Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" Stands Out for Portrayal of Blacks

Paul Robeson in the film 'Emperor Jones'. Getty Images, Moviepix

Critics don’t consider Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, The Emperor Jones, the writer’s best. But the drama stands out from O’Neill’s other works as perhaps his most controversial and cutting-edge. Why? Because it did not marginalize African and African-American culture during a time in which the public still considered openly racist minstrel shows acceptable entertainment. It also marks O’Neill’s first entry into Expressionist writing, a style that doesn’t focus on capturing reality but the emotional response that circumstances spark within a person.

Slavery, island dialect, the jungle and class and cultural differences all figure prominently in the play.

Originally performed in the early 1920s, The Emperor Jones was inspired by events that unfolded in Haiti. It details the rise and fall of Brutus Jones, an African American railway worker who becomes a thief, a killer, an escaped convict, and after journeying to the West Indies, the self-proclaimed ruler of an island. While at first glance, this appears to be a stereotypical portrayal of blacks, O’Neill’s play actually functions as a critique of American culture. Jones' character is villainous and desperate, but his corrupt value system has been derived by observing upper class white Americans. A Cockney man named Henry Smithers even helps Brutus, who views himself as superior to the island blacks, execute his schemes.

As the island people rebel against Jones, he becomes a hunted man -- and undergoes a transformation towards savageness.

After fleeing into the jungle to avoid the islanders, Jones confronts his personal demons. It’s the beginning of the end for the emperor.

Drama critic Ruby Cohn writes:

The Emperor Jones is at once a gripping drama about an oppressed American black, a modern tragedy about a hero with a flaw, an expressionist quest play probing to the racial roots of the protagonist; above all, it is more highly theatrical than its European analogues, gradually quickening the tom-tom from normal pulse-rhythm, stripping away colorful costume to the naked man beneath, subordinating dialogue to innovative lighting in order to illuminate an individual and his racial heritage.

As much as he was a playwright, O'Neill was a social critic against racism. At the same time, while the play demonizes colonialism, the main character exhibits many immoral qualities. African American playwrights such as Langston Hughes, and later on Lorraine Hansberry, would create plays that celebrated the courage and compassion of black Americans, such as A Raisin in the Sun. This bravery and compassion is missing from O'Neill's work, which focuses on the turbulent lives of derelicts, both black and white.

Ultimately, modern audiences are left to wonder whether or not The Emperor Jones did more harm than good.

In 1933, a film adaptation of the play hit the silver screen. Directed by Dudley Murphy, it starred Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges and Fredi Washington of Imitation of Life fame. The same year as the film debut, Emperor Jones, the opera, premiered.

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Bradford, Wade. "Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" Stands Out for Portrayal of Blacks." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2016, Bradford, Wade. (2016, March 2). Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" Stands Out for Portrayal of Blacks. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones" Stands Out for Portrayal of Blacks." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 20, 2017).