Exorcism: A Play in One Actby Eugene O'Neill
Shortly after the debut of Exorcism in 1920, Eugene O’Neill suddenly canceled production and ordered all extant 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/i>
Shortly after the debut of Exorcism in 1920, Eugene O’Neill suddenly canceled production and ordered all extant 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, furthers our knowledge of O’Neill’s dramatic development and reveals a pivotal point in the career of this great American playwright.
Revolving around a suicide attempt, Exorcism draws on a dark incident in O’Neill’s own life. This defining event 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. 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.”
William Davies King
“A kind of portrait of the artist as a young man.”— NPR
Exorcism's most enduring message may be that, even with artists,the drama on stage is no less real than that of everyday life.— Heather Horn, The Atlantic Wire
Serialized in The New Yorker
"[T]he long-overdue addition of Exorcism to his body of work . . . helps us see a little more clearly into the dark soul of one of America's greatest dramatists."—Colin Dabkowski, Buffalo News
“Exorcism opens a window on the moment in 1912 when O’Neill bottomed out. . . . His early writings are filled with intertextual references. The freshness and originality of his early work was consistent with the larger trend of modernist literature—deeply embedded in a world of reused words.”—William Davies King, Eugene O’Neill Review
Exorcism's most enduring message may be that, even with artists,the drama on stage is no less real than that of everyday life.”— Heather Horn, The Atlantic Wire
- Yale University Press
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- New Edition
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Read an Excerpt
ExorcismA PLAY IN ONE ACT
By Eugene O'Neill
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.
Jimmy, his roommate
Edward Malloy, Ned's father
A small bedroom on the top story of a squalid rooming house occupying the three upper floors of a building on a side street near the downtown waterfront, New York Citythe ground floor being a saloon of the lowest type of grog shop. On the left of the room, forward, a rickety chest of drawers. Farther back, a window looking out on a fire escape. To the rear of the window, a washstand with bowl and pitcher, and then another window. A pile of books, stacked up against the wall, lies on the floor in the left corner. In the rear, left, a door opening on the hallway. To the right of door, a cot with a thin straw mattress, dirty blanket, and a lumpy pillow without a case placed at the end nearest the door. Against the right wall, another cot with the same meagre equipment. The pillow of this cot is set at the end toward the rear. Two chairs are in the roomone left center, the other by the head of the cot on the right. On the latter are placed a small lighted lamp with a smudgy chimney, a package of cheap tobacco, matches, cigarette papers, etc.
The room is filthy. The walls and low ceiling, white-washed in some remote past, are spotted with the greasy imprints of groping hands and fingers. The plaster has scaled off in places showing the lathes beneath. The floor is carpeted with an accumulation of old newspapers, cigarette butts, ashes, burnt matches, etc.
It is just after dark of a miserable foggy day in the middle of March some years ago. The windows, stained by the sediment of old rains, glimmer grayly with a fresh layer of moisture.
* * *
At the rise of the curtain Jimmy is discovered lying on the cot at right reading a newspaper by the light of the lamp on the chair. It is cold in the room, so although he is fully dressed, he has the blanket drawn up well over his shoulders. After a moment he throws this off with a grunt of annoyance at having to disturb himself, puts his newspaper aside, and swings his feet to the floor. Sitting on the side of the cot, he fills his corncob pipe and lights it, shivering in the chill air. He is an undersized stout little man of forty dressed in a worn and shiny black suit. His face is that of a fat but anemic babyround, flabby-cheeked, pasty-complected, loose-lipped. His eyes of a faded blue stare mildly from their wrinkled pouches. His untrimmed hair, thin and graying, sticks limply to his skull. There is an air about him of a meticulous neatness gone to seed. His high wing collar is soiled, the white shirt front beneath the cheap bow tie is crumpled and grimy. He speaks with a careful precision but the tone of the voice itself is vague. His pudgy little hands tremble as he lights his pipe.
Steps are heard from the hallway stairs and Jimmy turns his face expectantly. The door in the rear is opened and Ned Malloy enters. He is a tall slender young fellow of twenty-four dressed in a shabby brown raincoat over a frayed, gray sack suit. His face is oval, lean, the cheek bones prominent, lines of sleeplessness and dissipation deep about the eyes and mouth. His mouth is wide, the lips twisted by a bitter, self-mocking irony. His eyes are large and blue, with the peculiar possessed expression of the inveterate dreamer's. His forehead, under a thick mass of black hair, is broad and wide; but his chin reveals weakness, indecision. The upper section of his face seems at war with the lower, giving the whole an appearance of conflict, of inner disharmony. Just now this is intensified, for he is evidently in an abnormal state of strain.
