latter versions: “He’s just a regular actor-brain, that’s all. Most white actors, under the same circumstances, would have gone the same route” (Son and Artist 36). O’Neill is aware of the negativity inherent in the word, which is why he uses it. For Jones, it depicts the denial of his link to his own ethnic group and his larger, shared humanity, the link that could prove his salvation at the end of the play until he disclaims it. For Smithers, using the loaded term indicates his own, rather than authorial, prejudice.
The symbolic nature of Expressionism itself precludes a naturalistic sense of reality and instead relies on physical appearance to deliver meaning, often in broad or obvious strokes. That Expressionism is evident at the rise of the curtain inThe Emperor Jones. Perhaps even more stylized than the settings of either “Thirst” or “The Dreamy Kid,” the play’s setting is a “spacious, high-ceilinged room with bare, white-washed walls” and a floor of white tiles, a portico supported by white pillars (3). Even Smithers is wearing a dirty white drill outfit. However, the touches of color are obviously a result of Jones’ presence. The throne is “a dazzling, eye-smiting scarlet. There is a brilliant orange cushion on the seat,” as well as strips of matting that are dyed scarlet (3). Such a setting serves a multitude of purposes.
First, it sets up the Expressionistic nature of the play. The sharp visual contrasts immediately destabilize a naturalistic presentational style (not to be confused with the deterministic literary naturalism that pervades the context of the play and the playwright’s aesthetic). In addition, it echoes the same white frame of the black characters’ world in the two short plays already discussed. The whiteness can also be understood to represent the falseness of the trappings, focusing on the real presence of the play, the central figure of Brutus Jones. Finally, the war of colors within the throne room suggests the war within Jones himself, one in which he must embrace his own fortifying heritage or that of the white, colonial oppressor. It should be noted that the native woman who slyly enters the room is also resplendent with color: a multicolor calico dress, a red bandana, and a bundle bound in colored cloth tie her and her people visually to Jones.
To those critics who take O’Neill to task for a negative description of Jones, how is the description of Smithers to be understood? As a comment on the ethnic atavism of the Cockney trader? Consider similar negative delineations of other, non-ethnically charged characters. Of Marsden in Strange Interlude, O’Neill writes, “His face is too long for its width, his nose is high and narrow, his forehead broad, his mild blue eyes those of a dreamy self-analyst, his thin lips ironical and a bit sad. . . He has long fragile hands, and the stoop to his shoulders of a man weak muscularly. . . .” (461-62). O’Neill’s canon is full of negative physical descriptions of characters, yet these cannot be assumed to signify racism, especially when they contribute to a strong sense of Expressionism, as they do in The Emperor Jones. Rather, they are reflections of the play’s ideas more so than of O’Neill’s attitudes toward black people.
Adding to the tentativeness of claims against O’Neill’s alleged racism is the story of the playwright’s response to the Ku Klux Klan’s letter censuring portrayal of interracial marriage in All God’s Chillun Got Wings. In “atypically large handwriting” (Pfister 123), O’Neill wrote back, “Go fuck yourself!” and mailed it back to Georgia. Such a response is not surprising from the playwright whose character of Joe Mott inThe Iceman Cometh responds to two of his hopeless comrades, “ I don’t stand for ‘nigger’ from nobody. Never did” (589). If O’Neill’s drama is studied in the context of his life experience, charges of racism lose their validity.
