Creating the Circum-Caribbean Imaginary: DuBose Heyward's and Paul Robeson's Revision of the Emperor Jones

By Lowe, John | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Creating the Circum-Caribbean Imaginary: DuBose Heyward's and Paul Robeson's Revision of the Emperor Jones


Lowe, John, Philological Quarterly


Despite the strength of nihilism in the West and in the so-called Third World, it is arguable that society is approaching in uncertain degree a horizon of sensibility upon which a capacity exists to begin to transform claustrophobic ritual by cross-cultural imaginations that bear upon the future through mutations of the monolithic character of conquistadorial legacies of civilisation, and that one is not wholly circumscribed by "genetic robot" or Orwellian nemesis.

--Wilson Harris

EUGENE O'NEILL, who in his early career was considered an avant-garde enfant terrible of the American theater, created yet another sensation in New York when he mounted his famous production of The Emperor Jones in 1920, in many ways signaling the role the "New Negro" would play in the culture of the Roaring Twenties. Few plays written by a white man since Shakespeare's Othello had featured such a large starring role for a black man. The play also gave the talented black actor Charles Gilpin to the American theater, in his searing portrayal of the title character.

Moreover, the drama yoked together some powerful issues that have resurfaced with a vengeance in today's critical debates: race, colonialism, transnationalism, primitivism, dramatic expressionism, the construction of masculinity, social mimicry, and, not least, the depiction of a circum-Caribbean culture. (1) O'Neill's play depicts the deposition of an island tyrant, an ex-Pullman porter and convict from Georgia, Brutus Jones, whose oppressed subjects pursue him in the jungle, where he has fled his deserted court in order to dig up the treasure he has buried under a white stone. Lost and wandering in the swamp/wilderness, gradually losing most of his clothes, Jones becomes increasingly terrified of his surroundings and the menacing and constant drumbeat that signals the approach of the pursuing natives, and, ultimately, death.

Because of its employment of expressionistic, psychological, often primitivistic symbolism, O'Neill's play has been trumpeted as the "coming of age" of the American theater. As Travis Bogard states, "the technical excitement of the play, with its drums, its sustained monologue, its rapidly shifting settings framed into a single desperate action, were almost blinding in their virtuosity and in their assurance of important theatrical events to come." (2)

After the success of Emperor, O'Neill would go on to write his masterworks, Desire under the Elms (1924), Strange Interlude (1928), Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (1946), and the posthumous Long Day's Journey into Night (1956), earning him three Pulitzer Prizes, a Nobel Laureate, and acclaim as the nation's greatest playwright.

When a celebrated and controversial film was made of The Emperor Jones in 1933, the legendary Paul Robeson starred, in one of his most memorable performances, which ran the register of emotions from hauteur to terror. Robeson had already played the role on stage in a revival, garnering strong approval for his portrayal from the playwright, who had disapproved of interpolated aspects of Gilpin's performance. (3)

This essay focuses on the film as a telling juxtaposition of the U.S. South and the Caribbean, something that was not so saliently featured in the original drama. The culture of the South is in every word of Brutus Jones, the powerful center of the play and film, who hails from Georgia. Significantly, the screenplay, which dramatically expanded Jones's story to include his life before his reign on the island, was written by the white Southern playwright and novelist Dubose Heyward (1885-1940), whose contributions made the work a reflection of the circum-Caribbean, and it is the film--and Paul Robeson's crucial performance--rather than the play, that I will be interested in during the following discussion.

Heyward, a native son of old Charleston society, was famous for his portrayal of his city's African American cultures, most prominently in his novel Porgy (1925), which he and his wife, Dorothy Heyward, dramatized for the New York stage. …

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