A Very Personal Exorcism: Eugene O’Neill’s forgotten play and its links with ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’

The publication of Exorcisman autobiographical play by the father of American theater Eugene O’Neill, is a thrilling discovery and a huge literary event. Its publication, after ninety years, comes as O’Neill’s most famous play Long Day’s Journey into Night opens on London’s West End. Today we look at this great playwright and the striking connections between these two very personal works.

Last week Eugene O’Neill’s psychological family drama Long Day’s Journey into Night opened at the Apollo theatre in London’s West End. The production, which features David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf in the leading roles of James and Mary Tyrone, is already receiving rave reviews thanks to the actors’ meticulous handling of what is considered to be notoriously difficult material. The play is long, the themes are heavy (drug abuse and family dysfunction) and the dense, internally conflicted dialogue would be impossible to deliver convincingly in inexperienced hands. However, as Michael Billington says in his Guardian review, Suchet and Metcalf’s ‘glowing’ performances and Antony Page’s ‘carefully modulated’ direction of this sorrowful play actually bring out a sense of optimism:

However harrowing it may seem, the play sends you out of the theatre uplifted rather than depressed by O’Neill’s unflinching ability to confront his troubled past.

And confront his past he does. The characters in Long Day’s Journey closely correspond with Eugene’s own family, particularly the characters of James and Mary. James, like O’Neill’s own father (also James) achieved acclaim as a promising actor in his youth but was later criticised for ‘selling out’. Mary, like Eugene’s mother Ella, ultimately became addicted to morphine (more of that later).

Eugene himself can also be seen in the character of James and Mary’s youngest son Edmund. Like Edmund, O’Neill attended a renowned university, spent several years at sea, suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was committed to a sanatorium in order to cure his consumption (after which he devoted himself to playwriting). The play itself covers the fateful day in August 1912 at the seaside Connecticut home of the Tyrones, when Edmund is diagnosed with consumption and it is decided he will be sent away to the sanatorium. The events in the play are thus set immediately prior to O’Neill beginning his career in earnest.

O’Neill’s career is one of the most dazzling and prolific in American theatre. He is the only American playwright to have won the Nobel prize for literature, and the only dramatist to have won four Pulitzer prizes. He is also credited with introducing psychological and social realism, as well as authentic American vernacular, to the stage.

His first popular hit was The Emperor Jones in 1920, followed by a string of plays including Anna Christie and Desire Under the Elms in 1924. That same year also saw All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a controversial exploration of interracial relations that provoked hate mail and bomb threats. In 1946 he produced what was to become one of his most famous plays The Iceman Cometh, followed closely by A Moon for the Misbegotten. Both of these were poorly reviewed.

During this period Eugene O’Neill had an enormous influence on American stagecraft; Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams are both indebted to his work. His plays became particularly known for being long, intense and demanding. Defiantly speaking to a reporter about The Iceman Cometh, he stated: “It will run from 8 o’clock to whenever it goddamned pleases – maybe quarter to 12. If there are repetitions, they’ll have to remain in, because I feel they are absolutely necessary to what I am trying to get over.”

O’Neill died in 1953, having requested that his most personal work Long Day’s Journey be withheld from the stage until 25 years after his death. His widow published it three years later and it was first staged in 1957. It was instantly recognised as O’Neill’s masterpiece, winning him a posthumous Pulitzer.

Exorcism: A Play in One Act by Eugene O'Neill

Exorcism: A Play in One Act by Eugene O’Neill

There are striking similarities between Long Day’s Journey and the newly published Exorcism, despite being written at very different stages of O’Neill’s career. According to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library curator Louise Bernard, who acquired the play from a New York bookseller, “Exorcism might be read as a preparatory sketch that resonates powerfully with Long Day’s Journey into Night, one that brings the O’Neill family drama full circle in ways at once intimate and grandly conceived.” Revolving around a suicide attempt, Exorcism, like Long Day’s Journey, also draws on a dark incident in O’Neill’s own life.

After giving birth to Eugene, O’Neill’s mother Ella was prescribed morphine for pain, just like Mary in Long Day’s Journey. And like Mary, O’Neill’s mother became addicted. When he was 14, O’Neill’s father and brother told him the truth about his mother’s addiction, implying that if it weren’t for him, none of this misfortune would have befallen the family (again another pivotal strand in O’Neill’s famous play).

Like Edmund in Long Day’s Journey, the young O’Neill began to self-destruct, consoling himself with alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. Two years later, overcome by shame, he overdosed on Veronal, a popular opiate. A friend got him to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped.

The suicide attempt was a defining event in O’Neill’s life and led to his first serious efforts to write. Exorcism displays early examples of O’Neill’s unparalleled skills of capturing deeply personal human drama, and it explores major themes—mourning and melancholia, addiction and sobriety, tensions between fathers and sons—that would permeate his later work.

Another striking similarity between Exorcism and Long Day’s Journey is that in both cases, O’Neill attempted to withhold publication. In both cases, he failed.

Shortly after the debut of Exorcism in 1920, O’Neill suddenly canceled production and ordered all copies of the drama destroyed. For over ninety years, it was believed that the play was irrevocably lost, until it was recently discovered that O’Neill’s second wife had in fact retained a copy, which she later gave to the prolific screenwriter and producer Philip Yordan. In early 2011, Yordan’s widow discovered the typescript of Exorcism—complete with edits in O’Neill’s own hand—in her late husband’s vast trove of papers.

The discovery and publication of Exorcism, a relatively early play in the O’Neill corpus, helps further our knowledge of O’Neill’s dramatic development and reveals a pivotal point in the career, and personal lofe, of this great American playwright.

Exorcism: A Play in One Act is available now from Yale University Press.

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