Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXII

A New Play and a New Tale

He wrote a short story that year which is notable mainly for the fact that in it the telephone becomes a literary property, probably for the first time. “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz-Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton” employed in the consummation what was then a prospect, rather than a reality — long-distance communication.

His work that summer consisted mainly of two extensive undertakings, one of which he completed without delay. He still had the dramatic ambition, and he believed that he was capable now of constructing a play entirely from his own resources.

To Howells, in June, he wrote:

To-day I am deep in a comedy which I began this morning — principal character an old detective. I skeletoned the first act and wrote the second to-day, and am dog-tired now. Fifty-four pages of MS. in seven hours.

Seven days later, the Fourth of July, he said:

I have piled up one hundred and fifty-one pages on my comedy. The first, second and fourth acts are done, and done to my satisfaction, too. To-morrow and next day will finish the third act, and the play. Never had so much fun over anything in my life never such consuming interest and delight. And just think! I had Sol Smith Russell in my mind’s eye for the old detective’s part, and bang it! he has gone off pottering with Oliver Optic, or else the papers lie.

He was working with enthusiasm, you see, believing in it with a faith which, alas, was no warrant for its quality. Even Howells caught his enthusiasm and became eager to see the play, and to have the story it contained told for the Atlantic.

But in the end it proved a mistake. Dion Boucicault, when he read the manuscript, pronounced it better than “Ah Sin,” but that was only qualified praise. Actors who considered the play, anxious enough to have Mark Twain’s name on their posters and small bills, were obliged to admit that, while it contained marvelous lines, it wouldn’t “go.” John Brougham wrote:

There is an absolute “embarrassment of riches” in your “Detective” most assuredly, but the difficulty is to put it into profitable form. The quartz is there in abundance, only requiring the necessary manipulation to extract the gold.

In narrative structure the story would be full of life, character, and the most exuberant fun, but it is altogether too diffuse in its present condition for dramatic representation, and I confess I do not feel sufficient confidence in my own experience (even if I had the time, which on reflection I find I have not) to undertake what, under different circumstances, would be a “labor of love.”

Yours sincerely, JOHN BROUGHAM.

That was frank, manly, and to the point; it covered the ground exactly. “Simon Wheeler, the Amateur Detective,” had plenty of good material in it — plenty of dialogue and situations; but the dialogue wouldn’t play, and the situations wouldn’t act. Clemens realized that perhaps the drama was not, after all, his forte; he dropped “Simon Wheeler,” lost his interest in “Ah Sin,” even leased “Colonel Sellers” for the coming season, and so, in a sort of fury, put theatrical matters out of his mind.

He had entered upon what, for him, was a truer domain. One day he picked up from among the books at the farm a little juvenile volume, an English story of the thirteenth century by Charlotte M. Yonge, entitled, The Prince and the Page. It was a story of Edward I. and his cousins, Richard and Henry de Montfort; in part it told of the submerged personality of the latter, picturing him as having dwelt in disguise as a blind beggar for a period of years. It was a story of a sort and with a setting that Mark Twain loved, and as he read there came a correlative idea. Not only would he disguise a prince as a beggar, but a beggar as a prince. He would have them change places in the world, and each learn the burdens of the other’s life.92

92 [There is no point of resemblance between the Prince and the Pauper and the tale that inspired it. No one would ever guess that the one had grown out of the readings of the other, and no comparison of any sort is possible between them.]

The plot presented physical difficulties. He still had some lurking thought of stage performance, and saw in his mind a spectacular presentation, with all the costumery of an early period as background for a young and beautiful creature who would play the part of prince. The old device of changelings in the cradle (later used in Pudd’nhead Wilson) presented itself to him, but it could not provide the situations he had in mind. Finally came the thought of a playful interchange of raiment and state (with startling and unlooked-for consequence)— the guise and personality of Tom Canty, of Offal Court, for those of the son of Henry VIII., little Edward Tudor, more lately sixth English king of that name. This little prince was not his first selection for the part. His original idea had been to use the late King Edward VII. (then Prince of Wales) at about fifteen, but he found that it would never answer to lose a prince among the slums of modern London, and have his proud estate denied and jeered at by a modern mob. He felt that he could not make it seem real; so he followed back through history, looking along for the proper time and prince, till he came to little Edward, who was too young — but no matter, he would do.

He decided to begin his new venture in story form. He could dramatize it later. The situation appealed to him immensely. The idea seemed a brand-new one; it was delightful, it was fascinating, and he was saturated with the atmosphere and literature and history — the data and detail of that delightful old time. He put away all thought of cheap, modern play-acting and writing, to begin one of the loveliest and most entertaining and instructive tales of old English life. He decided to be quite accurate in his picture of the period, and he posted himself on old London very carefully. He bought a pocket-map which he studied in the minutest detail.

He wrote about four hundred manuscript pages of the tale that summer; then, as the inspiration seemed to lag a little, put it aside, as was his habit, to wait until the ambition for it should be renewed. It was a long wait, as usual. He did not touch it again for more than three years.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05