The Emperor Jones – October 2007


By: Eugene O’Neill

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th October 2007

This was a pretty unusual O’Neill play, one we may not see again for a long time. It was experimental for its time, which makes it seem quite modern. The play looks at racism, oppression, and the effect this sort of abuse has on the human psyche. We see the Emperor at the point where his subjects have deserted him, and are about to boot him out. He flees, and his journey through a forest takes him, and us, through a montage of experiences, some from his own past, some even earlier. We see his escape from a chain gang after killing a guard, a slave auction, and what I think must have been part of a journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship. As all these ghosts appear, he fires off his bullets, until only the silver one is left, the one he’s keeping for himself. Finally, the madness drives him to kill himself, and the natives of his former realm achieve their goal without appearing to have done anything.

The play is basically a one-man piece, and demands a great deal from the lead actor. There are a few other speaking parts, and a dancing role, but Brutus Jones dominates from early on. Fortunately, Patterson Joseph is well up to the challenge, and gives an excellent performance as the swaggerer brought low by his own fears and fantasies. He’s a charming rogue, and it’s easy to see how he could have hoodwinked the natives on his island, but his lies catch up with him, and he can’t handle being alone in the forest. The other parts mainly serve to pad out his story, as with the white trader who helped him after he escaped from the chain gang.

The set was fantastic, and was another good example of how to use the vast Olivier stage. A central disc was surrounded by a crescent slope. The back wall of the central part had steps leading up to a platform with a gaudy throne, and not much else, apart from a carpet and a couple of doorways. After an initial scene where the white trader meets the last woman to run away from the emperor, there’s a long conversation between the trader and Brutus Jones, during which we learn all we need to know of his past. He’s already laid plans to escape once the natives rumble him, only he didn’t think it would be so soon. Still, he’s confident, and sets off for the forest sure that he’ll make it to a waiting ship.

For the forest scenes, the back walls are lifted away, and another disc, ragged this time, descends to form a sloping roof to the action. It’s a patchwork of corrugated iron, interwoven with wood and other materials, with strategic slits which allow the moonlight to shine through. Along with the lighting, it gave the whole stage an eerie feel. And in the background was the constant beat of the drums, enough to drive anyone mad.

For this part, Patterson Joseph had to be fit, as he spent a lot of it running around the place. I spotted the black men secretively creeping onto the stage a good while before they clambered onto the disc and started to form the chain gang – this all added to the spookiness. The final arrival of the natives looking for him gave us some lively dancing, and then the expected end – there was no way Emperor Jones was getting out of this alive.

While it was interesting to see this style of a play from this period, I wouldn’t say it was a complete success. The performances were great, especially the lead, of course, but that was all there really was to it. The points about slavery and abuse leading to more abuse were well made, but without any real context to give the play greater substance. On the whole, I left feeling glad I’d seen the play, and the performances, but not entirely satisfied with the afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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