39 pages 1 hour read

Eugene O'Neill

The Emperor Jones

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1920

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Summary and Study Guide


The Emperor Jones is a play by acclaimed American playwright Eugene O’Neill. First published in 1920, the play depicts the rise and fall of Brutus Jones’s empire on a fictional Caribbean island. Jones, having escaped imprisonment in the United States, cunningly maneuvers his way into becoming the island’s emperor. When an islander revolt challenges his rule, Jones attempts to flee through a forest, only to be met with haunting visions. Fearful of the spectral characters he faces in his journey, Jones expends all his bullets and ultimately meets his demise at the hands of the islanders.

The Emperor Jones is celebrated for its innovative and experimental techniques, marking a distinct chapter in American theater history. This play blends elements of realism and expressionism to immerse the audience in the inner world of the protagonist. While the play has been critiqued for its prolific use of offensive racial epithets and the perpetuation of stereotypes, it was groundbreaking in its time for presenting a Black character with increased depth and complexity, challenging the prevailing narratives of early 20th-century American drama.

This guide refers to the collection The Emperor Jones: The Straw and Diff’rent: Three Plays by Eugene O’Neill (1922).

Content Warning: The source material features outdated, offensive terms for people of color throughout, which is replicated in this guide only in direct quotes of the source material. This study guide quotes and obscures the author’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter, convinces the inhabitants of an unnamed Caribbean island of his invincibility. He claims to be immune to common lead bullets and insists that only a silver bullet can harm him, using this ruse to establish a ruthless rule and amass great riches.

The play begins in the palace during late afternoon, with all the servants mysteriously absent. Henry Smithers informs Jones of an islander revolt against him and Jones decides to escape by traveling through a forest. Despite his initial confidence in that he will evade capture, signs of fatigue begin to show as he reaches the forest’s edge. His anxiety intensifies as the tom-tom drumbeat becomes louder and faster, a reminder of the islanders’ impending revolt. Just before entering the forest, Jones experiences his first hallucination, foreshadowing the visions that will torment him throughout his journey. He hears mocking laughter and reacts by firing his revolver at unseen figures on the ground.

Jones becomes increasingly paranoid as hallucinations plague his journey through the forest. Confronting his murderous past, he hallucinates the presence of Jeff, a former colleague he killed over a dice game. Initially relieved to see a familiar face, Jones soon questions the reality of the vision and fires at Jeff, who vanishes. As he presses on, the memory of his second crime comes to haunt him. Jones encounters a road where spectral convicts and a prison guard appear. Believing them to be real, Jones joins their labor, enduring the guard’s whip. In sudden anger, he fires his revolver, causing them to suddenly disappear.

In his state of fear and exhaustion, Jones confesses his past crimes and seeks forgiveness. A group of spectral figures in 1850s attire materializes in a scene resembling an auction of enslaved people. Enraged by the prospect of being enslaved, Jones desperately proclaims his freedom but ultimately succumbs to rage and shoots at the enslavers. Darkness envelops the scene as he flees, accompanied by the echoing drumbeat.

Yet another hallucination manifests as rows of seated Black characters in loincloths appear around Jones. They sway and chant, mimicking a ship’s roll at sea. Overwhelmed by despair, Jones joins their mournful chorus. As the voices fade, he flees deeper into the forest.

Jones arrives at the foot of a colossal tree by the edge of a river. Here, he is overcome with fear and despair. An enigmatic Indigenous figure, the Witch-Doctor, appears and performs a silent dance and chant. His rituals summon a fearsome Crocodile God from the river. Jones, mesmerized and terrified, approaches the creature, who demands his sacrifice. Jones fires his last silver bullet at the creature’s eyes, driving the creature back into the river, and the Witch-Doctor disappears, leaving Jones whimpering in fear.

The next day, a group of Indigenous soldiers, Indigenous leader Lem, and white trader Smithers pursue Jones near the forest. Smithers expresses frustration with the islanders, believing Jones has already escaped to the coast. However, a tracker identifies Jones’s entry point into the forest, prompting Lem’s men to stealthily follow. Gunshots and triumphant shouts emanate from the forest, and the tom-tom drumming suddenly stops. The soldiers emerge carrying Jones’s lifeless body, revealing a small wound under his left breast. Smithers taunts Jones for his arrogance and ironic demise as they depart with his body.