The Rural We: Elizabeth Diggs
Sep 17, 2018 - By: Jamie Larson
Renowned playwright Elizabeth Diggs has lived in Austerlitz, New York for more than 30 years. Her new play, “Grant and Twain,” will soon be playing just down the road at the fabulous new theater at PS21 in Chatham, from Thursday, Sept. 27 through Sunday, Sept. 30. Based on the real life relationship between President Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain, the play captures the riveting and unexpected friendship as Twain convinces a bankrupt and dying Grant to write his memoirs. Diggs’ treatment of the historical events sticks as close to reality as possible and offers a view into the personal relationship of two very different men who helped shape the intrinsic wisdom of the American character.
We bought our house in Austerlitz in 1982. My partner, Emily McCully, is a wonderful and well-known children’s writer. Mirette on the High Wire won the Caldecott award. I was teaching at NYU and going back and forth. I retired from teaching two years ago.
I studied at Brown, then I came to New York because I thought it was the center of the world for theater. I started out as a dancer and then I finally realized, when I was in my late 20s/early 30s, that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was write plays, so I gave myself two years off from teaching to start writing. My first play was a big success called Close Ties. I’ve been writing plays ever since. I did write for a TV show, St. Elsewhere, which was fun and exciting.
For this play [Grant and Twain] I stuck to the reality of the history. I fell in love with Grant when I read his memoirs. I’ve always had an interest in military history because, as a dramatist, I think it’s all about conflict and war is the ultimate conflict. Things build to ghastly carnage when they don’t need to, obviously, but the way people behave in war and the politics is fascinating to me.
Grant was idolized by almost everyone in the country after the war for his low-key and modest personality and the fact that he was so honorable, a total truth-teller, and he was utterly original. I started reading his memoirs and I was just powerfully impressed. His prose is so contemporary in feeling. He wrote like Hemingway years before Hemingway.
Grant was 62 when he was completely bankrupted in a Ponzi scheme by Ferdinand Ward, the most notorious swindler until Madoff. Grant had invested everything he had and he was wiped out. He and his family had $200 after this happened. Writing his memoir, which he had avoided, was his only chance to save his honor and to provide for his family at all.
Twain called himself a Grant-intoxicated man. Twain went to Grant to try and persuade him to go with his new publishing house. He finally did but it took Grant a long time to decide because he was so humiliated that he had been swindled.
The play is about Twain trying to win Grant over and to give him the confidence that he could write a book. It ended up being the most phenomenal success in American publishing. It’s a story of this improbable friendship, this wonderful friendship. Twain said it was the triumph of his career; he had saved his hero, the man he admired more than anyone in the entire world. Grant died (of esophageal cancer) three days after he finished writing the book. He kept himself alive to finish it.
We have just a terrific team here at PS21. Reggie Life is directing and the cast is almost totally from New York. I really wanted it to be done right and when I saw Judy Grunberg’s new theater (and I’ve known her for years) I thought, "ooooh." This theater is state of the art. We’ve got fantastic designers. Everybody is very excited.