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Censorship and the Stage

Censorship, Control and Resistance in Eugene O’Neill’s “black plays” The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings

Censure, contrôle et espaces de résistance dans deux pièces « noires » de Eugene O’Neill, The Emperor Jones et All God’s Chillun Got Wings
Gwenola Le Bastard

Résumés

Les années 1920 furent une période marquée par des mesures restrictives en matière de contrôle et de censure de la scène de théâtre américaine. Depuis sa création en 1922 jusqu’à son démantèlement en 1927, le « Play Jury » eut pour rôle d’assurer la régulation du théâtre américain, alors que les lois ségrégatives frappaient toujours la scène. Les acteurs blancs, le visage grimé, interprétaient le rôle des personnages noirs, tandis que le public noir se voyait interdire l’accès aux théâtres de Broadway. Dans ce contexte de prohibition marqué par une régulation rigoureuse, Eugene O’Neill écrivit et produisit The Emperor Jones (1920) et All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1923), deux pièces qui attestent de l’intérêt grandissant des artistes et écrivains de l’avant-garde blanche pour la vie et la culture afro-américaine, et qui témoignent de leurs relations productives avec la littérature de la Renaissance de Harlem en pleine émergence. Mais ces deux pièces controversées (chacune d’elles mettant en scène un acteur noir dans le rôle principal) rendent aussi compte de la difficulté liée à la présence de la « ligne de couleur ». Ces deux pièces « noires » soulèvent des questions associées aux phénomènes de censure et de résistance tant du point de vue de l’écriture que de celui de la production et de la réception. Cet article se propose de démontrer qu’elles peuvent être lues comme des tentatives visant à repousser les limites de l’auteur sur les plans à la fois textuel, scénique, et social. Le traitement expressionniste des pièces qui s’accompagne d’une mise en scène symboliste introduisant des décors toujours plus confinés et oppressants, peut être lu comme une représentation des limitations de la scène américaine, incapable à l’époque d’embrasser la vision d’O’Neill d’un théâtre rénové et modernisé, et sa conception d’une société américaine plus tolérante. Il est ainsi possible d’envisager ces deux pièces, qui mettent en scène la lutte contre une censure textuelle et institutionnelle, comme le point de départ de changements majeurs qui apparaissent dans les années 1920 et suivantes.

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1The exploration of themes borrowed from African American life and culture was frequent among white avant-garde writers and artists in the aftermath of WW1 and it overlapped the efforts of the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance who were simultaneously trying to find their own forms of artistic expression. While this rising interest was growing more and more frequent in the arts such as literature and poetry, it was less so in the American theater. In this respect, Eugene O’Neill’s repeated exercise in black portraitures deserves a close study inasmuch as it opened the American stage to black themes and black actors, but also as it encouraged black playwrights to stage their own vision and idiosyncracies. O’Neill’s interest in black portraits is conspicuous since he created sixteen black characters in a total of six plays between 1913 and 1939. Two of them, The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, featured a black actor in the leading role and incidentally launched the careers of the black actors who played the role of the black protagonist. Audiences, so far used to minstrel shows, staging white actors in blackface, were here invited to reevaluate their former perceptions of blackness and of the black character. Transgressing the codes and rules regarding the casting of actors, O’Neill introduced black authenticity into the American stage, while encouraging a redefinition of the notion of black character. If his insistence on having a black instead of a white actor in the role of the black protagonist represents an act of resistance and transgression towards institutional censorship, it can also be regarded as an attempt to close the divide between black character and black actor, thus legitimizing black actors’ presence on stage.

2In The Emperor Jones, produced in 1920, an African American outlaw sets up a dictatorship on a Caribbean Island. The beginning of the play corresponds to his flight through the jungle to escape an insurrection and the different scenes of the play stage his mental journey, which crystallizes hallucinated visions of both his own and the collective past. All God’s Chillun Got Wings, produced in 1924, features a controversial inter-ethnic relationship between a black man and a white woman and the resulting effects on their lives and personal ambitions. Written and produced in a context of unrelenting prohibition and regulation, but also written and staged by a white artist for audiences on both sides of the color line, these two plays also address the question of point of view and can be accordingly submitted to contrasted interpretations. These plays, All God’s Chillun Got Wings in particular, must be considered in the specific context of the 1920s in the US, when American society’s vision of blackness was still deeply influenced and prejudiced by the prevailing racist and stereotyped discourse. Up until the 1910s, theatrical productions portrayed the black character as the “Brute Negro”, thus associating blackness and extreme physical violence. Accordingly, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, consciously exploited the fear and threat of the black figure, focusing on a distorted representation of black men as an evil manifestation of violence and danger to the American nation. Significantly enough, while providing a calumnious portrayal of blackness and black characters, the film followed the tradition of black minstrelsy by starring white actors in blackface, and deliberately caricaturing supposedly black moral flaws and weaknesses. 1920s audiences’ representation of blackness and black characters was necessarily shaped by this artistic context, so that O’Neill’s rehabilitation of both black actor and character contradicted mainstream views on that matter. Tackling the issue of miscegenation in the boiling context of the 1920s thus meant dealing with a fixed social and ideological taboo according to which sexual and physical contact between whites and blacks was firmly condemned.

