Editor’s Note: Mark Brown, playwright and actor, recounts how Around the World in 80 Days became a play he wrote: the inspiration took place while he was performing at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in 1999.
Around the World in 80 Days: BYOB
By Mark Brown
If you walk straight out the front entrance of the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, and go to where the sidewalk meets the road, you’ll be standing at the very spot where my play Around the World in 80 Days was born. There should be some sort of plaque there. At least that’s what my mom thinks. I’d rather there be a Starbucks cart there.
I was working that summer (1999) at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. I was one of four actors in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged), which was directed by Jim Helsinger. (Which, by the way, was tremendously fun to do.)
I was standing there at the corner of sidewalk and road with Jim and Michael Carlton. The three of us had a history of brainstorming what books would make good stage adaptations. And Around the World in 80 Days came up. I believe it was Michael who said, “Mark, you write it. I’ll direct it at Jim’s theatre (Orlando Shakespeare Theatre).
I said, “Okay.” And that was it. No great story about how it happened. I’m not a lifelong Jules Verne fanatic. I haven’t memorized every one of his novels…in French. I didn’t spend my childhood trying to dig to the Center of the Earth. Or go to Jules Verne conventions dressed as Captain Nemo. Or decorate my bedroom to look just like Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. If I said anything like that I’d be lying.
Let me tell you right here and now, there isn’t a balloon in the show. I’m sorry to break that news to you. There isn’t balloon in the book. There isn’t a balloon in my script. It’s the curse of the movie, really. The first one. The one with David Niven. It won five Academy Awards. The film had a balloon. It’s what everyone remembers. But there’s no balloon in the book and there’s no balloon in this show. So if you’re coming to see the show — and I hope you come many times — you won’t see a balloon. Please don’t be disappointed, get out of your seat in a huff, and demand your money back. If you must have a balloon, bring your own. BYOB.
My first draft of the script was nearly as long as Fogg’s journey around the world. (Oh, I should probably note here that it’s Phileas Fogg. Not Phineas. Almost everyone thinks it’s Phineas. It’s not. It’s Phileas. I don’t know why people think that. But they do.) That first draft was so long I was almost forced to put in a dinner break and serve food from around the world.
Which brings me to the first bit of historical information. In 1872, the year this play takes place and the year Verne wrote the novel, the first diner was started in Providence, Rhode Island. I note this not only because you can order almost anything in the world to eat in a diner, but also because I grew up across the mighty Delaware River in New Jersey. The Garden State, my eye. It should be renamed the Diner State. New Jersey has more diners than any other state in the union (and in the world, for that matter) and is sometimes referred to as the Diner Capital of the World. Also, the first baseball game was played in New Jersey, as was the first intercollegiate football game. New Jersey also has a Trash Museum, a Spoon Museum, and the State Shell is the Knobbed-Whelk…but I digress.
Through a series of readings and workshops at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre I was able to get the script down to two hours. Among the many scenes I cut, I ended up cutting a very funny (at least I thought it was funny) scene with a Mormon. Although people laughed, the general consensus was that I was poking fun at Mormons. Okay, I was. But wait ’til you see this play. I poke fun of nearly everyone.
I mention this because I’m about to come to the second bit of historical information. In 1872, Brigham Young, Second Prophet of the Mormon Church, was arrested for bigamy. He had 25 wives. I’m undecided as to whether Young was the luckiest man for having 25 wives or the dumbest. I have one wife and I can’t decide which I am. (My wife is reading over my shoulder and has just whispered, “You better say you’re the luckiest or you’re a dead man.”) I’m the luckiest. (FYI: My wife, Nicki Genovese, used to be the General Manager of PSF).
Speaking of strong, determined women, here’s my third bit of historical information: in 1872, in defiance of the law, Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time. At the time, it was illegal for women to vote. She was arrested, went to trial, and fined $100.00. She never paid it. I also believe she originated the saying, “I’m sticking it to the man,” but don’t quote me on that.
I’d like to think that Susan voted for Victoria Woodhull. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman nominated for the U.S. Presidency. Victoria, who used to perform a spiritualist act with her sister, Tennessee, advocated an eight-hour workday, graduated income tax, and profit sharing. Scandalous. She was also the first female stockbroker on Wall Street. I hear tell that Susan voted for Horace Greeley.
And now, in a desperate effort to tie all of this together, let me come back to the non-existent balloon. The balloon you won’t see in this production. In 1783, a sheep, a rooster, and a duck (I know, it sounds like “walk into a bar” should follow) became the first hot-air balloon passengers in Versailles, France (France being Jules Verne’s birthplace). Verne worked as a stockbroker (like Victoria Woodhull) until he wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon. (Not to be confused with the forty-five-day-longer journey Around the World in Eighty Days).
Verne’s inspiration for Around the World in Eighty Days was most likely George Francis Train (if only his last name was Balloon), who in 1870 traveled around the world in (there are conflicting reports here) sixty-seven or eighty days. George Francis Train was jailed on obscenity charges while defending Victoria Woodhull. The first U.S. manned hot-air balloon flight was by Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a Frenchman, in 1783. He flew from Philadelphia to Deptford Township, NJ. Deptford is also home to the fabulous Five Points Diner. And in a moment of truth-is-stranger -than-fiction, I was born in Deptford Township, and their slogan is “First Flight in America.”