The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by David
Foote, Horton and Mark Dawidziak. _Horton Foote's The Shape of the River:
The Lost Teleplay about Mark Twain. With History & Analysis by Mark
Dawidziak_. New York: Applause Books, 2003. 208 pages including 16 pages
of photographs. Softcover $16.95. ISBN 1-55783-519-5.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Copyright (c) 2003 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
Not even the cumbersome title and shared authorial credits reveal the true
complexities and treasures to be found between the covers of _Horton
Foote's The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay about Mark Twain, with
History & Analysis by Mark Dawidziak_. This book, despite its brevity, is
an astoundingly multiheaded beast: part dramatic play, part detective
story, part literary analysis, part multimedia history, and part celebrity
All of this is built around "The Shape of the River," a TV docudrama about
Clemens's later life, covering the years 1895 (before embarking on his
return-from-bankruptcy international lecture tour) to 1909 (the death of
his daughter Jean, and the year before his own). Written by Horton Foote,
it was performed, starring Franchot Tone as Clemens, as the penultimate
presentation of the CBS dramatic anthology series "Playhouse 90" on May 2,
Foote's credentials alone--as the Oscar-winning adaptor of Harper Lee's _To
Kill a Mockingbird_ and author of _Tender Mercies_ for the large screen,
the Emmy-winning scriptwriter for _Old Man_ on the small screen, and the
Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist for _The Young Man from Atlanta_ on the
stage--make this a significant publication, especially since _Shape of the
River_ predates much of the lauded scholarship into the dark personal
tragedies of Clemens's final years.
Yet this isn't just a reprinting; it's a rediscovery. Foote himself
thought the production, like so many Golden Age dramas, was lost to the
ages. Yet Dawidziak, after a query was posted on the Mark Twain Forum, was
able to locate a copy languishing forgotten in the CBS vaults. Foote
received a personal duplicate, made a copy for Dawidziak, and the real work
_The Shape of the River_, as published by Applause, includes not only
Foote's complete teleplay (more on that in a minute), but an immensely
helpful and readable array of essays and appendices putting the work in
context. There are capsule descriptions of all people and places in the
teleplay, as well as biographies of the 90-minute drama's cast and crew.
There's a timeline of the life of Clemens, and an overview of the history
of televised Mark Twain stories, dramas and biographies. Most important of
all, there's a lengthy prelude to Foote's teleplay, in which the stories
told--and told engagingly--include the detective work to locate the
production, the behind-the-scenes story of its original production, and a
critical analysis of both its biographical accuracy and dramatic merits.
That's a chunk of Mark Twain scholarship requiring a particularly unusual
specialist--someone not only intimately familiar with the written works of
Samuel Clemens, but equally at home regarding the history of television.
Dawidziak, whose books include _Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing_, also
has been a full-time TV critic for 20 years, currently with the _Cleveland
Part of what Dawidziak does, when analyzing Foote's "Shape of the River,"
probably would be a simple parlor trick for many Twain scholars. He points
out which passages of dialogue are lifted straight from Twain's
_Autobiography_, which scenes are based in part on actual photographs, and
which elements are extrapolated from other existing writings and
biographies. The most helpful of these cross-references is an appendix
reprinting, in its entirety, Twain's wrenching 1909 essay "The Death of
Jean," which preserved, in a sort of literary amber, all the small details
of his daughter's last days, even as she lay in state in a nearby room.
Much of the third act of "Shape of the River" comes from that source,
capping a string of unexpected deaths and untimely tragedies so sadistic in
their frequency, no self-respecting dramatist would dare concoct them, or
lay them at the feet of a single loving family man. "Underscoring the
heartbreak of these years," Dawidziak writes, "each act of 'The Shape of
the River' ends with a death." In Act I, it's the death of Clemens's
daughter Susy in 1896; in Act II, the death of wife Livy in 1904; at the
end of the drama, the death of Jean.
The play's title is explained early, when Foote has Sam Clemens compare his
unexpected bankruptcy, a result of a string of misguided business deals, to
his experience as a cub riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, trying to learn
"the shape of the river." (Parlor game players consider this a gimme: It
is, of course, lifted from Twain's _Life on the Mississippi_.) The river
kept changing, and Clemens remarks it was a good lesson to apply off the
river as well.