3This paper proposes to read these two plays as expressions of responses to censorship at various levels. Considering the institutional context of the plays, this study will aim at showing how they can be regarded as attempts to push back the restrictions of the American mainstream stage. This examination of the institutional and ideological expressions of censorship will be followed by an analysis of both scenic and textual levels. Indeed, the playwright’s deliberate choice to dramatize both the gradual shrinkage of the stage and the characters’ loss of speech while the stage directions expand raises the question of authorial control and resistance to institutional regulation.

4This will lead finally to exploring the ambiguities linked to the modernist treatment of primitivism. The plays will be considered as an illustration of the black character’s and artist’s inability to liberate himself from a double bind, resulting in a form of identity censorship.

Institutional, Social and Ideological Barriers

  • 1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time, New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972, 134.

5Critic Travis Bogard said of The Emperor Jones: “American theatre came of age with this play.”1 This statement exemplifies the idea that the play introduced noteworthy theatrical innovations, while bringing at the same time a drastic change in the practice of American theater with the casting of a black actor in the leading role. This theatrical effort to close the ethnic divide on the American stage was followed in 1924 by All God’s Chillun, which pushed the ideological frontiers even further back by foregrounding the very controversial subject matter of miscegenation. It can be argued that both plays exemplified a decisive readiness to propose a vision of black American life which transgressed the tradition of minstrelsy, and also sought to use the American stage as a mirror reflecting the social changes of American society.

6The 1920s were a period of strict control and regulation of the American stage. Censorship battles were pursued until the creation in 1922 of the Play Jury, which was established by the Joint Committee Opposed to Political Censorship of the Theatre and whose role was to regulate controversial plays in order to prevent outside censorship. Although a great majority of theater unions approved of the Play Jury system, recognizing it as an acceptable alternative to police censorship, others such as the playwright Elmer Rice completely rejected it. In a letter to the New York Times in January 1922, he wrote:

  • 2 Quoted from the New York Times, Jan. 29, 1922, in Barry Witham, “The Play Jury”, E (...)

One censorship board is precisely like another, regardless of the manner of its selection. It is composed of fallible individuals whose judgments are determined by their particular prejudices […] Censorship boards begin always with the avowed purpose of barring salacious plays. They end inevitably as persecutors of the innovator and the iconoclast in art.2

7The efficiency of the Play Jury remained very limited and it was eventually dismantled in 1927, but the very necessity of its creation and the controversy surrounding its application demonstrate the agitated climate affecting the American theater in this period. In fact, numerous plays were condemned for their polemical subject matter, and charges such as immorality, indecency and obscenity were commonly leveled at theatrical productions.

8In this respect, Jones along with All God’s Chillun challenged the restrictions and the limitations of the American theater, which constituted a place of censorship, both institutional and ideological. The color line was maintained both in the audience and on stage. Mainstream theaters denied access to black audiences and plays dealing with black issues and written by white playwrights were generally addressed to white audiences. Before staging Jones in 1920, O’Neill used white actors in blackface in an early play entitled Thirst (1916), in which he himself interpreted the role of the black sailor. The Emperor Jones thus marked a significant advance in the history of American theater since it signaled the willingness to have a black actor in the leading role to be staged in a mainstream theater. However desegregation did not reach the audience and black audiences attended the performance in Harlem.

  • 3 ELLA: Cause you’re all I’ve got in the world — and I love you, Jim. (She kisses hi (...)
  • 4 The Provincetown Players was a theater group with whom O’Neill started his early career. T (...)

9Four years after the production of The Emperor Jones, the play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, which dealt with the question of interethnic marriages, stirred up a furious debate before the play was even staged, the controversy mainly focusing on the moment when the white woman kisses the hand of the black protagonist.3 Newspaper editors published headlines announcing fear of ethnic riots and lynching, O’Neill received threats from the Ku Klux Klan and he and the Provincetown Players4 received racist hate letters. When asked about the controversy, playwright Augustus Thomas voiced the following opinion:

  • 5 Quoted in Frank Glenda, “Tempest in Black and White: The 1924 Premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s(...)

In the first place, I should never have written such a play, and in the second place, I should have been willing to do what is usually done in such cases, to permit a white man to play the part of the negro. The present arrangement, I think, has a tendency to break down social barriers which are better left untouched.5

10This comment reveals the unwillingness of white playwrights to integrate black actors into their plays and conversely emphasizes O’Neill’s resistance to the persistence of institutional and ideological forms of censorship deeply ingrained in the practices of American theater.

