Review for CultureWars. Posted here until online:
There’s nothing worse than prejudice. If you read the Guardian’s Theatre-Blog page, you’ll know that after Monday it became impossible to attend the National’s new production of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones without one question rattling around your head: is this play racist? I very consciously didn’t read the article in question until afterwards, but the headline and the subtitle: “Eugene O'Neill's play is offensive and full of monstrous stereotyping - we should not be applauding the National Theatre's revival”, were hard to forget. And such accusations do tend to get between play and playgoer.
On leaving the theatre, it was reasonably easy to see how someone might come away with that impression. It is not the play’s liberal scattering of the N-word - perhaps shocking the first time when spoken by a cynical, colonial white, but after ten minutes of sustained use by both black and white characters it gets more like a Chris Rock routine. No, the issue here is the entire plot and philosophy of this curious 70 minute piece.
The Emperor Jones is essentially a dream play bookended with naturalistic scene-setting. O’Neill’s Brutus Jones (note the possible connotations of “Brutus”), is a despot in exile. At the start of the play he leaves his grand house in fear of his life at the hands of his revolting subjects, and flees into a forest at nightfall. He has with him a revolver which contains five lead bullets for self-protection and one silver bullet for himself, should things come to their worst. Fans of Chekhov’s oft-quoted maxim about guns on stage will not be surprised by the subsequent turn of events. The vast bulk of the action, therefore, depicts a man lost in a forest alone with his demons. And this is where the problems come. His demons take the form of episodes from his past life, but then travel back in time offering up tableaux of what could be termed ‘black folk memory’. Jones finds himself variously hallucinating himself on board a slave ship, being auctioned, and finally being bewitched in a Haitian-style voodoo dance.
There is more than a hint that beneath the veneer of civility that Jones has achieved for himself, he is nothing more than a superstitious savage. It is to this inference that Nia Reynolds objects in her Guardian blog piece. The National’s programme, however, has a neat essay from Gary Younge (hardly an Uncle Tom figure - indeed someone who has already written a highly intelligent essay on why that term itself is problematic), which offers a very different take on the play’s intentions and meaning. He argues that rather than being a slur on black people, it is an attack on tyrants and despots who use the tools of their potential oppressors as the means to oppress their contemporaries. He cites Condoleezza Rice as a modern example par excellence. Other articles in the programme locate O’Neill’s meaning in historical examples of Henri Christophe, the Haitian dictator and silver-bullet suicide, who died in 1820.
I’m not a big fan of critics being sent scurrying to their programmes to find out what the hell it is they’ve just seen: the production should make it clear. What Thea Sharrock has created here is indisputably impressive - the massively amplified live drumming, the gorgeous use of lighting, and the striking dance sequences are all wonderfully executed. The problem is that one never gets a sense of Jones as a tyrant. In the first sequence a white trader catches an elderly lady trying to escape from his palace. On being caught she immediately breaks down in floods of tears. Nothing we see of Jones justifies such a reaction. Paterson Joseph (most famous as Johnson off of Peepshow) never essays anything beyond a sort of light, comic figure. It is a fine, committed physical performance, but one which appears more set on comedy than tragedy. Similarly, the design of his home suggests a gold-sprayed corrugated iron barn, undermining his claims to have ever been an emperor. We see a man who appears to be deluded from the off. Perhaps this is the intention, but it makes his subsequent transformation so much slighter. I wonder if a suggestion of, say, Idi Amin or Robert Mugabe - some real note of malevolence - would have made O’Neill’s motivations clearer to a modern audience. As it is the production, while faithful to the aims of the original, doesn’t fully escape the possibility that it has uncovered something more insidious lurking in O’Neill’s text.