Critical Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones is the first international triumph of expressionism by an American playwright; with it, Eugene O’Neill single-handedly introduced experimental American theater to Europe and established his reputation as the United States’ pre-eminent playwright. The November 1, 1920, premiere at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City was a groundbreaking literary achievement for African Americans as well. The Emperor Jones was the first play to have a black man, Charles S. Gilpin, perform the leading role for a white theater company. On the day following its premiere, the New York Times reported astonishing news: Gilpin, along with being an “uncommonly powerful and imaginative performer . . . is a negro” (quoted in Miller 21). Moreover, though written by a white author, mostly in black dialect, and loaded with racial epithets, stereotyping, and unabashed repetition of the word nigger, the play was embraced by the black artistic community as well. James Weldon Johnson, one of the most influential promoters of African-American culture at the time, importantly observed that no previous effort to establish African-American actors and themes in the theater world “so far as the Negro is concerned, evoked more than favorable comment. . . . But [with] O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones . . . another important page in the history of the Negro was written” (183–184).


Scene 1

The main room of an emperor’s palace, with porticos in the background that reveal tropical views of a small, unidentified Caribbean island. A native black woman furtively enters from the right. She carries a bundle bound to a stick and moves toward the main door with the clear intention of escape. Smithers materializes from under the portico. Smithers is a cockney, or British working-class, confidence man with a treacherous, ferretlike appearance; he is wearing the stereotypical garb of the adventurer colonialist—white riding suit, puttees, white cork helmet, a revolver, and an ammunition belt strapped to his waist. At first, the native woman does not see him, but when she does she makes a break for the door. Smithers lunges to intercept her and holds her fast by the shoulders. He interrogates the terrified woman and discovers that while the title character, Brutus Jones—formerly a Pullman porter of 10 years, but now the island’s emperor—was sleeping, the natives have escaped to the hills and are plotting a rebellion, led by Jones’s political enemy, Lem. Smithers receives this information with “immense, mean satisfaction” (1:1,032): “Serve ’im right! Puttin’ on airs, the stinkin’ nigger! . . . I only ’opes I’m there when they takes ’im out to shoot ’im” (1:1,033). No matter his views, Smithers profits from Jones’s reign, and he whistles shrilly to alert him. The woman runs off the moment his back is turned.

Brutus Jones enters, enraged by the disturbance. In the stage directions, O’Neill describes Jones’s appearance as “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” (1:1,033). Smithers hints around that the palace is unusually quiet, enjoying the rare moment when he knows something Jones, clearly his superior, does not. The repartee between the two thieves includes a good deal of exposition revealing details about them both. Before his arrival on the island, Jones served time for stabbing a man who had used loaded dice against him in a crap game and was imprisoned for the murder. He escaped prison by killing another man, his chain gang’s prison guard. Now a fugitive on the run, Jones fled to the Caribbean. Smithers, in contrast, has lived on the island eight years longer than Jones but had accomplished nothing. Prior to the play’s action, Jones gained his emperorship by convincing the native islanders he was supernatural. His one political rival, the island native Lem, had hired an assassin to kill him, but the assassin’s gun misfired, and after Jones shot the killer dead, he declared to the bewildered crowd—whom Jones significantly considers, as white colonialists might, “low-flung, bush niggers”—that only a silver bullet could kill him. In order to substantiate the bluff, Jones had a silver bullet crafted for him, proclaiming to the natives that “I’m de on’y man in de world big enuff to git me” (1:1,036). “Oh Lawd,” he laughs, showing his acceptance of an alien white religion followed by subtle slave imagery, “from dat time on I has dem all eatin’ out of my hand. I cracks de whip and dey jumps through” (1:1,036). His motivation for tricking the natives has already been made clear: “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’ I gits de money. (with a grin) De long green, dat’s me every time!” (1:1,035).