11The violent critical response to The Emperor Jones can be attributed to two forms of transgression initiated by O’Neill. Not only did he transgress the enforcement of dramatic segregation by making the African-American experience the central subject of his play and by casting a black actor as the leading, black, protagonist, but he also seemed to be making an attack on religion. In fact, the last scene of act 1, the wedding scene, offers an expressionistic treatment of the church building, which can be apprehended as a disparaging illustration of a Christian church:

  • 6 Eugene O’Neill, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, op. cit., Act I, scene 4, 294-295.

The buildings have a stern, forbidding look. All the shades on the windows are drawn down, giving an effect of staring, brutal eyes that pry callously at human beings without acknowledging them. Even the two tall, narrow church windows on either side of the arched door are blanked with dull green shades.6

  • 7 Ibidem, 295.
  • 8 Idem.

12As the couple leaves the church, they face “two racial lines on each side of the gate, rigid and unyielding, staring across at each other with bitter hostile eyes”.7 Here the personification of the building underlines the church’s blind acceptance of segregationist practices and its disapproval of a mixed union. Hence the following description: “The doors slam behind them like wooden lips of an idol that has spat them out”.8

13Therefore considering the general tensions intricately linked to the production of the plays, we can imagine that one of the reasons why O’Neill insisted on the universal meaning of both The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings — refusing for instance to regard the plays as ethnically charged — was precisely to avoid arousing additional suspicion around the plays and ensure their staging. In fact, the plays emphasize the tension between O’Neill’s artistic and political engagement and social and institutional forms of pressure. If he contributed to the integration of black actors within the American theater and of the black community within American society, O’Neill made no direct political claim. He thus believed that his message would prove more efficient if its political content remained hidden. Hence the following statement:

  • 9 Letter to Mike Gold, July 2, 1926, in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (eds.), Selected L (...)

My quarrel with propaganda in the theatre is that it’s such damned unconvincing propaganda – whereas if you will restrain the propaganda purpose to the selection of the life to be portrayed and then let that life live itself without comment, it does your trick.9

14Instead, O’Neill’s response to ideological and institutional censorship can be found in his use of both the stage and the page.

Scenic and Textual Resistance to the Limitations of the American Stage

15If the content and the production of Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun represented attempts to resist the institutional, social and ideological restrictions which framed the American stage, the plays can also be read in the context of the American avant-garde. The 1920s were a period of relentless innovation and experimentation in the arts. With their desire to renovate the American stage and to liberate the dramatic form, by breaking with old traditions and conventions, O’Neill and the Provincetown Players intended to convert the American stage into a laboratory for new experiments. As he began to produce and publish the plays, O’Neill’s institutional recognition grew quickly, culminating in his entry into Broadway, which led to the dissolution of the Provincetown Players, inevitably leaving O’Neill with nostalgia for the artistic freedom he had enjoyed in this theatrical community. Since they dramatize expressions of resistance, both The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings attest to O’Neill’s modernist vision of the American theater, implying a rupture with the past, and the renewal of the dramatic form.

  • 10 Ibid., Act 2, scene 1, 297.
  • 11 Ibid., Act 2, scene 2, 305.
  • 12 Ibid., Act 2, scene 3, 311.

16In this respect, a direct link between O’Neill’s experimental achievements and modernism can be found in both plays, which constitute two exercises in expressionism. I would like therefore to argue that O’Neill’s expressionistic treatment of space, which produces an inexorable condensation of the scenic space, is a metaphor for the social and psychological alienation of the characters. Their characterization and relation to space can be seen as a way for the playwright to reject formal and ideological censorship. These devices can be seen as a mirror in which American theater censorship is reflected. In both plays for instance, the extensive scenic effects such as the shrinking walls or the crushing ceilings convey an impression of physical confinement as well as mental oppression and social alienation. In All God’s Chillun Got Wings, they suggest the characters’ maladjustment to their environment and conflict with each other. Therefore we can observe an evolution in the representation of Jim and Ella’s apartment in Act 2, in particular in relation to the African mask which stands out as an exceedingly powerful element in the setting. If the Congo mask is described as predominant from the beginning of Act 2 (In this room however, the mask acquires an arbitrary accentuation),10 the expressionistic effects magnify its authority by condensing and reducing the space in the following scenes: The walls of the room appear shrunken in, the ceiling lowered, so that the furniture, the portrait, the mask look unnaturally large and domineering.11 This effect of spatial condensation is further exacerbated in the last scene in which [t]he walls appear shrunken in still more, the ceiling now seems barely to clear people’s heads, the furniture and the characters appear enormously magnified. 12

17Space in The Emperor Jones too expresses the psychological state of the characters and offers an open access to their interiority. The protagonist’s flight through the jungle and his inexorable defeat push him back to the physical borders of the forest and literally speaking to the margins of the stage. The edge of the forest, the walls of darkness, the pillars of deeper blackness, the encompassing barrier or the enshrouding darkness indicated in the stage directions throughout the play, bear witness to the notion of borders and spatial limitation presented as an extended metaphor, showing Jones’ failure to escape his fate. We could thus consider the physical confinement recurrent in the expressionistic plays, but also generally present in O’Neill’s body of work, as a mirror image of the American stage itself, as a place of restrictions, artistic oppression and limited freedom. In The Emperor Jones, a parallel can be drawn between the margins of the primitive landscape, which are for Jones impossible to transgress, and the margins of mainstream theater, which similarly produce the effect of an encompassing barrier, which cannot be overcome.

