The Emperor Jones
- The Provincetown Players won its first significant acclaim with The Emperor Jones when it opened at the Playwrights' Theatre in New York on 1 November 1920. On 27 December 1920, it moved uptown to the Selwyn Theatre and achieved a total run of 204 performances. Eugene O'Neill's eight-scene expressionist tragedy, directed by George Cram Cook with scene design by Cleon Throckmorton, provided the first important role for an African American actor in a serious drama on Broadway. Charles Gilpin originated the title role, but Paul Robeson revived it, playing it also in London and in a 1933 screen adaptation. The play was renowned for its expressionist experiment with sound: a tom-tom that begins thumping at normal pulse rate—72 beats per minute—and steadily accelerates during Jones's increasingly hallucinogenic flight through the jungle by night.Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter, came as a stowaway two years earlier to an island in the West Indies, where he managed to set himself up as emperor. Emulating the greed he had observed in white businessmen traveling on trains, Jones has been stealing from his subjects and planning to escape with his riches before they can organize a revolt, as he brags to Smithers, a white Cockney trader. Smithers warns Jones that the ominous drumbeat heard in the distance signals preparations for an uprising. Jones assumes that escape will be easy, as he has convinced his subjects that only a silver bullet can kill him. However, Jones's arrogance dissolves when he gets lost in the jungle and in his own mind. His increasingly phantasmagoric visions show his own past experience and then his subconscious racial memory, including a witch doctor who attempts to persuade Jones to offer himself as a sacrifice. The incessant drumbeats reflecting Jones's mounting terror cease only when a silver bullet—cast by the natives from melted coins—ends his life.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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