Smithers chides Jones, who professes religious convictions, for never having converted the island natives to the Baptist Church; he then informs Jones what the old native woman has told him—that a rebellion led by Lem is brewing in the hills above the palace. The faraway sound of a tom-tom softly fills the air; its rhythm matches that of the normal human pulse, 72 beats a minute; in the stage directions, O’Neill instructs that the tom-tom beat should continue “at a gradually accelerating rate from this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play” (1:1,041). Jones hears the tom-tom, and when Smithers explains it is part of a native war ritual to bolster their courage against a common enemy, Jones knows his game is up. “So long, white man,” he tells Smithers and, self-assured that he will survive the insurgency, flees into the island’s jungle forest (1:1,043). Prepared ahead of time for his inevitable ousting, Jones has memorized the island’s labyrinthine jungle paths, stored caches of food along the way, and made plans to evade the rebel band by escaping to Martinique on a French gunboat.

Scene 2

The edge of the “Great Forest.” Now on the run, Jones is exhausted from the journey but relaxed and self-congratulatory. However, his sinecure as emperor has ill-trained him for the grueling trek through the jungle. Jones foreshadows what lies ahead by bolstering his resolve with the words, “Cheer up, nigger, de worst is yet to come” (1:1,044; remarkably, these are the same words [excluding the racial epithet] Mark Twain once wrote to his wife in response to her fears of impending bankruptcy, though apparently O’Neill got the line from his friend Terry Carlin). Jones comes to realize his surroundings are unfamiliar and fails to locate the store of food he purposefully hid under a white stone, as the one stone has inexplicably proliferated into many. The first of a series of nightmares manifests itself as a jumble of “Little Formless Fears.” O’Neill describes the ghostly creatures as “black, shapeless, only their glittering eyes can be seen. If they have any describable form at all it is that of a grub-worm about the size of a creeping child” (1,045–46). They laugh at him with a sound “like a rustling of leaves,” and Jones, startled, fires a shot into the trees. Their ethereal laughter ends, and Jones, “with renewed confidence . . . plunges boldly into the forest” (1:1,046).

Scene 3

Deep in the thick canopy of the Great Forest. Moonlight offers Jones some visibility. His Panama hat is now gone, and his uniform is torn. He comes across a triangular clearing; an eerie clicking noise comes from the brush. The native rebels’ unrelenting tom-tom continues to beat, only now a little louder and more rapidly. He has lost track of time and is growing tired, but he remains sanguine: “Never min’. It’s all part o’ de game. Dis night come to an end like everything else” (1:1,047). He whistles cheerfully but stops himself abruptly, fearful he might expose his location. In the moonlit triangle, the spectral form of the negro gambler Jeff, the man he had murdered for cheating, gradually comes into view. Jeff is wearing a Pullman porter’s uniform and is found shooting craps on the jungle floor, “casting them out with the regular, rigid, mechanical movements of an automaton” (1:1,047). At first, Jones truly believes Jeff is alive, and he voices sincere delight that his victim survived the stabbing. But Jeff offers no response. Jones panics, firing into the bizarre apparition, which instantaneously disappears. The tom-tom beats louder and faster, and Jones, fearing the rebel band is closing in, runs headlong into the underbrush (1:1,048).

Scene 4

Along a dirt road in the forest. Jones’s uniform is now severely damaged. A road stretches from right front to left rear. Under the moonlight, the road appears “ghastly and unreal” (1:1,049). The heat is overwhelming, and Jones tears off his coat, revealing his bare torso, and takes off his spurs. As each item is symbolically discarded, so too is his identity as emperor. Continuing his monologue, Jones calms his fear of the “ha’nts,” or ghosts, by recalling his parson’s instruction to him that ghosts do not exist, that they are the purview of “ign’rent black niggers” (1:1,049); apparently, then, Jones has a predisposition to have such visions. He convinces himself that Jeff was just a figment of his overdeveloped imagination, that his fatigue and hunger are making him see things.

A prison chain gang enters from stage right. They are shackled, wear the striped black and white uniforms of convicts, and carry picks and shovels. A white man in a prison guard uniform carrying a Winchester rifle and a whip follows close behind. At the silent crack of his whip, the prisoners begin working on the road. “Their movements, like those of Jeff in the preceding scene, are those of automatons,— rigid, slow, and mechanical” (1:1,050). The prison guard cracks his whip again, this time at Jones, who obediently joins the gang in the subservient mindset of an institutionalized being. While Jones is at work, the guard lashes him on the back, causing him to wince. When the guard turns his back, Jones murderously raises his shovel high above the man’s head. But the shovel unaccountably disappears, and Jones instead shoots the guard in the back, thus killing his life’s two murder victims again and wasting a third bullet. The tom-tom continues beating, louder and faster.

