Twain Serves up Some Tawdry Humor

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Want some theater this weekend? First, read a review of Mark Twain’s play “Is He Dead?”! Then, take advantage of  CUarts Initiative  $20 ticket offer!  

Given Mark Twain’s archetypal place in American Literature, it’s no surprise that his recently unearthed play, “Is He Dead?” is attracting large crowds.   But the characteristic wit that the audience might expect of Twain’s script is not featured here.  Instead David Ives, the contemporary playwright who reworked the original script, capitalizes on ribald humor and satire to revitalize Twain’s writing, typified by puns, word play and innuendo.


Despite its lack of verbal cunning, “Is He Dead?” is thoroughly enjoyable.  After a dense first scene, dragged down by plot details and contextualization, the play sets off on an unabashed pleasure ride full of mixed identities, racial stereotypes, cross-dressing, slap-stick clowning and even a couple stinky cheese jokes.  

The action of the play surrounds the life and times of the struggling Realist painter, Jean-Francois Millet. From the financial frustrations of Millet’s career, Twain launches his characters into a harebrained run at success and a poorly calculated get-rich-quick scheme.  Following the structure of a traditional melodrama, Millet, played by the flamboyant Norbert Leo Butz, must rustle together money to pay back his debts and save his lover from his parsimonious patron.   With the aid of his three buds, representing classic stereotypes of 19th century bourgeois – the German burgher, the Irish cad and the Chicagoan cow rustler – Millet decides the surest path to fortune and fame is to fake his own death. 

At the beginning of the second scene, Butz, decked out in an overblown pink cup-cake dress, enters the stage with all the confidence and energy that the Millet of the first scene lacked.   It is as if Millet is more suited as in drag as Madame To You, Millet’s fictitious twin sister, than he is as himself.  Butz does not shy away from amplifying the sexual overtones and exudes feminine lust.  He laces every line with a lascivious smirk and moves about the stage with a robust and bawdy vigor. 

At the end of the first act, Millet and his gang have triumphed.  The value of Millet’s paintings has soared as his moribund state intensifies.  After staging his death, Madame To You enjoys the spoils of the rouse and even receives a marriage offer.   The first act finishes with an excess of absurdity and leaves the second act to straighten out the mess these band of characters have made.

Twain’s second act may not be innovative, but it does not disappoint.  The laughs come easily as the audience watches Butz prance around Madame To You’s new digs, a Versailles-inspired mansion.   As the second act plays out, things get more and more out of hand and the audience begins to wonder how Twain will manage to set things straight. 

Eventually, some order is established, but Twain requires the audience to take his conclusion with a grain of salt.  “Is He Dead?” is purely a farce after all- and a delightful one at that.   But a playwright can only take the classic  “you’re better off dead” gag so far – even a comedic master like Twain.  





  1. Anonymous  

    Actually this play is not "attracting," as you say, "large crowds." That's why it will be closing with a substantial financial loss on March 9th, only three months after it opened. If you want to see it, go soon! You only have a week.

  2. Anonymous  

    It's a shame that the play is having to close so quickly -- it's hilarious! I saw it last weekend and couldn't stop snickering during most of the second act.

  3. Slypher

    I saw this play over winter break and than saw it just today to get a final look at the masterpiece before it close March 9th... quite unfortunate too. This BWOG piece could have been a huge help (to both "is he dead?" and people looking for a good show) a month or two ago.

  4. Yes, He is  

    Is he dead?

    Yes, unfortunately (on March 9th) he will be... unless this is a clever ploy to "kill" the play much like Millet is killed in the film... than joyfully resurrect it once it gains steam... eh who knows.

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