Of course, O'Neill did allow Exorcism's performance before changing his mind—it was staged by the Provincetown Players in 1920. And as for the play's amateurish structure, Churchwell provides a rebuttal in her own post: A lot of O'Neill's works look a bit of a mess on the page. Churchwell even goes so far as to call him "America's worst great writer," pointing out that "he sometimes seems to hate the language with which he works."
She has a point here. In fact, Exorcism held my attention with greater ease than I was expecting. The sparser stage directions suggest a more confident, less micromanaging author than that of Beyond the Horizon, also appearing in 1920. That play won a Pulitzer Prize, but the italic-heavy lines read like something written for marionettes. Exorcism also, perhaps due to its one-act form, has a lot more movement than Long Day's Journey, in which a staggering ten lines in the first five minutes are dedicated, by various characters, to telling the character Mary some variant of how nice it is to see her "fat" again. "Fat" is a stand-in for "healthy," and the audience is meant to realize that Mary has not been well. The audience (and certainly the reader) probably got this after the second line to this effect—after ten, O'Neill might as well have written in a flashback where the characters come out into the seats and bash a few viewers over the head with Mary's senseless body.
What do we gain by Exorcism's publication? On a purely textual level, pretty much exactly what we gain from the publication of any of O'Neill's plays: another window into an artist's soul; a better understanding, subsequently, of his development; and a few observations and images to take home and ponder as we go about our own lives.
What sets Exorcism aside is its story—not the story told in the text, but the story of the text's own survival. After the play was performed, O'Neill had a change of heart, and he recalled and destroyed the scripts. He clearly missed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the copy spirited away by his later much-hated ex-wife, Agnes Boulton, but the play nevertheless vanished for over 90 years. Would a playwright bent on destruction today have half a good a chance of making his work disappear for this long?
The tale of the play's resurfacing is still more dramatic. According to Louise Bernard, a Yale library curator who pens an introduction to the text in the new edition, Agnes Boulton appears to have given Exorcism quietly to screenwriter Philip Yordan in the 1940s, enclosed in an envelope with Christmas stickers and the label "something you said you'd like to have." This is in stark contrast to the picture we get of the scorned ex-wife in O'Neill's own writings, where Boulton is accused of having stolen a diary and sold it. Neither the diary nor Exorcism, Bernard points out, were ever sold. Exorcism, once in Yordan's possession, doesn't appear to have raised much fuss. It was only recently discovered by his widow, sorting through his papers after his death in 2003.
This is a history worth its own creative rendering. What secret motivations, disputes, and anti-climaxes lie behind the clues Bernard has culled from the archives? Exorcism's most enduring message may be that, even with artists, the drama on stage is no less real than that of everyday life. And even when art is being drawn from experience, the most compelling scenes often take place in the wings.