As O’Neill is aware of the negative power of the epithet, he is also aware that ethnic superiority is unquantifiable. O’Neill’s use of the word “yet” in his initial description of Jones has stirred controversy and requires investigation. Qualities of strength of will or self-reliant confidence are being contrasted to Jones’ “typically negroid” characteristics, but it is at least equally possible, in understanding O’Neill’s personal opinions, that the “yet” implies something more pertinent to his understanding of the protagonist: that Jones is not typical. After all, Jones’ portrayal does suggest a man of above-average intelligence, cunning , shrewdness, and wit. In short, he is not “typically negroid” but rather a typical tragic hero who is—at least until the coming of Willy Loman—perceived as anything but typical. The description indicates that Jones is more than a typical human. Again, in positioning Jones as tragic hero (or victim) first and black man second, O’Neill is indicating the greater importance of a common humanity. In fact, the description continues and later implies that it would take such an atypical man to carry off the position of emperor: “Patent leather laced boots with brass spurs, and a belt with a long-barreled, pearl-handled revolver in a holster complete his make up. Yet there is something not altogether ridiculous about his grandeur. He has a way of carrying it off” (5). Again, a typical man—black or white—would look “ridiculous” but Jones, the tragic, larger-than-life protagonist, can succeed. Marcus Garvey himself was frequently photographed, by famed Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee, in such outlandish gear and similarly looks simultaneously foolish and grand. Van Der Zee, his official photographer, did not wish to ridicule his employer, though he may have been aware of his subject’s ambivalent image. Jones suffers from the same ambivalence. Only by isolating the individual signifier “yet” can critics find room for criticism. Taken in the context of the entire description, the play itself, O’Neill’s canon and his personal life, the physical description suggests nothing more than Jones’ innate—self-inspired—superiority. It is common to history’s and literature’s greatest tragic figures from Hamlet to Caesar to Brutus Jones.
Gilpin himself argued that the play was not specifically a reflection of black people’s experience: “No offense should be taken because of the fact that Brutus Jones, the Negro, is a villain. This is not a racial play; it is universal in its application” (Krasner 489). Gilpin was obviously trying to defuse the controversy, perhaps in trying to avoid any evidence of ethnic “betrayal,” but for him the play was not about ethnicity—though he may have felt racism in the use of the ethnic epithet. Therefore, he felt it unworthy of its lambasting from black political figures of the day. Gilpin’s attempts to remove the word “nigger” may have been a result of his belief that he was more suited to interpret the nuances—not the central conflict or universal truths—of Brutus Jones than the playwright (Krasner 492). On the other hand, Jones does not seem to realize how his sense of superiority over his native underlings is represented in his own demeaning use of the word, a failure that leads to his downfall—and one that eerily presages the downfall of Gilpin’s own career and his eventual falling out with O’Neill.
In 1946, O’Neill listed Gilpin, as a result of the actor’s portrayal of Brutus Jones, as one of only three actors who had completely realized one of his characters, despite O’Neill’s earlier criticism of the actor, which largely resulted from the actor’s drinking and habitual changing of lines. In contrast to his later admiration of Gilpin, O’Neill wrote to Arthur Hobson Quinn in 1922, after seeing productions outside of New York with actors other than Gilpin: “ ‘Brutus Jones’ is what is called ‘actor-proof’….any negro with any acting sense can do it as well, or almost as well, as Gilpin” (Bogard and Bryer 170). The original London production was cast with a young Paul Robeson,1 who played Jones in an early New York revival and who would later go on to create the symbolic role of Yank for a London production of The Hairy Ape in a ground-breaking example of nontraditional casting that suggests the universality of O’Neill’s primitivistic characters. Gilpin’s own take on the subject of his importance to the play indicates his proprietary interest: “I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play” (Gelb 450). Indeed, Gilpin would go on to perform the role about 1,500 times before his death at age thirty, his stamina in the role a testament to O’Neill’s eventual admiration of the actor’s interpretation of Jones.
Despite Gilpin’s success in the role, however, the practice of casting white actors in black roles (and blackface) continued, though the practice saw a marked decrease. Nevertheless, O’Neill’s (and the Provincetown Players’) willingness to hire black actors led Gilpin to be the first black actor ever hired to play a serious major role in a white American production (Ira Aldrich and other black American actors in earlier times had to find their successes in Europe), and the first actor to received a substantial salary from the Players: fifty dollars a week (Black 265). Gilpin himself stated of O’Neill’s efforts at battering at the walls of discrimination, “Mr. O made a breach in those walls by writing a play that had in it a serious role for a Negro” (Gelbs 448), though Jessie Redmond Fauset, African American author of Plum Bun, responded to charges of lingering racism in the play: “Many theatregoers….could not distinguish between the artistic interpretation of a type and the deliberate travestying of a race, and so their appreciation was clouded” (Martin 117). The presence of Gilpin’s authentic black voice in a serious lead role, while atypical and even controversial (a subject discussed in greater depth in the chapter onAll God’s Chillun Got Wings), added to the groundbreaking nature of O’Neill’s achievement.
