The Emperor’s New Race

by |
10/27/2009 12:00 AM |

Thompson points out: “There’s a certain poetry in it. That’s a hallmark of Irish playwriting.” It’s an insightful comment—O’Neill’s use of dialect, for Cockney Smithers, ex-con Jones, and the pidgin English of the natives, is as poetic as that of the Irish peasants in the work of John Millington Synge.

It’s also hard not to see an Irish-American’s contempt for Catholicism implied in the way Jones’ terrified prayers don’t work, but tribal magic seems to. “I’s after the coin and I lays my Jesus on the shelf for the time being,” Jones admits to Smithers. Later on, as he shoots at “haunts” and visions, he calls on Jesus for help and gets none.

Thompson suggests: “Maybe one of the messages is that certain people can’t be saved, and don’t deserve redemption.”

Both Thompson and O’Reilly find an ecumenical message in the play—it’s not about African-Americans and native people, but could be about any ethnic group. I’m not so sure of that. Inasmuch as it calls for the use of masks, tom-tom drumming beat, tribal magic, it seems to be drawing on a certain exoticism, or an Orientalist use of non-western cultures as a place where primal forces become real. It seems particularly anti-European in some of its points, and romanticizes certain aspects of the native cultures. It reminds me a bit of E.M. Forster’s portrayal of how white people see native culture in A Passage to India, or the trope of the inscrutable Chinaman in many a movie.

All of that is another way of saying ultimately that it’s a very white play. But considering it a psychological study lifts the play out of the specific, and that universality was what ultimately prompted Thompson to accept the role.

“I didn’t really know about the play,” Thompson said. “When I first read it, I couldn’t fully understand it. It was almost like reading Shakespeare, sometimes I need to take several swipes at it. I knew there was something interesting there, but couldn’t quite find it through the text that was right there in front of me. Then I researched O’Neill and his influences on creating it—Karl Jung, Joseph Conrad who wrote Heart of Darkness, the Expressionistic movement that he was trying to start here in this country that was primarily an Eastern European thing, Pullman Porters that created the black middle class and where those people came from and how that all developed…”

O’Neill might have thought of Jones as a symbolic Irishman, but he did create a specific story for Jones that was plausible for its time—including the detail that Jones had worked for ten years as a Pullman Porter.

“Having Jones be a Pullman Porter and what that really means is interesting,” Thompson explained. “There’s a strange dichotomy… on the one hand it was a preferred job in the African-American community, but on the other, it was like indentured servitude, another form of slavery, dressed up with a uniform and a salary. They had to work 400 hours a month before they could get their paycheck, they were never called by their own name, always called George, they were treated poorly. George Pullman, who created Pullman cars, wanted ex-slaves because they would fit this particular function best. My whole take was that Brutus was ex-slave. He was a Pullman Porter, who didn’t like one minute of his time as a porter. He learned some things, but almost in spite of himself. Capitalism, colonialism and slavery are the three social forces in Brutus Jones’ life.”