Editor’s Note: The Emperor Jones and Haiti

In 1919, the year O’Neill came up with the idea of The Emperor Jones, the U.S. Marines crushed a guerrilla uprising against the abusive American military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). By the end of the conflict, approximately 3,000 Haitian men, women, and children had been killed en masse. It was the My Lai Massacre of its time. This brutal fact gives O’Neill’s preface to the script of The Emperor Jones, in which he identifies the setting as “an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White Marines,” a sarcastic political bite. The play thus takes place before 1915, a tumultuous political phase for Haiti when four “emperors” ruled its people in as many years before the Marines took the island.

O’Neill’s protagonist Brutus Jones is a fugitive from the U.S. who, through ingenuity and strength of will, escapes to Haiti and takes control of the “empire.” Jones occupies a palace that stands “on high ground” above a plain, which suggests the landscape around the actual Sans-Souci Palace and nearby Citadelle Laferriére outside of Milot, the nation’s first capital after its successful revolution against the French (1791-1804). These architectural monuments were erected by the Haitian King Henri Christophe from 1810-1813, and Sans-Souci is often described as the “Versailles of the New World.” In the image of the palace provided here, we can see the porticos, columns, and arches O’Neill specifies in his stage directions; we have also included a portrait of King Christophe from The Illustrated London News, dated May 31, 1934, inscribed by O’Neill’s third wife Carlotta Monterey, “Emperor Jones!

His more contemporary source for Jones was the murderous Haitian dictator President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. According to O’Neill, an “old circus man” named Jack Croak told him a story about Sam and the Haitian people “to the effect that Sam had said they’d never get him with a lead bullet; that he would get himself first with a silver one.”1 O’Neill immediately jotted down the “story current in Hayti [sic],”2 and the play’s working title became “The Silver Bullet,” as his original notes for the play reveal. (Haitian lore has it that Christophe committed suicide with a silver bullet as well.) Croak gave O’Neill a Haitian coin with Sam’s visage on it that the playwright carried in his pocket for years.3 Before completing the first year of his dictatorship in 1915, Sam, like Jones, was hunted down by a rebel group and executed. Because of Sam’s close ties with American financial interests, specifically those of the National City Bank of New York, on the afternoon of the day of his execution, July 28, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines, then patrolling the coast in a warship, to take the country by force.

In early spring, 1920, the NAACP sent the African American writer and diplomat James Weldon Johnson to Haiti to assess the occupation. From August 28th to September 25th, Johnson published a series of four articles in The Nation on the atrocities and injustices committed by the Marines and the government against the Haitian people. With this series, Johnson single-handedly put the occupation of Haiti, previously ignored by the American public, on the front pages of newspapers across the U.S. The title of the series, “Self-Determining Haiti,” shows an evident connection to O’Neill’s island “as yet self-determined by White Marines.” O’Neill wrote The Emperor Jones from late September to October 3rd, 1920, right after Johnson’s exposé appeared, and his reference to it is clear. Despite the controversy over the play’s racial content, Johnson, who attended the premiere, noted in his history Black Manhattan (1930) that no previous effort on the stage with African American actors and themes “so far as the Negro is concerned, evoked more than favorable comment. But on November 3, 1920 O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones was produced at the Provincetown Playhouse, with Charles Gilpin in the title-role, and another important page in the history of the Negro in the theatre was written.”4

So why not say “Haiti” in the script? I believe a couple of reasons: O’Neill felt strongly that overt propagandizing in art lessened the impact of the message. As he wrote to his Socialist activist friend Mike Gold (a playwright and author in his own right) several years after Jones appeared, “My quarrel with propaganda in the theatre is that it’s such damned unconvincing propaganda—whereas, if you will restrain the propaganda purpose to the selection of the life to be portrayed and then let that life live itself without comment, it does your trick…I advise this in the name of flesh & blood propaganda!”5 To mention the self-determining “White Marines” was not as “restrained” as O’Neill would later become (in his preliminary notes for “The Silver Bullet” he was even more pointed, referring to them as “the U.S. Marines”). But if he’d gone even further and specified “Haiti,” the play would be mistaken for pure propaganda, and the message thus prove “damned unconvincing.” The second reason, of course, is that to specify an actual location would limit O’Neill’s ability to play upon the setting in the plot, stage descriptions, dialect, and so on. We should always consider the historical context of literature regardless, as O’Neill himself believed, and setting the play in Haiti before the occupation is, of course, highly suggestive of historical, political, economic, and racial issues. I’ll leave the “how” for the reader’s consideration…

—Robert M. Dowling

(For a discussion of the connection between O’Neill’s play, Haitian-U.S. relations, and Johnson’s series, see Mary A. Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940; see also the contribution for “Celtic Twilight” by Katherine Sugg.)

1 Clark, Barrett H. Eugene O’Neill: the Man and His Plays. 1926. Rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1947: 72.

2 Ibid, 104.

3 Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York: Applause Books, 2000: 532.

4 Johnson, James Weldon. Black Manhattan. 1930. New York: Da Capo Press Inc., 1991: 183-184.

5 Bogard, Travis and Jackson R. Bryer, eds. Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988: 206.