To further underscore Jones’ atypicality as a black man, O’Neill has him respond to Smithers’ rage: “Talk polite, white man! Talk, polite, you heah me? I’m boss heah now, is you fergettin’? (6) That a black man would wield such power over a white man was not typical in the 1920s, but neither is Jones theatrically typical, though it may be argued he is historically typical in his victimization. One of the many reasons black men in the United States were cut off from a source of empowerment was that they were cut off from the economic basis that provided it. Jones is aware enough to know that power is money but does not seem to recognize the trap. “De long green, dat’s me every time!” he says, telling Smithers how he plans to secure his future (7). A couple of decades later, Lorraine Hansberry’s Walter Lee Younger, in A Raisin in the Sun, would also fail to see his doom as a victim of capitalism. O’Neill anticipates Hansberry and presages Younger’s rush into his own psychological jungle.
Once the primary plot is set up—Jones’ need to seek safety from the rebellious natives—O’Neill goes on to address other issues consistent with the lives of black characters in his previous plays. One such issue is the contrast between superstition and Christianity. Despite Jones’ reliance on his silver bullet to deter any attempts on his life by the natives, he denigrates the native superstitions—a form of their spiritual beliefs—with as much alacrity as he dismisses his own Christianity. “And dere all dem fool bush niggers was kneelin’ down and bumpin’ deir heads on de ground like I was a miracle out o’ de Bible,” he laughs. Unknowingly, he has equated their superstition with his own religious beliefs. One is based in Christianity, one on superstition, but both are linked in their similarity of purpose. O’Neill accomplished much the same idea thematically in “Thirst.” There is no inherent spiritual superiority in the naturalistic universe any more than there is any ethnic superiority. Jones’ attitude and reliance on any spirituality is tentative at best. Continuing to boast to Smithers, he says that when it comes to altruism, “I lays my Jesus on de shelf for de time bein’” (15),1 suggesting that his materialistic needs supersede his religious ones and that everything is secondary to the profit motive. At the same time he professes his membership “in good standin’” of the Baptist Church, he adds that while the church protects him, his ultimate protection is the “little silver bullet o’ my own” (14). In the face of Smithers’ predictions of the natives’ “pet devils and ghosts” in the “pitch black” forest, Jones counters with his own higher beliefs: economic gain and Christianity. However, what Jones can’t predict is that his beliefs—both representative of his non-native American homeland—will be the ones that fail him, permitting the native beliefs to effect his undoing. After all, as Fife says in Dynamo, “This is a free country and you’re free to believe any God-forsaken lie you like—even the book of Genesis!” (839). White Christianity and capitalistic materialism learned from white men on the Pullman car are two lies that Jones embraces and lead to his doom, not because of any inherent inferiority, but because they are foreign concepts to his atavistic self. He attempts to usurp white American society’s constructs in some misguided belief that by putting on a white man’s mantel, as he puts on his pretentious regalia, he will become part of that privileged society.
Jones’ belief that his acting white will lead to his being accepted on that level is one of his most damaging life-lies. Jones asks Smithers, “Does you think I’d slink out de back door like a common nigger?” (15), suggesting two things: first, as O’Neill has already implied, that Jones is not common; second, that he is separated from his own ethnic culture, wherein lies another of his problems. When he could have found salvation in embracing his heritage and community—one that is neither superior nor inferior to his adopted one—he chooses instead to reject it. Ironically, shortly after his boasting to Smithers, he begins his trek into the heart of darkness, saying, “So long, white man” (16). He can leave the white world behind physically, but he still chooses to embrace white society’s sociocultural institutions rather than those of his own people. He cannot leave his programming behind.
However, Jones does show repeated signs of a possible reconnection with his blackness as he journeys further into the richly symbolic darkness. O’Neill describes the “deeper blackness” (16) of the jungle night, and in doing so he is suggesting that blackness can be deep, certainly deeper than skin color. In fact, it is not the ambient blackness that leads to Jones’ first illusion, or delusion, but his reliance on white landmarks. “White stone, white stone, where is you?” he asks, searching for these markers of where he has hidden food (17). This should be his first sign that he has been deceived by both his reason and by whiteness, even as he is being embraced by blackness, but he ignores both signs in favor of his reliance on white guidance. As he continues his flight, he begins to refer to himself more and more frequently as “nigger,” the white man’s pejorative term, suggesting that perhaps he is identifying more and more with the disempowered of his own background.
