San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin|
21 May 1877
Mary Clemmer's Description of Mark Twain and Bret Harte's New Play.
The Plot and the Characters.
WASHINGTON, D.C., May 8, 1877.
General Sherman sat there at the head of his staff, the latter stately, with conscious dignity, the former, as usual, frisky as a kid. Never did man bear his honors more boyishly. I suppose he can be a pugnacious bear upon occasion, but when he gets a chance to have "a good time" he has it with a will. At a German, he will dance with more girls than any other man; at the theatre he will fly about and laugh and talk with more people. It is said that he does not think highly of the attributes of the feminine mind in the aggregate; yet his appreciation is open to exceptions. He insists on having the statues of Vinnie Ream, and goes every night to hear Mary Anderson. Their genius does not "go agin" him. One has a reputation for fascination, and the other is young and beautiful. I met her on the street one morning, and thought it many a long day since I had seen so handsome a creature as Mary Anderson. Last evening the General came down the aisle, between the acts, and chatted with Mrs. Berghman-Laughton, a lady who at present seems to be chiefly celebrated for her great wealth, and her exceedingly youthful husband. Behind her sat William E. Changler, that sharpest of Republican lawyers, and his handsome wife, who is the youngest daughter of Senator Hale of New Hampshire. A little way off sat Mrs. John Sherman, her fair and gentle face serious enough for a Moody and Sankey meeting--as if they had not the slightest intention of stretching it over the latest fun and pun efforts of the two "great American humorists." Near the front sat Senator Bruce of Mississippi and would-be Senator Pinchback of Louisiana, two stylishly-dressed, handsome men, who might be taken anywhere for a pair of wealthy Cubans, such as constantly frequent New York. Almost every seat below was filled by persons marked by elegance, wealth or distinction of some sort, while high up the peanut gallery was stuffed with the "gamins" of the street, vociferous from the beginning with tongue and feet.
The curtain lifted upon a scene in the Black Hills "diggins." There was the squalor, the dirt, the rocks, the miners, the pickaxes, which they were heroically plying. But, alas, for the illusion even here! The heavy strokes were upward. The pickaxes fell, how lightly, lest they should rattle worse the rattling boards. The miners were evidently very much afraid that their pickaxes would make a noise. Picking away like that for gold was of course ridiculous. If the precious fabric of their rocks would allow no more positive sound, the blows should have been simulated from below after the fashion of mimic thunder. Suddenly there is a crackling outside, and in rushed "Miss Tempest"--a San Francisco heiress, wringing her hands and bewailing (through her nose) the broken-down stage-coach out of which she has just escaped. She accepts the hospitality of the camp in general, and of "Abner Plunkett," a "busted" miner, in particular. Plunkett's forte is lying. He deals exclusively in magnnificent lies of the marvelous. "Miss Tempest" picks up a photograph of an interesting young man--Henry Yorke [sic]--and recognizes it at once as the portait of the young man who once saved her life, for whom per consequence, of course, she has conceived a romantic attachment. "Plunkett," with prompt falsehood, tells her it is the picture of his son. She kisses it, asks for it, takes, and gives "Plunkett" her own in exchange. The stage outside is mentioned, and "Miss Tempest" goes on with "Henry Yorke's" picture safe in her bosom. "Yorke," who is one of the owners of the diggings, comes along, sees "Miss Tempest's" picture in the hands of old "Plunkett," recognizes his lost idol and is told by "Plunkett" that it is the picture of his daughter. Here we have the first loop in the plot. In the next act "Ah Sin," the one perfect picture of the play, comes in, a genuine Chinee-man, sans obliquity of eyes. The Oriental orbs are lacking, yet scarcely missed in the perfect make up. We forgive at least a part of the coarseness gone before for the sake of "Ah