Time and the Archive

Last week I was in NYC working on Gene Smith’s Sink and Chaos Manor. My editor of Sink gave me a copy of a new book she edited, Exorcism: A Play in One Act (2012) by Eugene O’Neill, based on the writer’s attempted suicide in 1912.  Exorcism had a two-week life on stage in 1920 before O’Neill destroyed the script.  Elements of the play emerged in O’Neill’s masterpieces, The Iceman Cometh (1940) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), but the original text was thought to be gone.  Nearly ninety years after Exorcism was written, the script was discovered in the papers of the late Philip Yordan, a screenwriter who had apparently received his copy from O’Neill’s second wife in the 1940s.  Yale University Press published the script this year, with a forward by Edward Albee and an introduction by Louise Bernard, former Curator of Prose and Drama at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Bernard’s introduction, “Time and the Archive,” an essay on the metaphysical values of saving things – objects and memories, in this case the “lost” play of a Nobel prize winner, stunned me.  It’s one of the best pieces I’ve read concerning the enigma of archival research, with many ramifications for JLP and my work on Gene Smith’s Sink.  Here are Bernard’s first two paragraphs:

There is much to be said for the relationship between Time and the Archive, each term capitalized here as befitting its symbolic function.  Time – that ineffable thing which signifies the broad sweep of history – is at once deep and long and granular, an (in)finite string of fleeting moments that constitute something like duration.  Although human endeavor appears to follow a teleological thrust, chronology is equally tied to happenstance and hence to the host of disjointed patterns that refuse easy coherence.  Even as we break down time into digestible parts (days, years, centuries, or broad, expansive eras), such arbitrary units necessarily rub up against their opposite: the intangible stream of human consciousness as a fluid movement of thought, or elusive recollection.  Thus, when we speak of time, we also speak, inevitably, of memory, of piecing together the import of events large and small, which brings us, by association, to the figure of the archive itself.

The archive, as the careful assemblage and ordering of documents into discrete bodies of information that capture and record the various workings of the public sphere, provides much fodder for the ever-subjective production of history.  Yet, while the archive’s origins are bureaucratic in nature, the idea of the archive as it related to creativity acquires added resonance when we consider not only the aesthetic lure of the archive as a mode of artistic practice (the playful use of archival accoutrements – filing cabinet, typewriter, index card – in the work, for instance, of the Surrealists) but the way in which the paper trail itself presents an object lesson in the machinations of biography – the interplay of presence and absence that undergirds the telling of an individual’s life story.

- From Louise Bernard’s introduction to Exorcism: A Play in One Act, by Eugene O’Neill.  Yale University Press.  2012.

-Sam Stephenson

Comments are closed.