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1| Introduction: Early Actors and Directors
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Word spread that the performance was going to be something special and the Provincetown Players were bombarded with requests for tickets and with new subscriptions as soon as the play opened, despite the fact that the reviewers were busy with “more important” premieres of now-forgotten plays. The Emperor Jones was so successful that it was moved to a theatre uptown, taken on tour in the United States and then to London. The reviewers generally praised Gilpin and there is unanimity in most of the reviews about his tremendous ability. Kenneth Macgowan wrote that it was “amagnificent piece of acting: from Harlem they brought a colored player, Charles Gilpin, to impersonate the emperor.” He went on to catalog Gilpin’s previous experience in smaller roles and the opportunity this role gave him to show his ability: “He shows not only a great power and a great image, in addition to his fine voice, but he displays an extraordinary versatility. It is a genuine impersonation, a being of flesh and blood and brain, utterly different from the actor’s other work.” He described at length the steady buildup of fright turning to terror throughout the latter part of the play, calling Gilpin’s performance “the crown of a play that opens up the imagination of the American theatre.”

Others also spoke of the superb acting and credited Gilpin with the success of the O’Neill play. One described it as an “amazing and unforgettable performance.” Heywood Broun headed his review, “The Most Thrilling Play of the Season.” He gave particular attention to the vocal qualities required for the long role: “Gilpin sustains the succession of scenes in monologues not only because his voice is one of a gorgeous natural quality, but because he knows just what to do with it.” He said further that a critic probably shouldn’t call an actor great on the basis of one role, but “there can be no question whatever that in ‘The Emperor Jones’ Gilpin is great.  It is a performance of heroic stature. It is so good that the fact that it is enormously skillful seems only incidental.” Each evening after the performance cheers and shouts greeted Gilpin as he took his bows wearing a bathrobe to cover his minimal costume.

In contrast to the rave reviews Gilpin generally received, there were a few reviewers who made negative comments about him. One cannot help wondering if Alan Dale’s review of the production (after it had moved to the Selwyn Theatre) was clouded by racial prejudice. He criticized him generally, then specifically stated that he had limited powers and vocal monotony. He did say that he was at his best in the few moments of comedy—again, perhaps revealing a belief that blacks were incapable of anything but comedy. But Gilpin was to face a much clearer example of racial prejudice, even as he was praised for his acting.

Each year the Drama League held a dinner at which a number of actors were honored. In view of the notices Gilpin received, it was obvious that he should be among them. However, when some of the League members protested having a black man at their annual dinner, the invitation, amazingly, was withdrawn. O’Neill was outraged and, although painfully shy, got Macgowan to go with him to see the other actors who were to be honored and to ask them to boycott the dinner unless Gilpin was there. As a result, Gilpin was reinvited, but he did not enjoy the evening. Even worse than this event was the knowledge he had that he might never play such a role—or in fact any role in mainstream theatre—again. In interviews he expressed his appreciation for the opportunity O’Neill and the Provincetown Players had given him, but expressed at length the view that he was facing “stone walls” in the American theatre: “If I were white, a dozen opportunities would come to me as a result of a success like this. But I’m black. It is no joke when I ask myself, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ” 13

The many personal and professional problems Gilpin faced caused him to drink more and more. Furthermore, he objected to the use of the term “nigger”in the play and substituted other words for it. He also started stretching the comedy, causing O’Neill to call him “all ham and a yard wide.” The demanding role required a sober actor in good health and O’Neill objected strenuously to Gilpin’s behavior. In a widely quoted vile statement, he told Gilpin after an erratic performance, “If I ever catch you rewriting my lines again, you black bastard, I’m going to beat you up.”In his own defense, O’Neill told the critic Mike Gold that he had put up with much more from Gilpin because of his race than he would have from a white man and that Gilpin had been drunk all of the last season.14 In subsequent performances the role was taken by Paul Robeson, who was to create great excitement on the theatrical scene.

