Mark Twain Loved The Stage, But Struggled As A Playwright

Mark Twain loved the theater. He also wanted to make a buck off of it, too.

But his history with the stage was as spotty as his other entrepreneurial schemes.

The only play that was a success was one based on the 1873 novel "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today," which he wrote with Hartford neighbor Charles Dudley Warner. The 1874 stage adaptation was called "Colonel Sellers: A Drama in Five Acts," written with actor John Raymond in mind as the get-rich-quick title character. It toured for 12 years.

His next play, 1877's "Ah Sin," was a flop, and 1883's "Colonel Sellers As a Scientist," a follow-up of sorts to his sole hit, was so bad one critic called it "a miserable lot of twaddle".

However, in the 20th Century other dramatists made grand stage work based on Twain's books and stories, most notably "Pudd'nhead Wilson," "The Prince and the Pauper" and Rodgers & Hart's musical based on the novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Other musicals included "The Adventure of Tom Sawyer," the Tony Award-winning "Big River" and one-third of "The Apple Tree."

In 1898 Twain gave playwriting one more try with a cross-dressing comedy, "Is He Dead?" — think "Charley's Aunt" in a Parisian artist setting. "[I read] it to Mrs. Clemens and she thought it is very bully," said Twain. But the lively play with its often-quoted line — "Cheer up! The worst is yet to come!" — remained unpublished and unproduced and lost until its manuscript was discovered in 2002. In 2007 David Ives' adaptation of it opened on Broadway to positive reviews.

Twain's most successful stage connection was him as him, traveling the lecture circuit — and then in the recreation of those lectures in Hal Holbrook's remarkable solo show "Mark Twain Tonight!" Holbrook, now 88, has been performing as Twain in the show since 1954. He has had a close relationship with the Mark Twain House from the start and recently returned to the city when a hall at the Twain Center was named in Holbrook's honor.

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