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Richly intermingling elements of burlesque, farce, and social satire with a wry look at the world market in art, Is He Dead? centers on a group of poor artists in Barbizon, France, who stage the death of a friend to drive up the price of his paintings. In order to make this scheme succeed, the artists hatch some hilarious plots involving cross-dressing, a full-scale fake funeral, lovers' deceptions, and much more.
Mark Twain was fascinated by the theater and made many attempts at playwriting, but this play is certainly his best. Is He Dead? may have been too "out there" for the Victorian 1890s, but today's readers will thoroughly enjoy Mark Twain's well-crafted dialogue, intriguing cast of characters, and above all, his characteristic ebullience and humor. In Shelley Fisher Fishkin's estimation, it is "a champagne cocktail of a play--not too dry, not too sweet, with just the right amount of bubbles and buzz."
Agamemnon Buckner, ("Chicago,") Young artist.
Jean François Millet,} Young artist
Widow Daisy Tillou
Hans von Bismarck ("Dutchy,") Young artist.
Bastien André, picture-dealer and usurer.
Sandy Ferguson, Young artist.
Charles Everest, Young artist.
Phelim O'Shaughnessy, Young artist.
Basil Thorpe, rich English Merchant.
Jared Walker, an Australian Wool-King.
Henry Parker, rich San Franciscan.
A young Turk. A young Hindoo. } Pupils of Millet
A young Spaniard. A young Chinaman.
Marie, Millet's sweetheart.
Cecile, Chicago's sweetheart. } Young daughters of the Leroux
Madame Audrienne. Madame Bathilde. Madame Caron.
Some pretty girls, acquaintances of the young artists and pupils.
A gorgeous butler and several splendid flunkeys.
A page. A chimney sweep.
Memorandum. The handsome young gentleman (a bright Yale student) of whom "Chicago" is an attempted copy, was full of animal spirits and energies and activities, and was seldom still, except in his sleep-and never sad, for more than a moment at a time, awake or asleep. He had a singular facility and accuracy in playing (imaginary) musical instruments, and was always working off his superabundant steam in that way. He could thunder off famous classic pieces on the piano (imaginary) so accurately that musical experts could name the pieces. He imitated the flute, the banjo, the fiddle, the guitar, the hand-organ, the concertina, the trombone, the drum, and everything else; and for a change, would "conduct" a non-existent orchestra, or march as a drum major in front of a non-existent regiment.
If I have not made him a clean and thorough gentleman in this piece, I have at least strenuously intended to do it.
And I have intended Millet, too, to be a thorough gentleman, and the Widow Tillou to be a lady-a lady subject to accidents and mistakes and awkwardnesses in her unaccustomed costume, but still at heart a lady.
S L C
Note. The time is really before 1848, and Louis Philippe is still king. Millet was born before 1820 (I've forgotten the date, but it is not important.) In this piece he is about 25.
The sale of the "Angelus" by auction, to an American for 500,000 francs and France's re-purchase of it on the spot for 550,000 are events which occurred after Millet's death, but I have taken the pardonable liberty to highly antedate them.
S L C
Vienna, Feb. 21, 1898.
PLACE-Studio of Jean François Millet, at Barbizon, near Paris, lofty and spacious; faded and ragged sofa; cheap old chairs, several of them backless or otherwise crippled; other evidences of extreme poverty, to be imagined and furnished by the theater-management. Door R, front. Door L, front. A bedroom door in one of the walls. The walls are hung with two or three dozen framed chromos or something of the kind to represent oil pictures-the "Angelus" (covered) in the most prominent place, on a tall easel.
Curtain exposes CHIMNEY SWEEP sitting on a footstool, his head bowed on his knees, asleep. He gradually comes awake, yawns, stretches, looks around. Begins munching an apple.
No use waiting any longer. - I was behind time; now he'll say I didn't come.
(Gets up and stretches.)
Leave my card. It'll show I done his errand.
(Searches his soot-bag for card. Disappointed.)
Not a visiting-card left.
(Takes up a paint-brush-is going to paint his name on the canvas that covers the Angelus.)
Leave my name. - A-N - no, A-double-N - no-don't know how to spell it.
(Throws down brush. Sees the white sheet that covers the sofa. Nods approval. Stretches himself out on it. Rises and holds it up, exposing his printed form, done in soot. Hangs the sheet on the tall easel of the Angelus.) (Exit, R.)
If dot sweep ton't come, it mean he can't find him -und dot would pe bad-mighty pad.
I vish he vould come! I vish he -
(Sees the sheet. Joyously.)
Goot! he's peen here - und it's all righd.
(Admiring the soot-print.)
Ah, dot is sphlennid-sphlennid, for a fellow dot hain't had no draining in Art.
(Turns the sheet clean-side up, and covers the ragged sofa with it.)
(Enter the LEROUX family-PAPA and MOTHER LEROUX, MARIE, CECILE, and CHICAGO. Melancholy hand-shakings with DUTCHY.)