Scene 5

Another clearing, though this time its shape is circular. Importantly, this scene marks Jones’s psychological shift from his personal guilt feelings to the racial ancestry he had treacherously denied by enslaving his African kinsmen on the island. His clothes are in their last stages of utter disrepair. He sits on a stump with his head in his hands, rocking back and forth praying in anguish, asking Jesus to absolve him of his sins and cease his tormenting visions. Jones then turns his attention on his patent leather shoes, which are destroyed.

From all sides, a group of Southern planters, “young belles and dandies,” and an auctioneer at a slave auction appear. Again, like Jeff and the members of the chain gang, “There is something stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements” (1:1,053). The auctioneer silently orders Jones to mount the auction block to allow the planters a clear view of his body. The auctioneer gestures to Jones’s terrific build and well-behaved demeanor. In a fear-driven rage, Jones shoots the auctioneer twice. The stage drops into darkness, and all we hear are Jones’s screams as he flees again into the woods and the beat of the tom-tom, faster and louder. He now has only his silver bullet left to protect him from further paranormal apparitions.

Scene 6

Another clearing, which is enclosed by creeping vines and arched tree trunks that give the impression of the hold of an old sailing ship. Jones’s imagination has sent him further back in history to a slave ship loaded with captured Africans. The moon no longer illuminates the jungle floor, and Jones enters left on his hands and knees, groaning over his lost ammunition, the darkness of the forest, and his state of complete exhaustion. The stage gradually lightens to reveal two rows of captured slaves, who rock back and forth, simulating the movement of a ship on the open sea. From his prostrate position, Jones sees the ghastly scene, and he throws himself back down with his head in the dirt to hide from this terrifying group of apparitions (1:1,055). The slaves moan in unison, reaching a crescendo, seemingly directed by the sound of the tom-tom coming ever nearer, then settling down to a low murmur, then back up again repeatedly. Jones’s voice involuntarily joins the others in this song of sorrow and pain. Again, the light fades into darkness, and Jones plunges wildly into the jungle (1:1,056).

Scene 7

At the foot of a tree on the banks of a great river; an altar made from boulders lies near the base of the tree. Scene 7 takes Jones fully back to Africa, where a witch doctor sings and dances about a stone altar. The witch doctor’s ritualistic pantomime fully indicts Jones for his crimes, and Jones instinctively ascertains that “the forces of evil demand a sacrifice. They must be appeased. . . . Jones seems to sense the meaning of this. It is he who must offer himself for sacrifice. He beats his forehead abjectly to the ground, moaning hysterically” (1:1,058). In a peculiar bit of stage direction, O’Neill sends the witch doctor to the river’s edge to call from its depths an African god in the form of a crocodile, whose enormous head emerges from the river bank; evidently the river is the Congo, since O’Neill specifically calls him a “Congo witch-doctor” in the stage directions (1:1,057).

The witch doctor then taps Jones with his wand and points to the river. The crocodile lifts himself onto the riverbank, and Jones wriggles toward him. Jones penitently accepts the sinful nature of the crimes he committed on the island, as while he moves in the direction of the crocodile, he cries out for Jesus’ mercy for “dis po’ sinner” (1:1,058). In his final lines, Jones prays to “Lawd Jesus” to save him, starkly contrasting the white god of the enslavers with the pagan god of his African ancestry (1:1,059). Jesus does rescue him, for the time being, as he is snapped out of a horror-stricken reverie by his own pious rant and remembers the silver bullet is still left. He fires at the crocodile, which drops back into the water. The witch doctor jumps behind the tree, and Jones “lies with his face to the ground, his arms outstretched, whimpering with fear” while the tom-tom beats fill the air with a “baffled but revengeful power” (1:1,059).

