Eugene O’Neill, Haiti, and Some Mexican Friends

I first came to Eugene O’Neill for the family drama, the whiskey-soaked, let’s not lie, “not tonight,” eviscerating truth-telling of Long Days Journey that recalls for me not a few memorable family dinners. But it’s not being stuck in a family that keeps me coming back to O’Neill’s work. It’s all the other kinds of entrapment that he explores, particularly the American kinds. O’Neill’s vision of American cages, such as Yank’s, compels my return to a vision that, I must admit, I sometimes find difficult to explain.

So there I was, again confronted with O’Neill’s prisons of history—be they familial, racial, or national—and struggling to articulate the distinct (and rather archaic) racial perspectives presented in The Emperor Jones to my bewildered Mexican colleagues. We’d just attended the play’s incantatory production by the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City, and this was not the O’Neill my friends were perhaps expecting. It seemed I couldn’t quite translate across various national divides what O’Neill himself was translating: an early 20th century, specifically American understanding of race and history to some fantasized version of Haiti, where he transposes the legacies of class and race immobility and American slavery and imperialism. The setting itself of Haiti is, of course, born of a precisely U.S. history of national shame, over-reaching, and racializing stereotypes. Brutus Jones is both magisterial and abject, powerless before the forces that O’Neill’s work so often returns to: money, history, humiliation, and inchoate desire and ambition.

I might have begun with how the island kingdom of The Emperor Jones is both a cognate and contrast to another, perhaps more widely known, vision of Haiti’s unique position in the Americas—at least to the “rest” of the Western Hemisphere. In the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s stunning and revolutionary early novel, The Kingdom of This World (El reino de este mundo, 1949), racial histories and even revolutions are also shown to be determined by psyches imprinted by slavery. Here, too, legacies of brutality and exploitation play out in cycles of despotism and violence that are figured as inescapable and inevitable; and in both works, these cycles are represented through a use of language and narrative organization that often bewilders and challenges its readers. Carpentier, though, was interested in the Haitian Revolution for itself, at least to some extent. O’Neill shows through his choice of Brutus Jones as the neo-imperial dictator that he remains primarily concerned with U.S. legacies and U.S. psyches.

So what can we learn from The Emperor Jones today and what could I have said to “explain” the play to my friends, also professional colleagues, from the so-called global South? Especially now, as real-live Haitians struggle, yet again, to rebuild their country after a devastation that can be at least partially blamed on colonial histories and U.S. imperial ambitions? One answer involves the unexpected hope of transformation, even escape, that threads through O’Neill’s work. In A Touch of the Poet, Con Melody finally buries his desires to be someone else, to come from something else, when he kills both the mare and “the Major.” But O’Neill kills off Brutus Jones in a rather more ruthless fashion, one that does not offer much hope for back doors in the psyche or in history. And this apparent commentary on human overreaching is accomplished in a final sequence in The Emperor Jones that invokes an array of racial fantasies—the “Congo witch-doctor,” the “waiting monster” of some atavistic racial past, the new “native” leader Lem, an “ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type” —all deployed by O’Neill to highlight Jones’s foolhardy effort to escape his past, and then, apparently, to show the always-lurking “monsters” that populate the collective mind of the African people. It’s this symbolically rendered verdict on the shape of Jones’s racial unconscious that struck me and my Mexican friends as particularly distorting and, not to put too fine a point on it, as racist.