As a member of the Harlem Amateur Players, Robeson had heard a great deal about Brutus Jones from the Playhouse’s set designer, Cleo Throckmorton. Moved by Robeson’s performances with the Manhattan-based troupe, Throckmorton was the first to approach him about donning the emperor’s clothes. But the Harlem Amateur Players’ star performer did not like what he heard. “You may know this kind of person, and Mr. O’Neill may know this kind of person, but I don’t,” Robeson said. (There were other “race men” who were less conflicted about O’Neill’s take on race and power. In a piece written for the 1923–24 season of the Provincetown Playhouse, W.E.B. DuBois said that O’Neill was “bursting through” black stereotypes onstage and giving us “Negro blood.”) In the end, however, Robeson, convinced of the play’s worth, accepted the assignment.
Gilpin had brought a bit of his wounded “race” pride to the character’s ferocious determination, and his depiction was noted for the actor’s ability to become Jones, that is, to inhabit his race-related pain. On the other hand, Robeson always stood outside the role, if only because his natural dignity would not allow him to fully submit to the des, dems, and dats that pepper Jones’s speech. Nevertheless, when he began to work his way into Jones, thereby finding what the writer Murray Kempton called the character’s “bitter satisfactions in the mud,” Robeson owned the part. By approaching Jones as an authority figure, Robeson was free to examine what ultimately appealed to him about O’Neill’s troubled and troubling creation: his self-conferred heroism.
As we can see (and hear) in Dudley Murphy’s 1933 film version of The Emperor Jones, Robeson stands somewhere to the left of O’Neill’s white idea of black speech, not to mention black male life. In a number of scenes, the actor with the legendary basso profundo voice, large chest, and liquid eyes struggles with O’Neill’s fantastical, overwrought language as though it were an ill-fitting mask.
In the play, Brutus Jones is described as a “tall, powerfully built, full-blooded Negro of middle age.” Formerly a Pullman porter, Jones first comes to the unnamed island he eventually rules as a stowaway. He is anointed the island’s “emperor” when some “bush niggers” see him dodge a bullet in a showdown with another black man; the islanders believe Jones didn’t die because he has magical powers. In fact, the power Jones is primarily interested in is economic. To Smithers, a weak and cowardly white colonialist who envies Jones his nefarious success, the American-born emperor says: “Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’, like I does.” He goes on:
For de little stealin’, dey gets you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’, dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall O’ Fame when you croaks. [Reminiscently] If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact. And when I gets a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.
In this and other speeches, Jones wears the leering mask of capitalism. But it is capitalism with a particularly nasty edge: he is a proponent of black exploitation that mirrors, in its craftiness and feigned interest in the whole idea of “brotherhood,” that of the evangelist Father Divine, who, during the time the play was first written and performed, was beginning to establish his famous “back to Africa” movement on the shores of Sayville, New York. The Emperor Jones, however, begins with Jones’s various exploitations having been found out. Now, to the delight of Smithers and others, he is on the run from his various cheats and failed follies, threatening drums punctuating his footsteps.
Jones is hardly O’Neill’s only isolated protagonist: As our country’s premier poet of the sea, the New York–born playwright confined a number of his doomed, anxious characters to boats and islands—relatively small spaces that not only increase the dramatic tension that was a hallmark of his style but also bring a lyrical cutting edge to his characters’ monologues, the best of which sound like mournful songs sung by permanently landlocked sailors. From 1922’s Anna Christie:
Anna [trying to keep up her hard, bitter tone, but gradually letting a pitiful note of pleading creep in]: And if I told you that yust getting out in this barge, and being on the sea had changed me and made me feel different about things, ’s if all I’d been through wasn’t me and didn’t count and was yust like it never happened—you’d laugh, wouldn’t you? And you’d die laughing sure if I said that meeting you that funny way that night in the fog, and afterwards seeing that you was straight goods stuck on me, had got me to thinking for the first time, and I sized you up as a different kind of man—a sea man as different from the ones on land as water is from mud—and that was why I got stuck on you, too... Don’t you see how I changed?
But, in the Aristotelian sense, O’Neill’s characters rarely change; they merely exchange one identity for another to suit the situation: the whore becomes a saint when it looks like a john will pay her rent. Equal to the playwright’s fascination with the sea—an ever-shifting natural force that generally reflects any oceanic changes his characters think they’re going through—was his interest in masks. In plays such as Lazarus Laughed and Strange Interlude, O’Neill’s characters do not use masks as props but as shields for defending the illusions we pile one on top of the other in an effort to become an idealized self. In The Emperor Jones, race itself is a mask.
Nowhere in Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s definitive 1962 biography O’Neill do the authors indicate that their subject was especially attuned to black life in America. (The most realistically drawn black O’Neill character is Joe Mott, from 1940’s The Iceman Cometh.) But what we do know is that O’Neill’s imagination was particularly taken with the marginalized—the detritus washed up by the sea of life. Written when segregation, not to mention lynching, was still in effect, the character Brutus Jones survives the whiteness that threatened to overtake his pre-island life by listening to “white quality talk,” and, presumably, using that same talk to oppress blacks himself. On the island he will never own, Jones is no longer among the hunted; now he’s a gatherer of prey.
By the time the film version of The Emperor Jones was produced, Robeson had become the American theater’s first great black hope. When the rights to the play were purchased, O’Neill not only demanded that Robeson reprise his stage triumph but also that the actor’s name appear over the title. For his part, Robeson insisted that the film be shot above the Mason-Dixon Line, the better to avoid the cruel effects of apartheid. Often, an artist finds himself living in a strange home. But America in 1933 was crueler than most: segregation, the Depression, mob violence, Prohibition—a moralistic age that presaged our own. Still, what better moment for Robeson to tackle the role that would make him a star? For he must have known that Brutus Jones—despite O’Neill’s limitations in his conception of the role—was a “bad nigger,” that all-too-real being who disavowed what America said he should be: subservient, invisible.
And Robeson must have found something in O’Neill’s critique of Jones’s fiction, with its implicit message that the truth will find one out, race and class notwithstanding. Today, one can see that Robeson best conveyed that thesis through his character’s physicality. He uses O’Neill’s language as a cloak in which to wrap his powerful body. As Jones attempts to flee the island that was never his home, casting off his partially self-conferred majesty like a robe, Robeson uses his large, handsome face to break through the double mask of race and invented black language. So doing, the film is a credible document of an actor not trying to play black, but to be black. As Robeson works through the language to impart something of the mystery and heartache and power that trouble Jones’s eyes, head, and torso, he reveals all that is good and still necessary to see in his collaboration with O’Neill: their joint creation of a mournful song of being that ends in race and capitalism’s necessary but ultimately unachievable death.