18O’Neill’s response to the limitations of the dramatic medium also plays itself out in the textual space. If physical space itself offers no possible escape, O’Neill seems to attempt to transgress the confinement of the scenic space by inflating the narrative space. His extensive use of stage directions in Jones can be apprehended as a subversive way of controlling the textual space and of restricting the actor’s authority on stage. The play reflects the constant duality, if not tension and conflict, between the page and the stage, which is so pervasive in his work. O’Neill stages the mental journey of a character, alone on stage during six of the eight scenes composing the play. Therefore he can find no other character to interact with, and his existence is not acknowledged by the presence of another individual. The conflict between page and stage, reflected in the treatment of dialogues and stage directions, invites us to consider the power of discourse in the play which describes a progression from discourse as an instrument of power and corruption to the invalidation of the protagonist’s speech. In this perspective, the forest not only epitomizes a place of escape, but also a territory in which language is no longer valid, and where the protagonist’s words can find no echo. Likewise, the Emperor’s movement from an authoritative voice, to a silenced voice, offers a mise en abyme of the very process of censorship, that is the control of speech and discourse. In this perspective, one may apprehend the forest as a metaphor of institutional censorship, where speech and expression are repressed and controlled.

19From a textual point of view, Jones’ discourse, which is not part of any kind of dialogue, is further restricted by the expansion of the stage directions which spread and swell upon the surface of the page, seemingly invading the discursive space of the character. As the scenes unfold, the stage directions proliferate and engulf Jones’ discourse, which is made visible in the architecture of the page itself. Their increasing use toward the end of the play, which is concomitantly followed by the exhaustion of Jones’ discourse, thus seems to anticipate the protagonist’s forthcoming death. Besides, this very specific treatment of the page layout, where the character’s shrinking space seems to be counterbalanced by the author’s expanding freedom, may suggest that O’Neill is symbolically using the page as a site of resistance to the stage and to the censorship of the stage. In opposition to the institutional censorship previously observed, the process here can be apprehended as a way for the playwright to regain control by reaffirming his authority and stressing the predominance of the text over the stage. The amputation of Jones’ discourse reasserts the author’s status, but at the same time, it questions Jones’ own status as a character, for he is thus transformed into an expressionistic puppet reminiscent of Caligari’s sleepwalking Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In this respect, the play bears witness to the crisis of representation characteristic of modernist achievements, which comes out in particular with the crisis of character in the modern drama. Admittedly, O’Neill does not go as far as Pirandello in Six Characters in search of an Author, but he certainly reminds us of the fact that his characters remain very much indebted to their creator.

The Ambiguities of the Modernist Treatment of Primitivism: From a Distorted Representation of Blackness to Identity Censorship.

20The promotion of black life by white artists did not merely result in helping the black community gain more artistic legitimacy. The rejection of The Emperor Jones by the audience in Harlem and its criticism by black intellectuals demonstrate the difficulty for white avant-garde artists to free themselves from a stereotyped representation of African-Americanness. Two perspectives should therefore be considered: that of the white artist in search of artistic freedom and that of the African-American community which called for black authenticity. I will thus try to show that the communal in-between in which the black artist and character found himself ultimately led to a form of identity censorship.

21In 1920, the production of The Emperor Jones was such a hit that the play had to move from the Provincetown Playhouse to Broadway. However the reception of the work divided two communities: the white community in Broadway who almost unanimously acclaimed the play and the black community consisting of audience and critics, who generally disapproved of it. The question of the reception is crucial in the study of O’Neill’s black plays and the judgment of both audience and critics has been continually revised over the years. The Emperor Jones, in particular, received the most ambivalent response at the time of its production and is still controversial today, but the reaction to the plays can perhaps best be understood by seeing them in the context of the avant-garde. The “roaring twenties” in the US, which F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to as the “Jazz Age”, typified a specific moment in American history when white artists used black artistic expression, symbolically jazz music, characterized by improvisation and freedom, to express their urge to remove the institutional framework preventing the artist from gaining full artistic freedom. Significantly, they borrowed motifs and modes of expression belonging to a segregated community as a eulogy of freedom and liberation. New Yorkers, and especially Bohemian artists in Greenwich Village, formulated a vivid interest in black American expression. In this respect, John Cooley indicates that:

  • 13 John Cooley, “In Pursuit of the Primitive: Black Portraiture by Eugene O’Neill and other V (...)

