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“With Mark Twain You Can Get Away With Murder”
The man who has lived with him nearly as long as Samuel Clemens did tells why Twain still has the power to delight—and to disturb
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
I understand Mark Twain Tonight! derived from a senior project at Denison University, after which you and your first wife, Ruby, began performing a series of excerpts from literature at schools in the Southwest. Did that experience help you gauge Twain’s potential appeal to a mass audience?
No. The truth of the matter is that there was very, very little fertile ground for intellectual germination in those audiences. Mark Twain was an important part of our act because he was the surefire comedy number, and we put him at the end so we could get off with a laugh. But when I got up on my feet and conceived of holding an audience all by myself—I mean, hell, we’re talking about a whole different line of goods here.
When I started working this thing out as a solo, I developed it in a New York nightclub, and I learned a lot about the timing. But basically, you know, I wa_s still dealing with trying to hold an audience by being funny.
Yet, after some point, being funny was not your sole purpose with Twain.
Well, I also did a serious piece from Huckleberry Finn , the shooting of Boggs by Sherburn and the attempted lynching. It contains a great speech, which is really Mark Twain himself talking to the Ku Klux Klan. It was written after Reconstruction died in the South, when the federal government had pulled the troops out and the Klan came out of the woods and took over, literally, in the daylight. Thinking of it now, I don’t know why I would do such a thing in a nightclub, but I did.
I’d started to get bookings: women’s clubs, little colleges. In 1957 I had a booking in Arkansas. There’d been this riot at a place called Central High School a month before, and the troops were sent in. I arrived on the heels of that to perform at a women’s club in North Little Rock. I wanted to say something, but all I had that said anything about mob violence was Sherburn and Boggs. So I did it, and the audience was silent and still. Maybe I imagined it, but I think they got it. I realized I could say something. If I could get more specific, I could say a lot.
So when I came home, I started looking through Twain material that I hadn’t read. I found Philip Foner’s Mark Twain: Social Critic in the Argosy Book Store. That book just opened up a whole world to me. I began to realize that Mark Twain was a critic of the ills in our society and the failures in human nature.
A lot of it was funny, but it was funny while you drank the poison. And it was true . To me, it was as if somebody was suddenly saying stuff that I’d never been able to say, exactly, but that had been in my heart to say.
This came at the time of the civil rights movement.
Which was really a kind of revolution. In 1962 I was heading from Seattle toward Chicago when I read that there was this tremendous confrontation going on in Oxford, Mississippi: riots, soldiers, carbines, mortars. I was supposed to go there to perform. So when I got to Chicago, I called my manager. “Listen,” I said, “I’m supposed to head for Oxford day after tomorrow. I mean, what am I supposed to do? I’m not going there, am I?” But he said, “Hal, they haven’t said you shouldn’t come.”
So we went, my stage manager and I. We knew things were serious, because they had canceled the Ole Miss football game. The school had not been allowed to assemble for a couple of weeks, until it came to see me. I was the guinea pig. They had federal agents in the audience and backstage and an escape route for me out the stage door to the girls’ dorm, in case of a riot. They even taught me how to defend myself with a fire extinguisher.
But you know, with Mark Twain you can get away with murder. You can say damn near anything, and people are either intimidated by it or love it or are afraid to say anything because of who he is. I mean, he’s an old man, and he’s tough . He doesn’t take any crap from anybody. So he’s not an easy man to boo. You know what I mean? You can go down South, where they regard him as one of their own, and you can say a lot.
I’d already begun to see that if you ran a shoe store in some little town in Alabama or Georgia or wherever and you spoke out, your children would be in trouble, your house could get burned down. I mean, it all sounds very fine, you know—all this wonderful confrontation and everything—when you’re living up North, but I’d learned that it’s another thing if you live down South. I was a Northerner, but I learned a hell of a lot, which was: “Don’t be too damn sure, buddy. Don’t be too damn sure, pal, how brave you would be if you were down there.”
“They had federal agents … and an escape route for me out the stage door to the girls’ dorm, in case of a riot.”
I found out that there were people who silently wanted a change down there. And so, when I started my show in Oxford, with my knees knocking, I bet on them. I opened the second act with the toughest material I had, which was about the silent lie. It introduces Huck. Mark Twain uses slavery as an example of the silent lie, how people lied by remaining silent in the face of this great injustice. At the end of that section there’s a long pause. I do it on purpose. I end up saying, “It is timid … and shabby .” Then there’s a long pause where I walk back to the lectern.