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Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones Play by O’Neill

In this work, I will evaluate the 1920 play Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill, which tells the tragic story of Brutus Jones, who becomes the emperor of an island in the Caribbean. A film based on a 1933 play starring Paul Robeson is being analyzed. In the first scene, where the community escorts the ambitious Brutus Jones to work, he is a man preparing for a great adventure, not devoid of openness and good nature. His sonorous speech and demeanor with a straight back and throwing his head show his self-confidence with a dose of narcissism. The deliberately expressed facial expressions of Paul Robeson speak of overwhelming ambition during his singing and praying in the send-off scene.

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Before the hero contacts the gang, he tastes the delights of a luxurious life. Here he looks a little down on performances and other men, not paying attention to rejections and disagreements (Murphy, 1933, 16:47). It seems to me that the actor perfectly shows the growing sense of his superiority over others, which later will result in tragic consequences. Paul Robeson uses a haughty gaze, an always uplifted head, calm movements, and an almost invariable half-smile as non-verbal gestures.

However, seemingly unshakable ambition fizzles out in the face of the first significant challenge. In my opinion, the emotion of fear that appeared on the actor’s face completely covered his arrogance during the murder and in the scene of his getting to the island (Murphy, 1933, 22:44, 30:16). Paul Robeson perfectly shows the evolution of the hero by gradually changing his look and facial expressions. If at first he shows arrogance, backed up only by ambition and a thirst for adventure, then barely stumbling upon severe problems with the consequences, his gaze darkens, and he no longer demonstrates a single unnecessary movement. Unwavering confidence replaces the manifestation of youthful maximalism, which allows him to escape from prison (26:08). His speech becomes quick and irritated even with family members (Murphy, 1933, 27:28). Later, the hero finds himself on the island, where changes occur to him again.

Paul Robeson again demonstrates his sincere smile, which is dictated by genuine self-confidence, not arrogance or fear (Murphy, 1933, 34:06). However, one case, in my opinion, again changes the hero’s inner world. Paul Robeson stops smiling, his voice becomes even lower, sonorous and threatening, and his dazed gaze hardens to the limit (Murphy, 1933, 39:32). The taste of power intoxicates Brutus Jones exactly as long as he does not see people like him once shackled. Confident singing and a smile in the final scene show us that despite all the changes in the hero’s remarkable life, confidence accompanied him all the way, changing its manifestation. Paul Robeson screams and shoots at the ghosts until the last second of the hero’s life, in which emotions finally take over the character’s personality (Murphy, 1933, 1:12:23). In my opinion, arrogance, a demonstration of ambition, the rules of etiquette in high society, a pride that led to the murder of a person, and fear and the burden of power never gave the protagonist an outlet for emotions. At the climax of the ending, they came out in full before the hero’s last breath.

Actor Paul Robeson has excellent vocal abilities for this character. His deep and resonant voice demonstrates the fundamental personality of Brutus Jones’s character. His singing is always accompanied by varying facial expressions, from more feigned at the film’s beginning to insanely aggressive at the end. His voice is perfect for campy social conversations and threatening orders on the island where he became emperor. I believe that this actor’s vocal and vocal choices are excellent for the idea of ​​the play.

The actor also reveals the evolution of the personality at a decent level. Until severe difficulties and problems appeared in his life that he did not expect to meet, his dark sides of the soul manifested themselves at first as an accident, as aggression and confidence were brought to the border. Later, the callous soul rarely allowed itself to be half-bullied, with haughty gazes replaced by tenacious gestures and grim confidence, which attracted the guards’ attention in prison (Murphy, 1933, 24:44). Paul Robeson’s eyes began to express more complex emotions, often overflowing with pain, which he internally fought and tried not to show. The hero was more than once surprised by his fate, both in the scene with the murder and in the first scene on the island, where he finds himself under five gunshots. However, the hero’s strength transmitted by the actor does not allow him to lose his composure. Having gained the confidence that only a silver bullet will kill the hero, he begins to speak in a completely different way since, at last, his ambitions have gained freedom and power. The look becomes even darker, and signs of insanity appear in non-verbal sign language. It will reach its peak in the final scene when all the turning points of his life are before the hero’s eyes. The actor reacts to them appropriately, and you start to believe in his near end.

To summarize the above, Paul Robeson is great for these kinds of roles – strong personalities who go through intense emotions that reach their limits. Oddly enough, its resonant bass, coupled with a very theatrical mimicry, best reflects the ideas of realism, despite the various cinematography techniques. The actor Paul Robeson entered the role professionally, so it is not surprising that he gained popularity both on stage and as part of his political activities.

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Murphy, D. (1933). The Emperor Jones [Film]. John Krimsky and Gifford Cochran.

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