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The Emperor Jones (Dover Thrift Editions) Kindle Edition
"Depth of Lies" by E. C. Diskin
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The play is the last entry in the Library of America's volume 1 of collected plays by O'Neill, covering the early years up to 1920. It is rather a departure from previous work. It closes the volume with a fanfare, or rather with tom-toms.
There are trace elements of the Emperor in some previous plays, like in the Moon of the Caribbees (the tom-toms), in the Dreamy Kid (the fugitive), or in Gold (the hallucinations), but in style and power, this is new territory. There might be some influence of Conrad here, like in one of the sea plays. The Congo witch doctor and the crocodile god are jumping out from the pages of Heart of Darkness.
An American fugitive from law has made it to an unspecified island in the West-Indies. After a short apprentice phase with a white trader, he has learned the ropes and has assumed power, like an emperor, always with the conscious objective to milk the people and the land dry. As if O'Neill had anticipated some later 3rd World rulers.
The play opens at a moment when the wheel is turning against the emperor and he has to try and escape from an insurgency. So far all this is told in a relatively standard first scene. Then comes the jungle at night, and with it the tom-toms of the hunters and the illusions of the forest. The emperor on the run has hallucinations. O' Neill quits the realm of his usual realism and lets the man's fears and conscience play havoc with him.
It seems to me that O'Neill was about to grasp the full potential of the stage.