During this period blacks found, and not always to their pleasure, that they had become for white bohemian and avant-garde artists a symbol of freedom from restraint, a source of energy and sensuality. In fact, there is no single idea or theme that unifies the writing of the Village Bohemians any more coherently and strikingly than their interest in primitivism.13

  • 14 The beating of the tom-tom intensifies as the scenes unfold, e.g. There is a flash, a loud (...)

22White avant-garde artists used black portraits as a way to express a freedom which they could not find in the conventional material inherited from the bourgeois model. Furthermore their interest in primitivism coincided with the emergence of the New Negro movement, whose ambition was to celebrate black accomplishments while putting an end to the stereotypes produced by mainstream white literature. I will argue that this treatment of black themes by O’Neill and others cannot be dissociated from the modernist discourse and aesthetics promoted by these white writers and artists in the early twentieth century. Eager to break with old traditions and conventions, artists in Europe and in the United States attempted to bring a new vision and to incorporate new forms in their works. O’Neill’s fragmentation and distortion of space, his use of the stage as a projection of the inner nightmare of his characters, along with the musical treatment of sound and sound effect (the accelerating pulsation of the tom-tom14 in The Emperor Jones, for instance), the near-personification of the mask in All God’s Chillun Got Wings, or the recurrent African imagery and the specific use of light and colors, largely contribute to creating a widely subjective interpretation of African-Americanism. O’Neill, like other modernist artists, intended to subvert the canons of beauty to achieve innovative results. He thus found in the African-American motif satisfactory material to pursue the experiment, but in doing so, he also faced the problem of producing a white-distorted vision of blackness.

23Although willing to acclaim black subjects as a symbol of freedom and liberation from repressive conventions, white artists projected their white imagination, and fantasies onto the black body, thus reproducing the old stereotypes which black artists were concomitantly trying to repress. Putting an end to the representation of the “Brute Negro”, white dramatists developed another form of stereotype by portraying the “Exotic Primitive”. As James V. Hatch explains:

  • 15 James V. Hatch, “A White Folks Guide to 200 Years of Black & White Drama”, The Drama Revie (...)

The Exotic Primitive was a later white creation, reaching his vogue in the 1920’s, the black so-called renaissance when whites voyaged to Harlem to hear hot jazz, to see hot black bodies writhing in savage dance, to drink bootleg gin, and to catch an echo of dark laughter, suggesting the raw jungle.15

24O’Neill’s enduring venture into experiment was thus occasionally misunderstood. Speaking of plays including The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, O’Neill emphasized the contrast between his aesthetic intentions and the reception of the plays:

  • 16 Letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn, April 3, 1925 in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (eds.), (...)

But where I feel myself most neglected is where I set most store by myself — as a bit of a poet who has labored with the spoken word to evolve original rhythms of beauty where beauty apparently isn’t.16

  • 17 “Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo, / And all of the other / Gods of the Congo, / Mumbo-Jumb (...)
  • 18 Jones enters from the right. He is a tall, powerfully-built, full-blooded negro of middle (...)
  • 19 David Krasner, “Whose Role Is It Anyway? Charles Gilpin and the Harlem Renaissance”, Afric (...)

25White writers such as Waldo Frank, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Van Vechten, and Vachel Lindsay used black life as exotic material for their work. Like Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo”, whose rhythm imitates the pounding of drums,17 The Emperor Jones exploits sound effects, using the beating of the tom-tom as a central element participating in characterization. However, O’Neill’s and Lindsay’s use of the primitive was identified by black critics as a perpetuation of old stereotypes which consisted in placing the black man in the position of the “savage”. Significantly, Lindsay subtitled his poem “A Study of the Negro Race” and began with a section entitled “Their Basic Savagery”. O’Neill stressed in the stage directions of The Emperor Jones, the “typically negroid”18 features of the black protagonist, albeit not without suggesting his positive qualities. In both cases, however, the reappropriation of the primitive by a white artist proved to be a delicate matter and the innovative incentive characterizing such works was overshadowed by accusations pointing to the ethnocentric representations they conveyed. If African American critic W. E. B. Dubois repudiated the poem “The Congo” when it was published in 1914, his reaction to O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones in 1920 — at first favorable (“a splendid tragedy”) — was then considerably revised, seeing the blacks in the play “still handicapped and put forth with much hesitation”,19 which seems to translate the ambivalent reception of The Emperor Jones in the 1920s, in particular among black audiences and critics.

