In 1987, the actor and director, David Birney, perhaps best known as the former husband of Family Ties star, Meredith Baxter, adapted Mark Twain’s comedic stories about Adam and Eve in Eden into a two-person stage production. The play had a somewhat inauspicious start. It aired to a national audience for the first time in January 1989 on PBS, and a month later its co-leads, Baxter and Birney, filed for divorce.
But Mark Twain’s Diaries of Adam & Eve has had a long life in college and community theater, as it admirably combines Twain’s humor with a small cast and sparse staging. Birney’s script revealed that Twain’s “Diaries” contained many of the tropes and beats of the popular film genre, romantic comedy, long before there was such a thing.
Next week the Conejo Players will be bringing the play to a national viewing audience again, live-streaming the production from their theater in Thousand Oaks, California. We asked a few questions of Devery Holmes, director of the play and also president of the Conejo Players.
1.) How did this project come about? What interested you about the narrative?
We are the oldest all-volunteer community theatre in California and have been around for 63 years. With restrictions prohibiting our ability to offer live theatre due to COVID-19, we began a virtual theatre series where we livestream productions from our stage to our audience. We were looking for wonderful shows with small casts that would delight our audiences. One of our board members had seen Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, so it came to us highly recommended. I read the script and fell in love with it. Mark Twain captures the essence of every relationship in a charming, funny and poignant way, and he is lauded as one of the greatest humorists in the United States for good reason!
2.) Did you learn anything about Mark Twain and the contexts in which he originally wrote this work? If so, did that impact your approach to it?
Yes, we learned a lot and our cast did research as well. We learned that Twain wrote the diaries separately, and Eve’s diary was published 15 years after Adam’s, when Mark Twain’s wife, Olivia Clemens, died. This information helped us understand so much more about the book.
Casey McDougal, our Eve, found it very insightful that this book was published after the Clemens family had left their home in Hartford, CT where they raised their family (and designed and built the home themselves, with trendy, top of the line designers at the time, including a designer from Tiffany & Co.). Casey felt there was a parallel between the Fall / Eden being lost and not being able to go back, just as they had to leave their home and move to Europe due to financial hardship. Also, when they came back to visit the Hartford home in the late 1890s, another of their children died, so they never went back to the Hartford home after that. The death of Abel is definitely an insight into the painful loss of three of his four children. In the play, when Able dies, it is the one scene with such deep emotion, filled with incredible loss and pain. It is a heart-wrenching scene that is so real. We felt Mark Twain was reliving the loss of his own children.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Samuel Clemens did, tragically, live to see the deaths of three of his four children, though only two of them passed prior to the writing of the Eden diaries. His eldest daughter, Susy Clemens, contracted meningitis in the Hartford home in 1896 and, as Devery notes, the surviving family could never bring themselves to reside there after that time.
3.) What do you think makes Twain’s narrative specifically compelling to an audience in 2020?
It is a story every generation can relate to. But, in 2020, women have become very self-sufficient, strong, opinionated and powerful. Eve was the first strong women who spoke her mind from the start. The 2020 audience relates beautifully to this. At first, Adam does not know what to make of her and wishes “the creature would not talk,” but slowly learns to appreciate and love her for who she is as her own person. Their love and mutual respect for each other grows beautifully through the years as well.
4.) Finally, how will people get to see the show?
The show will be livestreamed on Friday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10 at 2 and 8 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 2 p.m. Our livestreamed performance of Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve does not have a set ticket price and asks for audience members to “pay what you can.” Access to the stream will be sent as a link in the ticket purchase confirmation email. To get tickets, go to www.conejoplayers.org