The Emperor Jones: Play - Summary & Analysis

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      Scene I. presents Jones’s a comparative picture of his past and the present in an expressionistic manner. It is the past that continues to govern his present. He is an ex-convict with a long criminal record of heinous crimes to his credit. He has suddenly risen from a petty porter to an emperor in a short span of two years on an island in West Indies. He has been accepted as a symbol of the White American materialism on the island. His mission is to grab maximum money from the natives before his departure from the island. He is quite aware that he is disliked and is regarded as an outsider. Sensing trouble, he makes desperate efforts to reach the edge of the Great Forest before evening to avoid any threat to his life.

      Scene II. shows his sudden reversal in Jones’s ill-managed fortune and the intensification of his fear of being captured or killed. He now faces the worst conflict in his life. His new experience of the Formless Fear emerging out of the dark forest has further jolted his mind. Suddenly he is reminded of his loaded revolver and aims at the mysterious creatures to frighten them. The sound of the shot forces them to scurry back in the Forest.

      Scene III. shows a steady rise in Jones’s intensity of crisis and loss of self-confidence. He now becomes an object of pity because of the abrupt deterioration of his mental condition. All his royal glory comes to an end and he is reminded of his Negro inheritance. His royal Panama hat is lost and he looks totally exhausted. He removes the spurs and coat and is stripped to the waist but continues to fight. Suddenly, Jones faces the vision of Jeff whom he killed in the States, before his arrival on the island. The noise of the drum beats has further destabilized the mind. Promptly, he fires at Jeff who disappears on hearing the sound of shot.

      Scene IV. shows the deepening of his remorse and he appears dead-tired. Jones’s fear is further multiplied after having encountered a ghostly and mysterious road in the moon-lit night. Jones tries to shoot them but they appear in a flash. He also comes across visions of his one-time fellow prisoners and the guard whom he had killed in the past. Jones pulls the revolver and fires at them which forces them to disappear.

      Scene V shows that Jones is self-lost and is talking to himself and praying to God for His Mercy. He is cornered by planters who are watching him being auctioned. He looks quite paralyzed by fear. Feeling awe-struck, Jones fires at the Auctioneer and the planters who disappear on hearing the gunshot.

      Scene VI shows Jones almost stumbling and crawling through the undergrowth. He is now almost naked and surrounded by the visions of his ancestors, panting with exhaustion.

      Scene VII shows Jones in state of trance. He now loses his way and prays to God for saving this hardened sinner. Confused, he comes across the Congo Witch - Doctor who summons from the river a horrifying Crocodile to further terrify him. On hearing the gunshot, the Witch-Doctor leisurely sinks back behind the river bank.

      Scene VII takes the palace outside the Great Forest at dawn. By losing his way, Jones has run in a circle, and emerges from the exact place where he initially entered. He comes back to his ancestral life and this marks the completion of his life’s journey. Finally, he is surrounded by the natives who kill him with a silver bullet they have prepared for ending Jones’s life.

Critical Analysis

      The theme of the play The Emperor Jones concerns a black despot who rules over a Negro-populated island in the West Indies. Jones perishes on the flight from glory, hunted in the dead of night by the beat of his pursuers’ drums and by recollections of the past appearing to him as paralyzed visions. These memories stretch back beyond his own life to the dark continent of Africa. Here lies concealed the theory of the individual’s unconscious inner life being the vehicle for each successive stage in the evolution of the race. The play takes so strong a hold upon our nerves and senses that our attention is entirely absorbed.

      In The Emperor Jones, the whole effect depends upon the protagonist’s nightmares being translated and materialized into an external symbol. There are no acts but scenes, no characters but projections of a state of mind. The development of the plot has something on it of the cinematographic of the visual.

      In The Emperor Jones, the Freudian / Jungian theory appears it its most natural form in connection with the racial problem. The main character of the play is a black man, an ex-Pullman porter who escapes from prison and becomes the dictator of a tropical island. His revolt against him, and gradually, through a number of very tense scenes, the polish of civilization begins to wear off the hero. Finally, he is kicked by those who are pursuing him.

      In this drama O’Neill is already in full possession of his dramatic techniques. The quickening and ever louder beats of the drums, the portrayal of fear, and of the process of casting off civilization - all are truly gruesome. The unity of action lies in the character of the black Jones. The structure of the drama is masterful. Jones flees into the jungle, which towers up like a black, and at the same time into the twilight of his personal past and collective past.

      The play presents the external conflict of good and evil, of civilization and savagery. The greatness of the play lies in its very lack of explicitness and in the dramatic unity and skill of its conception and realization.

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