Literary scholars know that it is always hazardous to declare that one has read the “complete works” of an author. There’s almost always some piece that’s gone out of print or has slipped through the cracks somehow. Every now and then, someone discovers some previously unknown or unpublished work after spending a disturbingly long period of time sifting through an archive. Such is the case with Mark Twain’s long forgotten and recently published three-act farce Is He Dead?Twain has deservedly earned a reputation for being one of America’s greatest writers and humorists. His novels, short stories, and memoirs are well respected by most scholars and critics. What is not generally known is that Twain also wrote a number of plays, which critics generally judge to be very poor efforts.
Despite his celebrity and popularity, Twain was usually in dire financial straits. Bad investments left him constantly attempting to raise money, and the theater could be a cash cow if one could write a hit play. One of Twain’s first efforts was a modest success, but the rest were all spectacular failures. Several scripts were shown to producers and rejected, and most of them just sat in Twain’s private files for years until he died. Then his papers were sent to an archive to sit for decades. A Twain scholar recently decided to study his dramatic works, and after several unpleasant hours she came to the same conclusion as most critics: Twain’s plays are strikingly mediocre. Then she came across one unknown play called Is He Dead? Midway through it, she was surprised to realize that she found it very funny. She showed it to some colleagues, who had similar reactions. The play was published late last year, and it will be produced in New York later this year.
The play revolves around a small band of painters in Europe who, despite their talents, are wretchedly poor and are literally starving artists. They have no prospects and are being harassed by a ruthless creditor. In the nick of time, one of them comes up with a brilliant plan. Paintings become much more valuable once the artist dies. Acting on this principle, they spread a few rumors about the sickly state of their most talented friend’s health, thereby sparking a rush of wealthy pseudo-connoisseurs who wish to purchase his work and make a bundle when he finally dies. If you’ve ever seen or read a farce before, you’ll know what to expect from Is He Dead? There’s mistaken identities, cross-dressing, lies, inopportune romances, courses of true love that just won’t run smooth, and all sorts of plot twists. It’s a lot of fun.
The central character in the play is based on a real-life painter, very popular and admired in his time, but largely forgotten today. Twain took the painter’s name and the title of his most famous work, but the plot is totally fictional. Twain couldn’t see the appeal of a lot of popular works, and found the art world pretentious and fake. This play doesn’t take a stand on what high art is, but it’s clear that Twain knows what he hates.
The play has lots of laughs, but the true highlight of the book is the long, extensively researched essay on Twain, his life and works, and the American theater in the nineteenth century. It’s an affectionate portrait of a writer and his turbulent professional life. It shows the world Twain lived in, how he felt towards it, how he sought to impact it, and how he tried to profit from it.
Is He Dead? is by no means Twain’s best or most sophisticated work. If it were written by almost any other author, its publication after over half a century would not receive much notice or acclaim. While it does showcase a number of Twain’s views on culture, the play’s primary intention is to entertain, not persuade. For my part, I liked this play not because just because it made me laugh (it did), but because of the story behind it. A long-lost gem with a colorful history, brought to public attention by someone who studies and loves Twain. Don’t misunderstand me: if it had been a lousy play I would prefer it to remain in a dusty archive unread and forgotten, rather than be dragged out to potentially leave a blot on Twain’s reputation. But Is He Dead? is a funny play, and as such it helps to advance the cause of a man who liked nothing better than making people laugh, besides making himself money.