Imagine if you had spent your entire life listening to and thinking about the Beatles, and you somehow came across a recording of theirs that no one else had heard before. That’s basically what happened to Shelley Fisher Fishkin. The Stanford University professor and Mark Twain scholar was researching the writer when she came across a drawer full of his discarded plays. That’s where she found Is He Dead?, which WaterTower Theater stages beginning tonight. (Click here to listen to my KERA radio story about the play.) During a phone conversation earlier this week, Prof. Fishkin discussed finding the play and her hand in preserving Twain’s legacy:
Art&Seek: What do you remember thinking when you first came across Is He Dead?
Shelley Fisher Fishkin: I was eating my scholarly spinach so to speak – I had not realized there was an entire drawer full of plays by Mark Twain when I came across it looking up something else, and I decided I should read through the whole drawer. Twain did not have much of a reputation as a playwright, so I wasn’t expecting much. And in fact, there were a lot of plays that weren’t very interesting in there. But by the time I got to the end of the drawer, the penultimate play was Is He Dead? … and I started reading it and I began to laugh out loud in the archives. It struck me as a play that was really remarkably funny, there was some brilliant scenes in it – scenes that I could really imagine seeing onstage. I realized that it needed work, it needed trimming, there were too many actors, there were a lot of things that made it more complicated than it had to be, but I thought it had an awful lot of potential. And I decided that Twain, who had really wanted to see it produced in his lifetime and wasn’t able to have it produced, deserved to have it produced in our time.
A&S: Aside from fulfilling Twain’s wishes, why do you think it’s important that Is He Dead? is seen by a modern audience?
S.F.F: There’s several reasons. One is that it’s representative of the fact that Twain’s later years were not all dark. There’s this stereotype of Twain as someone who grows increasingly pessimistic and misanthropic towards the last 12 years of his life or so. Well, this play is a celebration of male friendship, it’s a celebration of human agency and of a group of enterprising friends outwitting an unscrupulous villain, and it’s a very uplifting and fun play that comes out of Twain’s supposedly dark years. So it shows us that his dark years were not all dark. It also is a play that he wrote when he was coming out of what was probably the darkest period of his life, just after the death of his daughter Susie – a year or so after she died. He’s just beginning to come out of mourning, and he also has just learned that he has come out of bankruptcy. Literally the week that he comes out of bankruptcy, he sits down to write this play, which happens to be a play about how a group of friends outwits an unscrupulous creditor who is determined to bankrupt them. So it’s significance in terms of his personal life and in terms of our understanding of the trajectory of his attitudes towards life and his attitudes toward comedy and art.
A&S: So much of humor is topical and doesn’t really hold up. Why do you think Twain’s humor still works today?
S.F.F: Well, 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. The theme that animates this play – the idea that a dead artist is worth more than a living artist, that an artist’s works are valued more highly by his society if he’s no longer living – is still true. And because the play satirizes the absurdities that result from that general assumption, which still is an assumption in our society, it speaks to our condition today.
A&S: Twain is one of a number of novelists who also wanted to be a playwright, but had a tough time writing for the stage. Why do novelists struggle with writing plays?
S.F.F.: I think that Twain has a tremendous feel for dialogue, and this comes across in the scenes in the play that are left pretty much the way Twain wrote them. But his most successful dialogue in his writing tends to appear in his novels and in his travel books all over the place, but not in the plays he wrote. When he wrote plays, he tended to write plays that were trying to conform to some fashionable trend in the theater. And as a result, they really weren’t as fresh as his other work.
A&S: David Ives adapted Is He Dead?, but you were involved as well. As someone who has studied Twain as much as you have, what was that like having a hand in how he would be thought of going forward?
S.F.F.: Well, it was a really interesting process. I was there representing the Twain foundation, and my job was to make sure that it remained Twain’s play while also being a play that could succeed. I think Twain wanted that as well – he wanted a play that could work, he wanted a play that could be commercially successful. I wanted to allow Ives to work his magic, but not to do that at the expense of what Twain had written or what Twain might have written. For example, Ives doesn’t like the title, didn’t like it, still doesn’t like it, but we felt that for Twain’s sake, the title was very resonant, not only because it’s the one he chose, but because “Is he dead?” was the most famous punch line in his first successful book, his most successful book, in fact, The Innocence Abroad. … By and large, I think Ives channeled Twain’s spirit in his revisions and just did a wonderful job in bringing out what was best about the play and trimming out what was less than successful. … In fact, 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.”