O’Neill, Lost and Found

American Theatre Magazine, December 2011

It could be the scenariou for a Eugene O’Neill play, and in a sense it is — but one that O’Neill never wrote.

Scene: Screenwriter Philip Yordan’s 50-foot-long library, where bookcases, filing cabinets and boxes spill remnants of his life. His widow, Faith Yordan, plows through the morass. She takes an aged envelope from a file drawer and removes a sheaf of brittle pages. Excited, she makes a phone call.

Faith: Paul, I’ve found a script called Exorcism by Eugene O’Neill. A note says “from Agnes and Mac.” Could it be important?

Thus began the discovery of O’Neill’s “lost” one-act play Exorcism, all copies of which he had reportedly destroyed. O’Neill had burned manuscripts before, but not those good enough to be produced. Exorcism had been staged: On March 26, 1920, the Provincetown Players opened a two-week run of the play at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

So why did O’Neill try to destory this play? It got mixed reviews, but so had others. Exorcism was different: a stark dramatization of O’Neill’s attempted suicide and reported emotional rebirth in 1912. Some say it revealed too much about his family, especially since his father was dying at the time. More likely, it revealed too much of O’Neill, even for this most autobiographical of playwrights.

After Faith Yordan’s discovery in February 2011, TV executive and UCLA professor Paul Nagle contacted Diane Schinnerer, longtime officer of the Eugene O’Neill Society and Eugene O’Neill Foundation, as well as archivist of the foundation’s library. “She asked me two questions,” Nagle recalls. “Did it have a character name Jimmy? Was it about a suicide?” Both answers were yes.

Nagle approached representatives from Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, who recognized O’Neill’s handwriting and knew that “Agnes and Mac” were O’Neill’s discarded second wife Agnes Boulton and her then spouse, Morris (Mac) Kaufman. Boulton biographer W.D. King says O’Neill probably left Exorcism behind in his rush to be with Carlotta Monterey, the woman who would eventually become his third wife. Horowitz then presented the 23-page document to Louise Bernard, curator at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale acquired the manuscript in June, and the New Yorker magazine published it in the Oct. 17 issue. Next year Yale University press will publish Exorcism along with a facsimile of the manuscript with O’Neill’s handwritten revisions.

O’Neill said of the play, “The sooner all memory of it dies the better pleased I’ll be.” Maura O’Neill Jones, daughter of O’Neill’s son Shane–a suicide–disagrees. “This will give up-and-coming playwrights a look into the growth of a genius,” she says. “It was a little hard to read because of all the suicides in the family, but also uplifting because he worked it out.” — Jo Morello

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