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Emperor Jones, The

The Emperor Jones

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Dutchman to Paul Engle Biography

a play by Eugene O'Neill, published in 1920. His first great success in the theatre, it is an experiment in theatrical expressionism, about the rise and fall of Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter and escaped prisoner who flees to a West Indian island where he establishes himself as emperor. His regime is brutal, corrupt, and dictatorial, and he is warned by a white Cockney trader, Smithers, of impending revolt signalled by a drum beat which sounds throughout the play. Jones, who believes that he can be killed only by a silver bullet, is forced to take refuge in the forest where he is finally destroyed by his adversary Lem, whose troops shoot him with a silver bullet that Lem had especially made from melted down coins. One of the first American plays with a major role for a black actor, the initial success of The Emperor Jones had much to do with the performance of Charles Gilpin as Brutus, though O'Neill gave the part to the young Paul Robeson for the London production. Brutus Jones enacts a version of the black man's return to his native origins, but whose fatal display of the trappings of European militarism in a culture he no longer understands entails his fall from the heroic status he desires to that of a sacrificial victim to the local deities. O'Neill's play derives from an interest in African primitivism instigated by a book of photographs of African sculpture by Charles Sheeler.

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