Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CXLVII

The Fortunes of a Play

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 right.

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 line:

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,

Yours truly, 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.”

And again:

“As it stands, I believe the thing will fail, and it would be a disgrace to have it succeed.”]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00