Lest We Forget: Eugene O’Neill’s Exorcism from Suicide

Sarah Underwood—

It’s small, it’s lightweight, and it’s a quick read (so you might think) except it’s about “miserable people in miserable families leading miserable lives full of misery” (according to NPR, which, despite the joke, recommends the playwright). This observation about Eugene O’Neill’s Exorcism: A Play in One Act is hard to argue with, at first. Ned, O’Neill’s literary incarnation of himself, has been sitting a muddy New York City park…in the rain…all day. It climaxes with Ned left on his own after dropping “dark, dark hints.”

Ned’s subsequent attempt at suicide, which is based on O’Neill’s own, raises questions about the nature of suicide. Why does Ned give his roommate, Jimmy, so much warning? How much did Ned really want to die? Even more intriguingly, the relationship of this playwright to this play opens up O’Neill’s personal life and thoughts in ways that his other works cannot. While his other works also deal with characters and events in Exorcism, he did not try to erase those from the archive. Exorcism did run for one season in 1920, but afterwards, he tried to destroy every existing copy of its script. What does it say that a man would write, and allow to be produced, a play that he would later want no one to even read, let alone view?

In fact, Yale University Press was only able to publish the play because one copy had accidentally survived the purge. Misery, suicide, and personal experience all wrapped up in a package covered with Christmas stickers: that’s how the surviving manuscript was discovered among the papers of a friend of O’Neill’s despised ex-wife. YUP’s edition includes a facsimile of the original typewritten script, providing more insight into the text. For example, in the final version, Ned describes the room in which he sleeps with a prostitute; we can see that in the facsimile he crossed out one word: “dead half-light darkness.” He takes the glass half-empty metaphor to a new level with the original. Perhaps O’Neill, writing years later in a better state of mind, had to remind himself just how desperate his younger self had been.

Yet in how much of a better place could he have been if he could not bear to have such a personal play in circulation? Exorcism’s title suggests that, just as Ned’s urge to kill himself is “exorcised” from him, O’Neill’s inner demons should have been chased out by the cathartic exercise of writing the play. We suspect it will take more examinations of this lightweight book to pinpoint exactly why O’Neill never wanted us to read it at all.

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

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