The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

August 25, 2013

Little-known Twain play is latest Gaslight production

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The Gaslight Theatre is beginning its 2013-14 season in a big way with a little-known play by American humorist Mark Twain.

Production dates for “Is He Dead?” are 8 p.m. Sept. 6 and 7 and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee on the 8th. The following week, the play will take the stage 8 p.m. Sept. 12, 13 and 14. There also will be a private production night sponsored by Enid’s Loaves and Fishes.

The play is directed by Christianne Chase.

Twain did not write many plays. At the time, he was living in Vienna and had recently declared bankruptcy due to a bad investment. He gave the play to a friend, Bram Stoker, who was supposed to have it produced in London. That did not happen and Twain filed bankruptcy in 1898. Chase said a Twain scholar doing research at the University of California-Berkley — where Twain had left his papers — stumbled across the play in 2005.

“He read it and laughed out loud and thought it needed to be seen,” Chase said.

The scholar got in touch with Broadway theater representatives and the play opened in 2007. It was edited by David Ives, a contemporary playwright. The originally play was very long, containing three acts with 35 characters. Ives condensed the play down to two acts with 11 characters.

“The dialogue is vintage Twain and there are some great cracks,” Chase said.

Twain was living in Vienna at the time because it was cheaper than living in the United States.  He went on a national speaking tour to pay off his creditors and eventually paid all of them, even though he was not legally required to do so.

The play centers on a French artist, Jean-Francois Millet, a brilliant young artist who is deeply in debt and starving. He finds a buyer for his paintings, but the purchaser asks how long the artist has been dead. When Millet tells the buyer that he is artist, the purchase is canceled because he does not want a painting from a living artist. The paintings are more valuable if the artist is dead.

“The deader the better,” the man tells Millet.

At that point, Millet decides he is worth more dead than alive, and with a friend, fakes his death. He returns as his twin sister so he can enjoy his wealth.

“The leading man spends two-thirds of the play in drag. Two guys fall in love with the sister, and he also falls in love with another woman,” Chase said. “It is three parts farce and one part social satire.”

In the play, Twain takes jabs at money, greed and the value we place or don’t place on art. Chase said the play holds up well.

Gaslight veteran Jonathan Suttmiller plays Millet and his sister. Among his friends are Monte Hunter and Peter Roller. Larry Kiner plays the father of the girl Millet wants to marry, both of whom are in debt to the same art dealer, who is the villain of the play. The art dealer tells the girl he will forgive his father’s debt if she will marry him.

There also are two “dotty” landladies who dote on Millet. There are a number of typical Twain lines, including “closer than a congressman and a barrel of pork.”

“It’s an undiscovered treat. Just when you thought you knew pretty much what Twain had written, this is a surprise,” Chase said.

Chase said the play was written during a difficult time in Twain’s life. He filed for bankruptcy and his oldest daughter died of meningitis at age 24.

“He went into a deep depression that lasted two years. He finally wrote to a friend in America that he was starting work on this play. It is considered a sign he was coming out of the depression,” Chase said.

The play is based on a real artist and a painting titled “The Angelus,” which he could not sell. The real-life artist actually sold the painting for 1,000 francs. Ten years after his death, several museums got into a bidding war for the painting, and the Louvre in Paris won the bid and purchased the painting for 500,000 francs. The artist’s wife and children were living in poverty at the time. It resulted in the French government passing a law regarding intellectual property, she said.

“That was quite a topic of interest to a writer,” Chase said.

At that time in Twain’s life, he already had written “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “The Prince and the Pauper,” while some of his darker work was yet to come. He invested money in a company that had built the first typesetting machine. However, Linotype brought theirs out first and Twain’s company went bankrupt.

“Twain repaid all his creditors 100 percent of what he owed them. That was a matter of honor for him,” Chase said.

“Is He Dead?” is appropriate for all ages and is a multi-generational. It is fast paced, complete with sight gags, secret handshakes and even spit takes, Chase said.