Mark your diary

Published: Nov 19, 2019, 09:42 IST | Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

A play re-imagines a humorous talk that author Mark Twain had once given in Bombay.

Vinay Sharma as Mark Twain.
Vinay Sharma as Mark Twain.

You might not know this, but Mark Twain is regarded as the father of modern stand-up comedy. What happened is that in the later stages of his life, the American author was faced with a financial crisis. So he went around the world earning money through speaking engagements in different cities, where he sent the audience into ruptures with his characteristic wit, while also offering trenchant criticism of regressive ideologies. One of these talks was held at the now-defunct Novelty Theatre in Bombay in 1896. There is unfortunately no recorded history of what he said there. But Canadian playwright Gabriel Emanuel has gone through both the author’s fiction and non-fiction works, and also the observations on India that he made during his three-month stay in the country, to reimagine that talk in the form of a play. It’s called Mark Twain: Live in Bombay, and will be staged in the city this weekend.

Veteran thespian Vinay Sharma tells us that when Emanuel had sent him the script asking whether he’d be interested in performing it, it took him back instantly to childhood memories of the humour that Twain displayed in iconic books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sharma says, “I also realised that I had a passing resemblance to the author, and wrote back to Gabriel asking him to tweak the script a bit to suit contemporary human behaviour. It just felt to me that many of the things that Twain had spoken about over 100 years ago are relevant even today. Our society hasn’t changed that much, it seems.”

He adds that these themes pertain to superstition, religion, human foibles and censorship, which the author had faced himself. But despite these being serious issues, Sharma says that Twain offers humour as a kind of antidote that keeps our feet grounded, adding, “And the best thing about him was that he wasn’t averse to making fun of himself.”

In the end, thus, the American comes across as not only a brilliant writer, but also as someone who tried his best to be objective. He was an out-and-out humanist. Sharma — who will also stage two other plays, Pieces and Yahan, in Mumbai over the weekend — reveals that there is only a 30-second video clip available of Twain, which he studied to copy the author’s movements. Otherwise, he had to rely on photographs to understand his gestures, and read writings that aren’t a part of the script to get into the character’s skin. The thespian concludes, “The audience will be left with food for thought after exiting the auditorium. And they will also realise the difference between the vintage wit of a master humorist and the juvenile humour that the world thrives on today.”

Crowing about India

An example of Mark Twain’s observations on India stems from the impression he had of the crow, which he considered to be a bird that’s completely immune to any sense of guilt. It does not know what care, sorrow or remorse is, and will thus go on to its deathbed untroubled. And in writing this, Twain also pointed out how sin will disappear from the world only in the mind of those immersed in it, alluding to his childhood in Mississippi, where plantation owners felt no guilt in mistreating their slaves.

On November 24, 8 pm AT Prithvi Theatre, Juhu Church Lane, Juhu.

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Cost Rs 400

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