26However interest in the primitive was not restricted to American artists. In fact, European avant-garde artists showed a similar engagement in celebrating primitivism. For example Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon equally relies on the appropriation of African art. With his cubist approach, Picasso reverses the traditional treatment of nudity giving his figures the aspect of crude sexuality and primitivism and the features of the two women portrayed on the right side of the painting are distinctively reminiscent of African masks. In a similar way, O’Neill’s fascination with the mask is striking, for it constitutes a recurrent dramatic device in his plays, and both Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun can be regarded as two exercises in masking and unmasking of the alienated self. Moreover the mask, which conceals the true nature of the self beneath its immediate surface, can also be seen as the expression of what W. E. B. Dubois calls the “double consciousness”. The plays foreground on the one hand the primitive African mask, which represents the black man perceived through a white prism, and on the other hand the white mask, which is forced upon black men in a still segregated society. From a theatrical point of view, the mask could also be seen through a white prism, evoking the use of the device in Ancient Greek theater. Here O’Neill plays with cultural and ideological masks superposing African mask and classic mask. Behind the African mask, one could recognize the author’s attempt to apply white classic tradition and convention to an object belonging to the African American experience, which shows the virtual impossibility for white artists to convey an authentic vision of the black experience.

  • 20 The Emperor Jones, op. cit., scene 1, 1035.
  • 21 Ibidem, scene 5, 1054.

27In both plays, what emerges is the protagonist’s difficulty and more precisely his failure to liberate himself from a double bind, for he causes his own downfall by restricting, censoring, an identity in order to favor another. Brutus Jones espouses white codes and integrates what he calls “the white quality talk”,20 a discourse which corresponds to the white rhetoric of corruption and manipulation, but the audience witnesses Jones’ progressive ruin as his white mask is peeled away. Scene after scene, the Emperor is stripped of his imperial ornaments until in scene 5, as the stage directions indicate, only blackness remains.21 This expression can be apprehended beyond the literal scenic sense of absence of light, considering the opacity of the jungle as a reflection of the black body. It can be understood as Jones’ unmasking, which involves the acceptance of his own ethnic identity and of his own blackness, which he had been denying by adopting white codes. Jones’ gradual stripping away reveals a black naked body, which can be perceived as a black screen onto which white playwright and audience project their own invented representation of blackness.

  • 22 All God’s Chillun Got Wings, op. cit., Act II, scene 1, 304.

28In fact, both plays stage the black protagonists’ quest for belonging, which involves censoring their own identity in order to enter a new community, an access that is finally denied them for the plays offer no final solution to the problem of belonging to a community. While The Emperor Jones confronts the protagonist with his recent past but also with his ethnic historical past, All God’s Chillun Got Wings depicts a society in which blacks and whites are separated by the color line, an instance of ideological and social censorship. Here, the black mask obviously triggers the notion of primitivism, but O’Neill also develops its white counterpart. Consequently, two types of masks can be opposed in All God’s Chillun Got Wings: the Congo mask, which is a symbol of black pride and achievement, and the white mask, which is forced upon the black man. Once Jim and Ella are married, Ella attempts, literally as well as metaphorically, to kill the black (Congo) mask, as an illustration of her refusal to acknowledge Jim’s ethnic identity. She denies Jim’s blackness by calling him “the whitest of the whites”.22 Acknowledging him as white man signifies that in her eyes, he does not exist as a black person, and that Ella controls his right to integrate the white community. Perceived by Jim’s sister as a symbol of black pride, but conversely neglected by Jim himself, the Congo mask is magnified and given authority precisely because of Ella’s resistance and hostility as regards her husband’s ethnic identity. In despising and denying blackness, she paradoxically reinforces the power of the mask, which grows disproportionate as the scenes unfold.

  • 23 Quoted in James Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten, Philadelph (...)

29Both Jones and All God’s Chillun reenact social and ideological frontiers typifying American society in the 1920s. While they account for the geographical and ideological fragmentation of American society divided by the color line, they also illustrate white avant-garde’s artists’ reaction toward normative prescriptions. While Alain Locke considered primitivism as “an empowering rather than disempowering modern trend”,23 most black critics disapproved of O’Neill’s and other white writers’ effort to incorporate black culture as new material in their writing. By tackling the black material with their white artistic expression and cultural heritage, authors such as O’Neill may ultimately have applied a form of censorship, preventing the audience from seeing the black motif as it was. However, it is important to remember that these plays, which marked a major development on both formal and scenic grounds, also initiated the start of a gradual change for black actors on the American stage. In the 1930s the Federal Theater Project, established under Roosevelt, employed 13,000 actors, 85 of whom were black, thus taking up the efforts toward desegregation which had been initiated by O’Neill.

Conclusion

30These two black plays evince the ambiguity of the message conveyed by the white authors in the 1920s, who, though inclined to acknowledge African American individuality, conversely restricted the expression of blackness to their own white perspective, projecting the formal freedom which they longed for onto the black body. Today, the plays, and especially The Emperor Jones, are marked by a renewed form of censorship, that of political correctness. Indeed, no theater regulation forbids the staging of the play, yet university professors tend to exclude The Emperor Jones from their curricula. Shannon Steen thus explains:

  • 24 Shannon Steen, “Melancholy Bodies: Racial Subjectivity and Whiteness in O’Neill’s The Emper (...)

Although the play is widely anthologized, including in the recent Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, there has been a resistance to teaching the play. The desire to erase the play from the American classroom came to my attention through a publication snafu – the first edition of the HBJ Anthology of Drama edited by W.B. Worthen included The Emperor Jones in its unit on American drama. However, when the anthology’s publisher Harcourt Brace Javanovitch conducted research for the second edition, it was discovered that many instructors would not teach the play, either because it was too overtly racist or because the play did not show O’Neill “at his best”. Consequently, the publishers dropped the play from the second edition of the anthology.24

31Obviously, in The Emperor Jones, O’Neill’s modernist concern as regards the formal treatment of the play and the elaboration of an expressionistic inferno were detrimental to the representation of the black protagonist. Dealing with ethnic issues was not an easy task at a time when white authors were unconsciously perpetuating a discourse supportive of a dominant ideology, just at a moment when black writers themselves were trying to find a genuine voice to express their own identity. Part of the reason why some of O’Neill’s black plays received an unfavorable response was because their formal development, which intended to explore new scenic and aesthetic possibilities, was construed as a representation of the black reality. However for O’Neill, primitivism embraces a larger scope, with the black body finding an echo elsewhere in his body of work, for instance in The Hairy Ape, in which he depicts the alienated white worker in similar primitivistic terms, showing American society and more particularly the metropolis as dehumanizing, and constituting another instance of a community in which the protagonist can never fully belong.

  • 25 “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large I contain (...)
  • 26 Whitman’s poem “America” provides an eloquent illustration of his vision of the American D (...)

32The use and appropriation of African American life and culture, along with the introduction of African American dialect not only exemplify O’Neill’s fascination for otherness and primitivism in a context of institutional censorship and regulation, but they also revolve around characters who disavow their own community and fail to join another. Following Walt Whitman’s fervor to “contain multitudes”,25 O’Neill’s plays ostensibly reflect the diversity, pluriethnicity and plurivocality of American society. However, O’Neill’s response to censorship and restrictions — be they institutional, formal, social or ideological — also suggests the difficulty he had in staging a suitable compromise. Although his theater equally conveys the idea of the “multitude”, O’Neill departs from Whitman26 as his vision of the American nation, a land of the free, is counterbalanced by skepticism as regards America’s capacity to abolish inequalities.

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Bibliographie

BOGARD Travis, Contour in Time, Oxford & New York: Oxford UP, 1972.

BOGARD Travis and Jackson R. BRYER (eds.), Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988.

COOLEY John, “In Pursuit of the Primitive: Black Portraiture by Eugene O’Neill and other Village Bohemians”, in Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. Russ (eds.), Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, New York: Whitson Pub., 1997.

GAGNON Donald P., “Pipe Dreams and Primitivism. Eugene O’Neill and the Rhetoric of Ethnicity”, PhD dissertation, U of South Florida, 2003.

GLENDA Frank, “Tempest in Black and White: The 1924 Premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings”, Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 26, no. 1, 2000: 75-89.

HATCH James V., “A White Folks Guide to 200 Years of Black & White Drama”, The Drama Review, vol. 16, no. 4, Black Theatre Issue, December 1972, MIT Press. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1144750>.

KRASNER David, “Whose Role Is It Anyway?: Charles Gilpin and the Harlem Renaissance”, African American Review, vol. 29, no. 3, Fall 1995.

LINDSAY Vachel, The Congo and Other Poems. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1992.

O’NEILL Eugene, The Emperor Jones, in Complete Plays 1913-1920, ed. Travis Bogard, vol. 1, New York: The Library of America, 1988.

____________, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in Complete Plays 1920-1931, ed. Travis Bogard, vol. 3, New York: The Library of America, 1988.

____________, Thirst, in Complete Plays 1913-1920, ed. Travis Bogard, vol. 1, New York: The Library of America, 1988.

PIRANDELLO Luigi, Six Characters in Search of an Author, London: Nick Hern Books, 2003.

SMALLS James, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2006.

STEEN Shannon, “Melancholy Bodies: Racial Subjectivity and Whiteness in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones”, Theatre Journal, vol. 52, n° 3, October 2000, 339-359.

WHITMAN Walt, Leaves of Grass, in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, New York: The Library of America, 1982.

WITHAM Barry B., “The Play Jury”, Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 24, no. 4, December 1972: 430-435.

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Notes

1 Travis Bogard, Contour in Time, New York & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1972, 134.

2 Quoted from the New York Times, Jan. 29, 1922, in Barry Witham, “The Play Jury”, Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 24, no. 4, December 1972: 431.

