Finally a well-known elocutionist, named Burbank, conceived the notion of impersonating Raymond as well as Sellers, making of it a sort of double burlesque, and agreed to take the play on those terms. Burbank came to Hartford and showed what he could do. Howells and Clemens agreed to give him the play, and they hired the old Lyceum Theater for a week, at seven hundred dollars, for its trial presentation. Daniel Frohman promoted it. Clemens and Howells went over the play and made some changes, but they were not as hilarious over it or as full of enthusiasm as they had been in the beginning. Howells put in a night of suffering—long, dark hours of hot and cold waves of fear—and rising next morning from a tossing bed, wrote: “Here’s a play which every manager has put out-of-doors and which every actor known to us has refused, and now we go and give it to an elocutioner. We are fools.”
Clemens hurried over to Boston to consult with Howells, and in the end they agreed to pay the seven hundred dollars for the theater, take the play off and give Burbank his freedom. But Clemens’s faith in it did not immediately die. Howells relinquished all right and title in it, and Clemens started it out with Burbank and a traveling company, doing one-night stands, and kept it going for a week or more at his own expense. It never reached New York.
“And yet,” says Howells, “I think now that if it had come it would have been successful. So hard does the faith of the unsuccessful dramatist die.”—[This was as late as the spring of 1886, at which time Howells’s faith in the play was exceedingly shaky. In one letter he wrote: “It is a lunatic that we have created, and while a lunatic in one act might amuse, I’m afraid that in three he would simply bore.”
“As it stands, I believe the thing will fail, and it would be a disgrace to have it succeed.”]
CABLE AND HIS GREAT JOKE
Meanwhile, with the completion of the Sellers play Clemens had flung himself into dramatic writing once more with a new and more violent impetuosity than ever. Howells had hardly returned to Boston when he wrote:
Now let’s write a tragedy.
The inclosed is not fancy, it is history; except that the little girl was a passing stranger, and not kin to any of the parties. I read the incident in Carlyle’s Cromwell a year ago, and made a note in my note-book; stumbled on the note to-day, and wrote up the closing scene of a possible tragedy, to see how it might work.
If we made this colonel a grand fellow, and gave him a wife to suit—hey? It’s right in the big historical times—war; Cromwell in big, picturesque power, and all that.
Come, let’s do this tragedy, and do it well. Curious, but didn’t Florence want a Cromwell? But Cromwell would not be the chief figure here.
It was the closing scene of that pathetic passage in history from which he would later make his story, “The Death Disc.” Howells was too tired and too occupied to undertake immediately a new dramatic labor, so Clemens went steaming ahead alone.