2004 Student Research Conference:
17th Annual Student Research Conference

Fine Arts

A Crumbling Empire: Charles Gilpin as "The Emperor Jones"
Aaron O. Baker
Dr. Monica Barron, Faculty Mentor

This study deals with Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but it is more specifically concerned with Charles Gilpin, the first actor to perform the title role. Gilpin is seldom remembered as a great African-American artist who paved the way for artists of his race, he is instead remembered as a egotistical alcoholic who was fired by the playwright for changing the text of the play during performances and appearing drunk onstage. My paper urges a reconsideration of Gilpin’s career in terms of his contributions to American Theatre. The most notable alteration Gilpin made to the text was changing the word “nigger” to such terms as “Negro,” “colored man,” and “black baby.” Because of the racial significance of these changes, they must not be dismissed as a matter of intoxication. O’Neill himself, sixteen years after the actor’s death, stated that Gilpin was the only actor to ever fully realize the playwright’s vision of a character. The time has come that he be recognized as a great artist, so that he is not doomed to historical obscurity.

Keywords: Charles Gilpin, Eugene O'Neill, American Theatre, African-American Art, Alcoholism, Artistic License, Historical Obscurity, Racial Slurs


Presentation Type: Oral Paper

Session: 42-1
Location: OP 2115
Time: 4:15

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