Scene 8

Dawn the following morning, again at the edge of the Great Forest, the same as scene 2. Smithers appears among a group of native rebel soldiers, led by Jones’s political nemesis, Lem. The opportunistic Smithers has now joined the rebels, and he and Lem dispute Jones’s fate. Smithers, with sustained respect for Jones’s abilities, refuses to believe the group of islanders could catch him—“Aw! Garn! ’E’s a better man than the lot o’ you put together. I ’ates the sight o’ ’im but I’ll say that for ’im.” Lem insists in the stereotypical dialect of a “savage,” “We cotch him” (1:1,060). Rifle shots are heard in the jungle. Lem informs Smithers that he armed his men with silver bullets to overcome Jones’s magic. The rebel soldiers come through the forest carrying Jones’s dead body. The mythic nature of Jones’s demise in itself inspires admiration, even from his enemies. “Silver bullets!” Smithers exclaims with an ironic smirk in the final line of the play, “Gawd blimey, but yer died in the ’eighth o’ style, any’ow!” (1:1,061).


On the 50th anniversary of Eugene O’Neill’s death, Cornell West, one of the United States’ preeminent black studies scholars, referred to O’Neill as “the great blues man of American theater.” In an interview on National Public Radio, West compared him to Martin Luther King, Jr., because his plays were meant, as King’s speeches, “to redeem the soul of America”; to the jazz great Charlie Parker because both had created art in “blood, sweat, and tears”; and to a fellow recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, Toni Morrison, because like her, he was determined to show the humanity of African Americans through literature, certainly in The Emperor Jones but also in The Dreamy Kid and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (West 2003).

Starting with the Napoleonic figure of Brutus Jones the emperor, O’Neill’s deliberate project was to strip away layer upon layer of civilization to reveal humanity’s most basic instincts. With a black protagonist at the center of the drama, a radical departure in American theater, O’Neill’s goal was nothing less than to present to his audiences, as West phrased it, “the unmasking of civilization.” Indeed, when only 18 years old, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes published one of his earliest poems the year after The Emperor Jones appeared, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921). This poem so unmistakably echoes O’Neill’s meaning, as well as referencing the riverbank upon which Jones is metaphorically slain, that it bears quoting here in its entirety:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of
human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when
Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its
muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

The Emperor Jones was not the first American play to rise above the grotesque distortions of 19th and early 20th century minstrelsy, the enormously popular and overtly racist variety shows that caricatured the shuffling “happy darky” for white American audiences. In fact, two of O’Neill’s early plays, The Moon of the Caribbees and The Dreamy Kid had black characters; but the 1918 production of Moon had an all-white cast, and the cast of The Dreamy Kid, produced the following year, was all black. Furthermore, Edward Sheldon’s The Nigger, a highly controversial answer to Thomas Dixon’s profoundly racist The Clansman (1905; later made into the 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith), also preceded The Emperor Jones. But Johnson submits that while Torrence and O’Neill may not have been the first American playwrights “to experiment with the Negro as a theme for theatre . . . they were the first to use the Negro and Negro life as pure dramatic material” (185), rather than as political or racist polemical devices.

Analysis of Eugene O’Neill’s Plays

Just as he would with its immediate successor, The Hairy Ape, O’Neill structured The Emperor Jones in eight scenes. The middle six, as O’Neill critic Virginia Floyd describes them, “form one prolonged dramatic monologue, part dialogue . . . part soliloquy” (205): The first three—scenes 2–4— delve into Jones’s burdensome conscience, which is deftly symbolic of black life after enslavement; the next three—scenes 5–7—take us back through the black collective consciousness (thus adopting the approach of psychologist Carl Jung, whose work in the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis made a great impression on O’Neill) of Africans during and before their enslavement. Scenes 1 and 8 bracket the expressionism of the middle six scenes with comparatively realistic settings and dialogue. The “Little Formless Fears” of scene 2 symbolize the everyday, indistinct anxieties that virtually all people suffer, though few of us recognize their provenance. But as the play moves forward, the nightmares become more distinctive, referencing specific causes for the external stimuli that trigger traumatic psychological responses.

