The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones

:"This article is about the play. Some productions have separate pages; see productions and spinoffs below for links. For the independent record label, see Emperor Jones. "

"The Emperor Jones" is a play by Eugene O'Neill which tells the tale of Brutus Jones, an African-American man who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and sets himself up as emperor. The play recounts his story in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape former subjects who have rebelled against him.

The play displays an uneasy mix of expressionism and realism, which is also characteristic of several other O'Neill plays, including "The Hairy Ape". It was O'Neill's first play to receive great critical acclaim and box office success, and the one that launched his career.

tructure and Characters

The play is divided into eight scenes. Scenes 2 through 7 are from the point of view of Jones, and no other character speaks. The first and last scenes feature a character named Smithers, a white trader who appears to be part of illegal activities. In the first scene, Smithers is told about the rebellion by an old woman, and then has a lengthy conversation with Jones. In the last scene, Smithers converses with Lem, the leader of the rebellion. Smithers has mixed feelings about Jones, though he generally has more respect for Jones than for the rebels. During this scene, Jones is killed by a silver bullet, which was the only way that the rebels believed Jones could be killed, and the way in which Jones planned to kill himself if he was captured.


The 1920 Production

Charles Sidney Gilpin was the first actor to play the role of Brutus Jones on stage on November 1, 1920 at The Playwright's Theatre in New York. O'Neill said later that he was the only actor who had played an O'Neill character to O'Neill's full satisfaction. They did have some conflict over Gilpin’s tendency to change a few words as he acted. This production was very successful and it helped make O'Neill's reputation. The little Provincetown theater was too small to cope with audience demand for tickets, and the play was transferred to another theater. It ran for 204 performances and was hugely popular.

The 1924 Revival

Due to disagreements with O'Neill, another actor was chosen for the main role in the London production. In the 1924 revival, singer-actor Paul Robeson played the lead. Robeson received excellent reviews. After appearing in the 1928 London production of the musical "Show Boat", he went on to worldwide fame as one of the great black artists of the twentieth century. Gilpin has been forgotten by modern audiences, but the fame of Robeson has increased with the years.

Other revivals

The play lost popularity later on, mainly because audiences in the '50s and '60s considered it to be racist. It still had a few occasional productions. Ossie Davis starred in a television adaptation in 1955. British television company ATV produced its own adaptation for the "Armchair Theatre" series. It starred African-American actor Kenneth Spencer, directed by Ted Kotcheff and scripted by Terry Southern; it screened in the UK in March 1958 [Lee Hill - "A Grand Guy: The Life and Art of Terry Southern" (Bloomsbury, 2001), pp.81-83]

Recent Productions

The Wooster Group mounted a production of the play in 2007 for the Philadelphia LiveArts Festival which played to sold-out audiences every night of its run. Along with its post-dramatic aesthetics, this staging was notable in that the actor playing the part of Jones, Kate Valk, was female, white, and performed in black face.

The play ran for 33 performances at the National Theatre. Paterson Joseph played the lead and Thea Sharrock was the director.


The 1933 Film

For the 1933 film by Dudley Murphy and starring Paul Robeson, see "The Emperor Jones".

The 1933 Opera

Louis Gruenberg wrote an opera based on the play, which was performed in 1933 with Lawrence Tibbett in the title role. Tibbett was white and performed the role in blackface.

Paul Robeson's film "Song of Freedom" contains a scene from the opera version of "The Emperor Jones", with Robeson singing the role. This has sometimes resulted in confusion. It it is sometimes thought that the 1933 film version of O'Neill's play is a film of the opera.

Video Art

An experimental video by Christopher Kondek and Elizabeth LeCompte showcases the production of the play by the New York-based performance troupe The Wooster Group, starring Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe.


External links

* [ E-text of "The Emperor Jones"]
* [ Discussion of Emperor Jones from Travus Bogard's book Contours in Time, on eoneill.]

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