It only took a moment for Elizabeth Diggs to recognize what the topic of her next play would be.
“By chance, I started to read President Ulysses S. Grant’s personal memoirs, and I was immediately captivated,” the award-winning playwright recalls.
Three years of intensive study and several rewrites and staged readings later, Diggs’ “Grant & Twain” will receive its world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company.
Her research revealed an “unlikely and unbreakable” association, which is a frequently overlooked footnote in both their histories. These two frontier boys could not have followed more different paths.
“They are such different, unique individuals, but they formed a great friendship,” explains Keven Myhre, SLAC’s executive producer and “Grant & Twain” director.
The 18th U.S. president and one of the country’s greatest military leaders, Grant was a solemn man of carefully controlled emotions and felt uncomfortable in social gatherings. Mark Twain was a talented and gregarious public speaker, and he received a steady flow of invitations as an after-dinner speaker and lecturer, an endeavor that became a second career for the acclaimed novelist.
Grant’s cunning strategies ended the Civil War, but Twain’s familiarity with the conflict was radically different.
“Twain joined the Confederacy but deserted after two weeks and fled to the West,” Diggs says. “Although he never admitted it, scholars believe he was ashamed of himself for running away from the war.”
The playwright says that it is difficult to explain Grant’s widespread popularity and the celebrity status that was developed by his admirers.
“After the war, there were many, many people who were said to be ‘Grant-intoxicated men,’ a term that was used during the period,” Diggs says. “They were fascinated by him, by his achievements and his uniqueness as a person. Twain was among them. The first time Twain met Grant, he couldn’t speak, he was so flustered.”
Describing the association between the two men, Twain said, “I think the most interesting personality I ever encountered was General Grant. How and where he was so much larger than other men I had ever met, I cannot describe.”
“They were both large media figures in their time, which is contrasted to the star celebrity figures of today and how the public wants to know everything about them,” Myhre says. “The writing in ‘Grant & Twain’ is based on history, but Liz has interpreted this history into a fascinating play. It’s not a costume drama by any means. It definitely has a modern sensibility in the way it deals with the characters during the arc of the play.”
The real-life struggles and desires of these historic figures will yield an intimate scrutiny of America during and following the Civil War, while also revealing the two intriguing and complex characters, Myhre explains.
“The dramatic element of the play is that Grant was involved in a Ponzi scheme and lost all his money, and Twain began helping him write his memoirs so he could be financially secure,” he says. “The relevancy to today’s audiences is that Ponzi schemes are no different today than they were back then. Also, the publication of Grant’s memoirs brought out media attention and prompted public gossip, which is no different than today’s public figures and how the media manipulate stories.”
For “Grant & Twain,” Diggs received the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, the same honor that recently helped mount “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” on Broadway and led to that play’s 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.
With the financial award, SLAC was able to invite Diggs, a professor of dramatic writing in the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, to personally participate in the Salt Lake staging.
Myhre calls her involvement “indispensable,” and Diggs calls the collaboration “marvelous.”
“It’s a tricky thing to produce a new play,” she says. “There are always changes, and the cast and the director were so incredibly willing to accommodate these late changes. SLAC is a wonderful theater.”
If you go ...
What: World premiere of “Grant & Twain” by Elizabeth Diggs
Where: Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
When: Feb. 5–March 2, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m.
How much: $15–$42
Tickets: 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org