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The Devil's Glow
by Alice Woods


The sixth bill of the 1917-1918 season in New York opened with a play by Alice Woods titled The Devil’s Glow.  When reading Agnes Boulton’s account in Part of a Long Story of meeting Alice Woods Ullman (she used her married name except for her published writing), it is difficult to understand how Bolton says that she and O’Neill could have had their first meeting with Woods in Provincetown in early April of 1918, know nothing about her previously, and yet she had a play open as part of the Players’ sixth bill on March 29, 1918.  The Gelbs, whose information one assumes must have come from interviews with Ms. Ullman, paint a slightly different picture, in which O’Neill and Boulton meet Woods shortly after arriving in Provincetown, which was sometime in February 1918.  They explain that Woods, a prolific short story writer and novelist, had told O’Neill about one of her stories and he encouraged her to turn it into a one-act play.  One assumes that O’Neill sent it to the Players in New York, but however it was presented to them, The Devil’s Glow was accepted for production on the sixth bill.  Woods Ullman befriended the couple and, in fact, served as a witness at their small wedding on April 12, 1918 in Provincetown, MA, having been instrumental in helping them with the actual legal process of getting married in that town.

Originally from Indiana and the daughter of a federal Judge(1), Woods Ullman spent much of young adult life living in Paris, where she had gone to study art and where she met and, in 1903, married American impressionist painter Eugene Paul Ullman.  She and her husband were part of the expatriate crowd in Paris at the turn of the century, maintaining friendships with Gertrude Stein and those who attended her famous salon, and they counted Booth Tarkington among their good friends.(2)  The couple had two sons, Allan and Paul, but separated sometime in 1914, though they didn’t divorce until 1922.(3)  Woods returned to the States in 1914 with her sons and continued writing and painting.  Bolton and O’Neill visited her while in Provincetown in her “charming little house” that had an orchard.(4)  Prior to this, Woods’ published several short stories and six novels, many of which she also illustrated herself, and most of her writing in general dealt with “women’s attempts at social liberation from Victorian mores.”(5)

Unfortunately, no copy of The Devil’s Glow in play form is known to exist, but The Smart Set published in October 1916 her short story by the same name.  I will give a synopsis here of the story, based on the 1916 short story, since none has ever been given for this play. The first scene of the story takes place on a hot August night in the shabby downtown Manhattan attic apartment of Richard and Olive Milburn, where the lights of the city provide the glow of the title, as well as represent selling out artistically for success. Their long-time friend Jerry Kilgore, has come to visit them, but Olive has a headache and is laying down.  Both of the men are poets, but Jerry has become financially successful and Richard is down on his luck, even though Jerry makes it clear that Richard was the most talented of all their friends.  Richard’s staunch pride rears when Jerry challenges him to agree to write more popular works for his rich publisher Oakley. When it’s clear Richard won’t do that, Jerry tries to get him to borrow some money from him that would provide them a decent living, trying to guilt him into it by suggesting it would be right to do this for Olive and their children. In response, Richard says of the lights below them,

“’that horrible glow out there, night after night, endlessly, is going to be the death of me!  I—hate it so!  But—it beckons me!’ he laughed, shockingly, his eyes glittering at Kilgore. ‘It’s the devil’s own breath—that glow!  I—don’t know how long I’ll be able to resist it. It burns there all night, behind me, torturing and taunting me…’”(6) 

In spite of this, and thanking Jerry for his continued friendship, Richard refuses his offer.  After Jerry leaves, Richard tells Olive he’s going out for a walk and to smoke the gift of a cigar Jerry has left.

Olive comes from the bedroom to the living room, and Jerry surprises her by having returned to speak with her.  She confesses to him that she didn’t have a headache, just wanted to think alone in the dark.  It becomes clear in their conversation that Jerry is in love with Olive, and wants for her all that life, and he, could give her, but she loves Richard and knows her role with him. Jerry tells her,

“’I’ve got everything that glow of Dick’s out there has to give—and it is not what I want. Dick has you, and just as he vows he hates the glow he longs for it! You make me feel like murder, like tearing things down—you small creature, dear to me as nothing else is dear—with your quiet, your goodness, your patience.’”(7)

We see that Olive still cares for Jerry, but her overriding commitment to Richard is foremost and he leaves when she explains there is no way Richard would ever borrow money from him.

Richard returns home and he calls for Olive, who joins him in their front room. He produces a gold purse that he has come upon on his walk while in front of the home of a well-to-do family. After looking at the contents of the purse, it’s clear that, ironically, he had been in front of the home of Oakley, the publisher Jerry works for.  There’s very little cash in the purse, more irony, and Olive tells him that she’ll arrange to have it returned.  When Richard tells her about Jerry’s visit and how badly he’s made him feel, he also tells her that Jerry loves her, which she surprises him by responding that she knows.  Under the guise that Richard can really concentrate on finishing his epic poem and nothing else, she tells him she’s going to go to Jerry and borrow money. Feeling things are settled, Olive asks him to come to bed, that he needs his strength for his work.  He refuses, claiming he wants to work, so she goes in without him.  In a rage, Richard begins to rip up his poems and the scraps begin to fly around in the night breeze. He climbs onto the fire escape, staring at the glow below him, and then lifts his arms “to the heavens,” and then in a moment, he plunged, “and it was as if no creature had ever stood there at all.”  The story ends with Olive calling from the bedroom, “Richard dear…do come! You’ll be so tired tomorrow!”(8)

The playbill lists three characters in the play, two male and one female: Jerry Kilgore, a successful author; Richard Milburn, an unsuccessful poet; and Olive Milburn, his wife. These characters were portrayed in the Players' production by Sydney K. Powell, William Rothschild and Nina Moise, respectively.  The scene is the Milburn’s apartment in New York, and the play was directed by Harold R. Parsons; Rothchilds and Parsons were new to the Players, and it is interesting to note Moise’s choice to act and allow herself to be directed by someone else.

© Jeff Kennedy, 2007 & 2013.

(1) Her father was Judge William Allen Woods, who was one of the two judges to issue an injunction against the Pullman strike and who presided at Eugene Debs’ trial for violating the injunction.  Pierre L. Ullman, “Eugene Paul Ullman and the Paris Expatriates,” Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter (1984) 102.

(2) Woods was also friends in Paris with fellow Indiana native Margaret Cravens, a pianist who studied in Paris with Ravel and others, and who had a two-year relationship with Ezra Pound.  Cravens, plagued by physical ailments and a growing dissatisfaction with her artistry and singleness, committed suicide in 1912, as her father had recently done.  In her unpublished memoir, Woods claims that her husband Eugene was the first to enter Cravens’ apartment after her suicide and found a note from Pound, which he took before the police could find it.  Woods has been cryptic about the incident, never revealing what the note said but stating clearly that Pound was responsible for Cravens’ suicide.  Woods’ 1924 novel, The Hairpin Duchess, is a thinly veiled depiction of Cravens’ relationship with Pound and her subsequent suicide.

(3) Ullman 100. Ullman was the son of Eugene Ullman and his second wife, but writes that his half-brother Allen felt that the Gelbs in O’Neill by incorrectly writing that his parents divorced in 1903 “illegitimized him.”

(4) Bolton 104; Gelb, O’Neill 371.

(5) Ullman 102.

(6) Alice Woods, "The Devil's Glow," The Smart Set, Volume 50, October 1916, 113.

(7) Woods 116.

(8) Woods 122.