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Scholar resurrects 'Dead' play by Mark Twain

May 13, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

A long overlooked Mark Twain play -- one that has never been published or staged -- will finally get an audience thanks to the efforts of a Twain scholar. The three-act comedy, "Is He Dead?," is scheduled to be published in October by UC Press and has been optioned for the stage by a Broadway producer, said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who spotted the play during research for a book.

Two years ago, Fishkin was searching the extensive Twain archives at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, when she began "slogging through some very bad plays." But one of the manuscripts jumped out at Fishkin, editor of the 29-volume "The Oxford Mark Twain."

The play was "great fun," Fishkin said. The story follows a group of poor artists in Barbizon, France, who concoct a scheme to fake the death of a friend to drive up demand for his paintings. The deception involves cross-dressing and a fake funeral.

Twain wrote the light comedy in January 1898, during a time of deep sadness -- his daughter had died a few months earlier, and he was struggling to get out of debt.

Other scholars had read the work but "none of them were as taken by it as I was," said Fishkin, a professor of American Studies and English at the University of Texas, Austin.

"I found myself really possessed.... The idea that he came out of this period of gloom to write something that is crazy and exuberant really appeals to me."

Now, Fishkin is working with producer Bob Boyett on a stage production, though no date has been set. Boyett's recent Broadway plays include Edward Albee's "The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?" and Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog."

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