Recently, I taught Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920) in my American literature survey course (1865-present). As I prepared to discuss the play with students, I struggled with what angle to take when exploring a text that contains stereotypical images of African Americans as well as images and sections that counter stereotypical assumptions about African Americans. Eventually, I settled on presenting both aspects to students and letting them think about how we should read The Emperor Jones: as a racist play or as a play that counters racist and imperialistic perspectives. We did not come to a clear answer to this question, and I do not think that is ultimately a bad thing; however, we did think about what exactly O’Neill wants us to take away from the story of Brutus Jones. Today, I want to talk about how I approached this play in the classroom to spark these types of conversations with students.
Before delving into the myriad reactions to The Emperor Jones, we must remember the importance of the play on two fronts. First and foremost, it was the first play on Broadway with lead character played by an African American actor, Charles Gilpin, that did not devolve into a minstrel act. While Ira Aldrige and others took the stage in the nineteenth century in plays like Othello and The Black Doctor, Gilpin became the first African American in a leading role on Broadway. Along with Gilpin’s performance, we need to recall the artistic milieu of the period, a turn towards primitivism as a reaction against the modernization of the first part of the twentieth century, specifically following World War I. An argument could be made that primitivism relies on racist stereotypes, and here in lies the tensions and ambiguities that occur when approaching a text like The Emperor Jones.
Arguing about the play’s influence on the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Sterling Brown posited “the decade was ushered in by Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920)” (qtd. in Dalleo 113). Claude McKay focused on Gilpin’s performance and not the play itself. It must be noted as well that Gilpin objected to he prevelance of the word “nigger” in the play, asking O’Neill to change it to “Negro.” O’Neill refused, claiming the word fit with his dramatic intentions.
If we take the position that The Emperor Jones does not provide a racist, stereotypical image of Brutus Jones and African Americans, then we can see this from the beginning of the play, especially in the stage design and directions and in the interactions between Brutus and Smithers in scene one. Here, we see Brutus Jones, a former pull man porter who killed a man and got arrested, as the emperor of an unnamed Caribbean island. The scene takes place in a chamber in his palace, and as the opening stage direction reads, “The audience chamber in the palace of the Emperor-a spacious, high-ceilinged room with bare, white-washed walls. The floor is of white tiles. In the rear, to the left of center, a wide archway giving out to a portico with white pillars” (534). Surrounded by “white,” Jones’ throne occupies the room, representing his control of all that he sees.
When Smithers, “a Cockney trader,” enters, the stage direction describes him as “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” (534). This description does not appear flattering to the European Smithers; instead, it paints him in a manner that highlights his characteristics in the play as a character driven by power. When Jones enters, the stage direction paints him in a strong, favorable light, apart from the comment about his “negroid features.” He arrives as “a tall, powerfully-built, full blooded Negro of middle age” dressed in a military uniform (536). At the beginning of the play, we get a reversal of what one would normally expect with white and black characters on stage. Jones is the one in control and Smithers must answer to the emperor. Aaron Douglas’ woodcut of this scene, entitled Bravado (1926), shows this reversal by depicting Jones and the throne and Smithers in a sort of supplicant position.
Even though Jones begins the play in power and in control, he descends into madness, and by the end of the play, he retrogrades to a primitive state before Lem and his men kill him. This descent, and other factors, lead some to view the play as a text that reinforces stereotypes and atavism. It’s hard to argue against this, and this is where the tensions come into play. I do find it fascinating that through Jones’ fall O’Neill relates the plight of African Americans in the United States from Jones’ murder, his time on the chain gang, a slave auction, the Middle Passage, and a scene in Africa. I can see this playing into the primitivism of the period, but I am still intrigued by his movement into the past, in this way, in 1920.
Along with this downward movement, there are other items that cause us to question the overall message of the play. Looking at the final scene, we need to think about who gets the final words in the play and what those words are. While Jones remains a strong character throughout the play, he ultimately dies, with the help of Smithers, at the hands of those he rules over. The play concludes with Smithers questioning the influence of Lem and the native men’s charms and drumming on catching Jones. When Lem and his men walk away, Smithers remains on stage and says, “Stupid as ‘ogs the lot of ’em! Blarsted niggers!” before the curtain falls (556). Through Smithers comparing Lem and his men to hogs then calling them “niggers,” we are left questioning what we should take away from the play.
While it begins with a reversal, it ends with the cultural “status quo” being reestablished. In this way, O’Neill does not challenge stereotypes or wide held beliefs of the periods. However, while Jones does fall, he maintains dignity, never falling into the role of a buffoon or approaching minstrelsy. What do we make of this? What should we make of this? This post does not even touch on the ways that we could read the play as a comment on imperialism and a response to the United States’s occupation of Haiti that began in 1915.
I do not have an answer to any of these questions, and this is what I told my students. Rather, I let them think about the play and what they believed to be O’Neill’s message. Granted, we are almost 100 years removed from the play’s initial appearance, but the lingering questions remain as Nia Reynolds wrote about the National Theater’s production in 2007 and Hongmei Zhang and Wang Ni wrote about in 2015.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Dalleo, Raphael. “Gendering the Occupation: The Universal Negro Improvement Association, Black Female Playwrights, and Haiti.” American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville; London, 2016, pp. 101–121.
O’Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones. American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 533-556.