Sin's" bland smiles and sly touches of nature. His theiving is spontaneous enough to be charming as he slides a tin cup up his sleeve, and punches a garment into his green carpet-bag and goes about tip-toeing and prying into every nook and corner. "Plunkett" sells his claim in the diggings to "Yorke" for $50, and generously divides the sum with "Broderic" [sic], a fellow miner, the villain of the play. They put the sum between them and go at a game of poker, miner fashion. "Ah Sin" meanwhile hovering in the rear. As a diversion, he goes off in a corner and fires off a pistol twice. The firing rouses the two players, and they rush out to see what is the matter. This is what "Ah Sin" wanted--he rushes back to the board on the barrel and manipulates the cards, giving four kings to "Broderic" and four aces to "Plunkett." The celerity and dexterity of this performance, well mixed with Chinese gestures and "talkee," was humorous enough to have made Charles Lamb happy. The players came back, picked up their cards, and after the manner of their kind, began to curse and bewail their "hands"--to hide their merits, each expecting to beat. The game seemed to be watched with deep interest by the audience, the players growing more and more excited, their feverish betting increasing every moment till "Plunkett's" four aces wins everything, even "Broderic's" claim in the diggings, and he rises cursing, a ruined man. "Broderic" swears, and "Plunkett" proceeds to dig in the claim he won from him, and, as a matter of course, immediately picks out (amazingly near the surface) an immense nugget of gold. He falls on his face crying, "No longer a pauper," then picks himself up and goes at it again. He is just then surprised by "Broderic," who is so enraged at the sight of the nugget he has lost that he falls upon old "Plunkett," and after a tussle kills him, and has so hard a time picking him up that the dead man assists him by lifting his arm and putting it around "Broderic's" neck. Thus assisted by the corpse he tumbles it down the rocks, into the river, then goes out to give "Ah Sin" a chance. The Chinaman sees blood marks on the ground and immediately becomes fantasically curious. He darts about in all directions, his pigtail flying. He finds a bloody coat in the bushes, which he immediately claps into his carpet-bag. While thus occupied "Broderic" comes in upon him, sees the bloody coat and rushes for it. Failing to get it, he takes a pickax to "Ah Sin." Before he brings it down into "Ah Sin's" skull the latter gentleman cocks a pistol at him, and "Broderic" falls back to the smiles of diplomacy. He offers $300 for the bloody coat. "Ah Sin" demands $500, which "Broderic" promises him, to be paid in a mining claim. Then "Broderic" thinks he sees the bloody coat go down into the river, while in fact by a sleight-of-hand performance the cunning "Ah Sin" claps it back into his carpet-bag.
The second act opens upon "Ah Sin" in his out-of-door laundry. "Mrs. and Miss Tempest" appear in advance of the father, "Judge Tempest." They are about to visit "Henry Yorke," and while waiting for him and his carriage, learn from "Ah Sin" that he is also expecting "Mrs. and Miss Plunkett," the wife and daughter of the dead miner. "Miss Tempest" takes it into her head to personate "Miss Plunkett," and entreats her mother to assume the name of "Mrs. Plunkett." The mother, being sufficiently silly, does so. "Yorke" appears, carries them home, and entertains them as the supposed widow and daughter of "Abner Plunkett," he, from the photograph, being very much in love with the supposed "Miss Plunkett." The vice versa. The real "Mrs." and "Miss Plunkett" appear shortly. "Ah Sin," over his ironing-table, murmurs: "Two 'Missee Plunketts.' Ah, ah! Amelican man two wifee--nice Amelican man!" "Mrs." and "Miss Plunkett" miss "Yorke," but finally accept the hospitality of "Broderic," who is "scooting" around, and both mother and daughter begin at once to plant matrimonial plans for him.
The entire mining camp suddenly rushed in upon "Ah Sin," accusing him of being the murderer of "Plunkett." "Ah Sin" jumps upon his ironing-board and defends himself with hot flatirons. On this ludicrous sight the curtain drops in the second act.