Not only did Gilpin lose the role and opportunities for further acting with the Provincetown Players, he suffered the indignity of seeing Robeson in his role. The Gelbs give an account of the occasion. After viewing the performance, he told a member of the Provincetown Players, “I feel kind of low. I created the role of the Emperor. That role belongs to me. That Irishman, he just wrote the play.”15 According to his obituaries, Gilpin retired to a farm in New Jersey, but the wish for money and the desire to act took him back to playing in stock. At the age of fifty he suffered a breakdown while acting in Woodstock, New York, and lost his magnificent voice. His wife cared for him until his death at the age of fifty-one. His voice mysteriously returned just before he died. Certainly this is a tragic story. The critic Theophilus Lewis wrote, “He rose from obscurity to the peaks, lived his hour of triumph, and returned again to the shadows.” 16 O’Neill never forgot how wonderful Gilpin had initially been in the role. Twenty-five years later he told an interviewer, “As I look back on all my work I can honestly say there was only one actor who carried out every notion of a character I had in mind. That actor was Charles Gilpin as the Pullman porter in The Emperor Jones.17

Paul Robeson was an outstanding figure in sports, the musical world, and theatre. A fine student, he went to Rutgers, then Columbia, to get a law degree. He became disenchanted with the idea of being a lawyer, as he felt that a black man could not rise to the top as a lawyer in his time. His biographer Martin Duberman describes his growing interest in acting. In 1920, while still a law student, he performed with the Amateur Players in Harlem at the YWCA. He was in a revival of Simon the Cyrenian, one of the plays Ridgely Torrence had written for the Coloured Players. Because of his performance in that play, the people involved in a production called Taboo asked him to be in it. The play was written by a white woman named Mary Hoyt Wiborg and treated a familiar theme of superstitions and myth among black people. The production was directed by Augustin Duncan (brother of the famous dancer Isadora Duncan) and featured Margaret Wycherly, who had previously acted with the Provincetown Players. The play was produced on Broadway in 1922 by Sam Harris, with Charles Gilpin helping to coach the actors. Unfortunately the play was weak and closed after three days. Some critics gave positive attention to Robeson, but he must have been dismayed by Alexander Woolcott’s review saying that he belonged almost anywhere except on the stage—the critic was probably carried away by his negative view of the play.  Although the play had not been a success on Broadway, it was performed on tour in England with Robeson playing opposite the famous actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell.18

Robeson was determined to make a career in the theatre, however, so he persevered even as he finished his law studies. He wrote a letter to Otto Kahn, the millionaire with many interests in theatre who was one of the backers of the Provincetown Players.  Duberman quotes Robeson as saying, “I want to get before any theatrical managers and playwrights, especially those who may possibly have Negro roles.” He made specific reference to Eugene O’Neill. In 1923 he had finished the law degree but was still seeking a career in the theatre. He asked Augustin Duncan to write to O’Neill directly, suggesting that he use Robeson in a play.19 In the fall of 1923 O’Neill began working on a play with a leading role for a black actor, All God’s Chillun Got Wings. He had just suffered a failure with the play Gold in which the actor Willard Mack didn’t know his lines and was extemporizing. O’Neill had admired Gilpin as an actor but did not want to use him again because of his drinking. Speaking to critic Mike Gold, he said he had got hold of a young man with “wonderful presence and voice, full of ambition and a damn fine man personally with real brains—not a ham....I don’t believe he’ll lose his head if he makes a hit—as he surely will, for he’s read the play for me.”20 Just before the rehearsals began, Robeson appeared with the Lafayette Players in a play called Roseanne. It was first done by white players in make-up, then with Rose McClendon and Charles Gilpin in an all-black cast. Gilpin had to be replaced and Robeson stepped into the role.

