– Eugene O’Neill’s first play, produced only once before in 1920, before it disappeared for nearly a hundred years, had its second staging at Arena last month. Was that a good idea? –
It is 1912. In a filthy room in the bowels of New York City, Ned Malloy spins out a grim story to his buddy and roommate, Jimmy.
“When we got down to cases the lawyer quit his fooling and gave his advice as to the evidence,” he says with a shudder. Malloy is a slender man with dark hair and a haunted face; he is on the lam from his life – from his father, whose employment he recently quit, and from his wife, who he wants to divorce. “You know the law in New York State. There’s only one ground that goes.”
“Yes—adultery,” Jimmy responds. He is a small, flabby fellow with a taste for booze and his own tale of woe – his wife abandoned him. Malloy thinks it’s the best thing that ever happened to Jimmy.
“So we arranged a time and place…It was arranged that I should go, with witnesses, to a certain—house of ill fame, as the newspapers call them.” The experience was traumatic for Ned. “When I awoke the room was strange to me. It wasn’t dawn, it was midday, but it appeared like dawn, with faint streaks of light shedding from the edges of the green shades and the whole room is a sort of dead half-darkness with a close smell of powder and perfume—and Lysol. Gradually I remembered, lying there without moving, the night before. I felt suddenly cold stone sober and I grew conscious of soft breathing, of the warmth of that other body…She was pretty, but she looked—there were all the weak sins of the world in her face—she looked like a painted clown with the black on her eyes and the greasy rouge on her lips—like a clown, you understand, a pitiable clown—and yet loathsome—oh, unutterably!” He shudders again, and swallows convulsively. “And it seemed to me suddenly that everything I had ever done, my whole life—all life—had become too rotten! My head had been pushed under, I was drowning and the thick slime of loathing poured down my throat—strangling me!”
When he is finished with his story and Jimmy leaves, Ned opens a small vial of pills and pours them out upon a chair. Then he puts them in his hand. Then he puts them in his mouth.
The self-loathing, the relentless search for escape, the hyperbolic language, the disgust with sex, all in a stew of alcohol – could this be anybody but Eugene O’Neill? And yet it’s the O’Neill you never knew – his first play, Exorcism. It had a brief run at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1920.
Then O’Neill ordered every copy of that play destroyed.
It was never clear what antipathy the great playwright had for this early work. Many authors are embarrassed by their immature writings, although we should note that O’Neill got his first Pulitzer only a year after Exorcism was produced. Some scholars speculate that he had the copies destroyed because he believed the play would offend his father, with whom he was reconciling.
Or it may have been that in 1912, O’Neill did exactly the same thing Ned Malloy did – try to kill himself in remorse over an act of adultery with a prostitute.
For ninety years, O’Neill scholars believed that the play was lost forever. But one copy survived – in the possession of Agnes Boulton, O’Neill’s second wife. After she divorced O’Neill, she gave that copy to Philip Yordan, a screenwriter, as a Christmas gift. After Yordan died, a dealer in manuscripts bought the copy from the estate. Then he notified Yale’s Beinecke Library.
The copy had O’Neill’s original hand-lettered notes on it. Yale owns it now. And on March 25 of this year, Arena Stage performed a staged reading of it, using the young men and women in its Fellows program.
Enrico Nassi, a Community Engagement Fellow, played Ned Malloy, and Management Fellow David Olsen played Jimmy. Johnny Lloyd, a Company Management Fellow, took on the role of Major Andrews, a boarding-house neighbor of Ned and Jimmy who helps rescue Ned from his suicidal stupor, and Marketing Fellow Sam McMenamin took on the dual role of Ned’s remorseful father and Nordstrom, a Swedish immigrant preparing to light out for Minnesota. Emily Thompson, another Community Engagement Fellow, read O’Neill’s copious stage directions and Senior Directing Fellow Ameneh Bordi directed.
I caught up with Ms. Bordi (electronically) and asked her what it was like to stage a lost play of Eugene O’Neill.
