No doubt "Puddin'head Wilson" is the play of last week that will have the longest life and, in the end, the greatest fame. It is not a particularly good play, speaking according to rule, for it is absurdly ill made, and full of superfluous stuff. Who are the twins, anyway, and why did they go to Dawson? They look like a new kind of "song and dance team," and doubtless they have meaning and identity--but in order to understand them one would be compelled to read Mark Twain's very latest story, and that is expecting too much of anybody.
People stopped reading Twain with zest after "Huckleberry Finn." That was the last flower of his genius in the eye of the public. Of course, to him belongs the credit of creating the character of Lawyer Wilson and the man who wanted to know what on earth Lawyer Wilson could do with half a dog; and what possible legal defense he could make after he had killed his half, in the suit for damages brought by the owner of the other half, which would surely die. Mark Twain's sense of humor is still potent. But after merely glancing through his stories of the hustler at the Court of King Arthur and the bank-note wager, the multitude found that he belonged to a past generation. Everybody has read "Trilby" [a competing play playing in New York] and everybody else pretends to know all about it; but positively nobody, except a few tens of thousands of voracious readers of all sorts of fiction, know Mark Twain's story of "Puddin'head Wilson." Wherefore an elliptical "dramatization" of the story, in the manner of John Brougham, was a mistake.
But Mr. Mayo has not measurably improved upon such plays as Brougham's "Dombey & Son." He has, to be sure, invented a sentimental "element"; but he has not made nearly enough of the emotional side of Chambers. A strong scene in which that supposititious [sic] darky, thirty-one parts Caucasian and one part Ethiopian, should boldly declare his passion for Roxy, human nature asserting itself in spite of prejudice and environment, would vastly improve the play. Chambers is by birth white and aristocratic. Following Mark Twain, Mr. Mayo has made the pseudo Thomas a Becket a glaring example of the influence of inherited traits. He is vicious, because of a training antagonistic to his nature, cringing and cowardly. Similarly Chambers, on his part, might well develop other traits than courage and honesty. The domineering spirit of a race of rulers might show itself in him.
Mr. Mayo is sometimes too profusely explanatory; at others he depends too much on a general knowledge of the story of his play. As an after-thought it may be stated, as the opinion of one peculiarly gifted in the matter of hind-sight, that the prologue in 1836 is quite unnecessary. It established the fact that Roxy, an octoroon slave, had charge of two children, both by the same father, and of one of which she was the mother, and that she sent the wrong one to the christening. This could be explained in a few words. In the first act the robberies have been discovered, and Puddin'head Wilson has his clue, before the twins arrive in Dawson. He tells his sister of the darky girl who climbed into Tom's room, and the subsequent apparition of Tom's face at the window. The arrival of the Italians and their installation as boarders at Puddin'head's are later incidents of the act. Yet we are solemnly informed afterward that the wonderful knife, with a history, was stolen from the twins on the night before Puddin'head got his clue.
There are droll moments in the first three acts, and one strong scene, before the ruined mill, but nearly all the genuine strength and vital interest of the play are condensed in the last act, which is admirable. The play will probably grow in popularity in its present shape; but it would have a still better chance if Mr. Mayo would boldly employ a practical playwright to help him make it over, dispensing with the prologue and the jesting scene about the twins before they have been seen by the townspeople; and making the love of Chambers for Rowy a stronger element.
It deserves a chance, for Mr. Mayo's portrayal of Puddin'head, the slow-going, sagacious philosopher and humorist, is one of the best pieces of character acting we have seen in many a day, and the acting of Miss Shaw, Mr. Henley, Mr. Edgar Davenport, Mr. Odell Williams, Mr. Whiting, Miss Graham, Mr. Harry Davenport, and, for that matter, all the others, is uncommonly vivid and effective.