He continues onward, leaving behind the black “little formless fears,” clearly a reference to what he is afraid of—blackness. His journey is into blackness, but it is hardly unique, for even the Irish Tyrones journey into the blackness of night. The blackness can be a mark of primitivism, but it can also represent his origins of which he is afraid. While some may continue to argue that O’Neill’s portraits of black people are negative because they connect the blackness with primitivism, we see in Jones’ first jungle vision that O’Neill clearly refrains from imposing any suggestion of reductiveness on any of the other black characters that inhabit Jones’ psyche.
Jeff, the Pullman porter whom Jones has killed in the murder that led to his incarceration, is described as “middle-aged, thin, brown in color” and “dressed in a Pullman porter’s uniform and cap” (19). Unlike the more obviously subjective descriptions of Jones, and Smithers for that matter, Jeff and the other black characters in Jones’ flashback are clearly not negatives slanted by O’Neill’s prose, further evidence that the playwright was aware of the effects of his earlier descriptions of Jones. However, Jeff’s arrival and Jones’ subsequent buying into the mythical power of the natives leads to another description of Jones that O’Neill has been criticized for.
Jones begins talking to Jeff, clearly buying into the superstitious myth that the natives have been trying to establish. But when Jones realizes that Jeff is a vision, he stops “bewilderedly,” and his eyes “begin to roll wildly” (20). Such a description seems to suggest a burlesque, a return to a minstrel portrayal of black people.
Since such a description does not appear elsewhere in O’Neill’s canon, there may be grounds for the belief that even the liberal-minded playwright was subject, even subconsciously, to some of the pervasive stereotypes of his time . However, characters in other plays are described in ways that might also draw fire if their characteristics were applied to O’Neill’s black characters. Clearly, Yank’s Hairy Ape is one character whose identifying characteristics would likely invoke outrage from critics for its anthropomorphism if applied to black characters. Similarly, Benny in Diff’rent mutters to himself “with savage satisfaction” (38). Yet perhaps simply because the characters are white, such references do not draw fire for being inappropriately reductive. Any critic must be aware that such a double standard is itself an insidious form of racism. Certainly, Jones’ rolling eyes do call attention to themselves, but in the context of the attributes of O’Neill’s other characters, the description seems little more than an unfortunate authorial lexicon. Jones is, after all, in a preternatural state of terror, and physical behaviors in such situations are often beyond one’s control.
The scene that follows continues to show Jones shedding his assumed disguise as capitalist American entrepreneur (read “white”). Not only is he stripping his clothes off and reverting to a less Americanized—though not exclusively African—self, but he is also notably shedding his coat, with its brass buttons and epaulets and indicators of his economic and political power, his connection to the white world and his life-lie.
The next group of black characters we see is the chain gang from which Jones has escaped before fleeing to the island. Jones begins, once he calms himself, by decrying the visions as “Ha’nts!” and trying to tell himself that the church denies their existence. His white Christianity is being submerged under his increasing belief in the native mythological power, again mixing God with superstition, going so far as to ask one of the “ha’nts” to hand him a shovel. His psychic confusion is intensifying in the conflict between his natural black self and his assumed white self. In fact, he very soon calls the imagined prison guard a “white debil,” (23), signifying perhaps his growing dislocation from his oppressors/heroes. While O’Neill could not have foreseen the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s at the time of the play’s creation, it is interesting to note how he presaged the black pride movement of the sixties as practiced by such figures as Malcolm X, who also saw the threat of the “white devil” through his Islamic perspective.
Unfortunately, scene four also includes another instance of O’Neill’s using problematic descriptive words. Upon seeing the chain gang, Jones’ eyes “pop out” (22). Again, such a description can easily be claimed to be a remnant of stereotypes, but this exaggerated physical distortion is often found in other O’Neill plays about white characters.
