October 12, 2011

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University has acquired Eugene O’Neill’s “lost” one-act play, “Exorcism” (1919).  The play, along with a facsimile of the typescript, will be published in a cloth edition by Yale University Press in February 2012, featuring an introduction by the noted American playwright Edward Albee.  The New Yorker has acquired first serial rights and will publish the play in its entirety, with an introduction by theater critic John Lahr, in the magazine’s Fall Books issue, October 17, 2011 (on newsstands October 10). A short video of the actor Tommy Schrider reading from “Exorcism” will be featured on The New Yorker’s website and iPad application: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/10/eugene-oneill-exorcism-reading.html .

“Exorcism,” set in 1912, is based on O’Neill’s suicide attempt from an overdose of veronal in a squalid, Manhattan rooming house. The play premiered at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City on March 26, 1920. Following a few performances, however, O’Neill chose, abruptly, to cancel the production and to retract and destroy all known copies of the script. O’Neill biographers have speculated that the play, produced as O’Neill’s father was dying, was perhaps too revealing of O’Neill’s own demons and potentially distressing for his parents.

Despite long-held presumptions that the play was irrevocably lost, O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, apparently retained a copy of the play, which she gave as a Christmas gift to the writer Philip Yordan after her divorce from O’Neill. Yordan is perhaps best known for his O’Neill-inspired play, and later film, Anna Lucasta, starring an all-black cast. The typescript, with edits and emendations in O’Neill’s own hand, was discovered by a researcher working in Yordan’s papers, together with the original envelope; the label is inscribed, “Something you said you’d like to have / Agnes & Mac” (Morris “Mac” Kaufman was Boulton’s third husband).

O’Neill, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (1936), returned to many of the issues that surface in “Exorcism” in his heavily autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night, published posthumously in 1956 and considered to be his masterpiece. The discovery of “Exorcism,” after ninety years, adds significantly to O’Neill’s biography, intimating the overwhelming role that suicide would take in his personal life along with the issue’s influence and impact on his work. The play also marks a pivotal moment in O’Neill’s prolific career, providing further insight into the later works for which he is now revered.

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is the principal repository for the Eugene O’Neill Papers. A detailed description of the papers is available online: Eugene O’Neill Papers Finding Aid (YCAL MSS 123). Some materials from the collection can be viewed online: Eugene O’Neill Papers Image Guide. Related materials and collections may be located using the Beiencke Library’s various research tools: Guide to Research Tools.

For inquiries about the play, or the Eugene O’Neill Papers, please contact Louise Bernard (louise.bernard@yale.edu>), Curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature for Prose and Drama, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

For inquiries about the play’s publication in book form this February, please contact Brenda King (brenda.king@yale.edu>), Publicity Director, Yale University Press.

Image: Photograph of Eugene O’Neill, inscribed to his son [1927].