GRANT & TWAIN - Building a Play
An Interview with Playwright Elizabeth Diggs
What is your background? I was Professor of Dramatic Writing at NYU – Dept. of Dramatic Writing for 32 years. I retired 2 years ago. I’ve been writing plays since I was a child. I’ve written about a dozen all together. My first full length play, “Close Ties” was a big success. It was first produced at a little theater in Lexington, NY that founded Capital Rep. It went on to be produced at the Long Wharf in New Haven, directed by Arvin Brown. It has been produced a lot.
How did you come to the Grant/Twain material? I’ve always been interested in warfare. It’s the ultimate conflict and all drama is conflict. One of my favorite authors is John Keegan. He said this about Grant’s memoirs: “an enthralling history of one man's generalship, perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.” That lured me in. Grant’s first two paragraphs sold me. He had a clean, direct voice – incredibly honest and vigorous, yet unadorned and plain. I’ve been in love with his writing and his story ever since.
And what about Twain? Grant’s words were moving, but they were incidents – not a story. In doing research, I came upon the information that a young Mark Twain – not the Hal Holbrook character we’re all familiar with, took a great risk and gave up two years of his life to publish Grant’s memoirs. THAT seemed like the makings for an interesting play.
How did they get together? They met at a huge reunion of Union soldiers held in 1879. Twain, a much revered lecturer, gave the final toast to Grant. They ended up sitting up all night smoking cigars and telling stories about the Mississippi. They were both westerners – rough-hewn country boys from the frontier. They understood each other completely. They were also the two most famous men in the country – the rock stars of their day.
What is Grant & Twain about? Extremely self-effacing, U.S Grant had been resisting writing a memoir about his leadership during the Civil War. However, he fell victim to a financial scam that left him and his family penniless. A New York publisher offered him a contract for the memoir and he was just about to accept when Twain interceded. Twain worshipped Grant and was appalled at the pittance the publisher was offering. Twain guaranteed that he could make him a fortune by signing with his, Twain’s, newly formed publishing company. So the former President agreed to accept his offer. Neither of them knew, at the time, that Grant would come down with throat cancer and have only 6 months during which he could complete the project.
Why is this the right time for this play? They were both real heroes, both fantastic examples of American individuality, both dedicated to work – both committed, both passionate. Grant was a person who could do what needed to be done and was an honorable man. We need to be reminded of these qualities. Where can you find that today?
GRANT & TWAIN will be performed at PS21, Chatham, NY. Performances: Sept. 27, 28, 29 at 8pm, Matinees: Sept. 29, 30 at 2pm. For tickets go to http://ps21chatham.org/event/grant-twain.