Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"The Gilded Age" Onstage

In advance of Ellen Faith Brodie and David Pellegrini of Eastern Connecticut State University's September 16th reading of a new stage adaptation of “The Gilded Age,” Mark Twain House & Museum’s Director of Communications Jacques Lamarre explores the novel’s previous journeys to the stage. The reading will be performed by students from Eastern CT State University's Performing Arts Department Theatre Program

Mark Twain is most famous for his novels, short stories, and his observant and incisive non-fiction. He is also well known as an orator who circled the globe entertaining audiences with his quick witticisms. His stage performances, although portraying no one other than himself, were a master class in comic timing and displayed his consummate grasp of how to hold a crowd rapt. Despite his indubitable way with words and his undeniable stage presence, one area of accomplishment eluded him that seemed to be well within his reach -- to be a truly successful dramatist.

During Twain’s lifetime, he was an avid theatre-goer. According to Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “young Sam Clemens was exposed to mock Shakespearean orations and swordfights, minstrel shows, and amateur theatricals. When he left home at age seventeen, he attended his first professional theatre in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Keokuk, Iowa.” (“Mark Twain and the Theatre,” Afterword, Is He Dead?, p. 147) He spent time writing theatre criticism during his tenure as a journalist for the Virginia City, Nevada Territorial Enterprise and he championed the cause of the acting profession when he became a founding member of the still-extant Players Club in New York. As much as he loved attending and debating the merits of plays, he saw huge money-making potential in the theatre.

The only play Twain wrote that was a success during his lifetime* had an odd beginning, much like the novel that serves as its basis. Twain’s first novel, a collaborative effort with his Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner, was born as a result of dinner table conversation. After eviscerating novels that they found lacking, their wives challenged them to write one that was better. The two men took up the challenge and the resulting novel The Gilded Age – A Tale of Today was published in 1873 and became an immediate success. R. Kent Rasmussen sums up the book as “a sprawling epic with multiple story lines and dozens of characters…a melodramatic saga of a Midwestern family nearly destroyed by its faith in illusory wealth and a fierce satire of post-Civil War America. The novel skewers government and politicians, big business and America’s obsession with getting rich.” (Rasmussen, Mark Twain A-Z, p. 167) Aside from a title that has since become associated with the gilt-edged era of excess that it satirizes, The Gilded Age may be best remembered for the character of Colonel Sellers, a comic schemer who always sees fortune in speculation shouting, “There’s millions in it!”

Undoubtedly, Twain and others saw millions in Colonel Sellers coming to life onstage. In 1873, Twain and Warner filed for copyright protection for “The Gilded Age: A Drama” and approached playwright Dion Boucicault to adapt the work for the stage. After Boucicault insisted on a three-way split of the profits, the idea was shelved. According to Jerry Thomason and Tom Quirk, Twain may have attempted his own adaptation of the novel in February 1874, an effort that was ultimately discarded. (Introduction, Colonel Sellers: A Drama in Five Acts, The Missouri Review, p. 111) In April 1874, Twain and Warner discovered that, despite their copyright, a stage version of The Gilded Age dramatized by G.B. Densmore had been launched in San Francisco and became an immediate hit with comic actor John T. Raymond playing Colonel Sellers.

Twain smelled money and quickly entailed the San Francisco production and purchased the Densmore script for $400 ($200 for the script with an additional $200 promised if Twain’s adaptation became a success). Twain set up an agreement with Warner that each author of the novel owned the rights to the characters they had individually created without royalty due to the other. Successfully quarantining any financial obligation to Warner, Twain set about adapting, augmenting and embellishing the Densmore script (while, apparently, pinching some of Warner’s material despite their agreement). The resulting stage play was subsequently entitled Colonel Sellers and written with actor John Raymond in mind.

Colonel Sellers made its debut at the Park Theatre in New York on September 16, 1874. The play was an immediate success with audiences. Critical opinion appears to be sharply divided. “James T. Fields found it ‘simply delicious’; President Grant went backstage to compliment Raymond; and the Atlantic, as well as several daily papers, was full of praise.” (Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, p. 180). Other reviews were not as kind: “George Odell’s Annals of the New York Stage dubbed Colonel Sellers ‘a wretched thing,’ while the New York Tribune called it ‘excessively thin in texture.’” (Fishkin, Afterword to Is He Dead? p. 149) Twain himself acknowledges the piece’s shortcomings in a letter to William Dean Howells, “It is simply a setting for the one character, Col. Sellers, and as a play I guess it will not bear a critical assault in force.” Regardless of the critical reaction, the play must have exceeded Twain’s expectations – it toured consistently for 12 years and brought him royalties in excess of $100,000 during its time on the road. “The daily reports of the profits arrived in Hartford around dinnertime, and Howells recalled that Clemens would spring to his feet, fling his napkin on his chair, and in ‘wild triumph’ read aloud the ‘gay figures.’” (Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, p. 180)

Sadly, the success of Colonel Sellers was not a harbinger of future success on the boards for Twain. His next effort Ah Sin, a collaboration with Bret Harte, was by all accounts a disaster and closed after one week. Attempting to return to the Colonel Sellers well, he wrote a sequel with William Dean Howells for John Raymond to perform entitled Colonel Sellers as a Scientist. Raymond, whose relationship with Twain had begun to sour, demurred at the opportunity to revisit the character in an inferior vehicle. Twain went on to eviscerate Raymond in Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography, stating, “The real Colonel Sellers was never on the stage. Only half of him was there. Raymond could not play the other half of him; it was above his level. That half was made up qualities of which Raymond was wholly destitute. For Raymond was not a manly man, he was not an honorable man or an honest one, he was empty and selfish and vulgar and ignorant and silly, and there was a vacancy in him where his heart should have been.” (Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography, p. 9) This disparaging assessment is pure Twain, but shocking when measured alongside the extraordinary debt Twain owed Raymond; thanks to the actor, Twain made more money each year that Colonel Sellers toured than he realized from his books. During his lifetime, it was one of his greatest financial successes.

In 1986, Hartford’s relationship with The Gilded Age was reignited when Hartford Stage engaged playwright Constance Congdon to adapt the tale under the direction of Mark Lamos. In 2010, Eastern Connecticut State University professors Ellen Faith Brodie and David Pellegrini have created their own stage adaptation of the novel, once again bringing Colonel Sellers to dramatic (and comic) life. Finding the book’s original subtitle “A Tale of Today” to still be apropos, Brodie and Pellegrini’s version dials down the melodrama and pushes Twain and Warner’s themes of political gain and financial greed to the fore. The Mark Twain House & Museum will present the first public reading of their script at a free program on Thursday, September 16th at 7 p.m. in the Museum Center auditorium. The Brodie/Pellegrini version will then be fully staged by the ECSU Performing Arts Department Theatre Program November 9th through 14th, 2010 at the Harry Hope Theatre on the University’s campus. Undoubtedly, Twain would be thrilled to find that Colonel Sellers is still bringing in the crowds.

*Twain’s recently-exhumed 1898 play Is He Dead? is generally conceded to be his best work for the stage and enjoyed modest success on Broadway during the 2007-2008 season and subsequently on regional stages.

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