The ‘Exorcism' of Eugene O'Neill
On Tuesday, the estimable canon of Nobel laureate Eugene O'Neill officially expanded by one. The Yale University Press published "Exorcism," the writer's so-called "lost play."
Though all copies of the autobiographical one-act work, which O'Neill wrote in 1919 at the age of 24, were thought to have been destroyed by the playwright, a source copy of the manuscript was discovered by a researcher earlier this year. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale purchased the manuscript for an undisclosed amount and the volume, with a foreward by Edward Albee and an introduction by longtime Beinecke curator Louise Bernard, is in print.
Set in 1912, "Exorcism" is based on O'Neill's suicide attempt in a Manhattan rooming house. Though the piece was briefly performed at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City in 1920, the author canceled productions and destroyed what he believed were all copies of the work.
In fact, O'Neill's second wife, Agnes Boulton, had a copy, with written notes in the author's hand, and subsequently gave it as a gift to screenwriter Philip Yourdan, whose widow ultimately discovered the play in his papers.
The Beinecke, which is the principal repository for O'Neill papers, acquired the work from a New York bookseller.
Bernard was kind enough to answer five questions about "Exorcism" and the experience of curating such materials.
Q. You write eloquently of "Time and the Archive" in your introduction to "Exorcism." Is it difficult to separate the idea of value for a scholar from the idea of artistic achievement?
A. I do find it difficult to separate scholarly value from the idea of artistic achievement — and especially in light of the fact that O'Neill, for whatever his reasons, had, at a very early point in his career, attempted to destroy the play. Its re-emergence takes on a force and meaning of its own, and while the play does have artistic merit, I read it as part and parcel of O'Neill's transition from fledging playwright to Pulitzer (and later Nobel) prize winner. We have the luxury to appreciate this work in context, with much hindsight, in a way that O'Neill as author may not have been able to.
Q. O'Neill obviously didn't want "Exorcism" to be performed or circulated, but at the time he destroyed all the copies he could find, he had no idea he was going to win the Nobel Prize, either. Is there any evidence to suggest that, by the end of his life, he might have appreciated the play as, if nothing else, an indication of his own potential?
A. In regard to very specific "evidence," O'Neill scholars can perhaps speak to this question better than I can. I certainly like to think that O'Neill would have appreciated "Exorcism" in light of his strong, very explicit turn toward the personal at the end of his writing career, notably "Long Day's Journey into Night" with its pointed reference to both Mary (i.e., his mother) and his alter ego Edmund's suicide attempts. Yet he still remained incredibly private about this work — his crowning glory — and it was only his wife Carlotta's swift move to overturn, after his death, his strictures against its immediate performance and publication that really reinvigorated his career anew. I don't imagine that "Exorcism" carries that sort of weight, but it's most definitely part of O'Neill's story, in a most primary way.
Q. What were your reactions when you first read "Exorcism"? Did you see artistic merit — as in the context that, while perhaps it's not of the same caliber of his later works, it's nonetheless a play worthy of being part of the performance repertoire? Or did you sort of cringe?
A. I have to admit that I really took a "rare book and manuscript" approach to the play — I read and appreciated it as a literary document, and, perhaps more importantly, as a biographical trace — evidence of a play that O'Neill scholars had only been able to speculate about as to content. So production (O'Neill's performance repertoire) didn't initially come to mind. That said, there was of course immediate interest in placing the play on stage (its rightful home) in some way, beginning with the short excerpt by the actor Tommy Schrider on The New Yorker website. And it's safe to say that I didn't cringe! The play had, after all, been performed by the Provincetown Players (O'Neill didn't attempt to destroy copies before it reached a public audience), and his own development as a playwright is so tightly connected to that company and to their important presence in American theatre history.
Q. Forget scholarship and literature for a moment. I'm always fascinated by the "fan" aspects of the arts within the community of artists and scholars themselves. To read Harold Bloom on Falstaff is cool because, for all his brilliance and insight, there's almost the feeling that he's giddy — like footage you see of kids fainting when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan's show. In that spirit, when you hold something like the actual lost "Exorcism" in your hand and you see edits in O'Neill's own hand, or as you spend your days wandering Beinecke, do you have any goosebump moments?
A. It's impossible not to have "goosebump" moments when you work at a place like the Beinecke. And while I can only wish to have had the time to "wander" through the library's amazing holdings more often, one of the sheer joys of curatorial work is that of acquisition — and especially of being part of a literary "unearthing" in some way, or, by adding to the collections, finding the missing parts of a particular "story."
The thing about the archive, though, for me at least, is not so much the wonders of the polished thing (of admiring a great work of literature or art, or a fine binding, for example), but appreciating the value of what goes into that creative struggle. So I love the messy drafts, the "failed" projects, correspondence that reveals the everyday grind, as well as those tokens of personhood — like O'Neill's writing instruments, or his and Carlotta's engraved rings. Getting to hold those objects feels like the most amazing "Six Degrees of Separation," so to speak. You can't help but be "awed" in the truest sense of that term — as students, scholars, and visitors to the Beinecke's exhibitions discover and enjoy on a frequent basis.
Q. How did Yale Press get Edward Albee to write the foreward?
A. Ileene Smith, who edited the book, approached Albee. His name emerged quickly as someone who is not only an important American playwright, but an iconic one — and therefore a perfect pairing with O'Neill and with a project such as this one.
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