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The Emperor Jones



HENRY SMITHERS, A Cockney Trader


LEM, A Native Chief

SOLDIERS, Adherents of Lem

The Little Formless Fears; Jeff; The Negro Convicts; The Prison Guard; The Planters; The Auctioneer; The Slaves; The Congo Witch-Doctor; The Crocodile God

The action of the play takes place on an island in the West Indies as yet not self-determined by White Marines. The form of native government is, for the time being, an Empire.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).


  • SCENE I: The palace of the Emperor Jones. Afternoon.
  • SCENE II: The edge of the Great Forest. Dusk.
  • SCENE VIII: Same as Scene Two — the edge of the Great Forest. Dawn.


The audience chamber in the palace of the Emperor—a spacious, high-ceilinged room with bare, white-washed walls. The floor is of white tiles. In the rear, to the left of center, a wide archway giving out on a portico with white pillars. The palace is evidently situated on high ground for beyond the portico nothing can be seen but a vista of distant hills, their summits crowned with thick groves of palm trees. In the right wall, center, a smaller arched doorway leading to the living quarters of the palace. The room is bare of furniture with the exception of one huge chair made of uncut wood which stands at center, its back to rear. This is very apparently the Emperor's throne. It is painted a dazzling, eye-smiting scarlet. There is a brilliant orange cushion on the seat and another smaller one is placed on the floor to serve as a footstool. Strips of matting, dyed scarlet, lead from the foot of the throne to the two entrances. It is late afternoon but the sunlight still blazes yellowly beyond the portico and there is an oppressive burden of exhausting heat in the air.

As the curtain rises, a native negro woman sneaks in cautiously from the entrance on the right. She is very old, dressed in cheap calico, bare-footed, a red bandana handkerchief covering all but a few stray wisps of white hair.

A bundle bound in colored cloth is carried over her shoulder on the end of a stick. She hesitates beside the doorway, peering back as if in extreme dread of being discovered. Then she begins to glide noiselessly, a step at a time, toward the doorway in the rear. At this moment, SMITHERS appears beneath the portico.

SMITHERS is a tall, stoop-shouldered man about forty. His bald head, perched on a long neck with an enormous Adam's apple, looks like an egg. The tropics have tanned his naturally pasty face with it's small, sharp features a sickly yellow, and native rum has painted his pointed nose a startling red.

His little, washy blue eyes are red-rimmed and dart about him like a ferret's. His expression is one of unscrupulous meanness, cowardly and dangerous. He is dressed in a worn riding suit of white drill, puttees, spurs and wears a white cork helmet. A cartridge belt with an automatic revolver is around his waist.

He sees the woman and stops to watch her suspiciously. Then, making up his mind, he steps quickly on tiptoe into the room.

The woman, looking back over her shoulder continually, does not see him until it is too late. When she does SMITHERS springs forward and grabs her firmly by the shoulder. She struggles to get away, fiercely but silently.

SMITHERS—[Tightening his grasp—roughly] Easy! None o' that, me birdie. You can't wriggle out now. I got me 'ooks on yer.

WOMAN—[Seeing the uselessness of struggling, gives way to frantic terror, and sinks to the ground, embracing his knees supplicatingly.] No tell him! No tell him, Mister!

SMITHERS—[With great curiosity] Tell 'im? [Then scornfully.] Oh, you mean 'is bloomin' Majesty. What's the gaime, any'ow? What are you sneakin' away for? Been stealin' a bit, I s'pose. [He taps her bundle with his riding whip significantly.]

WOMAN—[Shaking her head vehemently.] No, me no steal.

SMITHERS—Bloody liar! But tell me what's up. There's somethin' funny goin' on. I smelled it in the air first thing I got up this mornin'. You blacks are up to some devilment. This palace of 'is is like a bleedin' tomb. Where's all the 'ands? [The woman keeps sullenly silent. SMITHERS raises his whip threateningly.] Oh, yer won't, won't yer? I'll show yer what's what.

WOMAN—[Coweringly.] I tell, Mister. You no hit. They go—all go. [She makes a sweeping gesture toward the hills in the distance.]

