A cynic, said Oscar Wilde, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. One of the more disgusting incidental facts of life — and death — is that the price of the output of a struggling, starving artist starts to skyrocket up from zero as soon as it becomes known that there will never be another thing painted or sculpted by him, or her, because he or she has just died. It is this bleak truth upon which, in 1898, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain (1835–1910), built a whole screwball dramatic farce, Is He Dead? The play went nowhere in its own time but — lately discovered in a University of California archive — is world-premiering on Nov. 29 (previews begin Nov. 8) at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre under the direction of Michael Blakemore, whose sure-touch CV ranges from the very serious (Copenhagen, Democracy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg) to the wild and crazy (Noises Off). David Ives has tightened the Twain original, compressing its three acts to two.
The starving artist of Is He Dead? — which takes place in the Paris suburb of Barbizon — is none other than Jean-François Millet, he of "The Gleaners," "The Angelus," "The Sower," "The Man With the Hoe," etc. — in Mark Twain's period, a very famous painter indeed. But here we meet Millet before he was famous, and in his and their general want of wherewithal the painter's raffish bohemian comrades concoct a scheme to make his canvases instantly command a great deal of money. Why, he has unexpectedly died, you see — leaving his dearly beloved sister, the widow Daisy Tillou, to rake in sudden buckets of cash from the wheeler-dealers of the art world. Tillou is, of course, Jean-François Millet himself — actor Norbert Leo Butz — in strategically padded female garb.
Twain may or may not have been under the influence of a huge London and New York cross-dressing hit of that era, Brandon Thomas' Charley's Aunt. "But in some ways," says Michael Blakemore by phone from London as he is heading to New York, "Is He Dead? is a much better play than Charley's Aunt, which I recently read and found parts of it making no sense at all — whereas Twain toward the end of Is He Dead? goes for a kind of madness with an exorbitant exuberance that is almost surreal, yet is based on real premises.
"Actually, I read the Twain without realizing that Jean-François Millet was a real person. It seemed so preposterous — a play about a painter who dresses up as a woman. And then I realized that I'd been to the Royal Academy about ten years before, and seen an absolutely brilliant exhibition of Millet. But, of course, Twain takes great liberties; not a word of it is true." Does Blakemore feel that some of the best-known Millet paintings are a bit, well, sentimental?
"'The Angelus,' possibly somewhat sentimental. For the rest, no; they have to do with the dignity of ordinary people, working people — the Man With the Hoe. The democratic assumptions in these paintings made them particularly attractive to Americans. Still," says the director, "one problem is that Millet is not as well known to modern Americans as he once was. We've had to resist the impulse to turn him into someone like Renoir or Van Gogh."
It is Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of English and American Studies at Stanford University, who five years ago came across a file drawer of forgotten Mark Twain plays in the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley. "I decided to eat my spinach as a researcher and read them all. It was rough going, some were dreadful, until the end, when I picked up a copy of Is He Dead? hand-written by an amanuensis, into which Twain, in his own handwriting, had inserted corrections, scenes, pages.
"I started reading," says Professor Fishkin, "and suddenly, there in the library, found myself giggling. Twain wrote it when he was spending the winter of 1898 in Vienna, a very dark time for him. He was just coming out of his grief about his daughter, as well as emerging from bankruptcy — a compelling example of human resilience. He was back — not only back, but the old, wild Mark Twain."
Australian-born, British-bred Blakemore is an admirer of "a book I've dipped into from time to time," Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad." He speaks fondly of the author, "this skeptical American, in the days before World War I, not abasing himself before European culture." Two beats. "One might wish there was a little bit more of such abasement now." Jean-François Millet would probably not disagree.