Copyright © 2003 Mark Twain Forum
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Cleveland Plain Dealer
Mark Twain, like Charles Dickens before him, could not resist the lure of the stage. Like Dickens, he made several attempts to establish himself as a playwright. Like Dickens, he repeatedly met with disappointment.
And, intriguingly enough, like Dickens, he did receive a great measure of acclaim in theatrical circles, but as a wildly popular platform performer, not as a playwright.
As one play after another failed even to get produced, Twain playfully entertained the possibility that he was a lousy playwright. "The greatest of all the arts is to write a drama," he declared in 1900. "It is a most difficult thing. It requires the highest talent possible and the rarest gifts. No, there is another talent that ranks with it--for anybody can write a drama--I had 400 of them--but to get one accepted requires real ability. And I have never had that felicity yet."
Was he right? Well, little to contradict this conclusion can be found in Is He Dead? A Comedy in Three Acts, a curious mess of a play that Twain wrote in 1898. Judge for yourself. The comedy has been extracted from the Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, whose provocative works on the writer include Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices and Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture.
Published in a handsome edition by the University of California Press, Is He Dead? is dreary proof of what Twain ultimately suspected about himself as a writer--that perhaps he lacked the tools to be a first-rate playwright. Indeed, he did. But that does not necessarily make Is He Dead? dreary reading for a theater student, a Twain devotee or even a casual fan. What you get out of this volume largely will depend on how you approach it, and, yes, the work demands to be evaluated from several perspectives.
First and foremost, Is He Dead? must be considered an important contribution to literary scholarship in general and Twain studies in particular. This is decidedly third-rate Twain, but what of it? No work by Mark Twain is uninteresting or unimportant, after all, so anything he wrote should prove fascinating reading from a purely literary standpoint.
If we recovered a largely unknown and inferior play by Tennessee Williams, would it be of interest? Would its publication be almost a sacred duty? You bet your jumping frog it would. Even the failures of a genius command our attention.
Working with a text established by the incomparable Mark Twain Project team in Berkeley, Fishkin has gone beyond the previous researchers who gave slight notice to the play and has endeavored to bring it to public attention. And as the line goes from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, "attention must be paid." So the student of literature, as well as theater, has much to mull over here. For better or worse, this is a complete work by Mark Twain, folks, and those don't pull into town on the noon stage every day.
From the purely Twainian standpoint, Is He Dead? is still more fascinating. The Twain buff can and should have a jolly time reading the play, noticing along the way how many distinct echoes there are of previous works. Liberally "borrowing" from himself, Twain pulls out the humorous description of the "long, low dog" (the dachshund) from Following the Equator. He appropriates the pungent idea of limburger cheese being mistaken for a rotting corpse from "The Invalid's Story." He repeats the routine of vague and perplexing answers from "An Encounter with an Interviewer." He resurrects jokes from "His Grandfather's Old Ram" in Roughing It. He lifts the device of the story's hero watching his own funeral from Tom Sawyer. And on and on goes the game of "spot the influences." In fact, the entire play is based on his 1893 short story, "Is He Living or Is He Dead?" In this tale, we are told how French artist Jean-Francois Millet faked his own death, knowing that unknown painters often become hot items after they are dead. Sure enough, the lionized Millet becomes "posthumously" rich and famous.
All of these associations are wonderfully detailed in Fishkin's insightful foreword and afterword material, which provide splendid background on "Mark Twain and the Theatre," "Mark Twain and Art," the real Millet's life and career, the play's many associations to other Twain works, the theater of Twain's day, and Twain's attempts to get Is He Dead? produced.
The Twainiac will find Fishkin's illuminating essays as valuable as the play itself. They provide all the necessary context for approaching and appreciating the comedy about Millet and his artist friends. You may not agree with Fishkin on the quality of the play, but you can't help being impressed by the thoroughness of her research and the vitality of her writing. As elegant as Fishkin's prose are the original illustrations by woodcut engraver Barry Moser, the Pennyroyal Press proprietor whose work graced the 100th anniversary edition of Huckleberry Finn published by the University of California Press in 1985.
Twain said he wrote the play for fun, and that's precisely how a Twain aficionado should read it. Some of the lines are vintage Twain. There are several nifty phrasings ("O, shucks! you don't know as much as an art-critic," one of the starving artists says to another). And the writer manages to sneak in a few withering satirical blasts at the art world, society and, of course, the French. In many ways, Is He Dead? is a better play than, say, Twain's miserable attempt to adapt Tom Sawyer. There's no whitewashing the ineptitude of that terribly off-key effort, which, despite being based on a book the author called "simply a hymn," also demonstrates Twain's tin ear as a playwright.
