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The Angel Intrudes
by Floyd Dell


Floyd Dell had left the Players in anger almost a year before over the directing of A Long Time Ago and the somewhat bizarre staging and costumes that director Duncan McDougal used to interpret the play.  During that time, Dell had continued as Associate Editor of The Masses, but the U.S. entrance into the war had affected all publications of a revolutionary nature, both because responses against the war filled their pages, and because the Espionage Act made it dangerous to publish them.  On July 5, 1917, The U. S. Post Office informed the Masses that it was unmailable under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, but two weeks later a judge ruled in favor of the magazine.  The postmaster appealed the ruling, and the August issue was again stopped from being mailed.  While the magazine could continue to print, so much of their income came from mailings rather than from street sales that it placed their financial situation in peril.  This did not stop the writers and artists of the Masses, who actually stepped up their attacks against the war.  However, in November 1917, the original ruling by the judge was overturned and the Masses shut down; soon Eastman, Dell, Reed, Art Young, and an artist named Glintenkamp, business manager Merrill Rogers, and poet Josephine Bell were all indicted, charged with “conspiring to cause mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces, and to obstruct recruiting and enlistment to the injury of service.”(1) 

Cook talked Dell into returning to the Players and he allowed them to produce the two plays he’d written for them but withdrew when he left.  Dell agreed to their use only if he could supervise their production.  Like Oppenheim when The Seven Arts was shut down over its stand against the war, Dell found himself with time on his hands, though he had been working on a novel for months and would continue to do so.  In his autobiography, he describes “at least, while I had no job, I would have time . . . to stand over my play and see that it was not mangled.”(2)  The Angel Intrudes had been published in Vanity Fair that past summer and was a satirical take on the general idea of Anatole France’s novel La Revolte des anges,(3) in which a guardian angel, Arcade (Dell uses the same name for his angel character, obviously wanting the identification with the original), falls in love, joins the revolutionary movement of angels, and toward the end he realizes that the overthrow of God is meaningless.  At one point in the novel, Arcade appears naked in human form just as the young man he’s guarding, Maurice, is seducing Gilberte; Arcade eventually becomes her lover.  Dell’s play, subtitled “A Comedy with a Prologue,”(4) concentrates on parodying just this one section of France’s book rather than the grander aspirations of its overall sweep.  In Dell’s play, Arcade is the guardian angel of a young man, Jimmy Pendleton, who lives in the Village.  He arrives on earth in Washington Square and his “shining garments and great white wings” attract the attention of a Policeman on the street.(5)  After he tells the cop he’s the guardian angel of Jimmy, the Policeman offers to take him to his door because, “Well, faith, he needs one!”  Refusing his help, the angel “spreads his wings and soars to the top of Washington Arch.  Pausing there a moment, it soars again in the air. . .”(6)  Jimmy lives in a studio in Washington Mews,(7) and the scene opens with him asleep, a copy of  France’s novel near him on the floor.  A clock striking twelve midnight wakes him up, and he exclaims “What a queer dream,” and then he becomes upset, pacing the room and calling himself names: “Fool! Idiot! Imbecile!”(8)  There is the honk of a taxi and then a knock at the door that reveals Annabelle, a young beautiful girl.  Jimmy is surprised to see her as he thought they were to “meet at the station.”(9)  She’s come to discuss love with him, and we quickly see they have different definitions, which threatens to abort their trip to run off together.  In the discussion that follows, it becomes apparent that Jimmy is not necessarily opposed to having that happen.  However, the couple decides to give it a try anyway, and they begin to madly kiss when the lights go out; a moment later the Angel appears in the room and identifies himself to the bewildered couple as Jimmy’s guardian angel.  The Angel claims to want to have human experiences, and begins by learning to smoke a cigarette, to flirt and to drink alcohol.  He finally wants to trade his white robes and wings for a set of clothes.  While Jimmy is getting him something to wear, the Angel, in his naive honesty, seduces Annabelle by telling her he wants to stay in a world where she is forever.  Jimmy enters the room and finds them kissing, and when she tells him she’s never been in love (implying until now), Jimmy responds with, “The fickleness of women is notorious.  It is exceeded only by their mendacity.  But Angels have up to this time stood in good repute.  Your conduct, sir, is scandalous.”(10)  The Angels changes his clothes in the other room as Jimmy tries to talk Annabelle out of it, but she’s convinced she and the Angel are in love and that “whether it lasts a day or a year, while it lasts it will be immortal.”  The Angel returns looking like a human save for the wings in his hands, which he tells Annabelle to take and burn and, though at first she wants to save them, decides to follow his wishes.  But Jimmy steps in, preventing her from burning the wings, and pleads with the Angel not to do it and to rethink this whole situation.  When it’s clear he can’t change their minds about being together, Jimmy gives them the train tickets he’d bought for himself and Annabelle, telling them “I hope I never see either of you again!”(11)  They take the tickets and, when the taxi horn blows outside, they leave Jimmy alone in the room.  He takes his suitcase and goes into the other room and then, after a moment of silence, we see the Angel sneak back into the room and take his wings, “safely clasped to his bosom,” and the play ends as he “vanishes again through the door.”(12)