For example, Mildred in The Hairy Ape looks at Yank’s “gorilla face” upon descending into the stoke hole. From that point, her physical responses are described in the melodramatic manner that O’Neill would be very familiar with—indeed, that still pervaded American theatre at the time—also reflecting a histrionic acting style so successfully engaged in by his own father, James. Mildred “utters a low, choking cry and shrinks away from him, putting both hands up before her eyes to shut out the sight of his face,” after which she, not so surprisingly, faints. With these examples taken from the same period as O’Neill’s work on The Emperor Jones, it can be argued that O’Neill was only following standard procedures, that his women’s physical responses were similarly exaggerated, and that his black people were like his white men and women in being subject to O’Neill’s melodramatic tendencies. It must be remembered that while O’Neill is widely recognized as bringing realism (presentational, rather than literary) to American drama, his plays were still full of the last-minute resolutions, melodramatic confessions, dramatic murders and insidious lies that similarly energized the popular drama of the time. For instance, Captain Adam Brant in Mourning Becomes Electra is perhaps the most innocent of dupes in the play, even while he is cuckolding Ezra Mannon. However, O’Neill describes him as being “dressed with an almost foppish extravagance, with touches of studied carelessness, as if a romantic Byronic appearance were the ideal in his mind” (676). Because the play calls for a fool, O’Neill delivers, right down to his physical description. Similarly it is because O’Neill is employing stock melodramatic descriptions, not intentionally engaging in stereotyping. Certainly, O’Neill must be held responsible for being insensitive to occasional resemblances to minstrels in his descriptions, but some of the descriptions owe less to racism than to melodramatic traditions that also affected his depiction of white characters. That he relies on stock characteristics in an Expressionistic play, one that relies less on objective realism, shows that O’Neill was more interested in effect than any direct reflection of reality.
Darkness deepens as the play moves into scene five, perhaps suggesting that Jones is delving more deeply into his natural identity and away from the imitation of corrupt white life, white capitalist influences that he may no longer rely on to protect him from the natives’ efforts to capture him. Jones’ next vision finds him and a handful of slaves on an auction block. Here again, there is nothing negative about the physical descriptions of the slaves, merely references to their ages and genders. However, the white planters who are coming to bid upon them are “stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish,” and the “dandies” point while the “belles” titter (25). It is not the black characters who are being portrayed unsympathetically. Indeed, a black woman is even nursing a baby. Rather, the white characters are portrayed as almost inhuman.
Jones is drawn into his own vision of himself as one of the slaves up for bid. When he realizes his imagined position, he lashes out. “What you all doin’, white folks?” he asks. “What’s all dis?” (26). Glaring at the white buyers, he charges them, with O’Neill’s italics suggesting even deeper meaning: “And you sells me? And you buys me?” In the italicized references to the auctioneer and bidders, O’Neill suggests that Jones is amazed that these white capitalists—the literal and figurative market transaction of the slave auction marking their primary functions—fail to recognize him as one of their own, one of the true believers in the system they are building and a fellow human being. In addition, O’Neill may be suggesting that Jones is challenging them,
intimidating them away from taking his humanity, aware of and infuriated by the injustice of their slave trade. In this scene in particular, Jones’ remaining nobility asserts itself, though it is short-lived.
Firing his revolver, Jones is left alone and “only blackness remains” (26). This is a key statement, for it suggests not only that Jones is severing his connections to the white Christian businessmen whose system he embraced despite its previous degradations of him and his people, but also that his only essential truth—the only reality when his illusion is shattered—is blackness. However, as he casts off his white guise and edges closer to blackness, his fear increases. He is not ready to accept the basic connection to his own people, whom he is literally and figuratively running from.
Scene six is brief, yet it holds one of the most important signifiers of Jones’ psychological journey back to his heritage. Until this scene, his use of the word “nigger” was usually preceded by some modifying adjective: “bush niggers” (8), “no-count nigger” (12), “trash niggers” (13), “po’ niggers” (14), “common nigger” (15), and so on. But scene six marks Jones’ final use of the term, and, tellingly, he has eliminated the adjective that further qualifies the term negatively; now the natives are only “niggers” (27), and it will be the last time Jones uses the word. O’Neill suggests that Jones is identifying more and more with his ethnicity, limiting the doubly negative references, then eliminating them altogether. Such a realization also suggests that O’Neill is aware of the negativity of the term and that he was using it for a specific dramatic purpose, aware of its dangers but risking them for the purposes of the play.
