Huckleberry Finn was a notorious fictional prankster—is it possible his creator Mark Twain had the same tricky spirit? Long after Twain’s death, a historian uncovered “Is He Dead?” Twain’s unpublished play about the value of art while an artist is alive.
Playwright David Ives then adapted the script, it was published in 2003 and hit Broadway in 2007. Now University Theatre is taking on Twain’s witticisms as well as his social comment.
“I think what’s wonderful about this play is that it asks us to look,” UW-Madison theater professor and director David Furumoto said. “What is important about art? What makes it valuable? Is it simply a fad that everyone picks up paintings by people after their death and then (the artist) simply becomes the toast of whatever?”
The play centers around French painter Jean-François Millet living in Paris and Barbizon circa 1846. Although based on Millet’s life, the situations around him are fictional.
Millet, an impoverished painter, fakes his own death in order to increase the value of his paintings. He passes himself off as his sister Widow Tillou, sells his paintings while living as his sister and prospers. It is in his prosperity that Millet encounters further, often hilarious, complications maneuvering his masquerade.
University Theatre’s production runs Thursday through Dec. 10 in the Mitchell Theatre.
Furumoto said the production was chosen, in part, because of the department’s graduate students who needed the experience of producing a period piece. But “Is He Dead?” also serves a comedic purpose in the midst of an otherwise heavy theatrical season that started this fall with “Our Town” and will end in the spring with “The Laramie Project.”
While the show is undoubtedly stuffed with Twain’s renowned humor, Furumoto continually reminds his performers of the show’s underlying importance.
“Something I lay into my actors in this play is that there are a lot of farcical parts in the play, but don’t lose sight of the fact that there is a lot of social commentary being made,” he said.
Part of the show’s commentary is in the play’s villain, moneylender and art dealer Bastien Andre who would love nothing more than to burn Millet’s paintings. Having the wealthy character serve as the antagonist is one of the ways in which this play goes against what would have been Twain’s “status quo,” Furumoto said.
Twain’s social circumstance was seemingly not far removed from the play’s focal character, Millet, whose work wasn’t exactly praised for its artistic merits.
Millet was an artist making social commentary about the “downtrodden” people of his time and people thought his work was horrible, Furumoto said.
A realist painter, Millet’s artistic focus was the peasants. One of his most celebrated paintings, “The Gleaners,” featured poor women and children picking up the pieces of grain left behind after the harvest.
When Millet debuted his work on the common people, the general public thought his work was “horrible, depressing and dreadful,” according to Furumoto.
So then again comes the question: Why can’t artists enjoy the fruits of their labor while they are alive?
Twain, who himself had times of financial hardship, was traveling through Europe when a rumor spread claiming that Twain caught ill and died. It was then, in 1897, when his famous quip, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” hit the presses in the New York Journal.
It could have been Twain’s rumor of death that sparked this long lost play, which he penned in 1898.
That experience with the rumor must have played into the creation of this play, Furumoto said.
Although adapted by Ives, Furumoto sees much of Twain’s voice in the play. He can’t be sure what was Twain’s original phrasing versus Ives’ adaptation, but he feels secure in believing the show is still largely Twain’s creation — especially when the cast digs into the heart of the piece.
Despite the darker themes of the play, the characters still have to find humor in their situations, much like people have to find humor in the climate of today, he added.
While the play is a study in humor, University Theatre’s production is also a study in beauty on stage as the graduate student designers have created a stunning showcase of 1840s Paris.
“People will be astounded by the costumes and the set arrangements,” Furumoto said with a smile. “They will also see a lot of Millet paintings on stage as well, which is a challenge in itself for our scenic painters to re-create those paintings—they are having a lot of fun with that.”
Furumoto ultimately hopes that audiences are as drawn to the play as he was upon his first read-through of the script. He said he was “immediately taken” by the work.
The cast of 11 performers have been immersed in the excitement of Parisian culture of yore and the situational comedy concocted by Twain’s creative mind. Though they will bask in the warmth of audience laughter when the show opens, Furumoto will continue to remind them to seek the deeper meanings of the work and not focus their energy on the laughs.
“I tell the actors: Don’t look at this simply as a comedy,” he said. “When you do that you lose your soul and it won’t be as funny.”