O’Neill was correct in anticipating a hit for Robeson. What he did not anticipate was the furor that preceded the opening of the play. The story is that of a talented black man studying to be a lawyer who falls in love with a white woman. Actually the play begins with them as childhood friends, naďve about racial prejudice. Their paths separate, she becomes a streetwalker, he cherishes his love for her, and finally they marry. The play deals with the difficulties they experience in a marriage with too much against it. (Later critics take this play as a disguised picture of O’Neill’s parents.) The play was published before it was presented, so that many people were aware of the theme. There were also rumors that a black man and a white woman kissed each other in the play.

In her diary about the Provincetown Players, Edna Kenton wrote that the theatre was besieged by people demanding that the play be stopped. Articles were written in the papers predicting race riots if the play were presented. O’Neill, the Provincetown Players, and the actors received hate mail from racists. The Ku Klux Klan threatened to march on the city of New York. The lengthy struggle, and the letters written by O’Neill and others to the newspapers is a long story. In brief, the rehearsals went forward and the play was produced despite opposition and despite the fact that a last-minute effort by opponents kept the children from performing the early scene in the play. It was read by the stage manager. Mary Blair played the wife, and the mail was so terrible that the Provincetown Players staff opened all the letters to her and threw away the worst.21 There was no physical romance in the play, but at one point Blair was to kiss Robeson’s hand. She often said that when she died her obituaries would say that she was the actress who had kissed Robeson’s hand in All God’s Chillun Got Wings. She was right.

Mary Blair was an erratic actress, sometimes wonderful, sometimes disappointing, but O’Neill often insisted she be in his plays because of gratitude for her early allegiance to the Provincetown Players. Because she became ill, the production was postponed and it seemed a good idea to fill in with Robeson playing in The Emperor Jones. There were only two weeks of rehearsal for that play, which opened on May 6, 1924, followed swiftly by the opening of All God’s Chillun on May 15.

Despite the almost impossible schedule he had to follow, Robeson was successful in both roles. His performance as the Emperor was described as “stirring”by one critic, who noted that it was an exacting part for which Robeson was suited because of his “extraordinary physique and a deep resonant voice.” He compared the performance favorably to that of Gilpin, although observing that he lacked “mellowness that comes with experience.” But he felt that Robeson compensated for that lack with vigor and virility arising from his youth and spirit. Most of the reviewers noted that the role had been made famous by Gilpin. One said it was difficult to remember the details of Gilpin’s performance and so to compare the two, but that Gilpin’s excellence was a matter of record and that Robeson was “gorgeous in the part.” Almost all the critics described Robeson as a giant with a beautiful body and a magnificent voice, “just such a voice as The Emperor Jones demands.” Another critic placed him higher than Gilpin because of his physique and a voice unmatched in the American theatre. Frank Vreeland wrote that Robeson was physically better for the role, “his towering bulk giving a touch of imperial dignity to the unstable ruler.” His description of the action makes it clear how powerful Robeson was in the role: “As he alternately groveled and fled through the primeval forest from the rebellious natives, he sounded the rock bottom depths of terror, and he fired his revolver at the ghosts of his slain with such tremendous conviction that he seemed likely to blow out the sides of the tiny playhouse.” One critic commented that both actors were so successful that he began to have fleeting suspicions that “it is the play rather than the player that so holds an audience.” Alexander Woolcott had clearly changed his mind about Robeson since seeing the little-lamented Taboo, and said, “Robeson brings to the play a more primitive strength, a broader stroke of tone and gesture, a greater tumult of the immemorial fears which this voodoo play invokes from the deeps.” He also wrote that people were fighting to get standing room at the Provincetown Players to see the production while other theatres were not even full. One article said that “smudgy urchins tried to sneak in but ushers flung them firmly outdoors.” At the curtain there were cheers and applause for Robeson, who appeared in a checked bathrobe, looking like a boxer who had just won a match. Of course, O’Neill was pleased by Robeson’s success, but, according to his biographer, Louis Scheaffer, said privately that Gilpin’s acting had been better.22

