Mark Twain’s long-lost play to make debut on Broadway

L.A. Cicero Shelley Fisher Fishkin

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of English and director of the American Studies Program, said she found herself giggling as she read Twain’s play, which she found in the archives of UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Joan Marcus Bridget Regan, Michael McGrath, Norbert Leo Butz and Jenn Gambatese

Bridget Regan, Michael McGrath, Norbert Leo Butz and Jenn Gambatese perform in Is He Dead?, scheduled to open on Broadway Dec. 9. Shelley Fisher Fishkin was the first to publish the forgotten farce, a fictional account of a real French painter, in 2003 after she found Mark Twain’s handwritten manuscript in a library drawer.

It's not often a writer who has been dead nearly a century gets a world premiere on Broadway—but Mark Twain is always worth a second look. The debut of Is He Dead? at New York City's Lyceum Theater is not a triumph for Twain alone, however. It marks a personal victory for Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of English and director of the American Studies Program at Stanford. The Twain scholar was the first to publish the forgotten farce in 2003 after she found the author's handwritten manuscript in a library drawer and decided that the play, a fictional account of the French painter Jean-François Millet, "had legs." During rehearsals, Fishkin worked on behalf of the Mark Twain Foundation, which represents the writer's estate, to ensure the production was true to Twain's spirit and times (the play takes place in the 1840s but was written in 1898).

On Nov. 15, Cynthia Haven, a writer for the Stanford News Service, met with Fishkin to discuss the publication of Is He Dead? and its imminent Broadway launch—a launch that was unexpectedly postponed for 19 days by the stagehands' strike. With the resolution of the strike, the play has resumed its previews. It's set to open on Dec. 9.

Video excerpts of the interview can be viewed at

You have called this "a champagne cocktail of a play." Explain.

This is really a moment of light in a very, very dark period in [Twain's] life. He had just come out of mourning for his daughter Susy. He had also just come out of a really difficult bankruptcy. He celebrated by writing something unlike anything he'd ever written. It's a wild, over-the-top, cross-dressing clean French farce—always something of an oxymoron in those days.

Several times in the play, as I recall, Twain says, "Cheer up! The worst is yet to come." Was he right?

Yes. More dark times are just down the road—not only the death of his wife, but also, just after the period when he writes this play, he is going to become increasingly disillusioned with his country's foreign policy. When the Spanish-American War breaks out, Twain is at first enthusiastic about it, but soon he realizes what it really involves. He realizes his country has been duplicitous, and had no plans to liberate Cuba or the Philippines, but just wants to take them into its sphere of influence. He is devastated by the bad faith his country has shown. He becomes a major voice against American imperialism from this moment on. He is going to become increasingly depressed by losing members of his family and losing friends, as he ages and as they age. During this period we tend to think of him as a very dark author.

So what does this play tell us about Twain?

This play is one moment when he emerges from one dark period, before he enters yet another, when he celebrates life. It's a very ebullient play about overcoming adversity. It is about friendship and overcoming the designs of a malevolent villain. It's very positive. It's really cheering. It's a side of Twain we had thought disappeared some time before 1898. It's really nice to see that he's still there, still able to use some of his zany wit and imagination in yet one more entertaining feast for us.

The play is not unknown, but it has certainly been unregarded. What's the story behind its 21st-century discovery?

I was eating my scholarly spinach in the archives of the Bancroft Library [at the University of California-Berkeley], looking through a whole drawerful of plays. Twain had a reputation as not a very good playwright. I decided I should read the entire drawer, from start to finish. It was rough going until I got to the end. The penultimate play was Is He Dead?, which I read in manuscript form. I started giggling in the archives. I realized this had enormous potential. But it was also still in pretty rough form, and Twain recognized that. He knew that it was going to need a playwright more experienced than he to get it into shape. That's why I was so pleased that Bob Boyett, the producer I worked with on this project, decided to ask David Ives, the contemporary playwright, to adapt the play. David Ives is a wonderful, witty, very funny contemporary playwright best known for his one-acts, such as The Philadelphia.

What's Is He Dead?


It centers on the famous French painter Jean-François Millet. An American artist comes up with the idea that if they fake the death of Millet, the price of his paintings will skyrocket, and that will be their ticket out of starvation and out of ruin. In order to do that, they need to come up with a disguise for him. His friends decide he needs to come back as his widowed sister, and therein begins a whole series of very funny and really wild plot twists that are really great fun. It's bubbly, it's light, it's a farce that also engages some really important issues that preoccupied Twain throughout his career, such as the nature of identity, the nature of authenticity, what is art, what creates value in art. He's also satirizing the world of art buyers and art critics who value the work of dead artists over the works of living artists. The main character at one point wonders if he's destined to live out his life as an imitation of himself, which is also a theme that Twain is concerned with, because very often people had images of him which they expected him to conform to. Would he have to live out his life as an imitation of himself? Or could he enjoy a radical departure from his past and past enterprises and strike out and do something new as an artist?

It's a heavily embroidered portrait of Millet, who was a solidly bourgeois family man. Did Twain have any reservations about revising the life and personality of a man so recently dead?

Well, I should say that Twain wasn't really aware that he was revising it totally, because the biography that had come out in Twain's day by Alfred Sensier, one of Millet's closest friends, really did a lot to promote the myth that he was much less well off than he was and much less appreciated than he was. To some extent, Twain was replicating the myths about Millet that passed as the truth during his time. He did know, of course, that Millet was not single and that he was a family man; he did change those things intentionally. In fact, the world of young men surrounding Millet—a very multi-ethnic, multinational group—actually resembles more the group of young men who were swarming around Twain's hotel in Vienna, where he lived while he was writing the play. They were attracted to the salons that Twain would run there.

He certainly would have been aware of the fact that no one had written a cross-dressing farce involving a real historical personage. I think that may be one of the reasons he had trouble getting the play produced. It would have been considered a mite disrespectful to put France's greatest artist in drag for the entire second act.

Today we are not offended at the idea of taking one of France's greatest painters and putting him in drag. We recognize that Twain isn't making fun of Millet, for whom he has enormous respect; he's making fun of French society—which, by the way, he had some beefs with on another front during this period. While he was writing the play, the Dreyfus affair heated up, and Zola published his famous essay, "J'accuse!" Twain has enormous admiration for Zola and enormous contempt for the French—indeed, the penultimate line of the play is a direct crack at the French for their handling of the Dreyfus trial, for their insistence no matter how much proof and evidence is presented, they are not going to change their minds.

He didn't seem to like the Germans much either—or at least their language: "They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German." Yet he saw many plays during his time in Vienna—presumably in German?

Twain had a lot of fun making fun of the German language. He also made fun of Italian and French. But he also spoke German and understood German well enough to really enjoy the theater scene in Vienna, which was extraordinary in the late 1890s. Twain was going to plays constantly. He was also collaborating with a Viennese playwright on several projects, and he was translating plays from the German. He was absolutely blown away by the theater scene and became a devotee of really superb theater. He really is exposed to the best theater of his life during this period, which rubs off. This is why he writes a play that is so much more effective than other plays he tried to write.