The Playgoer: "Emperor Jones": Stage vs Screen

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Emperor Jones": Stage vs Screen

I have an article in the annual Eugene O'Neill Review about the 1933 film adaptation of The Emperor Jones starring Paul Robeson. Basically I answer the question many have asked upon watching the film-- why is it so different than the play?
With live productions relatively infrequent, it is chiefly in the form of its 1933 film adaptation that The Emperor Jones is seen today, especially now that it has recently been restored by the Library of Congress and reissued on DVD in 2003. But far from just a photographed play, the movie Jones is in large part its own original drama, the fruit of a totally separate collaboration between director Dudley Murphy and screenwriter DuBose Heyward.  Faced with the challenge of expanding O’Neill’s fifty-page one-act play into a feature-length film, Murphy and Heyward went far beyond the usual “opening up” of Broadway-to-Hollywood “adaptations” and created an original “backstory” of their own for the hero Brutus Jones that, while built upon elements hinted at by O’Neill, ultimately transforms his story significantly.  (It also makes up more than half the film’s running time.)  While the character of O’Neill’s “Emperor Jones” is introduced to us as a larger-than-life tyrant from the start, Murphy and Heyward’s “Brutus” is a common man, faced with the temptations of everyday life.  And while the 1920 play is a modernist allegorical fable, marked by Primitivist Negro stereotypes, the film aims instead for a more realistic depiction of the lives of everyday African Americans, as opposed to the “ignorant bush niggers” of the play.
For those of you who have only seen cheap VHS "public domain" copies, do take note of that bit about the Library of Congress restoration. Emperor Jones was a film badly in need of restoration since its original length of 80 minutes was almost immediately cut down upon release (by censors) to 72 minutes. A complete restoration may never be possible, but the new Criterion DVD has restored over three minutes of previously lost material, including several uses of the word "nigger." Some of the more subversive moments seem to be forever lost--such as O'Neill's famous "slaveship" sequence and a shot of Robeson physically clobbering a prison guard.

Ultimately, my point in the essay is to argue for the significance of the film as a very different telling of the story from O'Neill's but an equally valid one--and one that I believe overcomes some of the play's problems of race.


Scott Walters said...

In my opinion, the film overcomes the problems of race in the play by virtually ignoring the issue entirely! Yes, the play has an essentialist slant, but it is one that was, to some extent, a refutation of the attitudes toward Negroes common as the Harlem Renaissance started to gain speed. I'm always a little surprised that nobody ever discusses the parallels between Jones and Marcus Garvey, who really seems to me to be the model for Jones.

Scott Walters said...

By the way, and more importantly, congrats on the review!

RLewis said...

Congrats on the O'Neill article and also for you input on this one:;_ylt=Aua3sumhFBBd2rixcnHzd6Ss0NUE;_ylu=X3oDMTNqY2c1cmpuBGFzc2V0A25tLzIwMTEwNTMwL3VzX3N0YWdlX2FjdG9ycwRjY29kZQNtb3N0cG9wdWxhcgRjcG9zAzkEcG9zAzYEcHQDaG9tZV9jb2tlBHNlYwN5bl9oZWFkbGluZV9saXN0BHNsawNob2xseXdvb2RzdGE-#mwpphu-container