DCTS: Let’s begin at the bottom line: if this had been a play written 90 years ago by Eugene Neal, instead of Eugene O’Neill, would it have been worth producing today?
Ameneh Bordi: I think as a one act, namely just the first act as it’s currently written, this play would be worth doing without a doubt. The first act is a beautiful two-person scene, between an eternal optimist and a dark pessimist on the eve of the latter’s suicide attempt. It has humor, it has astoundingly poetic lines, it is remarkably current, and it’s a great vehicle for a young actor. I think the second act is a bit weaker, especially in juxtaposition to the first; things happen too quickly and it seems a tacked-on bit of redemption for the main character. Still, given the choice to do it as-is or not at all, I think it’s a good piece of theater, worthy of the stage even without the clout of its famous author.
DCTS: Does including this play in the canon help us to understand O’Neill any better?
I think seeing a young O’Neill, so raw and so obviously tormented, on the eve of his suicide gives us a window into why his outlook on life was so grim. The thing that’s most striking in this play is his reason for ending his life; it’s not his imminent divorce, his poverty, or his isolation from his family. It’s the fact that after meeting with a prostitute and waking up next to her, he feels that she is a horrid indication of the ugliness of the world, and that he can no longer live in such a world. He says, “I’m through — when all beauty is gone out of the world!” We can see how important beauty and perhaps by extension art is to him, and this may be why he wrote so much and so well. This play has been proven to be an autobiographical one, and I think having such an insight into the mind of an artist cannot be undervalued.
DCTS: Did you have any qualms about staging a play which the playwright obviously didn’t want people to see?
There are many indications that O’Neill said he didn’t want plays staged when in reality he ensured they would be. From what I have read, this piece was performed once, and then he attempted to destroy all copies out of respect to his family, especially his father. I cannot but think that he valued his own work as a playwright and that if he knew how much of an influence he had on future playwrights, and how this piece could help deepen our understanding of him and his canon, he would allow it to be included (especially in a comprehensive festival such as the one currently held at Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre.
DCTS: If you had a big budget and an opportunity to give this play a full staging, how would you do it?
I think it would help to see the griminess of the apartment as described by O’Neill. In our staged reading we pared down the “set” to just six chairs, used as two benches. I would have liked to flesh out the world he paints for us with a full room. I also would appreciate having more time to spend with the actors to dive deeper into the complexities of each character. During the performance on March 25, I was able to do some simple staging, but I think a lot could be uncovered in a longer rehearsal period. For instance, I kept the physical contact between the characters minimal, but with more time I might have explored how Ned and Jimmy (the characters matching O’Neill and his roommate) interact, whether Ned might push Jimmy out of the room, or Jimmy might invade Ned’s personal space too much. These kinds of details come only with time and rehearsal, and although I was so pleased with what the actors achieved in our rehearsal period, I would love to excavate the text even deeper.
DCTS: Could you find the seeds for O’Neill’s later, better plays in this play? What did you notice about that?
I actually think this play is quite good, as I said earlier, especially the first act. However, yes, I do see some seeds in this play that are carried throughout his work. For instance, almost all of his plays involve some sort of interaction with a prostitute, and in this play we see clearly an experience that moved him deeply. Also, we see the strained interaction between father and son, and the power dynamic between the two of them. This is certainly also a theme throughout his work.
DCTS: What was the audience’s response?
I am happy to say that the audience seemed very pleased with the performance of Exorcism. There were quite a few chuckles, some in places I expected, some not! The applause at the end was strong and sustained, and in the lobby people were commenting on how well the actors had portrayed the characters. I think people were excited to see what is probably the first staging of this play since its re-discovery and possibly the second performance ever!
DCTS: Did you learn anything new from this process?
As always, my awe for actors and for my peers grew immensely. The wonderful actors involved in this production were all full- time fellows at Arena Stage, and they all performed so wonderfully. I learned to mine the youth at a theater, because they are undoubtedly full of talent! I also saw how simplifying my goals and staging could give a more clean and cohesive performance. Finally, I got a bit of insight into the mind of an artistic genius, and his focus on beauty really moved me.