[N.B.: The following review was authored by Wesley Britton; I am merely
posting it on his behalf. --Taylor Roberts]
Clemens, Samuel L. "Colonel Sellers: A Drama in Five Acts."
Introduction by Jerry Thomason and Tom Quirk. _Missouri Review_,
vol. 18 (1995), no. 3, pp. 109-151. (Found Text Series.) Paper,
6" x 9". $6.95. ISBN 1-879758-15-6. ISSN 0191 1961.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Wesley Britton <[log in to unmask]>
Grayson County College
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
For the second time in a decade, _The Missouri Review_ has issued a
first-time publication of a Mark Twain work. In 1987, they printed "How
Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson" (10.1: 99-112), along with an essay
by Louis Budd on "The Recomposition of _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_"
(113-127). It is ironic that the _Review_'s publication of "Colonel
Sellers" almost exactly coincided with the first public appearance of
"new" passages in the Random House _Huckleberry Finn_, which develops
and illustrates the idea expressed in Budd's title. The publication of
two new Twain works in one year holds great potential for both Twain
scholars and the general reader, again able to read a new Twain text
with the sense of discovery akin to reading his other works for the very
Reading "Sellers," however, is different from encountering the _Huck
Finn_ "out-takes" or the set-aside gender-bender piece about Jackson and
Wilson. "Sellers" was a finished piece intended for commercial
appreciation, and is more polished and crafted than most of the
"literary remains" published this century.
Yet evaluating drama on the printed page, of course, is something like
critiquing a symphonic score without hearing the performance. It is
also problematic determining literary values of a work that was clearly
popular in its day--more lucrative for Twain than either _Huckleberry
Finn_ or _Tom Sawyer_--and "Colonel Sellers" stands up well in the
context of what appealed to the tastes of audiences during the run of
"Sellers," from 1874 to 1886. The play is as good as any of its peers
by Howells, James, Harte, and others. Like most plays of the period,
from "Our American Cousin" to adaptations of novels like _Uncle Tom's
Cabin_, "Colonel Sellers" was clearly a vehicle for simple light
entertainment, with slices of benign satire added to give the story
something beyond the familiar plot line of a damsel in distress.
"Colonel Sellers" has more to offer than other Twain dramas, primarily
because of its mix of realism and humor, and the play should elevate
Twain's modern reputation as a dramatist, which is obviously a relative
judgement considering what was expected on the nineteenth century stage.
But will modern audiences be interested in "Colonel Sellers"? Of course,
Twainians will find the text valuable because of the playwright's use of
material found in other writings, particularly _The Gilded Age_, and
much will no doubt be made of Twain's use of race, gender, and political
and judicial satire throughout the script. And this satire, I think,
will be what makes this play of interest to modern audiences. For
example, when Sellers beams with confident assurance over the large
"size of government" being the means to solve his problems, new readers
or viewers have a new perspective with which to appreciate this joke.
What is first surprising about "Colonel Sellers" is that the first two-
thirds sound more like Howells than Mark Twain. The realistic dialogue
reads like any number of other authors and, if not for the imagery and
episodes drawn from Clemens' biography, the script would read like a
pastiche of then-fashionable adventures of despoiled women. Not until
the trial of Laura Hawkins do we feel the presence and distinctive voice
of Mark Twain's style, and for some this may diminish the play's appeal.
However, the very realism of most of the dialogue lends a credibility to
this script, lost in such other plays as _Ah Sin_ and the fragments
published in _Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques_ (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1967).
The character of Colonel Sellers, of course, is the exception to this
rule, and, as in _The Gilded Age_, he is not the central character but
rather an offbeat figure who steals the show away from what Twain oddly
intended to be a tragedy. It is well known that Twain disliked actor
John Raymond's performance of Sellers as a "slightly preposterous
visionary" (110), but, as Thomason and Quirk note in their short, two-
page introduction to the script, reading the text leads one to suspect
the actor had better judgement than the writer, who saw Sellers as a
pathetic gentlemen (110). The plot of "Colonel Sellers" combines
realistic dialogue, save for Sellers' comic wind-bagging, with a growing
melodramatic love-lost, love-betrayed story offset by Sellers'
Falstaffian comic relief. The comedy, however unintentional, is what
gives the play its unique flavor apart from similar dramas. One
suspects that any actor who followed Twain's wishes to have Sellers
portrayed sympathetically and seriously would lose the most uniquely
Twainian voice in this creation, and thus the humorous aspects of the
play would be lost in the romantic soap opera of Laura Hawkins.
