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A satirist's so-called play

Is He Dead?

A Comedy in Three Acts; A New Play by the Master Satirist! Mark Twain; Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin; University of California Press: 234 pp., $24.95

October 26, 2003|Justin Kaplan | Justin Kaplan is the author of "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain" and "Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York," written in collaboration with his wife, the novelist Anne Bernays.

Like Henry James, but with somewhat more success, Mark Twain tried to make a go of it as a playwright. One of James' plays, "Guy Domville," was virtually hissed off the London stage on its opening night in 1895. Twain's parallel career in the theater at least had its ups as well as downs.

His loose dramatization of his novel "The Gilded Age" -- basically a one-character show, with the popular comedian John T. Raymond as Colonel Sellers -- was an immediate success that led him to overestimate his talent as a writer for the stage. But "Ah Sin," a play he wrote with Bret Harte about a Chinese laundryman, drew only dwindling audiences in Washington and New York.

More memorable than anything in "Ah Sin" was the closing-night curtain speech that Twain delivered from the stage as a thank you to the producer, Augustin Daly. The more Daly had cut, he explained, "the better the play got. I never saw a play that was so much improved by being cut down, and I believe it would have been one of the very best plays in the world if his strength had held out so that he could cut out the whole of it."

From the seemingly bottomless grandmother's trunk of Twain's papers at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, the indefatigable Shelley Fisher Fishkin has retrieved a previously unpublished comedy in three acts, "Is He Dead?" Twain wrote it in Vienna in 1898, when he was still mourning the death of his favorite daughter, Susy, and working his way out of bankruptcy. He brightened his days by turning to farce and satire. "I always believed I couldn't write a play that would play, but this one will," he predicted. He hoped to repeat the spectacular success in London and New York of Brandon Thomas' 1892 farce, "Charley's Aunt."

Almost 30 years earlier, in his first great success as the author of "Innocents Abroad," Twain had made fun of the American reverence for Michelangelo and other sacred figures of Old World culture by asking his patient guide, "Is he dead?" ("I never felt so fervently thankful ... as I did yesterday when I learned that Michel Angelo was dead.") The "He" and nominal hero of "Is He Dead?" is the Barbizon painter of peasant life, Jean-Francois Millet, celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for "The Angelus," "The Gleaners" and "The Sower."

Like Twain himself at one point, the stage Millet is deep in debt. He considers suicide, but his students talk him out of it. Hatching a farcical scheme, they fake his death and stage an elaborate funeral to put his name before the public, bump up the price of his work and engage competing dealers, royalty and millionaires in a frenzy of acquisition. Among the 18 or so characters in the play (an unwieldy number to begin with) are a German, Hans von Bismarck, speaking in a Wiener schnitzel accent; "a young Chinaman," whose pidgin English includes the dismissive "Go helly!"; and an array of minimally characterized Hindu, Spanish, Turkish and Irish art students. They entertain themselves with a characteristic Mark Twain running joke about a Dachshund: "It is a mighty long dog.... Is it a real dog, or only a design for a new kind of dog?"

Sprinkled throughout the three acts and 138 pages of "Is He Dead?" are other familiar Twain shticks, some of which had seen happier days and have a warmed-over feeling. Like Huck Finn pretending to be "Sarah Mary Williams," Twain's Millet, pretending to be his own widow, puts on women's clothing, but this does not produce the same hilarious effect as the cross-dressed protagonist of Thomas' play, who announces herself as "Charley's aunt from Brazil, where the nuts come from."

And like Tom Sawyer, Millet witnesses his own funeral. As in Jim Blaine's "Old Ram" story in "Roughing It," we meet up with a crippled old woman with a wig, false teeth, a selection of glass eyes, which she tends to insert backward, and a screw-on wooden leg fastened with the heel in front. "Isn't any part of her genuine?" a suitor asks. There's also a reprise, with some variations and improvements, of Twain's old "Invalid's Story" about the real or imagined odors coming from a coffin and two pounds of Limburger cheese. Millet should have been buried "last summer," says one of the mourners.

To the same extent that Twain overvalued his dramatic gift, I think professor Fishkin overvalues "Is He Dead?" It's clearly not even an example of Twain's second-best work. Given the play's essential slightness and bottom-of-the-barrel quality, her 86 pages of commentary and notes, although scrupulously informed, especially about Millet's work and reputation, are way out of proportion to their subject.

She describes "Is He Dead?" as "a champagne cocktail of a play -- not too dry, not too sweet, with just the right amount of bubbles and buzz." But this comedy simply isn't fresh, engaging or entertaining. It's something of an affront to the incomparable Twain to dig up this carcass and trumpet qualities it never had.

In the end, despite his customary enthusiasm when starting anything new, Twain recognized that his champagne cocktail had gone flat. After a series of rejections by Bram Stoker and other producers of the day, he consigned this "so-called play" (his phrase) to the trunk.

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