O’Neill’s head was full of the problems concerning the production of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Despite efforts of the Provincetown Players to defuse the controversy and insure a performance without riots or shooting, there was great anger in many circles about the production, with New York’s Mayor John Hylan promising an investigation and refusing to allow the children to perform. Arthur Hornblow expressed the opinion after the opening, which went very smoothly, that after all the fuss the performance seemed tame. O’Neill was regarded as the most promising American playwright in 1924, but most critics found the play tedious and uninteresting. Heywood Broun, while making it clear that he just didn’t like the play, bent over backwards to write positive comments. Like most of the critics he seized upon Robeson’s performance as the saving grace of the evening. In an ironic reference to the bogus charges of provocative racial material in the play, he wrote, “Caucasian superiority does suffer a little because Paul Robeson is a far finer actor than any white member of the cast. Even in the dreary stretches of the play he sometimes drives his eloquence of voice and gesture through the fog.” He praised Robeson’s offstage singing of a spiritual, and concluded, “In the final scene of the first act where O’Neill helps him with some vigorous and brilliant writing, Robeson furnishes one of the finest moments in the present theatrical season.” Arthur Hornblow called that scene (in which Robeson acted with another fine black actor, Frank Wilson, playing a “belligerent young Negro”) the highlight of the play. Again the critics praised Robeson’s physical characteristics and his talent as an actor. John Corbin could not praise the play as a whole, but said, “O’Neill shines in the creation of Jim’s character and Paul Robeson, who creates the part, is a very able ally.” Alexander Woolcott was high in his praise of the “heroic and noble figure of the negro—superbly embodied and fully comprehended by Paul Robeson. It is Robeson who is so magnificent in the title role of The Emperor Jones, that other O’Neill play which shares the week in Macdougal Street where Robeson is playing in repertory.”

Robert Gilbert Welsh was one critic who liked both the play and Robeson’s acting. He wrote, “The difficult role of the negro husband is played powerfully and with a convincing simplicity by Paul Robeson. . . . (T)he play is likely to take a permanent place in the American theatre.” In the event, he was wrong about the play.  It has rarely been revived. The most notable production was in 1975 at the Circle in the Square, directed by George C. Scott and starring Robert Christian as Jim.

Robeson, having achieved what no black actor had before, playing two leading roles in repertory for a white theatre company, went on to even greater success in the theatre. He played the next year as a boxer in Black Boy. In 1927 he played Crown in the Heywards’ play Porgy with Frank Wilson as the lead. Another success was his role as Joe in Showboat. He played the latter in the London production and was cheered for his rendition of “Ol’Man River.” With altered lyrics he used this song throughout his career as a protest against racial oppression. In 1931 he performed his third O’Neill role, that of the stoker in The Hairy Ape. He later broke records with his three productions of Othello. Hounded in his later years for alleged Communist activities, Robeson could get no work and had no income. In 1978 Phillip Hayes Dean wrote a play called Paul Robeson, which starred James Earl Jones. In recent years even more attention has been given to the great performer with a PBS program about his life and career. There was an exhibit in 1999 at the Museum of the City of New York that included photos of his appearances in O’Neill plays. When he appeared in those plays, the demanding critic George Jean Nathan wrote, “with relatively little experience and with no training to speak of, Robeson is one of the most thoroughly eloquent, impressive, and convincing actors that I have looked at and listened to in almost twenty years of professional theatre-going.”