* * *
Suddenly brightening up and beaming with friendliness as he sees his roommate.
Putting his black slouch hat on the washstand and throwing his raincoat in a heap on the floorshortly.
Contentedly puffing at his pipe, ready to engage in endless conversation.
It's a rotten night out, isn't it? I thought for a while of going over to Brooklynyou know, to see that party I was telling you about. I'd catch him in at night, I think, and I'm sure I could make a touch on him for a ten spot Hopefully. maybe a twenty. We used to be pals in the old daysyears agowhen I was on easy street and he wasn't. I've helped him many a time and never reminded him of it.
With sudden savagery.
Then it's hopeless, you fool, don't you see, dammit!
If you really helped him that other time, I mean. You won't get a nickel from him. Why, you poor nut, he'll only take delight in seeing you down and outand helping to keep you there. The best you can hope for will be a snivelling moral lecture on the evils of drinkand his advice to mend your ways, which he'll hope you won't take.
In a hurt tone.
Oh, I don't know. People aren't all as bad as you'd like to make out.
Aren't they? Well, I haven't seen them all.
He has the air of being excited by a false interest in this conversation as if he were trying to distract his thoughts.
Anyway, I'm glad I didn't go. I waited around in the bar downstairs to see if it wouldn't clear. Tom Henderson was in. He blew me to a couple of whiskies.
Hmm! I was wondering where your optimism came from.
But the beastly drizzle kept right on. It hadn't let up when you came in, had it?
No. Muck under foot and muck overheadand in between. God's giving us the naked truth today.
A bit shocked.
You shouldn't say that.
Then in a consoling tone.
You've got the blue devils today, haven't you?
I haven't had two whiskies.
Henderson slipped me a dollar when he was going. We can go downstairs and
Then more kindly.
Thanks just the same.
With a grin.
You must be feeling queer. Later, then?
With a grim smile.
Later? Supposing there wasn't any
You mean I'll spend it before? No, Ned, I promise.
Don't be a fool. I wasn't talking of that. I was speaking oflater.
You have got the blues all right. I don't blame you. It's this devilish weather. It's enough toWell, cheer up! It's the middle of March now. Spring will soon be here.
That'll be a blessing!
Taking this at its face value.
Yes, won't it? Do you know, Ned, spring is my favorite season of the year.
How long have you been living here?
Six years, more or less. Why?
I should think all the seasons would be alike in this rotten dump.
A bit huffily.
Come now, Ned, this place isn't so bad. Where else could we get a room on such long credit as Old John allows us?
Yes, I suppose I ought to be grateful that, thanks to knowing you, I had this place to land in when the Old Man kicked me from the family fireside. Well, I was grateful then; but that was six months ago.
Anyway, I'm leaving it now.
You're leaving? For good?
With a harsh laugh.
You're damn rightfor good!
Are you going home? Has your father
Welcomed me back to his bosom? No.
Then where are you going?
If I knew that
He pausesthen adds quietly.
I'd be a wise guy indeed.
But I'm talking rot. What was it you were holding forth about?
Oh, yesthe beautiful spring!
Well, it is beautiful. Of course, you don't get much chance to see it here in the city, but still I walk down to Battery Park every morning as soon as it gets warm enough.
It wasn't very beautiful down at the Battery todaya miserable, soaking strip of mud, the trees dead, and the bay as filthy as an overgrown sewer.
You were down there today?
For six hourstill it got dark.
But what were you doing
Sitting on a benchwith the rest of the flotsam.
In the rain? Why, you must be soaked! You'll catch a cold sure.
What's the difference?
Oh shut up, you old woman! You're worse than a wet nurse. Pass me the tobacco, will you? I'll roll a cigarette.
Passing him the tobaccoin puzzled tones.
You chose a funny time to loaf on the Battery, I must say.
No other place. I wanted to be aloneand think.
He bends his head, appearing engrossed in rolling the cigarette. Jimmy looks at him uneasily.
As if he wanted to change the subject.
Well, you couldn't get a very favorable impression of it down there today. It's different later. In the middle of spring
Oh, to hell with spring!What significance can spring have to youor to meor any of the others in this hole?
A lump in his throat.
Spring means something to me that you can't very well understand, Ned. There have been springs in my lifein better dayswhen
Exasperatedthrowing away the lighted match with which he has not yet lit his cigarette.
Stop! Stop right there, Jimmy!
He loses control over himself and rages hysterically at the astounded and frightened Jimmy.