O’Neill is calling attention to the thoroughness with which Jones has internalized the language of oppression, forging him into “a man who is oxymoronic” (Mendelssohn 27). This unmasking, this revelation of the self, is the movement of the play: psychological and physical efforts to strip away the self-made masks. Jones is not simply a primitivistic avatar for his own “race,” but rather a psychologically complex figure whose own perspective has been distorted by the colonial ideology of American racism. To call him a stereotype is to extend his internalization into uncomfortable areas. His position as victim of his own tainted subjectivity is not as unusual as it may at first appear. After all, conked hair, skin bleaching and the aftereffects of African American entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker’s assimilationist aesthetic were readily seen in the world outside of the theatre doors. Jones’ embodiment and revelation of that subjectivity form the crux of the play’s action because Jones shares the same goals, the same ends, the same vicissitudes that all of O’Neill’s characters indicate. As Travis Bogard claims, “Jones’ acts of will, his pride, his conscious individuality as Emperor are the false masks of a white savage” (141). By divesting himself of the negativity associated with the self demeaning word, Jones is also stripping away his own assumed white entrepreneurial pipe dream.
At the beginning of scene seven, Jones’ psyche is finally approaching the submission to his visions that he has been fighting against. No more eyes popping or rolling wildly. Instead, he stares “with awed fascination” (29) at the apparition of the Congo witch doctor. He is “half-kneeling, half-squatting” (28), suggesting that he is finally succumbing to the authority of his visions. In fact, he soon joins in the figure’s incantations: “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” (29). O’Neill is being very clear about the hope to be found in embracing the truth: the inviolability of one’s very identity, and the need to strip away masks or, in Jones’ case, his theatrical costume and psychological reliance on the white Christianity that has been his jailer. In this sense, 127 Jones’ journey through the jungle is not really away from the natives. After all, there is no proof that the nighttime jungle population is anything more than the product of Jones’ own mind. It is a flight from self, energized by his own egotism. Like either of the Bartletts in Gold and Where the Cross is Made, like Hickey, like Jamie Tyrone, like Yank, like so many others in the O’Neillian mold, Jones’ story is the revelation of the man behind the mask. Jones, the site of warring psychological forces, is indeed his own worst enemy.
Virginia Floyd states that Jones’ long night’s journey into the past is a religious quest as well as a personal search for identity. The dual nature of his journey can be clearly seen in scene seven (New Assessment 209). Having rejected his black identity in his journey from porter to Emperor, the royal garb is the embodiment of Jones’ theatrical self. In re-living the degradation of his people in the United States, he is reduced to rags. Now back in Africa, kneeling to a shaman, he is in a position to make amends for his denials. But like Dion Anthony in The Great God Brown, Jones has forsaken his identity and values along with his beliefs. “Blah! Fixation on old Mama Christianity! You infant blubbering in the dark, you!” (303), cries Dion Anthony, but these words may as well be those of Brutus Jones. Jones may be skeptical of spiritual forces Christian or otherwise, but he turns to them as he nears his own denouement.
The Failure of Reconciliation
In scene seven, humbled by his position, by his failure, by his finally succumbing to the native power of his own heritage, Jones shows his own fixation on “Mama Christianity.” Just as he is about to give himself completely over to the witch doctor and what he represents, Jones calls out, “Oh, Lawd! Mercy on dis po’ sinner! . . . .Mercy, Lawd! Mercy!” (29). Casting himself upon the Christian God is for him, however, the final desperate act of a man still in denial, the absolute necessity for an elevated man to succumb to his tragic flaw. Since the playwright’s emphasis on the human relationship with God was a central factor in all of his work, Jones’ final acts play directly into O’Neill’s concerns. Such a response can be seen again in A Touch of the Poet, where Con Melody proudly proclaims atheistic views but seemingly repents upon his deathbed. Similarly, Phil Hogan has decried God in a Moon for the Misbegotten, but his curses near the end of the play belie his sincerity. The Dreamy Kid also flees and is trapped as he succumbs to the supernatural, or at least superstitious, forces he has belittled. The idea may be extended to other characters, such as Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra, whose belief in the Mannon curse leads her to self-destruction when she shuts herself up in the family manse. As Thierry Dubost cautions, we must see how the characters draw nearer to divine reality despite their disclaiming of divinity (189). Thus, we must probe below the surface before attempting to define, with certainty, the attitudes of O’Neill’s protagonists. We must go beyond appearances and listen to the language.
