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26 June, 2013
My Mark Twain|
by Howells, William Dean
|It was among my later visits to Hartford that we began to talk up the
notion of collaborating a play, but we did not arrive at any clear
intention, and it was a telegram out of the clear sky that one day
summoned me from Boston to help with a continuation of Colonel Sellers.
I had been a witness of the high joy of Clemens in the prodigious triumph
of the first Colonel Sellers, which had been dramatized from the novel of
'The Gilded Age.' This was the joint work of Clemens and Charles Dudley
Warner, and the story had been put upon the stage by some one in Utah,
whom Clemens first brought to book in the courts for violation of his
copyright, and then indemnified for such rights as his adaptation of the
book had given him. The structure of the play as John T. Raymond gave it
was substantially the work of this unknown dramatist. Clemens never
pretended, to me at any rate, that he had the least hand in it; he
frankly owned that he was incapable of dramatization; yet the vital part
was his, for the characters in the play were his as the book embodied
them, and the success which it won with the public was justly his.
This he shared equally with the actor, following the company with an
agent, who counted out the author's share of the gate money, and sent him
a note of the amount every day by postal card. The postals used to come
about dinner-time, and Clemens would read them aloud to us in wild
One hundred and fifty dollars--two hundred dollars--three hundred dollars
were the gay figures which they bore, and which he flaunted in the air
before he sat down at table, or rose from it to brandish, and then,
flinging his napkin into his chair, walked up and down to exult in.
By-and-by the popularity, of the play waned, and the time came when he
sickened of the whole affair, and withdrew his agent, and took whatever
gain from it the actor apportioned him. He was apt to have these sudden
surceases, following upon the intensities of his earlier interest; though
he seemed always to have the notion of making something more of Colonel
Sellers. But when I arrived in Hartford in answer to his summons,
I found him with no definite idea of what he wanted to do with him.
I represented that we must have some sort of plan, and he agreed that we
should both jot down a scenario overnight and compare our respective
schemes the next morning. As the author of a large number of little
plays which have been privately presented throughout the United States
and in parts of the United Kingdom, without ever getting upon the public
stage except for the noble ends of charity, and then promptly getting off
it, I felt authorized to make him observe that his scheme was as nearly
nothing as chaos could be. He agreed hilariously with me, and was
willing to let it stand in proof of his entire dramatic inability.
At the same time he liked my plot very much, which ultimated Sellers,
according to Clemens's intention, as a man crazed by his own inventions
and by his superstition that he was the rightful heir to an English
earldom. The exuberant nature of Sellers and the vast range of his
imagination served our purpose in other ways. Clemens made him a
spiritualist, whose specialty in the occult was materialization;
he became on impulse an ardent temperance reformer, and he headed a
procession of temperance ladies after disinterestedly testing the
deleterious effects of liquor upon himself until he could not walk
straight; always he wore a marvellous fire-extinguisher strapped on his
back, to give proof in any emergency of the effectiveness of his
invention in that way.
We had a jubilant fortnight in working the particulars of these things
out. It was not possible for Clemens to write like anybody else, but I
could very easily write like Clemens, and we took the play scene and
scene about, quite secure of coming out in temperamental agreement.
The characters remained for the most part his, and I varied them only to
make them more like his than, if possible, he could. Several years
after, when I looked over a copy of the play, I could not always tell my
work from his; I only knew that I had done certain scenes. We would work
all day long at our several tasks, and then at night, before dinner, read
them over to each other. No dramatists ever got greater joy out of their
creations, and when I reflect that the public never had the chance of
sharing our joy I pity the public from a full heart. I still believe
that the play was immensely funny; I still believe that if it could once
have got behind the footlights it would have continued to pack the house
before them for an indefinite succession of nights. But this may be my
At any rate, it was not to be. Raymond had identified himself with
Sellers in the play-going imagination, and whether consciously or
unconsciously we constantly worked with Raymond in our minds. But before
this time bitter displeasures had risen between Clemens and Raymond, and
Clemens was determined that Raymond should never have the play. He first
offered it to several other actors, who eagerly caught it, only to give
it back with the despairing renunciation, "That is a Raymond play." We
tried managers with it, but their only question was whether they could
get Raymond to do it. In the mean time Raymond had provided himself with
a play for the winter--a very good play, by Demarest Lloyd; and he was in
no hurry for ours. Perhaps he did not really care for it perhaps he knew
when he heard of it that it must come to him in the end. In the end it
did, from my hand, for Clemens would not meet him. I found him in a mood
of sweet reasonableness, perhaps the more softened by one of those
lunches which our publisher, the hospitable James R. Osgood, was always
bringing people together over in Boston. He said that he could not do
the play that winter, but he was sure that he should like it, and he had
no doubt he would do it the next winter. So I gave him the manuscript,
in spite of Clemens's charges, for his suspicions and rancors were such
that he would not have had me leave it for a moment in the actor's hands.
But it seemed a conclusion that involved success and fortune for us.
In due time, but I do not remember how long after, Raymond declared
himself delighted with the piece; he entered into a satisfactory
agreement for it, and at the beginning of the next season he started with
it to Buffalo, where he was to give a first production. At Rochester he
paused long enough to return it, with the explanation that a friend had
noted to him the fact that Colonel Sellers in the play was a lunatic, and
insanity was so serious a thing that it could not be represented on the
stage without outraging the sensibilities of the audience; or words to
that effect. We were too far off to allege Hamlet to the contrary, or
King Lear, or to instance the delight which generations of readers
throughout the world had taken in the mad freaks of Don Quixote.
Whatever were the real reasons of Raymond for rejecting the play, we had
to be content with those he gave, and to set about getting it into other
hands. In this effort we failed even more signally than before, if that
were possible. At last a clever and charming elocutionist, who had long
wished to get himself on the stage, heard of it and asked to see it.
We would have shown it to any one by this time, and we very willingly
showed it to him. He came to Hartford and did some scenes from it for
us. I must say he did them very well, quite as well as Raymond could
have done them, in whose manner he did them. But now, late toward
spring, the question was where he could get an engagement with the play,
and we ended by hiring a theatre in New York for a week of trial
Clemens came on with me to Boston, where we were going to make some
changes in the piece, and where we made them to our satisfaction, but not
to the effect of that high rapture which we had in the first draft.
He went back to Hartford, and then the cold fit came upon me, and "in
visions of the night, in slumberings upon the bed," ghastly forms of
failure appalled me, and when I rose in the morning I wrote him: "Here is
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." Whether Clemens agreed with me or not in my conclusion,
he agreed with me in my premises, and we promptly bought our play off the
stage at a cost of seven hundred dollars, which we shared between us.
But Clemens was never a man to give up. I relinquished gratis all right
and title I had in the play, and he paid its entire expenses for a week
of one-night stands in the country. It never came to New York; and yet I
think now that if it had come, it would have succeeded. So hard does the
faith of the unsuccessful dramatist in his work die.