Places: The Emperor Jones

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1921

First produced: 1920

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Expressionism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Places DiscussedIsland

Island. Emperor Jones, TheThe play unfolds on a small, unnamed island in the West Indies that provides O’Neill with an appropriate microcosm for his drama that depicts the primitive forces that close in on a domesticated, avaricious African American. The island bears a loose resemblance to the West Indian nation of Haiti, which had a long and chaotic political history after black slaves wrenched control of the western end of Hispaniola away from France in the early nineteenth century. Like O’Neill’s Brutus Jones, Haiti’s first rulers styled themselves “emperors.”

Jones’s palace

Jones’s palace. The play opens in the lavish palace building of the unnamed island nation, where Jones, an escaped convict and former Pullman porter from the United States, lives. With the help of his Cockney sidekick, Smithers, he rules the island as its “emperor.” Jones and Smithers have tricked the superstitious islanders into thinking that Jones has magical powers and cannot be hurt, except by a silver bullet. Jones keeps one to use on himself if suicide becomes necessary. Having extorted money and services from the impoverished islanders, Jones lives opulently.

Great forest

Great forest. The last six scenes of the play occur at night in the great forest that surrounds the palace. Within this forest, Jones–who is running around in circles–is visited by the apparitions of people whom he has killed or cheated. His past returns to haunt him. Meanwhile, the beating of tom-toms is pervasive, beginning at seventy-two beats a minute, the rate of the human heart, and accelerating as Jones’s terror increases.

The play’s dark and forbidding jungle scenes contrast with the palace scene. O’Neill uses the forest locale and the darkness to highlight Jones’s isolation and desperation. In the final scene, dawn breaks. As angry islanders advance on the deposed emperor, a shot rings out and Jones falls. Lem, the local ruler whom Jones overthrew, explains that the islanders spent the entire night fashioning a silver bullet.

Slave ship

Slave ship. Imaginary vessel that appears in Jones’s hallucination in scene five. To demonstrate his mental deterioration, Jones imagines that he is a slave being auctioned off at a slave sale. In the following scene, wearing only a breech cloth, Jones huddles in the hold of a crowded ship surrounded by shadowy figures, presumably slaves who have been snatched from their homes and are being transported to a market. His groans and cries fill the theater as the light fades. As the hallucination ends, Jones scrambles off into the underbrush of the great consuming forest.


Altar. Structure before which the exhausted, disoriented Jones sinks in scene seven and experiences another hallucination. He imagines that a witch doctor from the Congo appears and does a macabre ritualistic dance, making Jones realize that he is to be sacrificed upon the altar, the symbol of an authority greater than his.

BibliographyBogard, Travis. Contour in Time: The Plays of Eugene O’Neill. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Bogard’s study of O’Neill’s plays revolves around his assertion that O’Neill’s experiments with theatrical devices were part of his attempt to create theater from his quest for identity. The section on The Emperor Jones compares the play to Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867).Falk, Doris V. Eugene O’Neill and the Tragic Tension. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1958. A study of O’Neill’s plays with emphasis on the psychoanalytic theories of depth psychology, noting the influence of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious on The Emperor Jones.Floyd, Virginia. The Plays of Eugene O’Neill: A New Assessment. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. This study for general readers features analyses of fifty plays, supplemented with information from O’Neill’s notebooks. The section on The Emperor Jones discusses O’Neill’s use of expressionism, noting similarities to August Strindberg’s A Dream Play (1907). Floyd considers this a “landmark drama” for the American stage, with its first use of an African American actor in a leading role in New York theater.Frenz, Horst. Eugene O’Neill. Translated by Helen Sebba. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971. Provides an assessment of the man whose experiments transformed American drama. In his analysis of The Emperor Jones as one of O’Neill’s expressionist experiments, Frenz compares the play to Georg Kaiser’s From Morn to Midnight (1917).Martine, James J., ed. Critical Essays on Eugene O’Neill. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Two essays in this collection are of interest to students of The Emperor Jones. Frank R. Cunningham’s “Romantic Elements in Early O’Neill” views Jones as one of O’Neill’s failed romantics. Lisa M. Swerdt’s “Blueprint for the Future” examines the play as a seminal work, introducing themes that O’Neill would develop more fully in later plays.
Categories: Places