Robeson was one of the most convincing actors of this period. One of the most convincing actresses of the early twentieth century was Pauline Lord. She is credited with contributing to the development of realistic acting. Her biographer, Nelda K. Balch, wrote that “when the Moscow Art Theatre was leading the way in realistic acting and when many American actresses were bringing their personalities to the stage, Pauline Lord was developing her unique kind of realistic portrayal of emotion.”23 It took Lord many years, however, to find the play that would allow her to achieve the success she deserved. She first acted in school plays at the Holy Rosary Academy near San Francisco. Her desire to act was whetted by her frequent trips to matinees in the city. She studied acting at the Alcazar Theatre School there and made her debut at the age of thirteen, playing an adult role. From that time on she performed in plays and in vaudeville, making her New York debut at the age of twenty-two in a light comedy. Her luck was not good in the next few years, as she appeared in seven unsuccessful plays. She impressed Arthur Hopkins while acting the role of a woman of the streets in The Deluge (which lasted only a few weeks in 1917) and he took an interest in developing her career. Hopkins put her in a number of plays, but she never achieved the renown he was sure she should have.

Similarly, Eugene O’Neill’s play Chris Christopherson failed to find the success he thought it would have. His father’s old friend George Tyler was to produce it, but he kept delaying. Finally, following the success of Beyond the Horizon, he decided to move quickly and try the play out in Atlantic City, take it on tour, then bring it to New York. O’Neill attended some rehearsals and was discontent with the casting, which he discussed in letters to his wife. Lynn Fontanne was to play Anna, but O’Neill was unconvinced that she was the right actress for the role.24 Tyler wanted him in Atlantic City for extensive rewrites, but O’Neill preferred to do the work in Provincetown, so he was not closely involved in the production. The reviews were fairly positive, but the audiences didn’t like the play. Tyler had made extensive cuts, as O’Neill had before the rehearsals began. When the play went to Philadelphia, the reviews were mixed and Tyler wanted O’Neill to join the company and rewrite. At this point, fortunately, as it turned out, O’Neill decided the play was not worth saving with mere revisions and told Tyler to throw it in the ash barrel as he was going to start over.25 By 1921 Hopkins was interested in O’Neill and may have hoped to find a suitable role for Lord in one of his plays. The match proved perfect. O’Neill had nearly written a new play, far superior to the first version, which was called Anna Christie. This play brought tremendous success to Lord, praise for direction to Hopkins, and another Pulitzer Prize to O’Neill. O’Neill knew Lord’s work, but also knew her personally, as did Jamie. O’Neill’s brother liked to say that Polly was the only woman he had ever loved—especially when he was drunk and sentimental—but this seems to have been self-dramatization on Jamie’s part.

One of the interesting things in the Lincoln Center file on Pauline Lord is an article called “My Anna Christie,” in which she discussed her approach to the role. Because she was almost as shy as O’Neill, she was reluctant to write about herself or the role. Unlike many other actresses, she was reclusive and far from a public figure.  Lord was only five feet, two inches tall, with light brown hair, and a soft voice. A description of her by Balch could almost be a description of O’Neill: “hesitant, at times timid and vague, with an elusive quality.”26 In the article, Lord said that when she read the first act, she felt she could not play the role because she wasn’t the right type.  O’Neill had described a woman who was a gorgeous Swede, “a goddess of the flesh, of deep bosomed strength and golden hair. I couldn’t manage that. I am not a goddess.” Still, she continued to read and to feel pity for the character. Finally she decided she could play the role, working from the inside. “I knew when I got her and cared for her that I could do her as a poor girl whom the audience would love and pity,—so there was the end of the first goddess Anna and the beginning of the Anna I do.” Knowing that her own background as a convent student would not serve her, her first idea was to study the prostitutes she saw on 10th Avenue. She talked to them and concluded, “They seemed to me for the most part silly and half-frightened.  There was nothing about their talk that seemed especially revolting or even from the standpoint of reproducing it, particularly racy.” When the time came to rehearse, Lord actually was more influenced by the character of a department store clerk who seemed utterly defeated, “a beaten soul, tired to death.” She said she used a hoarse voice (“which sometimes leaves me at the end of a performance with scarcely any voice at all”), and selected various mannerisms to express her despair. “All her little mannerisms have now come to seem as real to me as if they had always existed. The other characters are real, too—is there any other American playwright to compare with Eugene O’Neill for putting life bodily on the stage?”


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