Thrill of the Chase: Hunting Down a Corrupt Ruler Creates a Sinister Study in Fear
Portillo, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
The Emperor Jones
Gate Theatre, London W11
When The Emperor Jones first appeared in 1920, it was Eugene O'Neill's second play on Broadway that year and helped to mark his arrival as one of the outstanding American playwrights of the century. It is a work born of the expressionist era, with the vividness, primitivism and exaggeration typical of the period's literature and painting.
The play follows a black American convict, Brutus Jones, who escapes the chain gang and reaches a Caribbean island where he sets himself up as emperor, contemptuously ruling over the credulous population, who invest him with supernatural attributes. We join the action at the moment of Jones's fall from grace. The population has decided to take revenge for his corrupt rule. He will have to flee across desert and forest, while the war drums beat out the rhythm of hot pursuit.
The play is a study in fear. Jones passes from a superficial self-confidence about his prospects of survival, through all the stages of doubt to sheer terror. He is afflicted by visions from his past, on which he uses up most of his ammunition.
The tiny Gate Theatre stages the piece superbly, helped by an excellent design from Richard Hudson. The audience sits around a long rectangular pit in which Jones will be trapped. The pit's tall wicker sides with swing doors and flaps reminded me of a bullring. As death approaches, the dust flies up, as it does when a matador is completing his work. Eight old-fashioned ceiling fans above the pit help to create an impression of asphyxiating West Indies heat, even on a November evening in London. Later they descend to suggest the claustrophobic canopy of the forest.
The set allows seats for an audience of about only 60. There was a row when one patron arrived to find that there were no seats left, and complained loudly that he could not be expected to stand for 65 minutes. In his youth he had evidently not experienced Wagner without a seat!
Gregory Clarke's sound design is also remarkable. He gives us tiresome flies by day, cicadas in the evening and by night the terrifying noises that have no name. The beat of the drums is relentless and it intensifies as the chase hots up.
Dramatically this is a curious play. It opens with a longish and not very satisfactory dialogue between Smithers, a cockney trader (played by Paul Wyett) and the emperor. The Englishman has come to tell Jones that while he was sleeping his entourage slipped away into the forest. …