This television adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's American stage play, adapted
by an American and directed by a Canadian, was transmitted shortly before
another Canadian, Sydney Newman, arrived at ABC as Drama Supervisor and shook up
Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), creating its reputation for a new and gritty - and distinctly
British - social realism.
In March 1958, though, director Ted Kotcheff had yet to embark on a collaboration with
Newman which would produce innovative plays like 'Hot Summer Night'
(tx. 1/2/1959) and 'Lena, O My Lena' (tx. 25/9/1960). 'Emperor Jones', written
in 1920, is an example of the classic theatre productions which ITV selected for
television as a means of securing cultural prestige in the face of BBC
Kenneth Spencer portrays the disintegration of the mind of Brutus Jones, a
ruthless black dictator, formerly a porter and a convict in the US. Harry H.
Corbett (four years before the stardom that awaited him in Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1963-74))
plays Smithers, who informs Jones that his people have turned against him. Jones
flees to the forest where, in a series of expressionist tableaux, he is forced
to confront the false identity he has constructed, and which is rooted in the
perverted forces of racial oppression.
The play was performed live in Didsbury studios, looking very much like a
theatre set, with stage-prop trees and creepers and lightweight, rather wobbly
rocks. The performances depend on the traditions and confines of theatre acting,
with, for example, stylised slow-motion movements to enhance Jones' hallucinated
scenes of slavery. Despite this, there is evidence of a nascent televisual
language. The camera is extremely mobile, and there is an adventurous use of
tracking shots - an innovation at a time when television cameras were still used
largely to frame a performance.
In Act One, a soundtrack of footsteps over a camera tracking shot represents
Smithers own viewpoint as he discovers Jones' palace is deserted. In Act Three,
Jones shoots directly into the camera, which tracks back at speed - forcing a
technician to jump out of shot. The crew are, in fact, often in view throughout,
sometimes for 5 or 6 seconds at a time. This unintended documentation of their
intensive work on set illustrates the complex logistics of live performance but
also an early determination, as Kotcheff put it, "to push against the
limitations of the media... and not enslave it to the theatrical