March 27, 2012
Eugene O’Neill’s lost play
by Nick Davies
The most recent Weekend Edition on NPR reported that a play by Eugene O’Neill long thought to be lost forever has been uncovered. O’Neill, a Nobel laureate in literature and writer of plays including The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day’s Journey into Night, wrote the long-forgotten Exorcism in 1919 and attempted to destroy all copies of it after it was performed in 1920. Making its way from O’Neill’s second wife, Agnes Boulton, to a screenwriter to a dealer, the play finally ended up at Yale’s Beinecke Library.
Theorizing as to why O’Neill had tried to expunge all evidence of Exorcism — the lead character of which decides to commit suicide — Beinecke Library curator Louise Bernard posited,
“He was really revealing very personal things about his life…This was something he perhaps regretted. His father was dying at the time the play was first produced. And so I presume that he chose to hold back on that kind of very personal detail.”
Given the nature of the play’s content and O’Neill’s desire to reclaim it from the public eye, Bernard acknowledges the moral problem of releasing it against the late playwright’s will:
“It’s an important ethical question…Certainly we have to take into consideration the rights and feelings of the creator of the piece. But at the same time we can also place this particular play in a very rich context…We’re able to appreciate this with great hindsight in a way that O’Neill himself may not have been able to.”
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.