How Much for Art?

By Ben Tyler

Mark Twain was fascinated by human mortality. To witness our own funeral, as his literary character Tom Sawyer did, is a fantasy that most of us would kill to experience. Why? Because of the opportunity to see and hear unbridled praise heaped upon us. We would never admit this desire in life, nor would any of us open such spigots of praise on the living. In 1897 when the false rumor of Twain’s demise was widely circulated, he famously responded, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” It can be no coincidence then that his one and only stage play is titled, “Is He Dead?”

Ben Tyler

Ironically this comes from an artist who became a literal living legend. He was a member of one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth: artists who live long enough to make a fortune from their art. In addition to wealth, he personally witnessed those spigots of praise and adulation, wide open and running full throttle. He was born shortly after Haley’s Comet appeared, and brashly declared he would go out with it. He died 74 years later, the day following the comet’s return in 1910. To this day, the least literate amongst us know the name Mark Twain.

Even though “Is He Dead” is a fairly straightforward farce, Twain manages to pose a fascinating question: “Why does the death of an artist super charge the value of his art?” We’ve seen this happen in modern times. Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson are just three such examples. It has to do with the hypocrisy and the foolishness of the human condition. This notion permeates the script of this genuinely American author. In this play, he focuses on the work of the real life French painter, Jean François Millet.

A novelist writes for the eye, a playwright writes for the ear. Mark Twain is vastly more the novelist. David Ives, one of our great living playwrights, adapted Twain’s original script for the modern day ear and helps him make the transition to the sensibilities of today’s theatre audiences. In the play, “Is He Dead?” Ives manages to reference many of Twain’s novels and short stories. Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Roughing It are a few of the titles that fans of Twain will recognize from this play. When Jean Francois Millet says, “The very idea of a man attending his own funeral. I’ve never heard of such a thing!” one can’t help but make the connection to Tom Sawyer, hiding in the rafters and enjoying this very thing. For this reason, if you know Mark Twain this script is rich and hilarious.

I believe that great art is measured by its life span. How long does it stay relevant? It’s been 104 years since the actual report of Mark Twain’s death. Today he remains one of the world’s greatest humorists. And that is no exaggeration.

March 11, 2014