The first question that came to me while reading O’Nelil’s play “the Emperor Jones“ was: “would anybody seriously still bring that play to the stage today? “ The answer is, as I found out with a quick look into the Internet: “Yes! “ I found a review of a production of the “Irish Repertory Theatre” that was not dated but seemed to be pretty recent. The review doesn’t give a lot of detail about the production, but only that the lead actor is brilliant and the whole design team did a great job.
At first sight that seemed crazy for me, because the character of the emperor seems to be a complete insult against people of colour. His language is a stereotype, he is described in the stage directions as typically negroid, “yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face – “ and he clearly tries to imitate what he believes to be the style of white people with power. He even calls the people that he tricked into making him emperor “niggers” several times. He created an empire only to bleed the people out.
He is so infected by the greed of western civilisation that he doesn’t care what he is doing to the people that could be his people. Maybe that is what made the play so powerful in the 1920s, the critic on western civilisation and how it infects other people and the whole world, instead of making things better. Brutus Jones is punished for pretending to be what he is not. But what is that? An emperor? Or white? When O’Neill wrote the play the fact that he wrote it for an actor of colour, that he wrote about the “middle passage”, the auctioning of of slaves was revolutionary.
But what can it give a contemporary audience? Let’s take a look at what happens: Brutus Jones, a former railroad worker killed a man, went to prison killed a guard and escaped to an island where he manipulates the native people and he becomes emperor only because of money. When his subjects can’t take it anymore and they start a revolte, he has to flee through the forest at night. He strays through the dark forest and runs into painful visions of his and his ancestors past, that he fights of with his revolver.
As he gets more and more scared, the forest strippes him of the clothes that he used as a disguise/emperors costume. And as the moon starts to rise, the darkness disappears; he can see who he really is. Until, in the morning, he is nearly naked and left with no bullets in his gun to fight of the natives. So, like every tragic hero he has to die. I don’t agree with the critics that call this a racist play. Of course, O’Neil uses stereotypes that shock us as today’s readers.
We know about political correctness, and that it is not okay to reduce a whole race to one or two features (although we still do it). But I don’t believe it’s fair to judge this play from 1920 by todays standard. But still I ask myself, what can a contemporary production of “The Emperor Jones” give to its audience? Why would we choose to bring a new version of this to the stage? Because it is an important piece of American literature? Because it tells us about facts that may not be forgotten? Or is it the similar situation that we are in, that makes this play appealing again?
I don’t mean Brutus Jones situation but the one of the world in 1920. Then it was world war I, now we have the financial crisis, whole states going bankrupt. It made it pretty clear, that we do not live in the best of worlds, but only in the one, we are used to. And again, people are looking for alternatives, like non-consumerism, biological lifestyle. The theme is completely different but the situations are kind of similar. I can’t find a good answer to question, maybe it is irrelevant, but for me as a former actor it is the most interesting one.