Is He Dead?
In 1896, Mark Twain, one of America’s best-loved humorists, had nothing to laugh about. His eldest daughter, Susy, died of meningitis in the midst of a period of crippling debt brought on by a series of bad investments. So in January 1898, upon emerging from a deep depression, he did what anyone might expect: He wrote.
The result was a play that the University of Nevada, Reno’s theater group, Nevada Repertory Company, will present this month.
Although many scholars had looked at the play over the course of a century, none quite saw its potential, which is why it was eventually buried in what became the Mark Twain Papers, locked away in a set of file drawers in the library at the University of California, Berkeley.
That’s where it sat until 2002, when Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered it. It’s thanks to Fishkin that the play has reached the stage.
“I came across it while I was checking something in a bad play that Twain co-authored with Bret Harte,” recalls Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha professor of humanities, professor of English and director of the American Studies Program at Stanford University.
“I was astonished to find an entire file drawer of plays by Twain,” she says. “I ate my scholarly spinach and read through everything in the drawer. It was quite rough going until I got to the penultimate play, Is He Dead?, a manuscript copied by a secretary, in her handwriting. I began reading and found myself laughing out loud in the archives. I realized it was a gem that needed to reach audiences.”
Fishkin was determined to get the play published and performed for audiences. But as a property of the Mark Twain Foundation, it couldn’t have been finished by just anybody. Fishkin, an established Twain scholar, worked closely with the Foundation to ensure its accuracy, to conduct research that accompanies the play in published form, and to finally have a book, Is He Dead? A Comedy in Three Acts by Mark Twain, published by the University of California Press in 2003.
Once published, it was adapted for modern American audiences by renowned Broadway playwright David Ives, who boiled the play down to two acts, reduced the enormous cast of 35 to a more manageable 11, and “punched things up,” says Fishkin, for today’s theatergoers.
According to Larry Walters, managing director of theater and associate professor of theater at UNR, this is an “old school comedy,” whose main character, Jean-Francois Millet, a painter living near Paris, is struggling to sell his landscapes. Millet’s friends suggest perhaps his work might sell better if he were dead. Consequently, the painter fakes his own death and resurfaces in drag—like you do—posing as his “twin sister,” which works until he falls in love with a woman.
(The real Millet’s life bears little resemblance to the play’s story.)
The play opened on Broadway in 2007 to rave reviews, in the Lyceum Theater, which Twain himself had attended.
This 2010 Nevada Rep production, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death, stars Patrick Laffoon as Millet. Director Rob Gander, department chair, has made the unusual choice to take on an assistant student director, James Schlauch.
Twain scholar Fishkin will arrive on campus following the opening weekend to give two talks—the first about the process of ushering the play to Broadway, and the second to discuss Twain’s image abroad.
“This is actually a very modern play that deals with the idea that living artists are only valued when dead,” says Fishkin. “It satirizes the art world and how value is created in art, which is not unrelated to Twain’s own questions about his legacy.”