The story begins by introducing the Hawkins family discussing the
Tennessee land they hope will be their financial salvation. It is clear
that Laura and Clay Hawkins--the unrelated by birth, adopted children of
Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins--are in love with each other but dare not pursue
this interest. Laura is very much the character as portrayed in _The
Gilded Age_, compared in the script to Twain's idealized woman, Joan of
Arc. Colonel Sellers appears, scheming to buy mules in New Orleans to
make his fortune, and tells the family he has invested their money in a
steamboat. This short act ends with the sounds of the steamboat
The second act begins nine years later with the family still seeking to
renew their lost fortunes by way of the Tennessee land. We learn that
Laura has been secretly married to Colonel George Selby, whom her
parents ban from their house believing he will destroy Laura's honor, as
he has not proposed to her after a long relationship. Sellers appears
with the scheme of selling the Tennessee land to the government to
establish a black college on the land for newly freed slaves so "they
can learn to take care of themselves," Sellers asserting the religious
will leap to back his scheme. This episode is clearly one that modern
scholars will find of particular interest, as it adds some new light on
Twain's treatment of racial issues. Such discussions will include
Twain's comic figure of the Hawkins' manservant, Uncle Dan'l (likely
based on the Uncle Dan'l of Sam Clemens' childhood). Although but a
supporting character, most evident in the first act, Twain's humane and
realistic characterization of this servant should help reinforce claims
of Clemens' considerably less than racist literary use of black
After Twain repeats the turnip eating scene from _The Gilded Age_ with
the same comic effect, Laura learns Selby is a bigamist, and tension
builds between Clay Hawkins and Selby, who begin to fight. However,
they are interrupted by Sellers showing the heroic and gentlemanly
character Twain wanted to emphasize. The action then moves to
Washington, where we see how Laura has evolved and hardened. While
Sellers, Hawkins, and a corrupt congressman negotiate the appropriations
bill designed to save the family (but which loses its meaning in the
congressional debate), Laura shoots and kills Selby.
The trial of Laura is the first act that has a more typically Twainian
voice. Laura has entered an insanity plea, which is turned to comic
purposes when Colonel Sellers takes the stand. He describes Laura's
unlikely obsession for one-armed, peg-legged men, as her birth father
supposedly had these deficiencies. Sellers' quick-witted maneuvering of
the jury makes for the most memorable scene in the play, with a wildly
funny satire of the judicial system that would appeal to any audience of
any time. After his machinations--which put Johnnie Cochran to shame--
the play ends with Laura being found not guilty.
It is because of such scenes that "Colonel Sellers" deserves a new life
on stage as well as in print. There are major problems with the story,
as in the unresolved loose ends of the love triangle of
Laura/Clay/Selby--especially regarding Clay, who hovers in the
background but never fulfills his dramatic potential. I can hear Siskel
and Ebert complaining that the play doesn't know what it is--a comedy or
tragedy--and the two tones do make for abrupt shifts, as the plot and
subplot are as dissimilar as the personalities of Huck and Tom.
Further, the conclusion of "not guilty" belies Twain's stated claims his
work was meant to be tragic. Still, these shifts seemed to work the
first time around, and--as drama is a collaborative art--how well they
would integrate for a modern audience would depend on the staging and
acting of both commercial and educational theaters.
The name of the playwright will certainly arouse interest in this "new"
script, and the second life of "Colonel Sellers" will depend as much on
the directors who choose to stage it as on the scholars who will comb it
for new insights into the literary career of Mark Twain. (The editors
have helped the latter group by providing a brief bibliography of
secondary sources treating Twain as dramatist.) For both groups, the
play offers its own rewards and makes for an entertaining evening. And
as that was its purpose in the first place, "Colonel Sellers" is a
success in the realm for which it was intended.