Ciarán O’Reilly

On the stage monitor in my dressing room, I hear the dulcet tones of Gabriel Byrne as he tries to seduce his Yankee visitor:

I am a poor fool, Madame. I would be both wiser and happier if I could reconcile myself to being the proprietor of a tawdry tavern, if I could abjure pride, and forget the past. Today of all days it is hard to forget, for it is the anniversary of the battle of Talavera. The most memorable day of my life, Madame. It was on that glorious field…

And on he goes. I pick up The Emperor Jones. Again O’Neill gives us a man at the peak of his powers: an escaped convict risen to the relative greatness of a brutal dictator on a Caribbean island.

John Douglas Thompson in The Emperor Jones

John Douglas Thompson in The Emperor Jones—Photo by Carol Rosegg

Ain’t I de Emperor? De laws don’t go for him. You heah what I tells you, Smithers. Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits 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

But he too was about to set out on his march towards primal truth. He too is forced to confront his demons. And what Demons!!! O’Neill etches his journey through the thick overgrowth of sins—those of his own making and those against his ancestors. The sins that begat the sins. It’s all there. In seventy succinct minutes, he gives us two hundred years of human madness. From despotic arrogance to humble contrition fueled by fear, superstitions, and the notion that we carry within us not only the sins of our past, but the injustices of our race. Once again, the Everyman of Every Age.

What—what is I doin? What is—dis place? Seems like—seems like I know dat tree—an’ dem stones—an’ de river. I remember—seems like I been heah befo’. Oh, Gorry, I’se skeered in dis place! I’se skeered! Oh, Lawd, pertect dis sinner!

In one hundred years from now, if we still have a planet and if there is still a live stage to strut and fret, I believe Yank and Jones will still be riveting audiences in their seats. Like the drama of the Greeks, O’Neill will have the relevance of tomorrow.