The Emperor Jones

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The Emperor Jones
Emperor Jones 1937.jpg
Poster for a 1937 Federal Theater Project production
Written by Eugene O'Neill
Date premiered 1 November 1920
Place premiered Neighborhood Playhouse
New York City, New York
Original language English
Subject A Black porter attains power in the West Indies by exploiting the superstitions and ignorance of an island's residents.
Genre Tragedy
Setting A West Indian island not yet self-determined, but for the moment, an empire.
Poster for a 1937 Federal Theater Project production of The Emperor Jones.
The Provincetown Playhouse at 133 Macdougal Street, New York City, circa 1919 where The Emperor Jones first staged on 1 November 1920

The Emperor Jones is a 1920 play by American dramatist Eugene O'Neill that tells the tale of Brutus Jones, an African-American man who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and sets himself up as emperor. The play recounts his story in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape former subjects who have rebelled against him.

The play displays an uneasy mix of expressionism and realism, which is also characteristic of several other O'Neill plays, including The Hairy Ape. It was O'Neill's first play to receive great critical acclaim and box-office success, and the one that launched his career. It was included in Burns Mantle's The Best Plays of 1920-1921.


  • Brutus Jones
  • Smithers
  • Jeff
  • Undine
  • Dolly
  • Lem


The play is divided into eight scenes. Scenes 2 to 7 are from the point of view of Jones, and no other character speaks. The first and last scenes feature a character named Smithers, a white trader who appears to be part of illegal activities. In the first scene, Smithers is told about the rebellion by an old woman, and then has a lengthy conversation with Jones. In the last scene, Smithers converses with Lem, the leader of the rebellion. Smithers has mixed feelings about Jones, though he generally has more respect for Jones than for the rebels. During this scene, Jones is killed by a silver bullet, which was the only way that the rebels believed Jones could be killed, and the way in which Jones planned to kill himself if he was captured.


1920 premiere[edit]

The Emperor Jones was first staged on 1 November 1920 by the Provincetown Players at the Playwright's Theater in New York City.[1] Charles Sidney Gilpin was the first actor to play the role of Brutus Jones on stage. They did have some conflict over Gilpin's tendency to change a few words as he acted. This production was very successful and it helped make O'Neill's reputation. The Players' small theater was too small to cope with audience demand for tickets, and the play was transferred to another theater. It ran for 204 performances and was hugely popular.

1924 revival[edit]

Although Gilpin continued to perform the role of Brutus Jones in the U.S. tour that followed the Broadway closing of the play, he eventually had a falling out with O'Neill. Gilpin wanted O'Neill to remove the word "nigger", which occurred frequently in the play, but the playwright felt its use was consistent with his dramatic intentions. When they could not come to a reconciliation, O'Neill replaced Gilpin with Paul Robeson as Brutus Jones in the London production. Robeson received excellent reviews and, coupled with his performance in the 1928 London production of the musical Show Boat, went on to worldwide fame as one of the great black artists of the twentieth century, while Gilpin faded into obscurity.

1926 revival[edit]

The show was again revived in 1926 at the Mayfair Theatre in Manhattan, with Gilpin again starring as Jones and also directing the show. The production, which ran for 61 performances, is remembered today for the acting debut of a young Moss Hart as Smithers.

Federal Theatre Project[edit]

The Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration launched several productions of the play in cities across the United States, including a production with marionettes in Los Angeles in 1938.[2]

Recent productions[edit]

The Wooster Group mounted a production of the play in 2007 for the Philadelphia LiveArts Festival, which played to sold-out audiences every night of its run. Along with its post-dramatic aesthetics, this staging was notable in that the actor playing the part of Jones, Kate Valk, was female, white, and performed in black face.

The play ran for 33 performances at The National Theatre, directed by Thea Sharrock and starring Paterson Joseph in the lead.

New York's Irish Repertory Theatre staged a 2009 revival, which received overwhelmingly positive reviews. John Douglas Thompson portrayed Jones.


The play was adapted for a 1933 feature film directed by Dudley Murphy and starring Paul Robeson.

Louis Gruenberg wrote an opera based on the play, which was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1933. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett sang the title role, performing in blackface. Paul Robeson's 1936 film Song of Freedom features a scene from the opera with Robeson singing the role of Jones. This has sometimes resulted in a confusion that the 1933 film of O'Neill's play is a film of the opera.

Ossie Davis starred in a television adaptation for the Kraft Television Theatre in 1955. British television company ABC-TV produced its own adaptation for the Armchair Theatre series which was transmitted on 30 March 1958.[3] It features African-American actor Kenneth Spencer, and was directed by Ted Kotcheff in a version by Terry Southern.

Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote a ballet based on the play that was commissioned by The Empire Music Festival of New York, and danced by José Limón's company. An experimental video by Christopher Kondek and Elizabeth LeCompte showcases the production of the play by the New York–based performance troupe The Wooster Group, starring Kate Valk and Willem Dafoe.


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Federal Theatre (Memory)". American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  3. ^ Laura Pearson "Emperor Jones (1958)", BFI screenonline

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]