Mark Twain in Bombay: Playwright Gabriel Emanuel on bringing to life the writer's visit to the island city

"Bombay! A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place – the Arabian nights come again?"

This is what a cantankerous man with a bushy mustache and white hair who loved white suits thought of Bombay 122 years ago. Known for his acerbic, wry wit and making Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn household names, American novelist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was taken with Bombay when he visited the city in 1896. He had a severe cold for most part of the trip, but one of the highlights of his visit was a little-known lecture he delivered on 24 January.

Coincidentally, 122 years later, the beloved author returned to the city again in the world premiere of the play Mark Twain: Live in Bombay! Written by Canadian playwright Gabriel Emanuel, the play recreates the author's lecture in the city, where he shared tales of his hometown Missouri, corrupt politicians, and dishonest reporters. The play, a presentation by Kolkata’s Padatik Theatre and Rikh, is directed and performed by Vinay Sharma, who essays the role of the American humourist. Watching him perform allows the audience to imagine how it must have been to listen to the writer.

He dived into the play by studying images, writings and observations to embody Twain’s character. “No voice recording of Twain exists, but there are impersonations and just a two-minute film clip,” he shares.

Like Sharma, Emanuel is no stranger to Indian theatre. He was widely praised when his play Einstein debuted in India in 2014, with Naseeruddin Shah playing the acclaimed physicist. Firstpost caught up with the notable playwright to know more about the play, his process and what sets this play apart from the rest of his work.

 Mark Twain in Bombay: Playwright Gabriel Emanuel on bringing to life the writers visit to the island city

In the play Mark Twain: Live in Bombay!, viewers get a glimpse of what the writer said and experienced when he visited the city in 1896

What drew you to Mark Twain as a subject? And why did you chose to focus on his Bombay lecture?

When I was a student at the University of Toronto several decades ago, I rented a small room and decorated it with two iconic posters. One was of Albert Einstein and the other was of Mark Twain. Little did I know that these two mustachioed gentlemen would continue to inhabit my world so many years later. I still remember the Mark Twain quote that underlined his portrait: "The holy passion of friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime – if not asked to lend money."

After watching Einstein at the Prithvi Theatre, I was struck not only by the masterful performance of Naseeruddin Shah in the title role, but by the magical atmosphere of Prithvi itself. What an enchanting, intimate space! One day, like a flash, it dawned on me. Mark Twain had visited Bombay in 1896 and gave a lecture at the Novelty Theatre. I do not know what became of that theatre, but I began to imagine what that lecture would have sounded like. For me, the Prithvi Theatre became the Novelty reincarnated.

Describe to us your playwriting process. How did you imagine Mark Twain as a character?

It is a rather mystical process. I never know what I am going to write about until an idea takes hold of me and refuses to let go. In this case, I felt that Twain was a kindred spirit. His conspiratorial humour had appealed to me already in my rebellious teenage years. I was beyond reform and Twain was the only adult figure I knew of who seemed to reassure me that it was alright to grow old, even if grown-ups were not to be trusted and their world was fraught with continual danger and pitfalls.

Writing a play on a historical figure must have come with its own challenges. How did you blend together fact and imagination for this one?

When writing about a real, historical figure, it is always a challenge to stay true to the character, which is particularly difficult when you discover another side to the character, which you may not have been aware of at the outset. I believe in exposing the warts as well as the beauty marks. Ultimately, it only humanises the person and enables us to relate [to them] in a more personal way.

Twain once said, "Get your facts first and then you can distort them as much as you please." Following his advice, I went to the primary source, Following the Equator, which was his account of his year-long travel by cruise ship which ultimately brought him to India. For Twain, (and I am not giving anything away from the play here), India was a magical place, "the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, famine and pestilence, of tigers and elephants, …the one land that all men desire to see and having seen once, even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse even for the shows of all the rest o the world combined." So I try and let the character speak for himself and do my best not to get in the way.

Apart from this, what were your main sources of research?

I have a fairly full stomach from most of his other writings, including a recently published autobiography which he ordered not to be published until 100 years after his death – so that he could speak freely. I also came across various reporters' interviews with him during his travels and original newspaper accounts – which is how I learned of the Novelty Theatre lecture.

How did the collaboration between you and Vinay Sharma of Padatik Theatre come about? Did you know about him before the play?

Twain believed in a concept he called "mental telegraphy". I did not know Vinay Sharma previously and only afterwards learned of his impressive artistic achievements with the Padatik Theatre. Our collaboration can only be further proof that Twain's theory of mental telegraphy indeed exists.

How do Twain's words and thoughts remain relevant over 100 years later?

It has been said that we are living in the era of "fake news". Well, Twain once observed, "If you don't read the newspaper then you are uninformed; but if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed." He also had some financial advice which is as relevant in our day as it was in his: "There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate," Twain cautioned, "when he can't afford it, and when he can."

As a playwright, how do you step back from the work you’ve written and let the director take over with his vision for the stage?

It's something you have to do, for better or worse, hopefully, for better. I believe that we all have our roles. I am also trained as a lawyer, and a judge once told me that when he got appointed to the bench, his fellow judges gave him a present of a sign which they placed before him on his desk. The sign was meant to guide him as to how to address the litigants before him. It consisted of only two words: "Shut Up." I try to follow that advice when my own is not solicited.

Your play Einstein premiered in Mumbai in 2014 and was well-received. What do you hope the audiences take away from Mark Twain: Live in Bombay?

I hope the audience may experience some of the actual excitement of reliving a special moment in time when Mark Twain stood before the good citizens of Bombay, according to The Bombay Gazette, "not as a stranger in a strange land but as an old friend to well nigh everyone in the audience." While I believe that Twain's humour will stand the test of time, I am also hopeful, that today's audience may be equally touched by what that reviewer described as Twain's knowing "the acute sufferings of the soul".

Mark Twain: Live in Bombay! premiered at the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai on 21 April. It is now being staged in Kolkata

Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 14:41:35 IST