But although mildly amusing as a bit of Twain humor, Is He Dead? is a disaster as a piece of theater--a disaster that completely confirms Twain's assessment of his talents as a playwright. He was 100 percent correct about his lack of ability to write a play that "would play." This one wouldn't, at least not without serious revisions and cuts.
So it is from the theater standpoint that Is He Dead? comes off the worst. For a literary fellow with a strong sense of the theatrical, the man has almost no sense of stagecraft. He starts off the play with no less than ten artists in the "good guy" Millet camp. Ten! He's asking the unsuspecting theater-goers to keep track of ten artists right off the bat, and then, while they're desperately consulting their programs, he starts throwing dozens of new people at them.
The playwright's instinct would have told him he could get by with just four artists. This would have reduced the number of people for the audience to follow, focusing the piece and reducing the clutter.
This is what the true playwright would do. Twain at last confessed that he lacked these instincts, saying, "I judge the trouble is that the literary man is thinking of the style and quality of the thing, while the playwright thinks only of how it will play." That's part of the trouble, to be sure. It's certainly true that few writers of the time thought of the stage as an outlet for literary endeavors. But it's also true that Twain, "the literary man," failed to allow for the basic conventions of the theater.
The novelist can rally hordes of soldiers or seething mobs in a few concise sentences. Twain can't quite leave behind that novelist's advantage in this department, and it dooms him as a playwright.
Conservatively, you would need at least fifty actors to effectively stage the play as Twain has written it--and many of them would have to double or triple up on parts. Pity the poor audience trying to keep everybody straight in this play.
Think of how many people it would take just to do the Act I scene where the evil art dealer Andre sets out to spoil the sale of paintings. It begins with nine artists on stage. Andre arrives with "several" pals, out to squash every potential deal. We're told there are also "a lot" of "long-haired young Latin Quarter Artists," along with the chimney sweep, newsboys, flower girls, peasants, laborers, mechanics, women with bundles. And that's not to mention Basil Thorpe and the art partons.
What was Twain thinking? He surely wasn't thinking about how to properly stage a scene for the stage. A director, should he live through the casting process, would require about 25 people and a traffic cop even to suggest this scene. And there's your mess of a play.
The novelist summons the entire population of Paris for a scene, putting them on paper as he chooses. The playwright slashes the most complicated of proceedings, employing the smallest number of people. And that's just one example of where Twain proves his theory that he was a failure as a playwright.
The modern director also would need to wrestle with some uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes and musty jokes. Some of the humor, without question, would have been acceptable for the dialect comedians prominent in early vaudeville, but it's hardly worthy of America's greatest humorist. These are minor annoyances, however, compared to the play's overall design problems.
Look at Charley's Aunt, the 1893 Brandon Thomas play most obviously and easily mentioned in comparison with Is He Dead? (largely because Millet dons a dress and wig to impersonate his own sister). Notice how few people Thomas puts on stage, even though the plot spins farcical contrivance upon contrivance. The two plays are similar in tone and style, but Charley's Aunt is a model of efficiency while Is He Dead? is an exercise in futility.
George Bernard Shaw, it has often been said, was no friend to directors, often constructing scenes calling for a regular army of actors. You suspect, though, that, given the choice, a director would dash to the most difficult play by Shaw, a Twain disciple, rather than face the daunting difficulties posed by Is He Dead?.
KISS--keep it simple, stupid--is a good rule in this realm, too. And what Twain did to Feninmore Cooper as a novelist, a Christopher Durang could do to him as a playwright. How many writing rules govern the theater? How many does Twain break?
One need not feel bad for ol' Sam Clemens on this score. As a writer, he mastered a remarkable array of forms and styles: humor, novels, travel books, letters, essays, journalism, criticism, speeches. He is permitted a weak spot or two, and the writing of plays was one of these.
To recap possible reactions, then, the Twain fan and the theater student should find Is He Dead? entertaining if not riveting; a theater director should find it bewildering if not bedeviling.
It is, however, a piece of Twain literature and a piece of its time (a museum piece, one might say), and therefore doubly worthy of discussion and dissection. But it isn't proof that Twain possessed the ability to write a play.
Mark Twain frequently returned to the notion that experience was an "author's most valuable asset." He voiced this opinion many times and in many ways, but never more succinctly than in the following eight words: "Supposing is good, but finding out is better." Twain sometimes supposed that he had the "write stuff" to be a successful playwright. Experience taught him better.
Our affection for Mark Twain leaves us hoping that one day proof will be found to reverse this conclusion. Is He Dead? isn't it.
Mark Dawidziak is the TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer; he is
also a playwright and the director of Northwest Ohio's Largely Literary Theater
Company. His eight published books include Mark
My Words: Mark Twain on Writing and Horton
Foote's The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain.