Hollywood, especially since the advent of Alfred Hitchcock, has been flooding the movie houses with suspense stories, but few of these can equal the suspense that is built up in Eugene O'Neill's "Emperor Jones." If you perched on the edge of your seat in "The Lady Vanishes," you will be a nervous wreck after "Emperor Jones" as it is being presented by the New England Repertory company on May 1, 8, and 16.
In this play, O'Neill does not strive after the unintelligible as he did in the "Great God Brown," latest production of the Dramatic Club. There are no masks, nor any complex symbolism to confuse the undergraduate. It is a perfectly straightforward account of a Negro who sets himself up as Emperor over a West Indian island and proceeds to squeeze the natives of all their money. The first act, which moves a trifle slowly, finds the place empty of all the natives with only the Emperor and his white friend, Smithers. As the act closes the throbbing of a drum is heard in the hills, and Emperor Brutus Jones realizes that the time has come for him to flee the island. The rest of the play is made up of various stages in his flight, and the terrifying visions that haunt him in the forest. From the proud, gaudily-robed Emperor, he is broken down by his visions and the ever-throbbing drum until, a tattered, nervous wreck, he gives away his position to the natives by firing at a ghost. The story is simply that of the destruction of the Emperor's nerve and arrogance and of his inability to escape from the sins of his past into life of happiness from the riches he has wrung from the natives.
Into this them O'Neill has woven all the suspense possible. His main implement is the drum which begins to throb at the end of the first act and continues throughout, beating faster and faster as the natives come closer to their prey. To the drum he adds the visions of the fleeing Emperor, and in the murky forest appear the ghost figures of the men that Brutus Jones has killed. At each of these Jones fires a shot out of the precious six that he has until at last he shoots the sixth--a silver bullet he had saved for himself. It is this shot that gives him away to the natives that have followed him throughout the tropical night.
The production is outstanding for the way in which the best has been made of this suspense. The settings are excellently done and create the illusion of a thick tropical forest with the moonlight filtering in. Brutus Jones is played by Theodore Brown, young Negro actor-playwright, with a great deal of feeling and deft interpretation of the character. The other outstanding performer was Toni Tucci who does a dance as a witch doctor that is truly worthy of Katherine Dunham. The other characters, minor though they are, carry out their parts well and contribute to a very complete and successful whole.