The third act opens on Yorke's ranche, just outside of the house, about which tropical plants in pots have had time to grow if it is in the Black Hills. Outside "Ah Sin" was making a great time with his attempt to set a table. "Mrs. Tempest" (the pretended Mrs. Plunkett) attempts to show him, gets into a passion, and slaps down a plate. "Ah Sin" imitates her example, and smashes the remainder. The real Mrs. and Miss Plunkett appear upon the scene. The joke has to be explained. They enter into it, and immediately fall to personating, or rather caricaturing, "Mrs." and "Miss Tempest," of San Francisco. "Mrs. Plunkett," who is an exaggerated "Mrs. Malaprop," makes absurd work ot it. She "piles on" malapropism till in pity of the strain one loses the ability to laugh. "Yorke" is, of course, astonished that the San Francisco gentry have no better manners, and in the midst of his wonderment at the table he is arrested for the murder of "Plunkett."
The first scene of the last act is an improvised Court-room, in which a self-constituted Judge and jury are trying "Yorke" for the murder of the miner. They found "Yorke's" pistol near the scene of bloodshed, "Ah Sin" having stolen and left it there after the game at poker. They found "Yorke's" purse in "Plunkett's" pocket, "Yorke" having given it to him when he paid for his claim. Beside, the Court had heard of a woman called "Plunkett" at "Yorke's" house, and the conclusion was that "Yorke" intended to palm her off as Plunkett's widow and get a deed of his claim, which had proved of great value. The rude scenes of a far western trial, the fluctuations of the pendulous jury, the swaying and surging of self-interest and passion, are crudely, yet powerfully, made manifest in this impromptu trial. Miss Tempest rushes in, and her story is the turning point of the trial. Broderic, who has been passing around cigars and now sits smoking one, shows great disturbance at the appearance of Miss Tempest. She is in love, consequently in trouble, but as she still talks through her nose and does not look very pretty, her trials are less affecting to the audience than they otherwise would be. She tells the Court that she met "Broderic" in the road, and that he tried to keep her from coming to the Court to tell her story; that "he insulted her by making love" to her, etc.; that she feigned the name of "Plunkett" because--because--she--loved--"Yorke," which information brought down the self-constituted jury at the feet of the young lady. It proved positively the innocence of "Yorke" to their impartial minds, and they shouted for his release. This was a signal for "Broderic" to bring in his trump card. He rushed to the door, opened it, and "Ah Sin" came tripping in, umbrella and carpet-bag in hand. With the most childlike of smiles he pulled out of said carpet-bag a bloody coat. At first "Broderic" is filled with consternation, yet he presents the garment to the Judge as the coat of "Yorke." The Judge inspects it, to discover inside the name of "Broderic." "It is your coat, 'Broderic!'" he cries. The dispassionate jury immediately begins to howl at the new culprit. "Yorke" is acquitted, and the Court recognizes "Broderic" for the murder of "Abner Plunkett." At this juncture the dead "Abner" himself appears. "Ah Sin" opens the door and lets him in, looking decidedly more like an attenuated carrot than when we last looked upon him. The wife before whose "shying skillet" he had fled some thirteen years before, fell upon his neck, and lifted up her voice. It is now divulged that "Ah Sin" when he came up to the mine and discovered the bloody spots upon the ground, at some unmentionable time, soon or late, is supposed to have descended those rocks, dragged forth from the river the murdered Plunkett, nursed him back to life, hid him, and kept him to bring him forth at the apropos moment, cured of the vice of lying, and healed of the great malady of death. When the serene "Ah Sin" went through his super-human performance we are at a loss to know. If memory serves us right, this heathen Chinee spent an unconscionably long time spying about, seeing what he could find. After he had found the bloody coat he spent another very lengthy season meekly bullying "Broderic" and glibly bartering with him for it. He was not missing from the scene an instant, and when he did depart, "Plunkett," had he been half alive when he was thrown down the rocks, would by that time been ten times dead. Never mind, he is alive enough at the moment he is wanted, and begins to murmur of George Washington and his little hatchet.