Immediately before Jones’ pleas, O’Neill describes how “the forces of evil demand a sacrifice” (29). Jones provides it, but there is a question about what those forces of evil are. It cannot be assumed that these forces are those associated with the witch doctor, for the stage directions are written here as a third-person omniscient observation, not as if they were filtered through Jones’ consciousness. The sacrifice, then, is made to the forces that Jones cannot overcome: the white profit-based Christianity that has always considered him less than a man. For it is immediately, “in answer to his prayer,” that he realizes he can take his own life with his own silver bullet, a symbol of both materialism and superstition. His prayer, however, is to the Christian God, and in relying on white people’s God, especially as recognized in the white figure of Christ, finally, in his last act, he dooms himself. In terms of the dramatic action, he is firing at the crocodile, but as representative of his natural self, he is shooting at himself. The evil of the crocodile is blindness to self. In his final act, Jones has chosen to embrace a white God and kill his true nature. It is no wonder that he must die, in that his final choice is to embrace the life-lie. According to O’Neill’s stage directions, “Jones lies with his face to the ground his arms outstretched” (30). Prone, with arms outstretched, his physical position recalls particularly that of the crucified Christ. His position suggests that he has tried to atone for his sins and seek redemption, one more troubling concession to his life-lie but one that situates the character within O’Neill’s tradition. He must cast himself upon God, but his mistake is in choosing which god. As Garbiele Poole explains, Jones’ final prayers clearly show repentance, “but one must keep in mind that his prayers are in a sense addressed to the wrong god, since the Christian God partakes in the discourse of white civilization, and is directly opposed to the religious beliefs of the natives” (29). The God he prays to is a divisive one that apparently has allowed the segregation of the black populace, preventing Jones’ connection with it. In doing so, he ensures his doom, not his salvation. What if he had embraced his own native God instead of the white people’s God? Such a choice is the one that the title character in the uncompleted “Bantu Boy” is left with, although unlike the brainwashed Jones, he chooses not to accept the white culture’s answer. According to O’Neill’s notes, the play would have ended with a lion’s roar, a prophetic claiming by the title character of the homeland’s spirit. O’Neill clearly respected that spirit more than did his fictitious emperor.
While his own bullet did not provide the killing stroke—it functions more symbolically as his last chance, according to Jones’ earlier comment that it is supposed to be the only thing that can kill him even though its existence is the only thing that protects him—the native Lem declaims to Smithers that he himself has cooked up silver bullets to kill Jones. In a phrase suggesting poetic justice, Lem says simply, “We cotch him” (31). We learn that Jones has run in a big circle and has returned to the first clearing, ideally illustrating O’Neill’s concept of the ascending spiral and relating the play and its characters ideologically to others such asMourning Becomes Electra, The Great God Brown, and Strange Interlude, which employ the same symbolic movement. Indeed, Jones comes back to the beginning to die, Smithers is on hand, and it is the native cunning that has outwitted Jones’ foreign—and white—appropriated knowledge. Though we may consider the deterministic forces of the universe to be the real culprits in Jones’ demise, the natives—as blind in their own way as Jones is in his—credit their own efforts.
Smithers himself continues to show how he is still no match for the cleverness and intelligence of those whose world he is invading. In the face of Lem’s confident claim of success, Smithers scorns him: “I’ll bet yer it ain’t ‘im they shot at all, yer bleedin’ looney!” (31). But indeed it is, and Jones’ lifeless body is carried out of the jungle, to be studied “with great satisfaction” by Lem and “frightened awe” by Smithers, who provides a final tribute to the fallen Emperor: “Silver bullets! Gawd blimey, but yer died in the ‘eigth o’ style, any’ow!” (32) Here, in this final moment of Jones’s saga, the blind Smithers still sees the silver bullet, symbolic of the killing power of money, as being the height of style. Clearly, Jones is not the only man in the play who is blinded by the lie. Smithers, too, will continue his own pathetic existence trapped by his own blindness, making him at least in this similar to Jones and providing a final image of the common humanity shared by all people in O’Neill’s universe.
Jones’ death resounds throughout the playwright’s later achievements. In casting himself upon God to return home, Jones ensures his own doom as do so many of O’Neill’s other characters. Travis Bogard states, “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” (137) and a foreshadowing of many of his later accomplishments. The long monologue, the dialect which becomes a sort of language (though not always a welcome one), the use of ghosts and different sorts of masks to catch an audience up into the madness, or at least the psychic trauma, of the protagonists— all resurface in later plays. Most importantly all of these characteristics are shared by black and white characters alike.
