It’s been a rough year for Eugene O’Neill. First his 1925 drama, Desire Under the Elms, was a substantial flop on Broadway. Despite an interesting cast (including Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino) the play was bizarrely directed—and heavily edited—by Robert Falls and it closed early, with some performances (like the one I attended) more than half empty.
The production of Desire Under The Elms was problematic, but watching it, one had to acknowledge that the play itself had some problems as well. While O’Neill’s late works (The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) have not diminished with time, some of his early, celebrated works have started to look a little creaky.
Now, here comes a revival of O’Neill’s 1920 drama The Emperor Jones. Luckily, Ciaran O’Reilly’s production at Irish Rep is as assured as Fall’s Desire was confused. The small stage is used effectively, the costumes are smart, and Barry McNabb’s choreography is evocative of the play’s expressionistic jungle setting.
But like Desire Under The Elms, watching The Emperor Jones one comes away less than dazzled by the text. In part this is due to the strength of the production—and in particular the performance by John Douglas Thompson in the tile role. Thompson’s Brutus Jones is commanding from the first moment he walks on stage. Physically he is perfect for the role. He is tall, tough, and as unstable as he is strong. At one point, Brutus gets angry and lashes his throne 20 times with a whip. Thompson does this with such force and precise repetition, it makes him genuinely believable as a former railroad worker who escaped and seized power of a small, Caribbean island.
What’s more, Thompson speaks O’Neill’s dialogue (which has long been considered offensive for its crude approximation of black speech) in way that makes Brutus seem like a real, flesh-and-blood human, and not a racist caricature. Sadly, The Emperor Jones still has some elements (namely, plenty of unironic use of a particular offensive n-word) that do not flatter the playwright or that period in American history; but on the whole, this revival allows the problematic play to be seen in its best light.
And that’s the problem. Besides providing meaty roles for Thompson and Rick Fouchez (who plays the oily British profiteer, Henry Smithers) the play itself feels rather slight. It’s an intense portrait of man losing his mind, but its psychology, when viewed today, seems rather simple. Besides providing a foreshadowing of late capitalist greed (when Brutus recounts his rise to power—and how he keeps it—its as if you’re reading a profile of a CEO in the Wall Street Journal) The Emperor Jones feels more like a staged short story than a full evening of rich drama.
The program states that the one-act play is “widely considered a turning point in American theatre,” which is true. The Emperor Jones was one of the first instances where a black character was played onstage by a black actor—instead of white actors in blackface (the pioneering black performers, Charles Sidney Gilpin and Paul Robeson were both acclaimed for their early performances as Brutus). This perhaps explains the excitement around The Emperor Jones in 1920’s, and indeed watching John Douglas Thompson today is exciting as well. It’s a top-notch performance in a fascinating—if not always entirely compelling—piece of 20th century American drama.