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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CXLVII. The Fortune of a Play
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Howells is of the impression that the "Claimant" play had been offered to
other actors before Raymond was made aware of it; but there are letters
(to Webster) which indicate that Raymond was to see the play first,
though Clemens declares, in a letter of instruction, that he hopes
Raymond will not take it. Then he says:
Why do I offer him the play at all? For these reasons: he plays
that character well; there are not thirty actors in the country who
can do it better; and, too, he has a sort of sentimental right to be
offered the piece, though no moral, or legal, or other kind of
Therefore we do offer it to him; but only once, not twice. Let us
have no hemming and hawing; make short, sharp work of the business.
I decline to have any correspondence with R. myself in any way.
This was at the end of November, 1883, while the play was still being
revised. Negotiations with Raymond had already begun, though he does not
appear to have actually seen the play during that theatrical season, and
many and various were the attempts made to place it elsewhere; always
with one result--that each actor or manager, in the end, declared it to
be strictly a Raymond play. The thing was hanging fire for nearly a
year, altogether, while they were waiting on Raymond, who had a
profitable play, and was in no hurry for the recrudescence of Sellers.
Howells tells how he eventually took the manuscript to Raymond, whom he
found "in a mood of sweet reasonableness" at one of Osgood's luncheons.
Raymond said he could not do the play then, but was sure he would like it
for the coming season, and in any case would be glad to read it.
In due time Raymond reported favorably on the play, at least so far as
the first act was concerned, but he objected to the materialization
feature and to Sellers as claimant for the English earldom. He asked
that these features be eliminated, or at least much ameliorated; but as
these constituted the backbone and purpose of the whole play, Clemens and
Howells decided that what was left would be hardly worth while. Raymond
finally agreed to try the play as it was in one of the larger towns -
Howells thinks in Buffalo. A week later the manuscript came back to
Webster, who had general charge of the business negotiations, as indeed
he had of all Mark Twain's affairs at this time, and with it a brief
DEAR SIR,--I have just finished rereading the play, and am convinced
that in its present form it would not prove successful. I return
the manuscript by express to your address.
Thanking you for your courtesy, I am,
JOHN T. RAYMOND.
P.S.--If the play is altered and made longer I will be pleased to
read it again.
In his former letter Raymond had declared that "Sellers, while a very
sanguine man, was not a lunatic, and no one but a lunatic could for a
moment imagine that he had done such a work" (meaning the
materialization). Clearly Raymond wanted a more serious presentation,
something akin to his earlier success, and on the whole we can hardly
blame him. But the authors had faith in their performance as it stood,
and agreed they would make no change.
Finally a well-known elocutionist, named Burbank, conceived the notion of
impersonating Raymond as well as Sellers, making of it a sort of double
burlesque, and agreed to take the play on those terms. Burbank came to
Hartford and showed what he could do. Howells and Clemens agreed to give
him the play, and they hired the old Lyceum Theater for a week, at seven
hundred dollars, for its trial presentation. Daniel Frohman promoted it.
Clemens and Howells went over the play and made some changes, but they
were not as hilarious over it or as full of enthusiasm as they had been
in the beginning. Howells put in a night of suffering--long, dark hours
of hot and cold waves of fear--and rising next morning from a tossing
bed, wrote: "Here's a play which every manager has put out-of-doors and
which every actor known to us has refused, and now we go and give it to
an elocutioner. We are fools."
Clemens hurried over to Boston to consult with Howells, and in the end
they agreed to pay the seven hundred dollars for the theater, take the
play off and give Burbank his freedom. But Clemens's faith in it did not
immediately die. Howells relinquished all right and title in it, and
Clemens started it out with Burbank and a traveling company, doing one-
night stands, and kept it going for a week or more at his own expense.
It never reached New York.
"And yet," says Howells, "I think now that if it had come it would have
been successful. So hard does the faith of the unsuccessful dramatist
die." --[This was as late as the spring of 1886, at which time Howells's
faith in the play was exceedingly shaky. In one letter he wrote: "It is
a lunatic that we have created, and while a lunatic in one act might
amuse, I'm afraid that in three he would simply bore."
"As it stands, I believe the thing will fail, and it would be a disgrace
to have it succeed."]