Millet vs. Millet
When I first thought to audition for the Mark Twain play IS HE DEAD?, I decided to do a little Google search to find any info that might persuade me one way or another. I discovered that the play was about a 19th century French painter that fakes his death in order to reap the financial windfall that would undoubtedly bring him and his accomplices out of the teeth of their hard-hearted lender/picture dealer. It sounded like a worthy premise for further inquiry.
Digging deeper (i.e. more Google searches on my lunch break), I discovered that Mark Twain used the legendary painter Jean-Francois Millet at the center of this farce. This wasn’t some made-up person; it was a painter I knew. Most modern western art history books include at least one of his realistic oil paintings of French peasant farmers. The one that I remembered the most was “The Gleaners.” This painting depicts three women gathering the scraps that are left behind after the fields are harvested.
While this and a few other paintings do make appearances in Twain’s story, they’re actually “out of place” at this moment in Millet’s history. Mark Twain set IS HE DEAD? in 1846, but “The Gleaners” wasn’t painted until 1857. People familiar with Millet’s body of work may also catch that “The Angelus” also appears about 10 years ahead of its time. Given Twain’s time, these anachronisms are actually unsurprising. Americans were fascinated by a manufactured narrative of Millet as a starving artist, making him one of the most popular painters of his day. That fascination resulted in a bidding war between France and America for “The Angelus” in 1889. The painting, and the painter, quickly became the most famous in all the world. If you were Twain, would you want to include the world’s most famous painting in a show about the world’s most famous painter?
Mark Twain portrait of Millet is historically inaccurate in many ways, true, but that’s because the famous satirist seems more interested in painting a picture with brushstrokes of humorous disguises and outlandish situations. One difference that helps create the farce is the creation of Chicago, Dutchy, and O’Shaughnessy. In Twain’s play, Millet is blessed with three fellow artist friends that share in his creative vision. They add an entertaining and contrasting humor to the rather somber Millet. Like the character in the play, the historical Millet did not paint cheery subject matter and instead focused on somewhat somber scenes of average individuals’ daily labors. The author of books such as HUCKLEBERRY FINN and THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, obviously felt the need to alleviate this low mood with several well placed comedic scenes.
As I am not one to spoil an entertaining story, I will only give a small example of one of my favorite moments. Millet’s fellow artist O’Shaughnessy reveals a painting that he has been working on. The Irish chap decided to portray a dachshund in his contribution to the Barbizon school of Realism. His peers reactions make for a humorous art lesson.
So, perhaps the real question isn’t, “Is he dead?”; perhaps, it’s more like “Is Twain’s Millet Millet?”. The answer is, well, sort of. Millet was a glorified figure Victorian audiences knew, or thought they knew, well. In Twain’s skillful hands, Millet transcends his revered status to become the thing Victorian audiences would have loved even more: a comedic hero.