Eugene O’Neill, Haiti, and Some Mexican Friends

But as with Melody and his daughter Sara, the pathos of Brutus Jones emerges in the subtle intelligence and cunning humor with which he tries to escape the chains that bind him. Brutus is caught between the past and the ambition to be something more, something touched on in a dream; what O’Neill consistently suggests is the American dream. And one thing that The Emperor Jones does do quite effectively is plumb the pretensions and shallows of that dream. The haunting beat of the tom-toms and the ghostly presence of the Native Haitians, those “bush niggers” that Brutus so derides, can be taken as an acknowledgement that other dreams, other ways of understanding and striving, might be possible; though they remain outside the circle of what Brutus, or we, can see.

Perhaps that hint of the possibility of other realities and other dreams that we cannot yet imagine, much less perceive or represent, is one powerful lesson that the play offers today. Since the tragic earthquake of January 2010, we in the U.S. have listened to an insistent drumbeat of talking-head dismissals of Haitians and sorrowful laments over their inability to run a country. In understanding Haiti “as a country beyond saving” (New York Times March 30, 2010), these spokespersons often presume Haiti’s “failed state” status as one of ontological origin, sadly embedded in the DNA of its beginnings in a slave-led revolution in 1791. Of course, our notorious national amnesia often writes out the 20-year U.S. occupation from 1915-1934, the long covert support given to both of the Duvalier regimes, and the rearrangement of the nation’s very geography, as well as its economic and governmental institutions, in order to reap maximum benefits for U.S. agri-business interests. This history of largely unseen actions has played a significant role in the forces that have kept the nation-state of Haiti struggling and won it the dubious recognition as the hemisphere’s poorest. With our other hand, as it were, the U.S. has of course worked tirelessly and earnestly to “repair” that country and to “support” Haiti’s efforts to overcome its many difficult histories.

While sustaining these efforts, as in this collection, is crucial, it may also be wise to keep in mind O’Neill’s bitter assessment of U.S. national culture and its many failures, particularly the overweening worship of the dollar, the arrogance of class-bound perceptions, and even his somewhat cynical dismissal of the unintended consequences of liberal fantasies of help. Not losing sight of such cautionary reminders in this era of good intentions and tragic challenges might help us refrain from the urge to judge and to “fix” these countries that are not ours, no matter how confident we are that, like Brutus, we “got brains and…uses ‘em quick.”