I'll be damned if I'll stand for listening to that story again! No! Oh, I know you too well! I can see it coming, that story you've told me a thousand times. You always start in that way. But you're not drunk now and you've no excuse for telling it; and I'm not drunk and so I won't endure listening to it! You're worse than Major Andrews downstairs who insists on showing me the scar on his leg when he's on his pension drunk every month. I suppose you think yours is a wound, too, you sentimental rabbit! Of all the abject illusions! Listen to me! I'll tell you the truth for once in your life. By your own story, a thousand times retold, you prove that that wife who ran away from you seven years ago was a worthless nonentityand guilty in the bargain!
In a horrified gasp.
And yet you hug her memory to your breast like a dried rose! Why, you ought to be thanking God you got rid of her! You weren't happy then, you know it. But you are now. Yes, you arein spite of everything. You're securehome at lastbecause this place is bedrock. After this there's nothingbut the Morgue. Only you feel it's morally wrong for you to live happy on this dunghill. You want an excuseBah! The Major is the same. He's here, he laments, because his daughter abandoned him in his old agethat same religious crank of a daughter who, by his own story, wouldn't let him drink and made him go to church twice every Sunday. And now he's happy as a king in this sink where no one gives a damn what he does.
Then suddenly sinking back on his cotwearily.
Hell! What's the use of talking?
His lips quivering.
Youyou're not so good yourself, when it comes to that.
I? I'm no good and I know it. I make no excuses. I'm here because I belong here, but I'm not happy about it. Besides, what is the meaning of that word "good"? To be what you are and face itthat's good. Come, confess it. Our only "bad" is lack of money to stay drunk on, isn't it?
With a sudden wild laugh.
Here I am arguing like an imbecile! Blessed last moments!
Rising to his feetwith dignity.
You're very insulting. For old friendship's sakeI prefer to forget your words. They were not those of a gentlemanor a friendI never thought you
He breaks down like a child.
Jumping up and putting his hand on Jimmy's shouldercontritely.
Forgive me, Jimmy. I'm all unstrung. I apologize. It was all nonsense, what I said. Forget it. I didn't mean to hurt you, honestly, Jimmy.
Recovers himself immediately and beams at his friend affectionately.
It's all right, Ned. Only your damned tongue
Filling his pipe.
Oh, it's all forgotten.
Ned lights his cigarette and smokes in a gloomy, nervous abstraction. Jimmy lights his pipe and looks at his friend curiously. Finally he ventures: You haven't been acting like your old self, Ned.
How could I? He's deadmost of himand the rest
You don't look well. Are you sick?
No. I didn't sleep much last night.
With alarmed solicitude.
You didn't come back here. You don't mean to say you were walking the streets all night?
With a shudder of disgust.
Oh, I found a warm bedquicklime!
Ned doesn't seem to hear him but stares across the room, the expression of strained tension on his face seeming to grow momentarily more intense. JIMMY clears his throat timorously.
Did you go to seeyour father?
He refused to talk to you?
No. I didn't try. It stuck in my craw at the last moment. I've held out ever since our row and I made up my mind I'd not give him the satisfaction.
Butnow that you've chucked that job you've got to do something.
With somber emphasis.
I'm going todo something.
Jimmy squirms uneasily.
After a pausehesitatingly.
Nordstrumthe big Swede, you know, that comes in from the MarketI was talking to him last night. He says he's going outWestMinnesotajust as soon as it gets warmer. He won't have any money. He's going to beat his way and foot it. Some relative has a farm out there. The Swede is sick of the city, he says. He wants to get where there's fresh air.
He won't find it. There's no fresh air in this world.
Why don't you go with him? He'd take you along. He likes you, he told me so. And it would be a wonderful tripin spring.
Oh, damn your spring! But I'm thinking myself of takinga long trip.
Twists uneasily on the cotuncertainly.
It would be just the thing for you.
Not that I'm anxious to have you go, you know, but
No. You will be sorry, won't you? Yes, you're one of the few.
Do you know where I went yesterday?
To the lawyer's.
Opening his eyes.
Ahyou mean your wife's lawyer?
Yes. I told you, didn't I, he'd written me a couple of times to come and see himand arrange matters. I got half-shot yesterday morning in preparation for a stormy interview with the Old Man, but after I got that way I felt too independent to compromise with him. I wanted adventureso I went to call on her lawyer.
Well, what did he say?
Tried first to be kind and fatherlygood advicesaid my fair frau was willing to forgive and forget if I would promise to behave and settle down. It didn't take. I told him she might be willing but I was not. I wouldn't forgive or forget the fact that I despise her.
Excerpted from Exorcism by Eugene O'Neill Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), considered by many to be America’s greatest playwright, was a four-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936.
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