O’Neill applies Jung’s theory of a dark “shadow” lurking within our psyches here. Jung believed that the shadow side of our psyches should be considered “evil,” but the more we consciously acknowledge our shadow, the less it manifests itself in destructive behavior on ourselves and others. In his later experimental play Lazarus Laughed, we find one of the most Shakespearean lines in the O’Neill canon, one that reflects Carl Jung’s shadow concept and explains the “formless little fears.” Lazarus explains that “men are too cowardly to understand” the meaning of eternity, “And so the worms of their little fears eat them and grow fat and terrible and become their jealous gods they must appease with lies!” (2:611).

Brutus Jones’s ghostly avatars from the past— his “han’ts,” as he calls them—reflect the bizarre distortions of expressionistic theater that employed grotesque and exaggerated effects to highlight characters’ psyches. Eerily, none of the “han’ts” are given dialogue; The movements of Jeff and the members of the chain gang are “those of automatons—rigid, slow, and mechanical” (1:1,050); the southern slave owners are “marrionettish” (1:1,053), like the Fifth Avenue pedestrians in scene 5 of The Hairy Ape; and the characters seem to regress toward their natural origins as Jones moves backward in time, away from the modern black world of prison and enslavement.

O’Neill innovatively employs two additional stage techniques that propel the action forward. One is the use of a tom-tom drum, which begins near the end of scene 1 at the normal pulse of the human heart, 72 beats per minute, but “continues at a gradually accelerating rate from this point uninterruptedly to the very end of the play” (1:1,041). The drumbeat gets faster as the rebels close in on Jones’s position and while Jones’s nightmares increasingly horrify him. Before writing The Emperor Jones, O’Neill read about “religious feasts in the Congo” where tribal members begin drumming at 72 beats per minute; then the beat “is slowly intensified until the heartbeat of everyone present corresponds to the frenzied beat of the drum. . . . There was an idea and an experiment,” O’Neill continued, “how would this sort of thing work on an audience in the theater?” (quoted in Clark 104). This drum technique, however, was not unique. The American dramatist Austin Strong used virtually the same idea in his 1915 melodrama The Drums of Oude (Clark 105). But when the drums combine with the terrifying imagery of Jeff, the chain gang, the auction, the slave galley, and the crocodile god—along with the lights progressively dimming as we dive ever-deeper into Jones’s conscience and his African lineage—the dramatic effect, if done well, is spellbinding.

The play’s potential to expand the boundaries of experimental theater are limitless. Most recently, the Wooster Group shocked audiences by having a white woman (Kate Valk) play Brutus Jones in blackface. Along with the disturbing fact that blackface was still able to provoke racial outrage by the late 1990s, this potentially odious idea, Johan Callens argues, is meant to demonstrate “the unstable, homologous positions of the so-called hierarchical and immutable differences underlying the racial (and gender) ideology, exposing the latter as a case of the ‘primitive’ mythological thinking which the black emperor supposedly substantiates” (46). With this in mind, Nathan Irvin Huggins, the prominent historian of black America, is particularly instructive when he remarks of Brutus Jones’s character that “here was no stereotype of the negro character. Emperor Jones’ ultimate fall, although superstition is involved, occurs because the artifices that have propped him up have been removed. So, exposed and defenseless Jones—like any other man—falls victim to his fear and his essential, primitive nature” (quoted in Shaughnessy 162n).

Along with the more evident race issues in the play, many of O’Neill’s political ideas stem from his early education in philosophical anarchism. There is no good or evil, the founding father of philosophical anarchism Max Stirner insisted in his treatise The Ego and His Own, as one can murder freely so long as it is legal, which makes “morality nothing else than loyalty” (65). But he continues that “according to our theories of penal law, with whose ‘improvement in conformity to the times’ people are tormenting themselves in vain, they want to punish men for this or that ‘inhumanity’; and therein they make the silliness of these theories especially plain by their consistency, hanging the little thieves and letting the big ones run” (153), a line Jones applies to his own brand of criminality in scene 1 (1:1,035).

The Emperor Jones is O’Neill’s most resonant imaginative enacting of this worldview. Smithers is greedy, treacherous, and lazy, not coincidentally the three characteristics most commonly associated with blackness in the white mainstream American mind but also, in the context of philosophical anarchism, with the business interests that propel corrupted states (and to the anarchist, all of them are) forward. In scene 1, Smithers has informed Jones of a native revolt against his sovereignty, and Jones is preparing to flee into the jungle forest, with a plan to escape by boat:

Smithers—(with curiosity) And I bet you got yer pile o’ money ’id safe some place.

