The Emperor Jones

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The Emperor Jones is a 1920 play by American dramatist, Eugene O'Neill which tells the tale of Brutus Jones, an African-American man who kills a man, goes to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and sets himself up as emperor. The play recounts his story in flashbacks as Brutus makes his way through the forest in an attempt to escape former subjects who have rebelled against him.

The play displays an uneasy mix of expressionism and realism, which is also characteristic of several other O'Neill plays, including The Hairy Ape. It was O'Neill's first play to receive great critical acclaim and box office success, and the one that launched his career.



  • Brutus Jones
  • Smithers
  • JeffUndine
  • Dolly
  • Lem


The play is divided into eight scenes. Scenes 2 through 7 are from the point of view of Jones, and no other character speaks. The first and last scenes feature a character named Smithers, a white trader who appears to be part of illegal activities. In the first scene, Smithers is told about the rebellion by an old woman, and then has a lengthy conversation with Jones. In the last scene, Smithers converses with Lem, the leader of the rebellion. Smithers has mixed feelings about Jones, though he generally has more respect for Jones than for the rebels. During this scene, Jones is killed by a silver bullet, which was the only way that the rebels believed Jones could be killed, and the way in which Jones planned to kill himself if he was captured.


1920 Premiere

The Emperor Jones first staged on 1 November 1920 by The Provincetown Players at the Playwright's Theater in New York City.[1] Charles Sidney Gilpin was the first actor to play the role of Brutus Jones on stage and O'Neill said later that he was the only actor who had played an O'Neill character to O'Neill's full satisfaction. They did have some conflict over Gilpin’s tendency to change a few words as he acted. This production was very successful and it helped make O'Neill's reputation. The little Provincetown theater was too small to cope with audience demand for tickets, and the play was transferred to another theater. It ran for 204 performances and was hugely popular.

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