So much for the plot of the new play. You see that there is enough of it, such as it is. But when you find that it is not only clothed but piled with "talkee," "talkee," you are made aware that by a sense of extreme fatigure there is too much of it. Life must be very agreeable to us to be willing to take even pictures of it in large quantities. But when the life we see depicted is not only vulgar but essentially brutal, we should not be called to look upon any more of it than is absolutely necessary. The shouts from the peanut gallery over the coarse puns and the more brutal scenes proved that this play is likely to prove a delight to the portion of the community that would be most easily influenced and most utterly harmed by pictures of just such a life as this. It is not that it is rude only, for rude life may be strong and pure--but that, being rude, it is also depraved. That such modes of life exist on the frontier we are very well aware, but who is to be benefited by their being reproduced on the stage of Eastern cities? They are certainly not edifying--they are not even amusing. Mark Twain is removed by wealth too far above the bread-and-butter struggle to be compelled to build up so coarse a caricature of "Mrs. Malaprop" as "Mrs. Plunkett" shows herself to be, or to wrestle with such toilsome jokes and far-fetched puns as were many of those produced so profusely last evening.
With Bret Harte it is a different matter. He writes for a living, and no one who writes for a living can always write as he would.
I am not abusing this play. I am writing of it as I do for the reason that it holds in itself the capacity for such great improvement. As I watched it slowly unfold last evening, I asked, what is its object, and concluded that its crowning purpose was to display "Ah Sin." It was written for him--a new type of man in the American fabric, political and social--a creature at once shy and sly, reticent and talkative, cunning and amiable, weak, yet powerful, subtle as air, acute as quicksilver--a servant, a pariah, a thief, yet child of the oldest civilization on our earth--nothing short of absolute genius can depict him as he is, and he who can will outrank in special personalities Raymond or Joe Jefferson. When Joe Jefferson first played "Rip Van Winkle," he was not the Rip par excellence of to-day. He grew by time, and added many silent, subtle touches to fill perfectly the character. So we seemed to see last night in Charles Parseloe [sic], the clown, and promise of the perfect Heathen Chinee. Then why not give us more Ah Sin and less of the bungling story; less cumbersome, coarse people; less vulgarity and more keen wits? Then those dreadful puns! Of all cheap things, what is mentally so cheap as a cheap pun, far-fetched and lugged into dialogue? It is an awful test, one that no mortal can survive more than half a dozen years at the longest to have the reputation of being very funny. Up to that time if sufficiently perennial he may give us fresh flowers of humor and wit; afterward it seems one endless effort to resuscitate the old, and to sustain his reputation. He in a play of the Pacific Slope we find Mrs. Malaprop dragged from her place in fine English society, out to the Black Hills. Nothing could be less original, truly, than any attempt to reproduce her, even under new conditions or amid the most alien surroundings.
But there are two characters in this play, new, unique, vital enough to give it persistence on the boards and a lasting reputation--one "Ah Sin," the other "Abner "Plunkett."
In Ah Sin we have that somewhat startling image in our American life of the "Heathen Chinee," with his pig-tail, blouse, short trowsers, umbrella, his "talkee-talkee" and "washee-washee," his cuteness, his cunning, his limitless slyness; and the American miner, the son of adventure, wrestling with want, and overcome of plenty, with his "yarns," his lies, his poker and three-card monte, his brutality, yet latent humanity tingling with the tenderer emotions of the heart.
We had this creature last night in all his swagger, his ugliness and dim-suggested goodness. G. W. Denham in "Albert [sic] Plunkett," and Charles F. Parsloe in "Ah Sin" were absolutely perfect, so far as the play allowed to be possible. But the play does not make the most of these telling characters. If there were but half as much talk, and certainly not more than half as many struggling puns and laborious jokes, and more situations in which the Chinee and the miner could translate life, wit and humor into action, the piece would command a permanent fame and lasting success, which, as a drama as it now stands, it can never attain.