"Every time I get used to something, get comfortable in a way of living and
I think I've learned all the things that I need to know," he says, "I have
to start in learning all over again and figure out a new way to do and get
When Foote, for dramatic purposes, deviates from fact, Dawidziak calls him
on it (a scene set in Hartford actually took place in Elmira), but also
explains and supports the reasons for the choice. In addition to being
familiar with the various biographies, Dawidziak also takes note of when
they were written. He gives credit to Foote's sources when they are due,
but also gives Foote credit for latching onto and painting a complex
portrait of the man known as Mark Twain long before many respected Twain
biographers did the same thing.
That's one of the most striking things about reading Foote's teleplay:
while an early montage of the Mark Twain lecture tour establishes the
author's humorous and charismatic side, most of "Shape of the River" is
devoted to private moments, intimate exchanges, and unalloyed grief.
Another striking element, more typical of the period, was the patience and
courage to hand lengthy chunks of dialogue to an actor. At several times
in "Shape of the River" (recorded live on tape, not performed live, because
of the cumbersome production elements required), Foote gives Tone several
pages of dialogue to read without interruption.
For prime-time television in 1960, "Shape of the River" was an especially
unblinking and unalloyed character study, and deserves to be thought of in
the same landmark terms as such Golden Age TV triumphs as Rod Serling's
"Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" and
Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men." As this teleplay publication gains
notice, and especially if the original CBS production is remastered and
released on DVD, Foote's forgotten TV masterwork should be remembered, and
revered, much more readily.
One appendix in this Applause publication, "Mark Twain on Television," is
almost a separate book, and it's the place where Dawidziak the television
critic really dives in and has fun. "Shape of the River" really had dried
up, as a TV memory, before Dawidziak pumped new life into it, and much of
his additional writing for this book is devoted, rightly, to that. In this
chapter, though, Dawidziak takes on the entire output of Twain-related TV
material, from obscure stuff that predated "Shape of the River" to the most
recent and acclaimed multi-part PBS biography.
Even casual Twain fans should agree with, and be able to mention
umprompted, the major tent-poles (in addition to "Shape") of Twain
television as Dawidziak identifies them. One is Hal Holbrook's one-man
show "Mark Twain Tonight!" as televised by CBS in 1967; the other is the
2002 PBS "Mark Twain" biography by Ken Burns and company.
Dawidziak, though, goes much deeper--and, some might say, much shallower.
To Howard Duff playing Sam Clemens as a visitor to the Ponderosa on the
fifth episode of NBC's "Bonanza" in 1959. To Ron Howard and Donny Most,
both of the ABC sitcom "Happy Days," as Huck and Tom, respectively, in a
1975 telemovie version of "Huckleberry Finn." And everything in between,
from such germane productions as the 1979 PBS drama "Mark Twain: Beneath
the Laughter" (depicting some of the same real-life tragedies shown in
"Shape of the River") to such modern tossaways as cable telemovies "Mark
Twain and Me" (starring Jason Robards as Clemens) and "Roughing It"
(starring, as the older Clemens, James Garner).
Making this more than just a TV laundry list, Dawidziak reaches back into
his bag of interviews and actually talks to most of these people about
their experiences dramatizing or playing Mark Twain. In the chapter about
Foote's "Shape of the River," this meant tracking down not only Foote, but
actress Shirley Knight (who played Susy), the now-late John Frankenheimer
(originally scheduled to direct) and others. For the "Twain on Television"
chapter, the celebrities interviewed include Burns, Holbrook, Robards,
Garner--and even Duff, for his hardly seminal work as Twain on "Bonanza."
If there's a whiff of excess in this _Shape of the River_ publication, it's
here. There's no denying the value of tracing these Twain-related
productions through TV history--and honestly, if Dawidziak hadn't done it,
no one else could or would have. A few of the lesser interviews in this
chapter, though, may have been included simply because they already had
been conducted, and were handy.
But that's the most minor of quibbles regarding a major piece of research
by Dawidziak, accompanying an almost shockingly literate and entertaining
early work by Foote. _The Shape of the River_, as it is packaged in book
form, is in great shape indeed.
(Full disclosure paragraph: Dawidziak is a friend, and I gladly wrote a
positive blurb for this book after reading it in galley form. But since I,
too, have been a practicing TV critic for decades, and a Mark Twain
enthusiast even longer, my particular qualifications for reviewing this
work seemed to outweigh concerns over cronyism. Besides, I've never even
met Foote--and given the opportunity to slam Dawidziak for shoddy
scholarship, were I ever to encounter it, I'd perform that task with
David Bianculli is TV critic for the _New York Daily News_ and for National
Public Radio's "Fresh Air."