The 2018 Humor in America Conference at Roosevelt University in Chicago included the world premiere of “Waiting For Susy,” a one-act play by Bruce Michelson.
“Waiting for Susy” is set in Rouen in September of 1894, at a moment when Twain and his family were living in France, trying to save money and preparing for the global lecture tour which would begin the next summer. During the same year, Monet finished his famous Rouen Cathedral series and was, similarly, preparing to relocate to Norway where he would paint a new series of studies in white. The play is set on the boardwalk across from the cathedral’s front, Monet is working at his easel while Twain, who is waiting for his wife and daughter to finish shopping, paces and talks to himself. Some of the play’s humor arises from Twain remaining willfully ignorant of the identity of the man with whom he shares the stage, an inequitable anonymity which Monet chooses to enjoy to the end.
Michelson, an Emeritus Professor of English at University of Illinois who was also presented with the Charlie Award for lifetime achievement in Humor Studies during the conference, emphasized in his post-performance remarks that there is no evidence that Twain and Monet ever actually met, but his speculative premise was inspired by the realization that they were in roughly the same place at roughly the same time. In 1894 each was in his late fifties. At analogous points in their careers they found themselves simultaneously looking back upon their unlikely successes and wondering whether those successes could be sustained. Much of the dialogue flows from their often diverging outlooks on aging, work, fame, and the artistic temperament. Some of this is based upon the men’s actual writings, some on Michelson’s creative interpretation of their lives and works.
Michelson’s script features three parts. In Chicago, Clemens/Twain was played by the appropriately grey and grizzled scholar, John Bird, Emeritus Professor of English at Winthrop University. Monet was played by Jim Caron, Professor of English at University of Hawaii at Manoa. And Susy Clemens, for whom the play is named, was played by M. M. Dawley, a recently-minted Ph.D. from Boston University. Considering all three actors performed without rehearsal, their delivery of the play’s many jokes and tricky phrases was impressive.
The greatest challenge of Michelson’s script, for both actors and audience, is its bilingualism. Monet’s character speaks primarily in French, but breaks into passable English once he and Twain warm to each other. Twain speaks almost exclusively English, though occasionally ventures to butcher a few French phrases. And Susy speaks fluently in both languages and thus acts as their translator or, in several humorous instances, elects not to.
As Michelson noted in his remarks, the events take place during the final prolonged period Twain would spend with his favorite daughter, who died tragically of meningitis less than two years later, while Twain was still wrapping up his world tour. In Michelson’s play, Susy is a vivacious, self-possessed young woman, who more than holds her own while matching wits with her cantankerous father and also wins over the Frenchman, who, at first, seems wholly content to keep to himself. Susy thus brings energy and optimism to the production, which might otherwise be nothing but the grousing of grumpy old men (not that that isn’t itself entertaining), but her part also acts as a melancholy reminder of the great tragedy on the horizon. Michelson breaths fresh life into that constant question in Twain Studies: What would Twain’s late phase have been like had he not lost one of his best and most trusted interlocutors? And also, what might Susy’s own legacy have been as she grew more independent of her famous father?
The dialogue of the play is rich, funny, and full of insight, pleasurable for an audience filled predominantly with professional Twain scholars, as was the case in Chicago, but totally approachable for anybody. One need not catch every allusion to be entertained. (I’m sure I didn’t.) And, aside from the considerable challenge of finding two actors who can speak fluent French, the production is ingeniously simple, making the play easily adaptable for many venues and theater companies.
In other words, it may be coming to a stage near you in the not too distant future.