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MCT Proposal - Is He Dead?

Is He Dead?

by Mark Twain

Adapted by David Ives

Directed by Robert Leff


Play Synopsis

Jean-Francois Millet, a young painter of genius, is in love with Marie Leroux but in debt to a villainous picture-dealer, Bastien Andre. Andre forecloses on Millet, threatening debtor's prison unless Marie marries him. Millet realizes that the only way he can pay his debts and keep Marie from marrying Andre is to die, as it is only dead painters who achieve fame and fortune. Millet fakes his death and prospers, all while passing himself off as his own sister, the Widow Tillou. Now a rich "widow," he must find a way to get out of a dress, return to life, and marry Marie.


Vision Statement

Do you know Mark Twain wrote plays? He did. In fact, he loved the theatre and was friends with several actors. Twain wrote 12 plays; one or two were produced; most aren’t good and never were published. Is He Dead? is the exception.


So, what’s Is He Dead? about? “Jean-Francois Millet, a young painter of genius, is in love with Marie Leroux but in debt to a villainous picture-dealer, Bastien Andre. Andre forecloses on Millet, threatening debtor's prison unless Marie marries him. Millet realizes that the only way he can pay his debts and keep Marie from marrying Andre is to die, as it is only dead painters who achieve fame and fortune. Millet fakes his death and prospers, all while passing himself off as his own sister, the Widow Tillou. Now a rich "widow," he must find a way to get out of a dress, return to life, and marry Marie.”


Sounds like Charley's Aunt - There are similarities, a man dresses as a woman and two older men take an interest in auntie. No one pretends to be dead in Twain’s play. Brandon Thomas wrote his farce in 1892; Mark Twain wrote his farce in 1898. I don’t know if Twain saw a production of Thomas’s big hit.


What is the adaptation by David Ives like? Twain wrote a three act farce with two settings and 35 characters. Ives tightened the script, now with two settings and a cast of 11. Read his Afterword in the script. Is He Dead? is a Mark Twain play.


Why produce Is He Dead? now? Theatregoers want familiar plays and want to laugh. Majestic Theatre patrons may not know the play, but they know Mark Twain. The play is a farce to entertain. In 2024 and 2025, our patrons will need a laugh or two. Is He Dead? does not have a deep theme. From the actors' point of view, the quirky characters will be fun to play. Finally, The Majestic hasn’t done a farce in a long time.


Millet is in a dress for most of the play. None of the other characters poke fun at him. There is no put down of women. There are a few comments on how a woman acts and a few comments on other things. None are plot or story points, so they will be cut. Late in the second act, a woman disguises herself as a man to find out what is going on. The way Millet finally gets rid of Andre and gets out of the dress, from my point of view, no one is put down or made a figure of fun.


A coffin is brought on stage in the second act. There is no body in it. There is comic business with it.


This is a 19th century play. Characters speak with a stage dialect. I need to hear if the dialect is too much and has to be toned down.


The script calls for two sets. The first act takes place in a poor artist’s studio in 1846. The second act takes place in the rich widow’s drawing room, three weeks later. Two complete sets aren’t needed. I would ask for a selective unit set with different furniture and set dressing for the two rooms. The set change happens during intermission. We don’t return to the first location.


The play is set in 1846 France. Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) is a real person; Twain’s story is fiction. I would like costumes to reflect the period. Depending on the budget, they could suggest the period. I own a copy of Lucy Barton’s Costume History book published during the Depression. She suggests how to build costumes with limited means. I would ask the designer to see what is in stock, what can be borrowed, what can be made. Is renting costumes possible?


Pictures by Millet are shown in the play. Using reproductions/posters will work.


This will be a family friendly production.


For information about the play, watch this short video interview with Twain scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin.


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