Original publish date: September 9, 2011 Reissued: July 5, 2018
It was Wednesday night March 16, 1921, St. Patrick’s Day Eve, and Indianapolis was stretching the boundaries of the cultural heartland. That is, with the help of recent Pulitzer Prize winning playwrite Eugene O’Neill. The state and nation were in flux; World War II was still fresh in the hearts and minds of Americans (the United States officially declared peace with Germany in August of that year), newly minted President Warren G. Harding had been in office less than two weeks, and the Indiana Ku Klux Klan was officially chartered by the state. Worldwide, Adolph Hitler assumes leadership of the Nazi party, Albert Einstein wins the Nobel Prize in Physics, and 5 million people die in the Russian Famine brought on by the Russian Civil War.
Out of this atmosphere and into the footlights of the Little Theatre in Indianapolis stepped “The Emperor Jones”, an expressionist play by Eugene O’Neill featuring a controversial unlikable black protagonist in the lead role. The play tells the story of Brutus Jones, an African-American train porter who kills a man, is sentenced to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and cons his way to the Emperor’s throne. The story is told from the prospective of Jones himself in a series of eight acts that are written in flashback style and scripted in the vernacular of Jim Crow America in a decidedly unflattering colloquial tongue. So dominant is the lead character, that scenes two thru seven feature only Rufus Jones himself speaking in a rambling retrospective of his two year sojourn to the top.
The play had premiered off Broadway in 1920 and was so well received that it eventually had to be moved to a larger theatre on Broadway to accommodate demand. It was Eugene O’Neill’s first critical and financial success and is credited with launching the future Nobel Prize winner’s career. While there can be no doubt that Eugene O’Neill took daring chances with his plays that would ultimately change the face of American theatre, we must also tip our cap to the “Little Theatre” of Indianapolis for the risks assumed by staging this one-time performance.
“The Little Theatre Society” was founded in the Fall of 1915 to showcase productions by American and European authors / playwrites heretofore unable to garner recognition by mainstream producers. The Society was unique in that it had no theatre of its own. During the earliest years, plays were performed in the sculpture court of the John Herron Art Institute. Although beautiful, the acoustics were poor and the venue could only seat 200 guests. Soon, performances were soon moved to the Masonic Temple. The Temple was beautiful and could seat 1,000 guests, but the stage was shallow and there were no dressing rooms. Each member of the society paid a $ 5 annual membership fee which entitled them to 12 tickets for every performance. Members could use the tickets themselves or sell them to the public at an average cost of between twenty-five and fifty cents each.
According to the Society’s literature, their purpose is to: “encourage the production of new plays, plays which cannot be produced by commercial stage, either because of their content or lack of commercial possibility-in short, to encourage all community endeavor of an original character in the field of the theatre.” The Little Theatre Society was among the first to shine a spotlight on Hoosiers Theodore Dreiser and W.O. Bates. Other productions included George Bernard Shaw, Booth Tarkington, Jack London, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, and James Whitcomb Riley. And that was just in the Theatre’s first two years.
With the choice of O’Neill’s work, “The Emperor Jones”, the Society was taking an enormous risk if only for the fact that it required an elaborate stage for a one night performance. And then there was the Klan. The KKK was growing by leaps and bounds despite the fact that it had just been formally recognized in the state that same year. Soon, one third of the native male white born citizenry of the state would belong to the Klan. This was a play solely centered around a strong, murderous black man in a position of absolute authority in production in the principally white governed center of the WASP-ish Midwestern cornbelt.
On the contrary, in defiance of its cornbelt stereotype, the Little Theatre Society was chartered for just such bold experimentation and modeled after such avant-garde venues as the Moscow Art Theatre, the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, the Manchester Players in England and Théâtre Libre in Paris. Local critics, like Walter D. Hickman of the Indianapolis Times, applauded the company’s brave undertaking immediately: “Last night at the Masonic Temple, an Indianapolis audience witnessed for the first time a local presentation of The Emperor Jones. No legitimate theatre in Indianapolis would ever think of presenting this play…the title role was played by a local negro educator, Mr. Arthur T. Long…Mr. Long dominated every scene last night and gave to the role the great beauty of expressive inflection which the part demands. I forgot that a local man was playing the role and I surrendered myself to the grim tragedy which was unfolded on the Masonic stage. A grim tragedy told in a volcanic way.”
