OSWEGO — A new work by SUNY Oswego playwright Brad Korbesmeyer, “Twain’s Last Chapter,” will headline the famed author’s 177th birthday celebration at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford on Nov. 30.
The Mark Twain House and Museum presents the restored home where Twain lived from 1874 to 1891.
One of America’s most influential authors, Twain wrote some of his most important works while living there, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” museum officials said.
The production, which the cast has worked on over parts of the past year, is billed as a staged reading, although it will include costumes, music, a set and lines memorized instead of read from scripts.
“It’s probably the most extensive reading of anything I’ve had at this stage,” said Korbesmeyer, a professor of English and creative writing and interim associate dean of SUNY Oswego’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
His work with Twain’s life has included a sabbatical to study at Twain’s childhood home in Hannibal, Mo., a research grant through Phi Kappa Phi’s Love of Learning program and his visit to Hartford while working on an adaptation of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
The seeds of “Twain’s Last Chapter” date back to that earlier play.
He first saw the museum then and worked with University of Connecticut dramatic arts emeritus professor Jerry Krasser, who will direct and play Twain in the staged reading.
In the research, one historical detail in particular stood out for Korbesmeyer.
“Twain would write pages and drafts, then bring them down into the living room or kitchen and his daughters would play parts so he could see what worked and what didn’t,” which could make for a fascinating production, Korbesmeyer said.
The play features Twain, born Samuel Clemens, in his final years rattling around the empty mansion while his surviving daughter Clara cares for him, with flashback appearances from the two daughters, Susy and Jean, who predeceased him. But getting to that point was an elaborate creative process, Korbesmeyer said.
“I kept coming back to the question of how to get around the age differences in the girls, and that only Clara was around for his last days,” he said.
He finally decided to write scenes where Twain and Clara’s actions conjure the ghosts of the other daughters. The play makes extensive use of characters reading or citing Twain’s books, letters and lectures from dialogue — too much in the first draft, Korbesmeyer admitted.
The first effort “felt like a lecture,” Korbesmeyer recalled.
While the Twain museum saw it as viable, Korbesmeyer said he “really took the gloves off” to cut and tighten for the second draft. It was not until the third draft that he added the third daughter, Jean, and “gave her more of a voice and a big part.”
The staged reading represents the latest, but not necessarily final, version. “The hope is that someone sees it and wants to do a full production,” Korbesmeyer said. “That’s what you’re hoping to get with a reading . . . to get some buzz about the work, and the next part would be to send it out to some theatres with any reviews, in hopes someone will be interested in it.”
The historical perspective with Twain’s family life, as well as the efficiency of a small cast of four, are among the factors in its favor, Korbesmeyer said.
“I think all four parts are interesting parts,” he said. “The daughters are so dynamic. I think it would be fun to play Mark Twain in this production, and that there are actors who would really want to do it.”
The director and star, Krasser, praised it as a “three-handkerchief piece” with emotional moments balancing the wry wit of Twain’s writing. “At the end of the play, however, there’s a kind of spiritual reunion,” Krasser said.