A Joint Effort from the Tweed and Theatre Department
This spring, UMD features two great men from history: the beloved American author Mark Twain and France’s revered artist Jean-François Millet. The UMD Theatre department presents Mark Twain’s 1898 art-world comedy Is He Dead?. The play, directed by Ann Aiko Bergeron, will be performed on Apr. 22-24 and Apr. 28-May 1 at 7:30 pm, and Apr. 25 at 2 pm in the Mainstage Theatre at the Marshall Performing Arts Center.
At the same time, works by the French Barbizon artist Jean-François Millet are on display at the Tweed Museum of Art as part of their Collections Feature. The exhibit runs through May 2. On Sunday, April 25 at 1:00 pm, Tweed Curator Peter Spooner will present a Gallery Talk about Millet's work.
From Broadway to UMD
Bergeron saw the play for the first time on Broadway in 2007 at its world premiere. She thought the comedy's message was perfect for UMD.
“It’s a play written by Mark Twain in 1898, but it wasn’t published until 105 years later in 2003,” Bergeron said. “I think at first it was too close to Millet’s death. He was still quite respected and to satirize him so early was not the right time.”
The play was adapted by David Ives to become a two-act, rather than a three-act play.
Presenting Twain’s only play
The play features Twain’s satirical style and is about a young, brilliant painter, modeled and named after Millet, who realizes that only dead painters achieve fame and fortune. He's destitute, in debt, and in love. His rival threatens to put Millet in debtor’s prison. With the help of his friends, Millet fakes his own death and poses as his widowed sister to sell his paintings. Is He Dead? begs the question: Is an artist’s work worth more when he is dead?
Millet’s influence in the art world
Some parts of the play are similar to Millet's life. Though he was not destitute, he did live humbly, and the value of his works did go up after he died. Millet’s painting The Angelus (1859) started an international bidding war. Millet originally sold it for 1,800 Francs, but the painting exchanged hands many times and was again put up for sale in 1889. Bidding against the American Art Association, the French government finally won the painting for 553,000 Francs ($111,000).
“For Americans, he’s not a household artist like Van Gogh or Rembrandt, but in France he is revered," Bergeron said. In France, his death started a feeding frenzy of art. “The experience was significant in how we value art today.”
Collaborating with the Tweed
Because the play is about an artist, Bergeron searched the Tweed for Millet’s work. It turned out that George Peter Tweed, the museum’s namesake, identified with Millet’s rural agrarian subject matter and collected five paintings and 11 prints by the artist. Currently, there are five works on display at the Tweed.
The art exhibit and play partnership is something that UMD has never done before. It offers the chance for everyone to experience a version of Millet’s life and then see his real-life work displayed at the Tweed. “It’s fascinating and fun to see a story about someone and then go see that person’s actual works,” Bergeron said.
The student actors in the play also find this collaboration to be an interesting way of learning more about the characters they play. “One day we just picked up after rehearsal and took a field trip to the Tweed. The students were excited to see the actual works of Millet after they had been just rehearsing his life,” Bergeron said. “It makes it feel more real to them, lets them know he actually did paint these pictures.”
Many of Millet's works will be featured and mentioned throughout the play. A student is even recreating one of Millet's paintings to be featured in the play.
Bergeron hopes that there will be other opportunities to do collaborations. “This was just a particular situation where the show happened to be about art, but this was a great opportunity to be able to do primary research about the play in our own backyard,” Bergeron said.
Written by Mandee Kuglin and Donna O'Neill