W. F. McDermott, drama editor of the Indianapolis News, wrote this about Long: “a colored actor, played the role of the emperor with several moments of great naturalness. He was able to portray the negro fear of “ha’nts” with unusual power.” But McDermott was less kind to the playwrite, “O’Neill writes darkly of brooding, inscrutable fate; of black and stormbound heights, of man, stripped savage and terrified; of man tragically at odds with his environment and foredoomed.”
However, it was the local black owned press that was perhaps hardest on the production, routinely denouncing O’Neill’s work for its stereotypes in the form of the backwards (certainly by today’s standard) dialog. Although groundbreaking when viewed within the context of the time, today, O’Neill’s so called “Negro plays” are seldom performed nowadays because of their perceived negative stereotypes. Much the same as Mark Twain’s historic works have been routinely revised and censured by modern day pundits. In truth, racial issues were never O’Neill’s focus. His aim was the human soul in its tragic destiny. His ultimate goal was to provide opportunities in mainstream theatre for talented black actors. Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, an actor whose “Romeo” character was described as the best ever, making him one of the countries first matinee idols. O’Neill was determined to revolutionize what he called the “hateful theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up.”
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the Indianapolis production was the choice of the lead actor chosen to portray Brutus Jones. Arthur Theodore Long was born on December 31, 1884, the son of Henry and Nattie (Buckner) Long in Morrillton, Arkansas. According to the 6th edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America (1941-1944)”, Long graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. He entered the University of Illinois at age twenty and earned a BA degree in 1908. Arthur then went on to further his education at both Indiana and Butler universities. He then studied at the University of Chicago, presumably in pursuit of his master’s degree. Long earned teaching credentials in history, civics, English, music and mathematics.
In 1909 Long was hired to teach at I.P.S. 26 (one of the “colored schools”) in Indianapolis. There he served as assistant principal (1910 to 1915) and as principal (1915 to 1923). Long served as principal at a high school in Crawfordsville and later as a supervisor for principals in Indiana. Long then took a similar position at Lincoln School in Trenton, New Jersey, where he served for a decade. Wherever he went, Arthur T. Long promoted the arts (dance, music, and drama) and was described by people who knew him as a “tall, light skinned serious minded disciplinarian who liked to play the piano for the students in the mornings.” In good weather, he often lit up the school playground at night to stage impromptu school productions featuring black heroes like Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Banneker. Long left his position in Trenton in November of 1933, just two months before his fiftieth birthday and was never heard from again.
What became of O’Neill’s social masterpiece, “The Emperor Jones?” Although it struck the theatre world like an electric shock nearly a century ago, it is relatively forgotten today. Personally, I believe it to be as socially relevant today as it was when it made its debut back in 1920, regardless of color. The story could easily serve as a parable for many of the problems facing every facet of today’s society. O’Neill’s Brutus Jones is a desperate man facing a hopeless situation who is thrust into an opportunity he sees as his only chance at survival. He arrives on an isolated island and is immediately elevated to a position of authority and power by the island’s uninformed, superstitious inhabitants. In time, he abuses his position, becomes careless and is punished (in this case killed) by his “subjects” who have caught on to his game.
Is this not unlike today’s ninety-day wonders: rookie corner drug dealers who operate freely and undetected for brief periods of time with more money than they can spend and more friends than they can count before law enforcement catches up to them? Or perhaps a modern day investment banker or securities trader spending the money of trusted friends and clients for his own whims before he is discovered and prosecuted? Both of these examples speak their own language and justify their own actions in the same coarse way as Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones did all those years ago. Although you can easily look up “The Emperor Jones” on the web and decide for yourself, its unlikely that you’ll be seeing it on Broadway anytime soon. But, like me, you can take pride in the fact that nearly a century ago, a brave little theatre troupe in Indianapolis had the guts to stage the saga on St. Patty’s Day eve when other, allegedly more “Cosmopolitan” cities wouldn’t touch it.