The Emperor Jones


Eugene O’Neill

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The Emperor Jones Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Eugene O’Neill's The Emperor Jones. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O'Neill was born in a hotel in New York City to Irish immigrants. Both of his parents toured with a theatre company and as such, O'Neill attended a Catholic boarding school. His father was an alcoholic and his mother was addicted to morphine, a family situation that influenced his later theatrical works. As a young man, he began working on ships and became involved with unions and labor movements in the US. He became ill with tuberculosis in his early twenties, after which he decided to dedicate himself to writing full-time. His first play, Beyond the Horizon, opened in 1920, and The Emperor Jones premiered later that year. Jones was his first big hit and it expressed commentary on O'Neill's thoughts on the United States' occupation of Haiti. O'Neill was married three times and had three children. In 1943, after suffering for most of his life from depression and alcoholism, O'Neill's hands began to tremble and he was mostly unable to write for the last ten years of his life. He died in a hotel room in Boston. Though he asked his third wife to wait 25 years to publish Long Day's Journey into Night (which O'Neill wrote in 1941-42), she published the play in 1956 and it won a Tony Award for Best Play.
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Historical Context of The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones is a commentary on the United States' occupation of Haiti, and the play comments in broader terms on American imperialism around the globe. In 1915, amid rising global tensions prior to World War I, the US invaded Haiti as a show of strength and influence to intimidate Germany. There were a number of influential Germans living in Haiti at that time and because they married Haitians, they were able to circumvent Haitian laws forbidding foreigners from purchasing Haitian land. The 1915 Haitian-American Convention was a treaty that granted the US economic oversight over Haiti for a ten-year period. During that period, the US overhauled Haiti completely. It invested in infrastructure, established National Guards, and reinstituted impressed labor of Haitians to reach these goals, while also putting policies in place to redirect a major percentage of Haiti's economy to repay loans to the US and France. When Germany lost the war in 1918, the US maintained occupancy of Haiti even as President Woodrow Wilson spoke hypocritically about the need for countries to govern themselves. In this way, the character of Jones comes to represent America's knowledge that it was indeed exploiting Haiti, while the natives' victory over Jones suggests a hope that American imperialism would be overthrown.

Other Books Related to The Emperor Jones

Eugene O'Neill's plays all tend to feature characters who, like Jones, work exceptionally hard to keep up hope and reach their goals—but in the end, most of them end in despair and tragedy. O'Neill's most famous tragic play is his 1956 play Long Day's Journey into Night, which deals with a family's intense dysfunction and addiction problems. Much of his work uses elements of realism, drama techniques developed to best convey the social or psychological problems of real life on stage. This style of theatre is most commonly associated with playwrights such as Anton Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard, 1903) and Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House, 1879). It's also worth noting that The Emperor Jones was first performed during the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of artistic and intellectual work by black artists that took place initially in Harlem, New York. Despite the fact that O'Neill was white, The Emperor Jones was immensely popular among people of color because it featured a black actor in a leading role in a white theatre company. Because of this, Jones can be grouped with other work that came out of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Spunk" (though she's better known for her later works, namely Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Langston Hughes' poetry collection The Weary Blues.
Key Facts about The Emperor Jones
  • Full Title: The Emperor Jones
  • When Written: Around 1920
  • Where Written: New York City
  • When Published: The play was first performed in 1920
  • Literary Period: Expressionism, Realism
  • Genre: Dramatic stage play
  • Setting: An unnamed island in the West Indies
  • Climax: Jones uses his silver bullet to kill the crocodile god
  • Antagonist: Brutus Jones is arguably his own worst enemy, although he also fights racism and other forms of systemic oppression.

Extra Credit for The Emperor Jones

Lead vs. Silver. In folklore, silver bullets are often the only things capable of killing monsters. However, in 2007, the television show "Myth Busters" tested to see if silver bullets were actually any better than conventional lead bullets. They found that despite the myths, silver bullets are slower and less accurate than their lead counterparts.

Family Drama. Eugene O'Neill disowned his daughter, Oona, after she married Charlie Chaplin in 1943: she was 18, and Chaplin was 54. Despite this, Oona still inherited the family estate in Bermuda, as both her brothers committed suicide.