Jones—(with satisfaction) I sho’ has! And it’s in a foreign bank where no pusson don’t ever git it out but me no matter what come. You didn’t s’pose I was holdin’ down dis Emperor job for de glory in it, did you? 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’ I gits de money. (with a grin) De long green, dat’s me every time! (then rebukingly) But you ain’t got no kick agin me, Smithers. I’se paid you back all you done for me many times. Ain’t I pertected you and winked at all de crooked tradin’ you been doin’ right out in de broad day. Sho’. I has—and me makin’ laws to stop it at de same time! (He chuckles.)

Smithers—(grinning) But, meanin’ no ’arm, you been grabbin’ right and left yourself, ain’t yer? Look at the taxes you’ve put on ’em! Blimey! You’ve squeezed ’em dry!

Jones—(chuckling) No, dey ain’t all dry yet. I’se still heah, ain’t I?

Smithers—(smiling at his secret thought) They’re dry right now, you’ll find out. (changing the subject abruptly) And as for me breakin’ laws, you’ve broke ’em all yerself just as fast as yer made ’em.

Jones—Ain’t I de Emperor? De laws don’t go for him. (judicially) You heah what I tells you, Smithers. Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. (reminiscently) If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years. (1:1,035) Significantly, the only line that survives in the 1933 Hollywood adaptation with Paul Robeson as Jones is the Stirnerian line “Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does.” The idea that it was white businessmen on the Pullman trains who taught him “big stealin’” is omitted.

Contemporary African political theorists contend that the most important explanation for the continent’s current ongoing turmoil—the police states, corruption, AIDS, religious persecution, and genocide that have plagued the continent since the end of the colonial period—is that once freed from European rule, the only models African nations had to emulate were the police states, corruption, rape, religious restrictions, and random acts of murder that colonial powers had employed to control African nations for decades. Jones is, at bottom, a race traitor, lending some connection to his treacherous namesake—Brutus, Julius Caesar’s betrayer. Keeping this in mind, along with Jones’s misguided adoption of white methods of dominance, it is reasonable to read O’Neill’s ending as a warning to African Americans not to take on white political, religious, and cultural forms to replace or deny their African roots. By not sacrificing himself to the god of his ancestors, Jones is, after all, destroyed by the victims of white colonialism and the silver currency that motivated them both.


Jones, Brutus

Former Pullman porter and convicted murderer, Jones betrays his race by taking on the role of a white colonialist and securing, through deception, the emperorship of a small Caribbean island. Jones is no ordinary criminal, however. Once audiences get past the heavy black dialect—which they would mainly associate with the minstrelsy figures of the popular stage—it becomes plain that Jones is a resourceful, self-confident, and intelligent character, far more sympathetic than Smithers, the Cockney trader and confidence man who also lives there. Jones is clearly the more intelligent of the two. After only two years, he learned the local dialect, began teaching the native islanders English, and successfully crowned himself emperor of the island’s population. When an assassin’s gun misfired, Jones convinced the natives that only a silver bullet could kill him.

When Jones realizes there is a native revolt against his sovereignty, he flees into the jungle forest with a plan to escape the island by boat. Over the course of his flight, he encounters a series of bizarre apparitions that lead him down through the history of African oppression. In the end, he is tracked down by the island natives, who shoot him dead with silver bullets. As O’Neill critic Virginia Floyd writes of this ending, “even in death Jones evokes awe and respect. He had died as he desired, perpetuating the myth that made him emperor” (208).

O’Neill drew much of Brutus Jones’s character from a New London personality named Adam Scott, an African American who served as bartender, bodyguard, and spiritual guide to O’Neill and his radical New London circle in 1912. In spite of Scott’s morally questionable line of work, each Sunday he put away his apron and towel and took on the rather contradictory role of elder at a local Baptist church. O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb have traced some of Scott’s witticisms directly to Brutus Jones. Given his ungodly profession, O’Neill and his friends used to razz Scott, a respected friend and incisive mentor, for being at the same time a bartender and an elder at the church. Scott’s response, for his part, was that “after Sunday, I lay Jesus on the shelf” (Gelb 349) while Jones responds to Smithers, “it don’t git me nothin’ to do missionary work for de Baptist Church. Is’e after de coin, an’ I lays my Jesus on de shelf for de time bein’” (1:1,042).

