This script is part of a wonderful collection of plays based on the work of Mark Twain. The playwright, David Carkeet, has published this collection on Drama Notebook in the hopes that it will inspire younger generations to embrace the wit and wisdom of one of America’s most-beloved writers.
There are six plays in all. They may be performed individually, or as part of a show for middle-school and high-school entitled, “An Evening of Mark Twain.”
“Learn German With Ollendorff!”, a farce, is based on a much longer play by Mark Twain titled “Meisterschaft” (1888). In its original form, this play was written half in German and half in English. It’s a brilliant premise, but it rendered the play unproduceable. In this adaptation, the playwright has remedied the problem by having the German characters speak with strong accents. The play offers a wonderful opportunity for young actors to learn dialect and comedic timing!
Mark Twain fun facts
More history on the play
Suggestions for a Mark Twain performance
Excerpt from the play:
CHARACTERS (all are Americans except for Frau Putzfrau)
Frau Putzfrau: Female, 40 or older; a grumpy, unkempt cleaning lady; speaks only German; bored delivery except when remembering her Bruno
Frederick Stephenson: Male, 50 or older, a retired industrialist and aspirant to high culture; uncle of Margaret and Annie
Margaret Stephenson: Female, 16-25, Annie’s sister
Annie Stephenson: Female, 16-25, Margaret’s sister
George: Male, 20-35
William: Male, 20-35
An apartment in Munich
Note: Italicized words are to be spoken with a strong German accent to represent that German is being spoken. (Think of Frau Blucher’s accent in Young Frankenstein.) Frau Putzfrau speaks only German. The other characters are American, and they alternate between German and English. Mr. Stephenson’s German is halting throughout. The German of the four other Americans is halting until Scene 5, when it is fast and fluid.
SETTING: Morning. The living room of the Munich apartment of the Stephenson family. A couch and a few chairs and tables.
AT RISE: FRAU PUTZFRAU in a head kerchief.
(Frau Putzfrau pauses in her feather dusting and rubs an index finger on the top of a table. She rubs again, harder. She spits at the spot, rubs, and nods with satisfaction.)
(The soft strains of a TUBA. Frau Putzfrau looks up dreamily. FREDERICK STEPHENSON enters from upstage, unheard. He stops when he sees her.)
Ah, there she is. Frau Putzfrau. An enchantress.
(Frau Putzfrau begins a slow, dreamy dance to the TUBA music with her feather duster.)
She is remembering her Bruno.
(note: italics = German is being spoken)
He helt me zo chentle. He helt me ze vay he helt hiss tooba.
(The TUBA swells in volume.)
Ah, her German is exquisite. So perfect in its agreement, so divine in its declensions. But her Bruno is fixed in her memory and no other man can gain purchase there. If only she knew half of what I feel for her. If I could speak German as she does, I could express my feelings. But it is the language of the gods. I am a mere mortal. Courage, Frederick. Courage.
(Stephenson steps forward. When Frau Putzfrau sees him, the TUBA abruptly stops. She snaps out of her spell.)
(to herself, annoyed)
Ach. Der boss. Vut now?
Frau Putzfrau. I vould like with you to speak. I haff a plan dat I with you must share. Do you understant my Cherman?
Oddly enough, ja.
So far, so good. Now for the paragraph that I have so painstakingly prepared.
(to Frau Putzfrau, haltingly)
Now den. I plan to make a long foyage. Back to New York. But I fear dat ven I am away my nieces vill neglect dere Cherman. Dat must not happen. I haff ordered dem to speak only Cherman, and I vant you to supervise. I fear dat Annie and Margaret vill vaste dere time mit two Americans who from Chicago in Munich haff just arrived, a William und a George. Dat iss, a Wilhelm und a Georg. Dere names are prettier in Cherman–
(a clumsy move toward her)
—as is yours, Frau Putzfrau, if I may be so bold.
(An eye-roll from Frau Putzfrau.)
Ass you know, I vant my nieces to marry Chermans so dat dey vill learn de languich of de gods. Dese boys are Americans. Dat is to say, ignoramuses. Dey know no Cherman. De ignoramuses cannot woo de girls if the girls must speak Cherman. Do you understand? Is it not a vunderful plan?
(stifling a yawn)
Ven vill he shut up? Hiss Cherman is terrible. It is like vatching a man pull his own teeth with pliers.
(Stephenson takes a step closer to Frau Putzfrau, agitated. She is bored.)
Und now I must away to New York. To pursue a dream I have long off-put. I go for three months. Ven I return, I vill again speak de languich of de gods mit you. De languich of Goethe, of Schiller, of . . . of . . . of . . .
(She abruptly returns to her dusting. Stephenson reluctantly departs.)
“De languich of de gods.” Hmph. De languich of de mop and de rag and de soap and de cleaning de toilet. He tinks I’m a professor because I speak Cherman. Dummkopf! Und now I must supervise de Annie and de Margaret. A family of dummkopfs!
(She dusts. The TUBA plays. She resumes her slow, dreamy dance.)