Directors like David Cromer and Ciaran O’Reilly are taking on the challenges of breathing new life into has-been American classics like Our Town and The Emperor Jones; what’s most surprising about these enterprises, however, is that they’re actually working. Our Town wasn’t anyone’s idea of a hit for Off-Broadway, yet, transplanted from the Hypocrites in Chicago, it became one, despite its text’s demotion, over the years, onto junior high reading lists. Continually extended downtown, the new production showed us not only how we’d been rushing by our own lives, but also Wilder’s play itself. Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 drama, The Emperor Jones, far easier to marginalize, is a representation of a “gross stereotype,” as noted by The New York Times on October 4, 2009. Brutus Jones, an illiterate Pullman porter who became a corrupt capitalist and “emperor” of a Caribbean Island, “squeezes dry” the inhabitants of his kingdom through over-taxation and intimidation (his white cockney sidekick, Smithers, it should be added, is no one’s idea of a moral or linguist role model himself). Yet, The Emperor Jones is an important creation that, besides being an theatrical tour de force, allowed the color barrier at the Drama League of New York City to be broken—the actor who played Brutus, Charles Gilpin, won a citation for his work—and immediately rose to stardom–but, inanely, he was not even allowed to attend the awards dinner. After disagreements with O’Neill, Paul Robeson took over the lead from Gilpin for the 1933 film, which may well be more familiar than the play. DuBose Heyward, known for his sympathetic depictions of the denizens of Catfish Row in his novel, play, and opera Porgy and Bess, adapted the material—perhaps, as an effort to soften O’Neill’s rougher verbal and experimental edges (Travus Bogard points to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt as important influence on the play). Certainly, Hollywood made the story more realistic.
In a rambunctious mood during the first scene of The Emperor Jones, O’Neill is a braggadocio with lines like, “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!” Soon, thereafter, he writes, “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.” Recall that during this same time period–two years after the completion of Beyond the Horizon (he’d win a Pulitzer for it in 1920)—O’Neill was very much on the rise—and might not have minded “winking” to the audience a bit. Of course, during the same scene, we hear racial labeling–everyone called just about every name, as if we’re hearing students coming out of school, jostling with one another–and that may be what especially sticks with difficulty in our minds today, whether O’Neill’s ear for the period is impeccable or tin. John Douglas Thompson in his excellent portrayal of Brutus Jones, now playing at the Irish Rep, however, refuses to take the bait and play the character broadly, reining in the playwright, whether he’d like it or not. Thompson doesn’t see the part as O’Neill’s autobiography in any way—maybe that’s one of the reasons why the role can be misconceptualized as being done in blackface? Instead, he gets past the malarchy to play the character straight: He and director, O’Reilly, return The Emperor Jones to its script.
The play is more interesting than I recalled, even knowing how theatrical the use of the continuous native drum can be. O’Neill, of course, always gets into trouble when discussions of stage directions rear their ugly heads. John Fiero has pointed out the impossibility of having “Mary’s eyes grow increasingly brighter in Long Day’s Journey Into Night . . . as she sinks more deep[ly] into her morphine-induced narcosis.” I seem to remember John Guare discussing the reason O’Neill’s stage directions are so long: In the past, people read plays as they would novels—and the explanations were considered de rigueur. Today, or always, many actors immediately strike out the blocking. O’Reilly, however, hasn’t been so hasty, seriously considering O’Neill’s choices. Bogard discusses characters known as The Little Formless Fears in The Emperor Jones as signs of the influence of Peer Gynt; as if crawling from the interiors of Norwegian mountains, they “creep out from the deeper blackness of the forest. They are black, shapeless, only their glittering little eyes can be seen. If they have any describable form at all it is that of a grubworm about the size of a creeping child.” Without giving the staging away, I was reminded of the trees throwing apples in The Wizard of Oz, even though, of course, The Emperor Jones predates that film by many years; at the same time, the garb of the figures seemed reminiscent of the hoods used in Iraq beheadings, which gives an inkling of how startling and menacing this production can seem. At one point, O’Neill also writes of convicts being like “automatons—rigid, slow, and mechanical”—in a totally unnaturalistic way, this is exactly what is represented on the stage. Finally, O’Neill describes a market in the late 1800s with “something stiff, rigid, unreal and marioneettish about their [the character’s] movements.” Again, what you see on the stage is true to his words, completely unexpected, totally creative.
On the way out of the Irish Rep I found myself unable not to blurt to a woman also coming out of the theatre, “That was really great.” She readily agreed, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Somehow, during the course of the evening, we were returned not to O’Neill’s life, not to his theatre’s history, but, instead, to his imagination. Do you know, in the excitement of seeing this new Emperor Jones, being released into this work in this way, neither of us thought to talk about race?
–© 2009 by Bob Shuman
Visit the Irish Repertory Theatre at: http://www.irishrep.org/
The Irish Repertory Theatre kicks off its 22nd Season
with Eugene O'Neill's 1920 classic
THE EMPEROR JONES
Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly
Starring OBIE and Lucille Lortel award-winning actor John Douglas Thompson ("Othello")
Performances of THE EMPEROR JONES run October 7-November 29 at The Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues): Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm; plus 3pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays (with the following exceptions: no performance Thursday, November 26; and an additional performance Tuesday, November 24 at 8pm). Tickets are $65 and $55, and are available by calling 212-727-2737. For more information visit www.irishrep.org.