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The Master as Young Artist

Eugene O'Neill's recently discovered 'Exorcism' foreshadows the themes of his later works



Sometimes there is more drama about a script than is actually demonstrated within the script. This is certainly true of Eugene O'Neill's recently discovered Exorcism: A Play in One Act, which is currently onstage at the evolving Beowulf Alley Theatre Company. It's a presentation by the Next Theatre, Beowulf Alley's experimental subgroup.

O'Neill is undisputedly an American master. He won four Pulitzer Prizes for plays, including Beyond the Horizon and Long Day's Journey Into Night, and was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature, the first American playwright to be so recognized. His works are studied as the foundation of 20th-century American theater. Because of their density and length, and hence their requirement that production companies and audiences make a big commitment, they are not staples of current theatrical production. But O'Neill's influence on how modern theater has developed is immeasurable.

Last fall, a manuscript of a very early one-act play was discovered as part of the estate of screenwriter Philip Yordan, who had obtained a copy of the script years earlier from O'Neill's much despised ex-wife, Agnes Boulton. It is the last surviving copy, as far as is known, of Exorcism, because after its production in 1920 by the Provincetown Players, O'Neill destroyed every copy of the script—or at least he thought he did. Scholars were aware that the play had been produced, but it was assumed that the playwright had set out to do what he wished, and the work had perished. The New Yorker published it last fall after its rediscovery, and last spring, the play was published in book form by Yale University Press. It has been given some readings, but no known full productions—until now. The Next Theatre has mounted a decent production of Exorcism, giving us a rare opportunity to see this early O'Neill work, unseen since 1920.

It is a very slight piece, and is more interesting for its academic and historical value than for its good drama. But it's commendable that a local theater recognized that value and risked a production of this less-than-stellar sliver of O'Neill's body of work.

There has been speculation about why O'Neill wanted his copies of his play destroyed. Perhaps he simply didn't think it worked well and didn't want evidence of inferior work to penetrate further into the theater world. However, it was merely a year after the production of Exorcism that O'Neill won his first Pulitzer Prize.

More likely, it is conjectured, the autobiographical nature of it subject—O'Neill attempted suicide while in his early 20s—seemed much too personal and might bring shame to O'Neill's family. So, in deference to his father, in particular, O'Neill may have abandoned the piece.

However, autobiographical subjects and themes are not only common, but are also central to his body of work. So the motivation for O'Neill's decision to try to eliminate any evidence of Exorcism remains speculative.

Although the story is lean, there are nascent themes that his later work probes and exploits: an all-consuming pessimism, the blessed oblivion offered by alcohol, a troubled family life and overwhelming anger and guilt.

Ned Malloy (Evan Engle), who represents a 23-year-old O'Neill, is a down-and-out young man living in a New York flophouse. He has left his wife, whom he claims he despises, and is estranged from his family, including a hard and distant father. One night, he returns to the room he shares with another down-and-outer, Jimmy (Ken Beider), frustrated, angry and humiliated. The only way he can legally get a divorce is if he commits adultery, and he relates to Jimmy his experience, orchestrated by his lawyer, of a visit to a whorehouse so that his adultery can be documented. In the morning, when he wakes and looks at his bed partner, he sees her as "a pitiable clown—and yet loathsome. There were all the weak sins of the world in her face." He realized that, "My whole life—all life—had become too rotten. ... I was drowning and the thick slime of loathing poured down my throat—strangling me."

When Jimmy leaves, Ned takes pills and lies down to die. But in the next scene, Ned wakes to find Jimmy and another flophouse resident rousing him and celebrating their intervention, which has saved Ned's life. Ned's father makes an appearance, offering to send him to an institution for respite and restoration, and Ned accepts. The play ends with Ned's pals toasting the future, with Ned declaring, "God evidently wants to retain my services here below—for what I don't know yet."

Fortunately for the world of theater, O'Neill figured it out.

Engle does a nice job as Ned, but one questions whether he seems too full of life and the energy of anger to be totally believable as one who wishes to end it all. And we really don't see a noticeable change when he realizes he has survived his suicide attempt. His energy and demeanor seem much the same as it was before his pill-taking. One of the weaknesses of O'Neill's playmaking here is the huge reversal of Ned's fortunes, which simply does not feel plausible. Director Nicole Scott and her crew can't make this big conversion work well enough; consequently, we are not sure that the performance has come to its conclusion, which is always a bit awkward for audience and players alike.

Since the play is so short—barely 45 minutes—the evening seems a bit stingy. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to present another O'Neill one-act to complement this newly found one. Still, it's a treat to see a nod to one of the more exciting developments in American theater history of late. Kudos to the Next Theatre.

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