If a chief concern of an O’Neill critic is to interrogate the relationship between the final creation of the play and the author’s intention for its underlying ideas, one must consider not only the relationship between play and theme but between play and technique. O’Neill is interested primarily in psychological, not anthropological forces. If he brings these last into play in order to lend shadings to the characters’ actions, they are only of interest in how they represent the inner psychological drives. All of his characters exist to serve but not only to exploit rhetorical and thematic purposes. Whether early in his career— with “Thirst,” “The Dreamy Kid” or The Emperor Jones—or later—with such plays asThe Iceman Cometh, A Moon for the Misbegotten, A Touch of the Poet, or Long Day’s Journey Into Night—the primary struggle for O’Neill’s protagonists is that of the unconscious drive against the conscious intellect, as reflected in the search for self-identity among the myriad masks that frustrate resolution (Falk 157). O’Neill’s heroes struggle against ghosts in the dark jungles of their souls. The vanquishing of these ghosts is both their triumph and downfall, but it is also the common indicator of their humanity. O’Neill’s major black characters are no different in this sense, and they fit snugly into what the playwright saw as the process of human life. The jungle scenes develop the thought processes of the character, in a game of hide-and-ego seek that all of O’Neill’s characters must play to discover who they really are and that establishes a vision of their relation to the greater world.
A study of The Emperor Jones and its process of unmasking the self is an early example of O’Neill’s foray into the jungle of ethnic relations in the United States, but it is one entirely consistent with his major plays and characters. In a letter to Kenneth McGowan in 1926, O’Neill wrote,
Emperor Jones with Mob as the hero—or villain rather! done with masks entirely—showing the formation of a lynching mob from less harmless, human units—(a white man is victim of this lynching)—its gradual development as Mob & disintegration as Man until the end is a crowd of men with the masks of brutes dancing about the captive they are hanging who has reverted (a Jones but white) to a gibbering beast through fear. That is, it is the same lust and fear that made him commit his crime that takes possession of them and makes them kill him in the same spirit—of enjoyment, of gratified desire. (Bogard and Bryer 204)
This letter is just one of many examples indicating how Jones’ regression was not to a particularly ethnocentric consciousness, but a collective one that embraced all humanity by examining the common links that bind us all and that bind O’Neill’s plays together.
Perhaps it is best to end discussion of this significant and controversial play with a quote from Charles Gilpin: “It does not make any difference to me if they don’t like me, Charley Gilpin, personally….I want them to look at my work; if it is art, I want them to applaud it, if it is not, then let them condemn it” (Krasner 494). WhileThe Emperor Jones may never completely struggle out from under the shadow of the racism it struggled against, it nonetheless is secure in its achievement as an early incarnation of O’Neill’s penetrating gaze into the heart of darkness and the darkness of the human heart.
1Years later, O’Neill’s view of life itself appeared to have changed: “I love life….I always have” (Gelbs 487).
2Later, in his “Dogma for the New Masked Drama,” O’Neill would suggest that several of his earlier plays could have benefited from a reliance on physical masks, among them The Hairy Ape, Mourning Becomes Electra, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and perhaps not surprisingly, The Emperor Jones (Contour 265).
3According to John Cooley, the new Harlem consciousness perceived not only how old stereotypes persisted in white literature, but also that new ones were created (“In Pursuit” 63).
4A photo on page 148 of The Essential Black Literature Guide shows the physically imposing Garvey in full Jones-like regalia, with gold braid, medals and a plumed hat. It is not unlikely that O’Neill would be aware of this image and use it in his visual creation of Jones.
5Robeson often spoke warmly of O’Neill. Long after the playwright’s death, Robeson wrote of O’Neill’s belief in the “Oneness of Mankind” (Speaks 483).
6Of the personal acquaintances from whom he drew to create Brutus Jones, O’Neill drew directly from Adam Scott, a New London church elder who also worked as a bartender. “I’m a religious man on Sunday,” Scott claimed, “but the rest of the week I puts my Jesus on the shelf” (Son and Artist 29).
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