SMITHERS—Run away? To the 'ills?

WOMAN—Yes, Mister. Him Emperor —Great Father. [She touches her forehead to the floor with a quick mechanical jerk.] Him sleep after eat. Then they go—all go. Me old woman. Me left only. Now me go too.

SMITHERS—[His astonishment giving way to an immense, mean satisfaction.] Oh! So that's the ticket! Well, I know bloody well wot's up in the air — when they runs orf to the 'ills. The tom-tom 'll be thumping out there bloomin' soon. [With extreme vindictiveness.] And I'm bloody glad of it, for one! Serve 'im right! Puttin' on airs, the stinkin' nigger! 'Is Majesty! Gawd blimey! I only 'opes I'm there when they takes 'im out to shoot 'im. [Suddenly.] 'E's still 'ere all right, ain't 'e?

WOMAN—Yes. Him sleep.

SMITHERS—'E's bound to find out soon as 'e wakes up. 'E's cunnin' enough to know when 'is time's come. [He goes to the doorway on right and whistles shrilly with his fingers in his mouth. The old woman springs to her feet and runs out of the doorway, rear. SMITHERS goes after her, reaching for his revolver.] Stop or I'll shoot! [Then indifferently.] Pop orf then, if yer like, yer black cow. [He stands in the doorway, looking after her.]

[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 facean underlying strength of will, a hardy, self-reliant confidence in himself that inspires respect.

His eyes are alive with a keen, cunning intelligence. In manner he is shrewd, suspicious, evasive. He wears a light blue uniform coat, sprayed with brass buttons, heavy gold chevrons on his shoulders, gold braid on the collar, cuffs, etc. His pants are bright red with a light blue stripe down the side. Patent leather laced boots with brass spurs, and a belt with a long-barrelled, pearl-handled revolver in a holster complete his make up. Yet there is something not altogether ridiculous about his grandeur. He has a way of carrying it off.]

JONES—[not seeing anyone— greatly irritated and blinking sleepily— shouts.] Who dare whistle dat way in my palace? Who dare wake up de Emperor? I'll git de hide frayled off some o' you niggers sho'!

SMITHERS—[Showing himself— in a manner half—afraid and half-defiant.] It was me whistled to yer. [As JONES frowns angrily] I got news for yer.

JONES—[Putting on his suavest manner, which fails to cover up his contempt for the white man.] Oh, it's you, Mister Smithers. [He sits down on his throne with easy dignity.] What news you got to tell me?

SMITHERS—[Coming close to enjoy his discomfiture.] Don't yer notice nothin' funny today?

JONES—[Coldly.] Funny? No, I ain't perceived nothin' of de kind!

SMITHERS—Then yer ain't so foxy as I thought yer was. Where's all your court? [Sarcastically] the Generals and the Cabinet Ministers and all?

JONES—[Imperturbably.] Where they mostly runs to minute I closes my eyes—drinkin' rum and talkin' big down in de town. [Sarcastically.] How come you don't know dat? Ain't you sousin' with 'em most every day?

SMITHERS—[Stung but pretending indifference — with a wink.] That's part of the day's work. I got ter— ain't I—in my business?

JONES—[Contemptuously.] Yo' business!

SMITHERS—[Imprudently enraged.] Gawd blimey, you was glad enough for me ter take yer in on it when you landed here first. You didn' 'ave no 'igh and mighty airs in them days!

JONES—[His hand going to his revolver like a flash —menacingly.] Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I'm boss heah now, is you fer- gettin'? [The Cockney seems about to challenge this last statement with the facts but something in the other's eyes holds and cowes him.]

SMITHERS—[In a cowardly whine.] No 'arm meant, old top.

JONES—[Condescendingly.] I accepts yo' apology. [Lets his hand fall from his revolver.] No use'n you rakin' up ole times. What I was den is one thing. What I is now's another. You didn't let me in on yo' crooked work out o' no kind feelin's dat time. I done de dirty work fo' you—an' most o' de brain work, too, fo' dat matter—and I was wu'th money to you, dat's de reason.