The playbill says that the “Scenes are by Floyd Dell and Neal Reber,” and it is known that Dell came up with the design for the opening of the play, set outside in Washington Square.  In an interview with Sarlos, Dell says that he painted a backdrop of the Village location on a snowy night, with a fence painted across the front, and that the scene turned gradually dirty toward the ground.  “In the gray mysterious background the outlines of a pavilion were dimly visible.”(13)  Dell writes that members “were at first doubtful of my Washington Square backdrop. . . ”(14)  The one person who “pronounced it beautiful” was new to the Players, and she would soon become important to them and to Dell’s personal life.  During auditions, Dell recalls that “a slender little girl with red-gold hair came to the greenroom. . . . looked her frivolous part to perfection, and read the lines so winningly that she was at once engaged.”  Only after she left and they looked at her contact information did they realize that this Edna Millay was the Edna St. Vincent Millay that authored “the beautiful and astonishing poem, ‘Renascence’” and had a volume of her poems titled Renascence and Other Poems released on December 5.(15)  After graduating from Vassar that year, Millay she had come to New York to be an actress, believing that no one could make a living as a poet.  Though he had sworn off love affairs while in psychoanalysis, Dell soon fell for Millay and they began an affair.  Norma, Edna’s sister, lived with her in the Village and wrote to her sister Kathleen: “Vincent [what most friends and family called her] has a part in a one act play with the Provincetown Players and we are so very pleased.  She won’t get anything but notoriety but quite a name around town” and wrote that they were “wild about our sister,” voting her into active membership quite quickly.(16)  Churchill called her performance “delicious” and says that for the “next two years at least she was best known to the Village as ‘that beautiful young actress from the Provincetown.’”(17)

Dell co-directed the play with Moise and they decided to play the comedy straight, without the habit of “winking” at the audience to remind them it was a parody and, as Sarlos aptly writes, as “amateurs are so prone to enjoy.”  Dell told Sarlos that Moise was “eminently friendly and competent” when they worked together.(18)  When faced with Dell’s stage direction in which the Angel “soars to the top of Washington Arch,”(19) the two directors chose to have the actor playing the Angel, James Light, stretch his arms forward and above his head, and then to walk nimbly offstage.”(20)  Justus Sheffield played Jimmy Pendleton and Abram Gillette played the Policeman.  When it was published in Dell’s collection of plays, King Arthur’s Socks, in 1922, he dedicated the play to George Cram Cook.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007.

(1) Clayton 162.

(2) Dell, Homecoming 298-299.

(3) Anatole France was a writer, critic, and one of the major figures of French literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.  In The Revolt of Angels (1914) France used the familiar theme of religious conflict from Milton's Paradise Lost.  The work, a strong protest against violence and tyranny, was considered by many the author's last interesting novel.

(4) Kenton 64.

(5) Dell, King 45.

(6) Dell, King 46.

(7) Washington Mews is an alley in Greenwich Village between 5th Avenue and University Place just north of Washington Square; it housed stables originally, which have all been converted to housing.

(8) Dell, King 47.

(9) Dell, King 48.

(10) Dell, King 56.

(11) Dell, King 59.

(12) Dell, King 60.

(13) Sarlos, Provincetown 168.

(14) Clayton 147.

(15) Dell, Homecoming 299.

(16) Black, Women 79. Black cites Norma Millay letter to Kathleen n.d. Millay Family Papers.

(17) Churchill 209.

(18) Sarlos, Provincetown 169.

(19) Dell, King 46.

(20) Sarlos, Provincetown 169.