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Yale’s Beinecke Library acquires Eugene O’Neill’s “lost” play

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, and will feature an introduction by the noted American playwright Edward Albee. The New Yorker has acquired first serial rights and published the play in its entirety, with an introduction by theater critic John Lahr, in the magazine’s Fall Books issue on Oct.17, 2011. A short video of the actor Tommy Schrider reading from “Exorcism” was featured on The New Yorker’s website and iPad application.

“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 abruptly chose 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 the playwright’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 90 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, noted Louise Bernard, curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature for Prose and Drama. 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, she adds.
"The rediscovery of O'Neill's famously 'lost' play ‘Exorcism’ is quite remarkable and a wonderful supplement to the large and substantive collection of Eugene O'Neill Papers housed at the Beinecke Library,” said Bernard. “The revelation of this highly autobiographical play is a valuable addition to our knowledge of O'Neill, whom many consider to be the father of modern American drama."

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is the principal repository for the Eugene O’Neill Papers.
For inquiries about the play or the Eugene O’Neill Papers, contact Louise Bernard (louise.bernard@yale.edu).
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.