Saturday, November 24, 2018

Is He Living or Is He Dead?

Mark Twain (1835–1910)
From Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891–1910

The Angelus, 1859, oil on canvas by French artist Jean-François Millet (1814–1875). Courtesy Musée d'Orsay. The painting depicts two peasants working in a potato field and pausing to recite the Angelus, a Catholic prayer said in early morning, at noon, and in the evening. In the distance a church bell rings the end of the workday. Both Millet and this painting are central to Mark Twain’s satirical story.
The recent news that David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million, setting a record for a painting by a living artist, brought to mind another record-shattering art auction that inspired a short story published 125 years ago by Mark Twain.

In 1889 The Angelus (L'Angelus), a painting by Jean-François Millet, went up for sale when its owner, Eugène Secrétan—the French tycoon who donated the copper to make the Statue of Liberty—lost his fortune after attempting and disastrously failing to corner the market on the metal. At the subsequent auction of Secrétan’s valuable art collection, a bidding war between French and American buyers drove up the price for The Angelus to 553,000 francs. The winning bidder represented a consortium hoping to acquire several pieces from Secrétan’s collection for the Louvre—but the French buyers weren’t, in fact, able to come up with enough cash. In the end the painting went to the second-place bidder, the American Art Association, a New York auction house and exhibition gallery. The following year, after a seven-city U.S. tour, The Angelus was resold for a then-staggering $150,000 (about 750,000 francs) to French department store magnate Alfred Chauchard, who returned the canvas to France and, when he died in 1909, bequeathed it to the Louvre.

A few weeks after the Secrétan sale another painting by Millet, The Gleaners, sold at auction for 300,000 francs. During the following years commentators would complain of the shocking disparity between the prices paid for Millet’s paintings and the utter poverty of his surviving family members. Various proposals were floated that would guarantee a percentage of resale proceeds to artists and their heirs, but it wasn’t until 1920 that France instituted the royalty known as droit de suite. (Incidentally, although he is hardly living in poverty, David Hockney will not see a penny of that $90.3 million, since the first-sale doctrine still applies to original copies of art sold in the U.S.)

During the late nineteenth century Millet’s posthumous fame was not confined to Europe; a mania for his paintings swept America—and their surprising popularity is what propelled the transatlantic bidding war for The Angelus. So both Mark Twain and his readers were very much aware of the facts surrounding the paintings and auctions when he wrote “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” in 1893. Twain’s story was one of a number of items he published that year in Cosmopolitan, providing desperately needed funds while he attempted to save his failing publishing business. It was not enough, however; Webster & Co. would fail the following year and result in his personal bankruptcy.

The story behind the story doesn't end with its publication, however. In 1898, still reeling from both his financial collapse and the death of his daughter Susy, Twain revisited the tale to adapt it for the stage, with the character of Millet disguised in drag for much of the play as his fictional twin sister, the Widow Daisy Tilou. Dracula author Bram Stoker, who was the business manager at the Lyceum in London, agreed to be Twain’s agent in England, but productions at the theater were interrupted when a warehouse fire destroyed the company’s entire (and woefully underinsured) inventory of sets and costumes. Twain then circulated the manuscript among several friends and various American theater producers. He soon admitted that the play could be staged only if reworked by an experienced script doctor, but the project was unable to generate much interest. Twain threw in the towel. “Put ‘Is He Dead’ in the fire,” he wrote to an associate. “God will bless you. I too. I started in to convince myself that I could write a play or couldn’t. I’m convinced. Nothing can disturb that conviction.”

In fact, the play was not consigned to the flames and it instead languished in the archives until fifteen years ago, when Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin dusted it off and published it for the first time. Adapted for the modern stage in 2007 by playwright David Ives and director Michael Blakemore, Is He Dead? received largely favorable reviews and ran on Broadway for 105 performances in the landmark theater named, of all things, the Lyceum. As it happens, ninety-nine years earlier Mark Twain and several friends went to this same theater to see the now-forgotten hit play Love Watches, starring 23-year-old Billie Burke (yes, that Billie Burke), whom Twain idolized and who was often among the parade of visitors in his Manhattan apartment during the final years of his life.

Note: The Hans Christian Anderson story described in the opening scene is “The Daisy” (1838).

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I was spending the month of March, 1892, at Mentone, in the Riviera. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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