SMITHERS—Well, blimey, I give yer a start, didn't I—when no one else would. I wasn't afraid to 'ire yer like the rest was—'count of the story about your breakin' jail back in the States.

JONES—No, you didn't have no 'scuse to look down on me fo' dat. You been in jail you'self more'n once.

SMITHERS—[Furiously.] It's a lie! [Then trying to pass it off by an attempt at scorn.] Gawd! Who told you that fairy tale?

JONES—Dey's some tings I ain't got to be tole. I kin see 'em in folk's eyes. [Then after a pause—meditatively.] Yes, you sho' give me a start. And it didn't take long from dat time to git dese fool, woods' niggers right where I wanted dem. [With pride.] From stowaway to Emperor in two years! Dat's goin' some!

SMITHERS—[With curiosity.] And I bet you got yer pile of money 'id safe some place.

JONES—I sho' has! And it's in a foreign bank where no pusson don't git it out but me no matter what come. You didn't s'pose I was holdin' down dis Emperor job for the glory in it, did you? Sho'! De fuss an' de glory part of it, dat's only to turn de heads o' de low-flung, bush niggers dat's here. Dey wants be big circus show for deir money. I gives it to 'em an' I gits de money. [With a grin.] De long green, dat's me every time! [Then rebukingly.] But you ain't got no kick agin me, Smithers. I'se paid you back all you done for me many times. Ain't I pertected you, an' winked at all de crooked tradin' you been doin' out in de broad day. Sho' I has—and me makin' laws to stop it at de same time! [He chuckles.]

SMITHERS—[Grinning.] But, meanin' no 'arm, you been grabbin' right and left yourself, ain't yer? Look at the taxes you've put on 'em! Blimey! You've squeezed 'em dry!

JONES—[Chuckling.] No, dey ain't all dry yit. I'se still heah, ain't I?

SMITHERS—[Smiling at his secret thought.] They're dry right now, you'll find out. [Changing the subject abruptly.] And as for me breakin' laws, you've broke 'em all yourself just as fast as yer made 'em.

JONES—Ain't I de Emperor? De laws don't go for him. [Judicially.] You heah what I tells you, Smithers. Dere's little stealin' like you does an' dere's big stealin' like I does. For de little stealin' dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin' dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o' Fame when you croaks. [Reminiscently.] If dey's one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca's listenin' to de white quality talk, it's dat same fact. And when I gits a chance to use it I winds up Emperor in two years.

SMITHERS—[Unable to suppress the genuine admiration of the small fry for the large.] Yes, yer turned the bleedin' trick all right. Blimey, I never seen a bloke 'as 'ad the bloomin' luck you 'as.

JONES—[Severely.] Luck? What you mean—luck?

SMITHERS—I suppose you'll say as that swank about the silver bullet ain't luck—and that was what first got the fool blacks on your side at the time of the revolution, wasn't it?

JONES—[With a laugh.] Oh, dat silver bullet! Sho' was luck! But I makes dat luck, you heah? I loads de dice! Yessuh! When dat murderin' nigger ole Lem hired to kill me takes aim ten feet away and his gun misses fire and I shoots him dead, what you heah me say?

SMITHERS—You said yer'd got a charm so's no lead bullet'd kill yer. You was so strong only a silver bullet could kill yer, you told 'em. Blimey, wasn't that swank for yer—and plain, fat-'eaded luck?

JONES—[Proudly.] I got brains and I uses 'em quick. Dat ain't luck.

SMITHERS—Yer know they wasn't 'ardly liable to get no silver bullets. And it was luck 'e didn't 'it you that time.

JONES—[Laughing.] And dere all dem fool, bush niggers was kneelin' down an' bumpin' deir heads on de ground like I was a miracle out o' de Bible. Oh Lawd, from dat time on I has dem all eatin' out of my hands. I cracks de whip and dey jumps through.

SMITHERS—[With a sniff.] Yankee bluff done it.

