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Emperor Jones

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Expressionist play by O'Neill, produced in 1920 and published in 1921. An operatic version by Louis Gruen-berg was produced in 1933.

The giant black Brutus Jones, former Pullman porter and ex-convict, becomes in two years the feared, autocratic “emperor” of a West Indian island. Exploiting the superstition of the primitive natives, claiming that only a silver bullet can kill him, he enriches himself at their expense, and brags to a cockney trader, Smithers, that when the inevitable rebellion comes he will escape to France, where he has sent a fortune. The uprising suddenly begins, but he is unable to locate his hidden supplies in the forest, where he loses his way. The incessant thumping of a tomtom undermines his courage, and a series of brief, symbolic scenes shows his mental return to earlier phases of his own and his race's history: his murder of another black, Jeff, in a gambling altercation; his escape from a prison chain gang; the slave auction block; the slave ship; the witch doctor and crocodile god in the Congo jungle. In each episode he fires a shot from his pistol, the last silver bullet being fired at the sacred crocodile. During this imaginative retrogression to a savage state, he circles through the forest; emerging where he had entered, he falls riddled by the silver bullets of the rebel tribesmen.

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Eugene O'Neill (1888—1953) American dramatist