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Twain's Lost Play Finally Comes to Town


by Stephen Becker 2 Apr 2010

In 1898, Mark Twain wrote a play called Is He Dead? But the play was never produced in his lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t discovered until 2002. Tonight, WaterTower Theatre in Addison stages the regional premiere of the play, a century after Twain’s death. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports:

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Mark Shum plays the lead role in Is He Dead?

In 1898, Mark Twain wrote a play called Is He Dead? But the play was never produced in his lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t discovered until 2002. Tonight, WaterTower Theatre in Addison stages the regional premiere of the play, a century after Twain’s death. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports:

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In Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, a struggling French painter desperately wants to marry his girlfriend, but he doesn’t have any money. So he comes up with a plan to stage his own death to drive up the price of his paintings. In order to cash in, he poses as his imaginary twin sister.

A man going undercover in drag was a fairly novel concept when the play was written. But since then we’ve all seen Some Like it Hot, Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire.

James Lemons is directing Is He Dead? at WaterTower Theatre. He agrees a man wearing makeup is no longer enough to keep us laughing – or interested.

LEMONS: “You can only use that device so many times before it becomes old and tired. Or you just become used to seeing the guy in the dress and the wig with the funny voice – what else is he going to do?”

Enter David Ives.

The playwright adapted Twain’s original manuscript into the version that was first produced on Broadway in 2007. In his adaptation, Ives trimmed the number of characters and the running time, further developed the remaining characters and modernized Twain’s original language.

But he didn’t have to do much to make the language work for the modern ear. Shelley Fisher Fishkin is the Twain scholar and Stanford English professor who discovered Is He Dead? while doing research in 2002.

FISHKIN: “I often found as I was going over different versions of the script that when there was a line that just struck me as too contemporary to have been Twain’s and I was about to pencil it and query it and say would he have said this, I went back to the original manuscript and it had been a line that Twain had written. He really wrote a language that we still speak.”

In one scene, the painter – now dressed as his twin, Daisy – is doing a wild can-can dance with a group of men. When his mourning girlfriend, Marie, walks in the room, she can’t understand how a man’s sister can be so joyous so shortly after his death.

MARIE: “Oh Daisy, how could you act so?”

DAISY: “Oh, poor Marie. It wasn’t my natural self that was dancing. When I’m grieved, I get so emotional … You know.”

MARIE: “Oh. Then, it was only … womanly hysterics?”

DAISY: “Womanly hysterics – that was it!”

MARIE: “And the others … they were having womanly hysterics, too?”

DAISY: “Every blessed one of them. They’re all so full of youth and high spirits … You know.”

LEMONS “If you’re just listening or reading the dialogue, there are certainly Twainisms in there – you hear his voice even through an adaptation – especially the throwaway lines that you hear and you think. ‘Oh, that’s Twain! There you go.’”

One of Lemons’ favorite Twainisms in the play is “How dare you rip off the mustache of the woman I’m going to marry!” You’ll have to pour through the original and the adaptation to tell whether or not that line came from Twain or Ives.

Which probably wouldn’t bother Twain much. He knew the play wasn’t presentable as is and left instructions that someone would need to clean up after him to make it workable.

Still, Fishkin says that comic foundation was there all along.

FISHKIN: “Twain said that, ‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever,’ And I think that Twain’s humor always has a serious ethical dimension beneath the laughter, beneath the humor. And that’s part of what makes it very much alive today.”

In fact, it might be more relevant now than it was in 1898. At its heart, Is He Dead? is about a guy who craves fame and fortune but doesn’t necessarily have the talent to get there. Sound familiar?

LEMONS: “In the age of Britney and the age of Paris Hilton, we’re accustomed to celebrity and scandal. And in this play, the characters create their own scandal and make it up. Oftentimes, just by spreading false rumors and false lies, they’re able to give themselves some instant celebrity in order to make this money.”

In that sense, maybe it’s prophetic that Is He Dead? is finally coming to life.

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