Ever the Twain shall mete

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

Who would have thought, 109 years after he finished the script, Mark Twain's witty satire would finally premiere on Broadway? If he were not dead, Twain would likely have something humorous to say about the experience of getting good reviews, but there's no need to speculate about what this quintessential American writer might have said, when we have such a brilliant example of what he did say.

Caitlin Wise as Marie Leroux and Steven Cole Hughes as Jean-Francois Millet
Caitlin Wise as Marie Leroux and
Steven Cole Hughes as Jean-François Millet
Photo: John Gary Brown ©2012
With the help of noted playwright David Ives, Twain's script shines with wall-to-wall volleys that match George Bernard Shaw's deft use of a pen that is mightier than the sword, stripping away pretense like Zorro surgically disrobes the high and mighty, in this case the banking establishment.

Artistic producer Rod Lansberry sees an interesting contrast in this. "You can't get more Americana than Mark Twain; it's fascinating to see how he uses farce for commentary on everyday events in a way that everyone can understand."

Ever since last autumn's worldwide "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations, there has been an increased focus on the role that private banks play in global events. At this point—after revelations concerning chain-of-title issues with mortgages, robo-signings in foreclosure proceedings, and the manipulation of interest rates by Earth's biggest banks—there's no question regarding the relevance of Twain's observations; in fact, we see how little has changed from Twain's time to our own.

Only someone with Twain's gifts could make this state-of-affairs funny, but it was essential to his spirit that he did so. On the heels of a bankruptcy and in the midst of a speaking tour of Europe to recoup, Twain's youngest daughter died. After a long spell of dark days, old Sam Clemons lifted himself up by his bootstraps and wrote his way out of the pain, in his inimitable fashion, with razor sharp repartee and thoughtful insights, all designed to make us laugh.

The protagonist of Twain's farce is Jean-François Millet, a French painter, well-known in the latter half of the 19th century. Despite his talent, Millet has trouble selling his paintings. Twain invents a premise "to explain" how Millet becomes prominent, using this fictional account to offer his wisdom, all served on a liberally employed slapstick.

John Arp as Bastien Andre
John Arp as Bastien André
Photo: John Gary Brown ©2012
Millet and his students, as well as his friends, find themselves at the mercy of Bastien André, a "picture dealer and usurer," making Is He Dead? a comedic counterpoint of sorts to Puccini's paean to artists—the tragic La Bohème—where, in a 180-degree reversal of outcomes, Twain's artists find a way to triumph over those who have a chokehold on their most basic needs.

Twain takes two parallel, yet different, angles in building his social commentary: first, choosing Millet, who was a champion of common folks; and, second, through André, who represents wealth from "money making money," not from the creation of goods and services. In the U.S. today, 60% of our economy is attributable to "financial services," while manufacturing has been outsourced overseas to increase profit margins for transnational corporations.

Millet's most famous painting is The Gleaners (1857), which portrays three peasant women in the fields. Gleaners pick what is left after the harvest of the owners and their laborers (who are seen at the back of the painting), not unlike the urban poor who scour dumpsters for leftovers. At the time, Millet's work shifted the focus in the art world from the rich and prominent to the dispossessed.

Twain builds on Millet's pictorial social commentary in the play's dialogue. As Millet's friend Agamemnon Buckner (called "Chicago" by the other characters) says of André in Act 1, Scene 1, "Any picture dealer's hard-hearted enough, but to add usury! Might as well cross a grizzly bear with a shark." Later, André responds, "It doesn't become you to ride the high horse with me. Nor any of you. Paupers! Everything you've got is mine—bought with my money."

(Left to right) Annie F. Butler as Madame Bathilde and Christy Brandt as Madam Caron
(L to R) Annie F. Butler as Madame Bathilde
and Christy Brandt as Madam Caron
Photo: John Gary Brown ©2012
André is right about it being his money. Inhabitants of all nations of the world use private bank notes to convert labor into value, and almost all of these notes come into circulation with a debt attached to it, in the form of interest on bonds that nations must pay to the bankers to create what was once their own sovereign currency. Admitting to such things aloud was part and parcel of the bravado of the robber barons of the late 19th century, so Twain needed no hyperbole on André's part; today, however, anyone in business who admits to such thoughts faces an unfriendly job market after they are terminated.

For those who follow the various scandals that have surfaced in the past few months, it's easy see that Twain's plot is at timely today as it was in the late 19th century. Given the subject matter of Is He Dead?, it's not surprising that funding dried up for Twain's play in 1898, soon after The London Times announced it was going to premiere on the West End and Broadway.

We thank Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who discovered the play in the archives of the University of California at Berkeley, and Ives, who edited and adapted it, for bringing this forgotten gem to the stage at such a critical time. Like Shaw, Twain serves up a serious subject in great comedic fashion.

The Arvada Center's production of David Ives' adaptation of Mark Twain's Is He Dead? runs through October 28th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or

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