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University of Nevada, Reno presents rare performance of play too risqué for colorful Virginia City in its heyday


News release from the University of Nevada, Reno

The Psychoscope: written by Mark Twain associates at the “Territorial Enterprise”

The cast of The Psychoscope. Photo provided by the University of Nevada, Reno.
The cast of The Psychoscope. Photo provided by the University of Nevada, Reno.

In celebration of Nevada Day and the Comstock Lode’s 150th anniversary, the University of Nevada, Reno will present a light-hearted performance from the days of Virginia City’s Comstock Era. The Psychoscope, written by two associates of Mark Twain’s at the Territorial Enterprise, will be presented as a costumed, theatrical reading at 7 p.m., Oct. 28 in the Wells Fargo Auditorium of the University’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. University faculty members David Fenimore and Ann Medaille will direct the dramatic reading, presented by University faculty and community members.

The play, written by Territorial Enterprise editor Rollin M. Daggett and publisher Joseph T. Goodman, featured a frank depiction of prostitution and a brothel. It was originally performed on Aug. 15, 1872, just eight years after Nevada became a state. John McCullough, one of the country’s most famous actors at the time, performed with his theater company in front of a packed house at Virginia City’s famous Piper’s Opera House. Due to its controversial nature and the refusal of the playwrights to remove the scandalous scenes from the script, the play was only performed four more times before fading into obscurity for 75 years.

It wasn’t until 1947 that the play resurfaced and gained another audience. William C. Miller, a theater professor at the University of Nevada, Reno with an interest in Nevada history, found that the Washoe County Library had acquired a rare copy of the script, printed at the Territorial Enterprise in 1871 by the playwrights. Miller made copies of that script, and in May 1949, he produced the play for Mackay Week at the University as a melodrama. This week, the Washoe County Library generously donated its copy of the rare 1871 script to Special Collections at the University of Nevada Libraries. It will be on exhibit in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame alcove near the Wells Fargo Auditorium in the Knowledge Center.

After the 1949 Mackay Week performance, the play then dropped out of sight for another 57 years until in 2006, The Mark Twain Journal published a facsimile edition of the 1871 script with the original reviews and Joseph Goodman’s 1909 memoir. Lawrence I. Berkove, a literary scholar from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, edited the edition and provided an introduction and notes in it. Berkove is known for his research on “The Sagebrush School” of writers, as Twain and his Virginia City cohorts have been dubbed. He will introduce the University’s Oct. 28 performance of an abridged version of the play, adapted for reader’s theater by David Fenimore of Nevada’s English department.

This year, the Sagebrush School, including Daggett and Goodman, will be inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, and Berkove will accept the award on their behalf at the Oct. 28 performance of The Psychoscope. Berkove will also conduct a drop-in seminar for researchers, librarians, archivists and students on uncovering lost and hidden works in libraries and archives, entitled “Lode-ing Up on Literary Prospects” in the Faculty and Graduate Reading Room in the Knowledge Center on that day, from 2:30 to 4 p.m.

Complimentary parking is available in the Brian Whalen Garage. Go to www.knowledgecenter.unr.edu or call 775-682-5665 for more information.

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