O’Neill’s chief historical source for Jones was the murderous Haitian dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. According to O’Neill, an “old circus man” once told him the story of how Sam had spread a rumor among the Haitian people that only a silver bullet could kill him and that if it came to it, he would be the one to pull the trigger (quoted in Clark 104). The concept appealed to O’Neill as a theatrical device, so much so that the play’s working title was “The Silver Bullet.” Sam’s political fate clearly reflects the plot of The Emperor Jones. Before completing the first year of his dictatorship, Sam was hunted down by a vengeful mob. After discovering the impudent tyrant hiding behind a curtain in the French embassy, the throng of rebels gruesomely dismembered his body and paraded his remains through the poverty-stricken streets of the Haitian capital.


Brutus Jones’s political rival on the island. Lem hired an assassin to kill Jones, but the assassin’s gun misfired, and Jones claimed that only a silver bullet could harm him. Lem believed this but continued to stir up a rebellion and armed his band of rebels with silver bullets. In the end, Lem’s men find and kill the fugitive emperor.

Lem is a colonialist caricature of native savagery. O’Neill describes him as a “heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth” (1:1,060), and he speaks in a way that calls to mind both Tarzan and Tonto at once: “Lead bullet no kill him. He got um strong charm. I cook um money, make um silver bullet, make um strong charm, too” (1:1,061). This dialect, as Joel Pfister points out in his historical look at O’Neill’s work, is reminiscent of the accent Charles S. Gilpin was required to adopt when playing a black preacher in John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln (1919). As James Weldon Johnson remarked of the part, the dialect was one “such as no American Negro would ever use . . . a slightly darkened pidgin-English or the form of speech a big Indian chief would employ in talking with the Great White Father at Washington” (quoted in Pfister 132). Nevertheless, Lem’s struggle, in the end, is a just one. Though he superstitiously accepts Jones’s assertion that he is supernatural, he recognizes Jones for what he is: a colonialist exploiting the islanders for his own personal gain. That he is successful in thwarting Jones is both a warning to white colonialists and possibly to black Americans to avoid such racial treason.

Smithers, Henry

A cockney, or working-class, British trader. Smithers is greedy, treacherous, and lazy, not coincidentally the three characteristics most commonly associated with blackness in the white mainstream American mind of the early 20th century. Smithers is an unsuccessful confidence man who drinks too much and is far too lazy to accomplish what Jones has done, though he has lived on the island eight years longer than Jones. To Smithers’s credit, though he felt Jones was “puttin’ on airs” as a black emperor, he recognized Jones’s superior abilities (1:1,033).

Callens, Johan. “‘Black is white, I yells it out louder ’n deir loudest’: Unraveling the Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones.” The Eugene O’Neill Review 26 (2004): 43–69.
Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: The Man and His Plays. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1947.
Dowling, Robert M. “On Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Philosophical Anarchism.’” Eugene O’Neill Review 29 (Spring 2007): 50–72.
Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Books, 2000.
Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1991.
Miller, Jordan Y. Playwright’s Progress: O’Neill and the Critics. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1965.
Pfister, Joel. Staging Depth: Eugene O’Neill and the Politics of Psychological Discourse. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. “O’Neill’s African and Irish-Americans: Stereotypes or ‘Faithful Realism’?” In The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, edited by Michael Manheim, 148–163. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Stirner, Max. The Ego and His Own: The Case of the Individual against Authority. Reprint, translated by Steven T. Byington with an introduction by J. L. Walker. New York, Benjamin R. Tucker, 1907.
West, Cornell. Interview, The Tavis Smiley Show, National Public Radio, November 26, 2003.

Source: Dowling, R. M. (2009). Critical companion to Eugene O’Neill: A literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY: Facts On File.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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