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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
"Ballard, Terry Prof." <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 20 Jan 2003 20:07:31 -0500
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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        I didn't plan the week this way, but on Tuesday, I happened across a
copy of Roughing It in my video store's DVD shelf, and gave it a try.  It
got off on the wrong foot with me before the opening credits were over -
"Based on the novel by Mark Twain," it read. Err, um, shouldn't that be a
memoir? It then cross cuts between a speech that Twain makes to Susy's
graduating class (a speech that never actually happened), and his adventures
as a young assistant to the secretary of Nevada. In the weaker of the two
threads, James Garner  gives his best imitation of Hal Holbrook, but I never
really warmed up to him as Twain.

        Much better is the portrayal of the young Clemens by Robin Dunne,
even though the actor doesn't resemble the historic young Clemens and
doesn't much try. Also, the portrayal of Clemens as a completely naive
youth seems odd, considering that the young man who went to Nevada had spent
years as a very accomplished riverboat pilot.  As the story progresses, they
do photograph some very pretty scenery while the stage coach is heading
west, and they do get down to the business of telling some of the stories
that I remember from the book - most memorably the   story of wandering
around in a blizzard, and noticing that the tracks in the snow keep getting
more voluminous, until they realize that they are going in circles. Also,
the episode of the lucrative mining claim that is missed by one hour was
done as I remembered it. I checked my copy of Roughing it and found a number
of the other tales from the adaptation, so I can report that they tried
their best to tell the book's!
  story up to the point of Sam's hiring as a reporter. Unfortunately, they
zipped right past Salt Lake City, so any of Twain's sardonic views of the
Mormon religion were glossed over, but remember that this was a Hallmark
production. Meanwhile, back at Vassar, Susy is afraid that her dad will
embarrass her by telling his old anecdotes. In spite of the fact that he
really does tell his old anecdotes, the reaction shots tell us that she is
enthralled after the first 2 minutes, perhaps because he threw in some
wisdom about finding your own path in life. At the end, there is a maudlin
scene where the two have a protracted hug. That threw it off the Richter
scale for Twain spinning in his grave, and notched the whole effort down to
a C- in my gradebook.

        Five days later, thanks to an alert by Kevin Bochynski in this list,
I was at Hofstra University in Long Island for a performance of "Heaven
Sent: the afterlife of Mark Twain." Synchronistically enough, Hofstra is
only about 3 miles from my house on Long Island. This was in the Spiegel
Playhouse, an intimate theater that seats about 150 souls.  Nearly every
seat was filled. The play  begins in a dressing room where an actor is
facing the performance of a one man show of Mark Twain. It seems that the
usual actor, a Mr. Brookholt (get it?) had taken ill, and the substitute
actor had been given only 4 days to learn to internalize Twain.
Unfortunately, he hadn't really got it. Thunder rumbles, and a door flies
open. There, accompanied by rolls of smoke, is the ghost of Mark Twain

        Twain begins to educate the actor just as the theater manager pops
his head in to warn that show time was in 45 minutes. Just as the actor is
being successfully indoctrinated by the expansive, dramatic and funny ghost,
another voice is heard from above, but not before the entire audience was
treated to the sounds of a loud cell phone.  Soon, another ghost drifts in
and it is the ghost of Sam Clemens, who has come back to Earth to
demythologize the legend that he has created. Sam is serious, moralizing,
and dedicated to the notion that great prose belongs on the page, not on the
speaker's platform.  With his slick-back dark hair and stocky build, Sam
resembles Martin Sheen more than Twain, but this serves its purpose in
making him look like the very opposite of his creation. We then learn that
the time period is circa 1985, because Twain and Sam have been sent down
from Heaven, hitching a ride of Halley's comet. They have to work out this
split personality thing befor!
 e anybody gets through the Pearly Gates.

        The real fun begins as the two ghosts compete for the actor's
sympathies and whack his head to fill him with each ghost's version of the
facts. As the miutes before showtime melt away, he is bewildered by the
range of choices - play the standard old Twain, the moralistic and uptight
Sam, or just go with the script. As the two spout long sections of passages
from the books, they hold spirited arguments (unintentional pun - sorry)
about which one wrote it. All of this demonstrates that the playwright did
years of homework on his subject - I'd only quibble with one near the end
where Mark is describing "Joan of Arc" as his greatest work. I'd have to
call that one for Sam.

        In spite of the author's devotion to Twainian accuracy, there is an
audience of non-scholars to entertain here, and he spices the play with the
right amount of slapstick, profanity, fart jokes, and Marx Brothers shtick
to keep the audience on-board and laughing.  As the One Man show starts, the
actor is completely at a loss, and the two ghosts prop up his unconscious
form in a rocking chair and  recite the lines for him to an audience of 6
people (including the actor's mother).

        In the end, Sam makes a deal with the Other Side to channel Livy
from Heaven by way of the actor's mother. Livy manages to bring the two
sides together by professing to love both men. People in the audience had a
good time and, if they didn't know much about Twain before, probably learned
some things. It was obvious that the cast had a blast putting this on. At
the end, the author, Drew Keil,  came out to take a well-deserved bow. He
mentioned that this project had been in the works for a long time (I suspect
since the 1980's). I'm not certain if the play will see an afterlife when it
ends its run at Hofstra next week, but it certainly deserves one in my
estimation. This earns a solid A from me.

Terry Ballard
Quinnipiac University