(CHICAGO is fidgeting around, the others sad. The WOMEN and the OLD MAN sitting. DUTCHY standing. The LEROUX FAMILY are cheaply and modestly but respectably dressed. DUTCHY's clothes show wear; he is clad in the ornamental cap, baldric, and high boots of a German college-corps student, and has a court-plaster X on his cheek from a recent duel. CHICAGO is neatly dressed as to cut, but his clothes are cheap and rather the worse for wear. MARIE is softly crying; has her head in CECILE's lap, who is stroking her hair.)
It's very hard. God knows I wish he would come, and let us know the worst.
When is he due?
By the noon train from Paris.
Is it to collect the money?
To - to try to.
Then he'll be on time.
You know him?
Do I know him? Well, I should think!
Do you also owe him money? Are you in his grip?
All of us. Millet, too.
Py Chorge, François Millet he -
Oh, yes, he got in up to the chin. If he hadn't, we other young artists-comrades and worshipers of his that swing round him and swim in his light and warmth the same as the other planets up yonder swing round their sun-would have starved, this year.
Blanets ton't starve, dey ton't eat noding.
Don't interrupt. Astronomical opinions based on sauer kraut are no good.
(To no one in particular.)
Shecaggo he always yoost like dot. Always he ton't care for fact-only yoost boetry. Now of a blanet -
How much do you owe him?
Ah enough to beggar me if he forecloses-fifteen thousand francs.
Phe-u! How'd you come to get in so deep?
It was wrong, it was foolish; but I did not know where else to go, and he was soft-spoken and smooth, and promised he would never press me. And now he as good as threatens to take the property.
Oh, dot is noding. Of you haf his bromise in wriding -
But I haven't, I haven't. He was so smooth, you know, and he said -
All right, if he said it before witnesses, I guess you are safe. I wouldn't give up yet.
But oh, dear, there wasn't any witness.
Oh, hang it, that looks bad. It's an awful pity. Bastian André hasn't any heart in him. Carries a doughnut where it ought to be. Petrified one.
That's the truth.
Any picture-dealer is a hard enough lot; and when you add usury to it-! Well, what is he so sudden about, all at once?
Marie has refused him again.
I didn't love him.
Oh, I see. That is, you all suspect that that is it.
No, dearie-more than that. He says it.
Here is his letter. Read it for yourself.
(Mumbles it over.)
M-m. Well yes, it is pretty plain. M-m. Proposes once more. If the answer is "No," there can be "unpleasant results." What a low down scoundrel he is!
I will jallenge him. I will job a sword troo him.
A sword, you pretzel-they don't use swords in French duels, they fight with hair-pins - hair-pins at thirty yards.
(Enter ANDRÉ, R.)
(Hesitating and apparently not pleased.)
I desired a private interview-and would prefer it if I may suggest-
It is not necessary. These are friends.
Please let them be no hindrance.
You got my letter?
Yes. It was so sudden-so unexpected-so-so-it found me unprepared
(Rising and appealing to him.)
-I am sorry, deeply sorry I am not able to-to-but you will give me time, I know you will not be hard. You know you said -
Said? I said? Pray what did I say?
PAPA That you would not press me.
Yes, I remember it-he told me about it at the time. Be good, be kind, dear Monsieur André, the times are so hard for him, now; and he-well, you see, he was depending on your kind promise, and-
Please do not complicate the matter with imaginary promises-
CECILE Why, you ashcat!
It is the word I used, I believe. Come, now, let us drop this. Be reasonable. Look at the matter in a rational way; and surely you must see - On the one hand a lover with nothing; on the other a lover who is getting on, with sure strides. I love your daughter as well as he does; I can give her a comfortable home, I can make her happy. He-can he do that?
But man, where her heart is -
This lad of 25 years-this unknown painter, this-this-François Millet, or Miller, or Milton, or whatever his name is-I never can remember it-Can he do that, I ask you? He can't sell a picture to save his life-he can't give one away.
Wy, dot is your fault.
And he is in debt besides-head over heels in debt-absolutely hopelessly in debt. He owes me 2500 francs. If she marries me, your debt is paid. I tell you I am prospering. - Come-you will not throw me aside for this shiftless painter-this youth without talent or a future. Speak.
It is hard; it is very hard, to put it in that way. It is not for me to - Answer him, child.
No, father, no. You will spare me that.
You shall answer him, and it shall be as you decide.
There, dear-I know where your heart is. She has answered you, sir.
No, father-don't put it so. How can I make a beggar of you? I can't bear it.
My child, answer me this one question-only this one. Do you love this man?
One more, then. Do you love François Millet?
Well enough to endure poverty and hardship for his sake?
Oh, hunger, thirst, cold, everything!
She shall have her way - Mother?
Please God she shall. We endured it in our young day.
And were happy, too.
That we were!
You have your answer, sir.
CHICAGO (Plays imaginary trombone.)
(Approvingly, to both OLD PEOPLE. )
(Shakes hands fervently.)
And you shall have mine. Your time is up day after tomorrow, 6 p.m., and I foreclose. Get the money in the meantime if you can!
Come, no sass here.
Excuse me, I was not talking to you.
But I was talking to you.
Miss, I wish to make just one remark to you-
Please let her alone. My father has answered you-now go.
Excerpted from IS HE DEAD? by Mark Twain Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Is He Dead? by Mark Twain