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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
Three times an audience has applauded at that moment. The first time was in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961. The second time was in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962. And the third time was in Prague in 1985. So it’s not as if this stops.
No, it doesn’t.
And then there was the Vietnam War, which I felt was a bad move for us even before we really got into it. So I began to look at Twain’s anti-imperialistic stuff, like “Now we are a world power and are happy and glad and have a seat up front with the family, with tacks in it.” So here I was riding the wave of a new realization, a new vision of areas in Mark Twain’s writings that hadn’t been explored before or popularized.
What about today?
When you’re old, like me, it’s hard to evaluate properly because you get trapped in this whole business of being so much older and not wanting to see your way of life tremendously altered. But in my view, the cynical disregard for honesty that has slipped into our way of life is awful. This machine [he points to the television set], I think, has been the most powerful instrument of destruction I’ve seen in my lifetime.
You’re 78, which is years older than the Twain you’re portraying.
Yeah. I have to play him young now. It’s much easier because I’m now playing a character, so to speak. I’m not playing age.
There were so many times during your performance in Nashville when I recognized nineteenth-century traits that I can remember from my own grandfather, like the slow, anticlimactic fussing with things. You’ve got a lot of business with the cigar and the ashtray and the match, and it goes on for so long that the audience is dying of suspense to see whether Twain’s going to use it or put it out.
Yeah. Well, those are all crafted things. They’re part of the character that I developed years ago. He had a kind of walk that was described as slightly off kilter. People, even his best friend’s wife, sometimes thought he was a little loaded. And I wondered where this walk came from. When I was first doing the show and we were working along the Mississippi, we took a steamboat. I thought, “Now, he was a pilot” [he gets to his feet to demonstrate], and so I started walking around the boat, and I thought, “Well, just relax your body and walk the way this boat makes you walk.” And I noticed that my outboard foot would kind of throw out because the deck was slanted outboard. Then it happened that the next year I saw the only existing film of him walking, and he was doing the same thing, throwing his foot out.
As for the fiddling with the cigar and all those things, I’m alone up there; I have to have a physical activity to keep the show in motion. But also I’m dealing with a person whose comedy technique was deadpan. He threw lines away, laugh lines on top of laugh lines, punch lines on top of punch lines, as if he didn’t know they were coming. He doesn’t say, “Hey, this is funny.” He just drops it. You think that’s it, and he turns to walk away and drops another one, and they explode on you without warning. That was his delivery. So I go toward the ashtray, and it seems like that’s all I’m intent on. But at the same time I’ll say, “God invented Man because … he was disappointed in the monkey,” and then I’ll drop the ash.
Twain’s first date with Olivia Langdon, his future wife, was to hear Charles Dickens lecture in New York City. It was very formal, with Dickens standing at a lectern. But in his own lectures, Twain broke all the traditions of public speaking, the same way he broke the European literary traditions that were influencing American writers. He was criticized for it too. He wandered around the stage, leaned on the lectern, slouched. All those things were shocking to some people in those days.
But they would not be today. So I had to think, “What can I do today that would establish the eccentricity and be a little shocking because it’s unusual?” So I figured, first, the white suit. Twain never wore it on the platform, but I wear it. Second, there is the use of the cigar, partly because the cigar was as much a part of his public persona as of Winston Churchill’s but also because it gives me an activity. I have to go to the ashtray.
Are there any of Twain’s books that you would like to see dramatized?
Well, I think Pudd’nhead Wilson is far more important in Mark Twain’s output than anybody seems to realize. It’s a direct frontal attack on the issue of racism. Huckleberry Finn is not so direct, because it’s told through the mouth of a boy who doesn’t know the import of what he’s saying. But Pudd’nhead Wilson is told by the author. That’s why nobody wants to have it banned for the use of the word nigger . They can understand it. The author is telling the story, and they get his point of view, so he’s all right.
“There was nothing … handsome about [Lincoln’s] face until he became beautiful as a human being.”
But not so with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .