The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones is a 1920 tragic play by American dramatist Eugene O'Neill that tells the tale of Brutus Jones, a resourceful, self-assured African American and a former Pullman porter, who kills another black man in a dice game, is jailed, and later escapes to a small, backward Caribbean island where he sets himself up as emperor. The play recounts his story in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the jungle in an attempt to escape former subjects who have rebelled against him.

The Emperor Jones
Charles S. Gilpin in The Emperor Jones (1920)
Written byEugene O'Neill
Date premieredNovember 1, 1920 (1920-11-01)
Place premieredProvincetown Playhouse
New York City, New York
Original languageEnglish
SubjectA Black porter attains power in the West Indies by exploiting the superstitions and ignorance of an island's residents.
GenreTragedy
SettingA West Indian island not yet self-determined, but for the moment, an empire.

Originally called The Silver Bullet,[1] the play is one of O'Neill's major experimental works, mixing expressionism and realism, and the use of an unreliable narrator and multiple points of view. It was also an oblique commentary on the U.S. occupation of Haiti after bloody rebellions there, an act of imperialism that was much condemned in O'Neill's radical political circles in New York.[2] The Emperor Jones draws on O'Neill's own hallucinatory experience hacking through the jungle while prospecting for gold in Honduras in 1909,[3] as well as the brief, brutal presidency of Haiti's Vilbrun Guillaume Sam.[4]

The Emperor Jones was O'Neill's first big box-office hit. It established him as a successful playwright, after he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his first play, the much less well-known Beyond the Horizon (1920). The Emperor Jones was included in Burns Mantle's The Best Plays of 1920–1921.


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