3 ELLA: Cause you’re all I’ve got in the world — and I love you, Jim. (She kisses his hand as a child might, tenderly and gratefully), Eugene O’Neill, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, Act II, scene 3, in Complete Plays 1920-1931, ed. Travis Bogard, vol. 3, New York: The Library of America, 1988, 315.

4 The Provincetown Players was a theater group with whom O’Neill started his early career. They formed what is referred to as a “little theater”, that is an independent theater opposed to Broadway’s capitalist system. The Provincetown Players’ ambitions were mainly artistic and they hoped to offer a renewed vision of American theater, promoting native talents, and advocating scenic experimentation and innovation. The group was officially launched in 1916 and disbanded in 1923.

5 Quoted in Frank Glenda, “Tempest in Black and White: The 1924 Premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings”, Resources for American Literary Study, vol. 26, no. 1, 2000.

6 Eugene O’Neill, All God’s Chillun Got Wings, op. cit., Act I, scene 4, 294-295.

7 Ibidem, 295.

8 Idem.

9 Letter to Mike Gold, July 2, 1926, in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (eds.), Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988, 206.

10 Ibid., Act 2, scene 1, 297.

11 Ibid., Act 2, scene 2, 305.

12 Ibid., Act 2, scene 3, 311.

13 John Cooley, “In Pursuit of the Primitive: Black Portraiture by Eugene O’Neill and other Village Bohemians”, in Victor A. Kramer and Robert A Russ (eds.), Harlem Renaissance Re-examined, New York: Whitson Pub., 1997, 83.

14 The beating of the tom-tom intensifies as the scenes unfold, e.g. There is a flash, a loud report, then silence broken only by the far-off, quickened throb of the tom-tom, scene 2, 1046; The tom-tom beats louder, quicker, with a more insistent, triumphant pulsation, scene 6, 1056. Eugene O’Neill, The Emperor Jones, in Complete Plays 1913-1920, ed. Travis Bogard, vol. 1, New York: The Library of America, 1988.

15 James V. Hatch, “A White Folks Guide to 200 Years of Black & White Drama”, The Drama Review, vol. 16, no. 4, Black Theatre Issue (December 1972), MIT Press: 11. <

http://www.jstor.org/stable/1144750

>.

16 Letter to Arthur Hobson Quinn, April 3, 1925 in Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer (eds.), Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill, New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988. 195.

17 “Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo, / And all of the other / Gods of the Congo, / Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you, / Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you, / Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you”. Vachel Lindsay, “The Congo” (1914) in The Congo and Other Poems, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1992, 4.

18 Jones enters from the right. He is a tall, powerfully-built, full-blooded negro of middle age. His features are typically negroid, yet there is something decidedly distinctive about his face an underlying strength of will, a hardly, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect […], The Emperor Jones, op. cit., scene 1, 1033.

19 David Krasner, “Whose Role Is It Anyway? Charles Gilpin and the Harlem Renaissance”, African American Review 29 (1995), 487, cited in Donald P. Gagnon, “Pipe Dreams and Primitivism. Eugene O’Neill and the Rhetoric of Ethnicity”, PhD Dissertation, U of South Florida, 2003. Graduate School Theses and Dissertations. http://scholarcommons.usf.
edu/etd/1367, 101.

20 The Emperor Jones, op. cit., scene 1, 1035.

21 Ibidem, scene 5, 1054.

22 All God’s Chillun Got Wings, op. cit., Act II, scene 1, 304.

23 Quoted in James Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten, Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2006, 60. Alain Locke was a black writer, editor of The New Negro (1925), an anthology of artistic productions of the Harlem Renaissance.

24 Shannon Steen, “Melancholy Bodies: Racial Subjectivity and Whiteness in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones”, Theatre Journal, vol. 52, n° 3, October 2000, 343-44, fn 13.

25 “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / (I am large I contain multitudes.)” Walt Whitman, “Songs of Myself”, Leaves of Grass, in Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, New York: The Library of America, 1982, 87.

26 Whitman’s poem “America” provides an eloquent illustration of his vision of the American Dream: “Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, / All, all alike endear’d, grown, upgrown, young or old, / Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, / Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love, / A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother, / Chair’d in the adamant of Time”, “America” in Leaves of Grass, op. cit., 616.

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Référence électronique

Gwenola Le Bastard, « Censorship, Control and Resistance in Eugene O’Neill’s “black plays” The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI - n°3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2013, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5519 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5519

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Auteur

Gwenola Le Bastard

Gwenola Le Bastard is a Doctoral Student and ATER at Rennes 2 University. She has completed a thesis entitled « La communauté impossible : les paradoxes de l’écriture dans l’œuvre théâtrale de Eugene O’Neill » (under the supervision of Professor Benoît Tadié) which is due to be published at Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne in May 2014. Her research focuses on the theatre of Eugene O’Neill and American cultural and literary aspects (20 th century).

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