Welcome To The Jungle: Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Emperor Jones’
Late at night, when reflecting on the imbalance on my moral ledger, I like to frighten myself with tales of the Furies—those tripartite instruments of vengeful justice made famous through, among other sources, Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The Furies, sometimes referred to as the “Eumenides” or “Erinyes,” were born—if we believe Hesiod’s account in his Theogony—from the drops of blood that fell from the castrated Uranus’ genitalia (there’s a subject for a fun future book review!). In Aeschylus, the Furies emerge as a crusading trio, hunting Orestes until the murder of his mother is avenged. Their mission, at its root, is righting moral outrage—particularly acts of filial impiety—but their methods are extrajudicial and savage. The play concludes with Athena instituting stable legal protocols in Athens, instructing the Furies—now renamed the “Eumenides,” or “kindly ones”—to desist from their usual fare of vengeance killings.
Eugene O’Neill, perhaps the most Greek of American playwrights, uses the concept of the Furies—here called “Little Formless Fears”—in his Emperor Jones (1920) with terrifying effect. The play, originally titled The Silver Bullet, takes place on an island in the West Indies where Brutus Jones, a “shrewd, suspicious, evasive” scofflaw, and Henry Smithers, a cockney trader of “unscrupulous meanness,” have so psychologically subjugated the native inhabitants that in the course of two years, Jones becomes their “Emperor.”
Formerly a Pullman worker, Jones fled a post-bellum America where, as we learn during flashbacks, he endured racism and witnessed slave auctions as a child. The event precipitating his decision to stowaway on the ship that would eventually moor him on the island, however, was murder. Two murders, in fact—that of a fellow Pullman employee during a dice game gone wrong, and that of a prison guard. Jones, one senses, has spent his whole life running or outmaneuvering a past of psychic and physical horror. But he has also spent his life intuiting, a bit like Prince Hal, the vagaries of immorality that help one climb to political power. Over a decade on the Pullman cars “listenin to de white quality talk,” he learns the golden rule of the big con: “For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks.” When the Emperor Jones opens, we discover the big con applied to the Caribbean.
Of course, Jones’ incredible theft of the island is thanks to his insight into the superstitious nature of the natives whom Jones convinces, after an early, failed attempt at his life with a firearm, that only a silver bullet is strong enough to put him down. Jones’ gun, the silver bullet, and his belief that “a man’s talkin’ big what makes him big—long as he makes folks believe it” have kept the Emperor alive. But, as we learn early on, the natives have grown restless, and the Emperor Jones, fearful of widespread mutiny, grabs his gun and makes his escape. As he runs, deeper and deeper into the forest, he is pursued by the ceaseless sounds of tom-tom drums. Their beat is the backdrop to the unraveling of his mind, as a bewildered Jones finds himself face-to-face with the Little Formless Fears of past misdeeds. Bullets do not work on the Fears and, with his ammunition spent, Jones is eventually caught and killed by the natives.
Over the years, the Emperor Jones has been the subject of various interpretations. Some commentators find evidence of racist or colonial mentality in O’Neill; others delight in applying a Jungian analysis to the jungle and its relation to Jones. Those are fine interpretations, for the most part, but they complicate or elide the tension between reason and superstition right out of the play. For me, Jones’ animating principle is no different from the one most of us observe in our daily lives: He uses his little portion of rationality to conquer a new world. But the island, like so much of what we perceive, is phantasmagoric; logic and reason hold devalued currency there. Jones believes—as evidenced by the myth he has created around his silver bullet—that his rationality inures him from the superstitious chains fastening the minds of the islanders. When his belief in his own power of reason starts to slip, he is done for. Smithers, whom we meet only at the beginning and the end of the play, is the philosophic counterpoint to Jones. And while he takes advantage of the islanders just the same, his soul lacks the superstitious element that paradoxically allowed Jones to thrive—but also to lose his life.
The Emperor Jones, as its title might suggest, is a political play. The argument and action of the text imparts what is useful and what is harmful to the retention of power. At a deeper level, however, there lies a lesson about the connection between soul and rulership. As the jungle closes around Jones, the Formless Fears—a reflection of his own disordered, dark, but perhaps moral, self—destroy him. But they don’t persecute Smithers. Why this might be the case, and what O’Neill means by Smithers’ sparse but important inclusion in the drama, is the key to understanding the foreboding jungle—and the dark jungle within each of us.
Image by Elena11