HARTFORD, Conn. — A play by Eugene O'Neill that was feared to be lost has been acquired by a library at Yale University after surfacing in a researcher's archives, providing insight into a suicide attempt by the only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.
The one-act play, "Exorcism," is based on O'Neill's overdose on sleeping pills in a Manhattan rooming house. It premiered in New York City in March 1920, but O'Neill later called back and destroyed copies of the script.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, which already has a collection of O'Neill's papers, bought the faded, slightly discolored typescript for an undisclosed amount, curator Louise Bernard said Wednesday. She said a researcher in California found it in the papers of the writer Philip Yordan, who apparently received it as a Christmas gift from O'Neill's second wife, Agnes Boulton, after they divorced.
Thomas Connolly, a professor of English at Suffolk University, said the find is "absolutely extraordinary."
"For many O'Neillians, O'Neill's life qualifies as art. To have another piece of the puzzle is manna for heaven for them," he said.
The play will be published next year by Yale University Press along with a facsimile of the typescript, which includes edits in O'Neill's hand. It also appears in the Oct. 17 issue of The New Yorker magazine with Yale's authorization.
O'Neill, who received the Nobel prize in 1936, also won four Pulitzer prizes and is considered by some to be the father of modern American drama. Experts said the exploration of the suicide attempt in "Exorcism" provides a missing link to O'Neill's autobiographical play, "Long Day's Journey into Night," which was published after he died in 1953 and is considered to be his masterpiece. Other well-known plays include "Anna Christie" and "The Iceman Cometh."
As the son of an actor, O'Neill spent much of his youth traveling, but he spent summers at the family's home in New London, Conn. He lived in New York for a time and did much of his writing in Provincetown, Mass.
He was struggling with alcoholism in his mid-20s at the time of the suicide attempt that became the basis for "Exorcism," which is set in 1912. He wanted to divorce his first wife but needed proof of adultery, so he set himself up to be caught in a hotel with a prostitute.
"As the script points out, he was so embarrassed and humiliated about this feeling of having done something so ugly, he decided that was it. He was down and out as it was," said Arthur Gelb, an O'Neill biographer and a former managing editor of The New York Times.
After a few performances at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York, O'Neill canceled the production and asked all the actors to hand in copies of the script. They were all believed to be destroyed. Gelb and other biographers have speculated that O'Neill had a change of heart because he was patching up a relationship with his father, a devout Catholic, and he feared the play would alienate his family.
Gelb said he and his wife, Barbara, are finishing their third biography of O'Neill and have already included details and analysis of the "Exorcism" script.
The Yale library bought the manuscript from a book dealer who represented the widow of Yordan, who is known for his O'Neill-inspired play, "Anna Lucasta." The script was found inside the original envelope with a message on the label from Agnes Boulton: "Something you said you'd like to have."
Another O'Neill scholar, William Davies King, said the play suffers from dramatic weakness that may have factored into the decision to destroy the scripts. But he said the fact that O'Neill apparently held onto a copy himself until he and Boulton divorced in the late 1920s suggests he would not have wanted the play suppressed entirely.
"The significant thing is O'Neill himself retained a copy early on. He did not want to obliterate this artistic effort to make sense of his past," said King, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.