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SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Oh, no. No. Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks wrote recently, not Eugene O'Neill; this, in reaction to an ambitious O'Neill festival underway at various theatres in District of Columbia. To many, O'Neill is the playwright of miserable people in miserable families leading miserable lives, full of misery and booze.

Yet, he was an American master, winning four Pulitzer Prizes, the 1936 Nobel Prize. Even an early work written two decades before his most famous plays, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Iceman Cometh," shows his skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EXORCISM: A PLAY IN ONE ACT")

ENRICO NASSI: (as Ned Malloy) I jumped up and got away without waking her. That's all.

DAVID OLSEN: (as Jimmy) Hmm, I think I understand. I've had same experience

NASSI: (as Ned Malloy) Not the same...

STAMBERG: Drama Fellows at Arena Stage are rehearsing long-lost O'Neill work, "Exorcism: A Play in One Act." It was written in 1919 when the playwright was 31.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EXORCISM: A PLAY IN ONE ACT")

NASSI: (as Ned Malloy) I felt suddenly stone-cold sober. I - a few conscious - I grew conscious.

Can I have your pencil?

OLSEN: Yup.

NASSI: I grew conscious and stopped breathing.

STAMBERG: Twenty-something actors Enrico Nassi and David Olsen play down-at-the-heels chums living together in a tawdry New York rooming house in 1912. One, Jimmy, has been dumped by his wife. The other, Ned, kicked out by his wealthy father and he wants a divorce. Ned is desperate.

NASSI: Yeah, after hitting rock bottom, he decides to take his life.

STAMBERG: Enrico Nassi plays Ned. He is saved by his friend Jimmy, actor David Olsen.

OLSEN: And it's autobiographical. It's based on a real experience that O'Neill had when he was in his 20's.

STAMBERG: Surviving a suicide attempt, O'Neill turned to writing.

OLSEN: I believe actually in the introduction to the play, it says he traded the romance of death for the romance of art.

STAMBERG: For a public reading of the one-act play, the actors rehearse dialogue O'Neill wrote in 1919. David Olsen says O'Neill is the playwright who first put American vernacular onstage.

OLSEN: It translates fairly well. We can connect with it very well.

NASSI: It's so rich. It's so full.

STAMBERG: The young actors like O'Neill's use of colloquialisms, like these:

OLSEN: (Reading) I'm sure I can make a touch on him for a ten-spot, maybe a twenty.

NASSI: Right, like: The old man kicked me from his family fireside. I'd be a wiseguy, indeed, but I'm talking rot.

STAMBERG: I love it.

NASSI: These like...

STAMBERG: It takes you to a different time, doesn't it?

OLSEN: Different era, yeah.

NASSI: Different era in America.

STAMBERG: And yet, you understand. It's utterly clear. You know exactly what the meaning of it is.

"Exorcism" is not a great work, but its themes - struggles with family, with self; with, yes, miseries and booze - will be developed as Eugene O'Neill himself develops. By his death in 1953, he was a dean of American theatre. So, "Exorcism: A Play in One Act" is a kind of portrait of the artist as a young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "EXORCISM: A PLAY IN ONE ACT")

NASSI: (as Ned Malloy) And it seemed to me that suddenly everything I'd ever done, my whole, all life had become too rotten. My head was pushed under. I was drowning in the thick slime of loathing poured down my throat, strangling me.

STAMBERG: After it was performed in 1920, Eugene O'Neill destroyed every copy of "Exorcism" - or thought he did. For more than 90 years, it was believed to be lost forever. Then, the Yale's library got a call from a dealer who said he had a copy of the manuscript. He'd bought it from the estate of a screenwriter named Philip Yordan.

Yale library then-curator Louise Bernard explains how Yordan got the manuscript.

DR. LOUISE BERNARD: It seems that Philip Yordan had been a friend of Agnes Boulton, who was O'Neill's second wife.

STAMBERG: She's the mother of Oona O'Neill, as a matter of fact, who married Charlie Chaplin, yes?

BERNARD: Correct, yes.

STAMBERG: OK.

BERNARD: So, after her divorce from O'Neill, she had apparently kept manuscripts that she perhaps wasn't supposed to keep, but decided to gift this particular typescript of the play "Exorcism" to Mr. Yordan. And she sent it apparently as a Christmas gift. It emerged again in its original brown envelope with Christmas stickers on it.

STAMBERG: And so, Yale bought this manuscript. So why did he destroy all the copies?

BERNARD: I think that's still open to interpretation. Obviously, it wasn't his finest work. He was still very much an apprentice playwright at this point. The play was written around 1919. It was produced in 1920. But he would go on to win his first Pulitzer Prize just the following year after the performance.

So whether he felt that this was work he didn't actually want to be aired to the public would be one interpretation. The other is that he was really revealing very personal things about his life, at the time of his suicide attempt in 1912. And that this was something that he perhaps regretted. His father was dying at the time that the play was first produced. And so I presume that he chose to hold back on that kind of very personal detail.

STAMBERG: Well, there's some sort of precedent of reluctance, I guess, on O'Neill's part, right? Because the work that's considered his major opus, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," he writes it in 1941 but it didn't get produced. It didn't get published in his lifetime.

BERNARD: Correct, it was Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, his third wife, who overturned the stricture that he had placed on the play - that it was to be restricted until 25 years after his death.

STAMBERG: So, wife number three, Carlotta breaks the embargo and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" get produced and published. Now, we've got "Exorcism," thought to have disappeared, not only being published but also put up on a stage in a reading in Washington, D.C.

What about the morality of putting it on when he so wanted "Exorcism" to be destroyed?

BERNARD: I think 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.

I think because we have "Long Day's Journey Into Night," we're better able to make sense of the importance of "Exorcism," and to really understand it in its contextual sense, that we are able appreciate this with great hindsight in a way that O'Neill himself may not have been able to.

But given that he had really trusted Carlotta with the legacy of his career, I think we're also following her recognition of his life and work in producing this play and publishing this play.

STAMBERG: Louise Bernard was curator at Yale's Beinecke Library when the lost manuscript of Eugene O'Neill's early play, "Exorcism," turned up.

The one-act work is being given a public reading at Washington's Arena Stage this evening as part of an O'Neill festival that runs here through May 6th.

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