JONES—Ain't a man's talkin' big what makes him big—long as he makes folks believe it? Sho', I talks large when I ain't got nothin' to back it up, but I knows I kin fool 'em—I knows it—and dat's backin' enough fo' my game. And ain't I got to learn deir lingo and teach some of dem English befo' I kin talk to 'em? You ain't learned nary a word of it, Smithers, in de ten years you been heah, dough you' knows it's money in yo' pocket tradin' wid 'em if you does. But you'se too shiftless to take de trouble.

SMITHERS—[Flushing.] Never mind about me. What's this I've 'eard about yer really 'avin a silver bullet moulded for yourself?

JONES—It's playin' out my bluff. I has de silver bullet moulded and I tells 'em when de time comes I kills myself wid it. I tells 'em dat's 'cause I'm de on'y man big enuff to git me. No use'n deir tryin. And dey falls down and bumps deir heads. [He laughs.] I does dat so's I kin take a walk in peace widout no jealous nigger gunnin' at me from behind de trees.

SMITHERS—[Astonished.] Then you 'ad it made—'onest?

JONES—Sho' did. Heah she be. [He takes out his revolver, breaks it, and takes the silver bullet out of one chamber.] Five lead an' dis silver baby at de last. Don't she shine pretty? [He holds it in his hand, looking at it admiringly, as if strangely fascinated.]

SMITHERS—Let me see. [Reaches out his hand for it.]

JONES—[Harshly.] Keep yo' hands whar dey b'long, white man. [He replaces it in the chamber and puts the revolver back on his hip.]

SMITHERS—[Snarling.] Gawd blimey! Think I'm a bleedin' thief, you would.

JONES—No, 'tain't dat. I knows you'se scared to steal from me. On'y I ain't 'lowin nary body to touch dis baby. She's my rabbit's foot.

SMITHERS—[Sneering.] A bloomin' charm, wot? [Venomously.] Well, you'll need all the bleedin' charms you 'as before long, s'elp me!

JONES—[Judicially.] Oh, I'se good for six months yit 'fore dey gets sick o' my game. Den, when I sees trouble comin', I makes my getaway.

SMITHERS—Ho! You got it all planned, ain't yer?

JONES—I ain't no fool. I knows dis Emperor's time is sho't. Was you thinkin' I'se aimin' to hold down dis job for life? No, suh! What good is gittin' money if you stays back in dis raggedy country? I wants action when I spends. And when I sees dese niggers gittin' up deir nerve to tu'n me out, and I'se got all de money in sight, I resigns on de spot and beats it quick.

SMITHERS—Where to?

JONES—None o' yo' business.

SMITHERS—Not back to the bloody States, I'll lay my oath.

JONES—[Suspiciously.] Why don't I? [Then with an easy laugh.] You mean 'count of dat story 'bout me breakin' from jail back dere? Dat's all talk.

SMITHERS—[Skeptically.] Ho, yes!

JONES—[Sharply.] You ain't 'sinuatin' I'se a liar, is you?

SMITHERS—[Hastily.] No, Gawd strike me! I was on'y thinkin' of the bloody lies you told the blacks 'ere about killin' white men in the States.

JONES—[Angered.] How come dey're lies?

SMITHERS—You'd 'ave been in jail, if you 'ad, wouldn't yer then? [With venom.] And from what I 'eard, it ain't 'ealthy for a black to kill a white man in the States. They burns 'em in oil, don't they?

JONES—[With cool deadliness.] You mean lynchin'd scare me? Well, i tells you, Smithers, maybe I does kill one white man back dere. Maybe I does. And maybe I kills another right heah 'fore long if he don't look out.

SMITHERS—[Trying to force a laugh.] I was on'y spoofin' yer. Can't yer take a joke? And you was just sayin' you'd never been in jail.

JONES—[In the same tone— slightly boastful.] Maybe I goes to jail dere for gettin' in an argument wid razors ovah a craps game. Maybe I gits twenty years when dat colored man die. Maybe I gits in 'nother argument wid de prison guard was overseer ovah us when we're wukin' de roads. Maybe he hits me wid a whip and I splits his head wid a shovel and runs away and files de chain off my leg and gits away safe. Maybe I does all dat and maybe I doesn't.