TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show HTML Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 22 Feb 1996 16:49:09 -0500
text/plain (301 lines)
[N.B.: The following book review was authored by the unsinkable Wesley
Britton; I am merely posting it on his behalf.  Thanks also to Kevin J.
Bochynski for facilitating its appearance on the Forum. --Taylor


     Randall Knoper.  _Acting Naturally: Mark Twain in the Culture of
     Performance_.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.  Pp.
     ix + 240.  $35.00.  Cloth, 6-1/2" x 9-1/4".  ISBN 0-520-08619-8.

     Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:

          Wesley Britton <[log in to unmask]>
          Grayson County College
          Sherman, TX

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Early in 1995, David S. Reynolds published his _Walt Whitman's America:
A Critical Biography_ (New York: Knopf), in which Reynolds noted Whitman
was a product of a "performance culture" in which theater, dance, poetry
readings, political speeches, lectures, sermons, and musical
presentations occurred together on the same platforms.  Before the Civil
War, Reynolds observes, no distinctions existed between "high and low
culture" and classical music took much from both popular literature and
folk music forms just as touring singing families included operatic
melodies in their repertoire.  During Whitman's middle years, the
"performance culture" became "carnivalized" with no boundaries creating
a democratic, egalitarian atmosphere fostering audience/performer
relationships that were personal and intimate and, for Whitman, anti-
European in temperament (166-193).  This long lineage, combined with
Whitman's ears tuned to the music of America's singing families,
minstrel shows, Stephen Foster, the popular tours of operatic vocalists
and the more eclectic Jenny Lind--as well as the tunes sung on the
streets celebrated in "I Hear America Singing"--along with his love and
use of popular oratorical styles, added texture, American themes, and
freshness to New World verse providing both power and unity to American

On a number of levels, Randall Knoper's study of Mark Twain and
performance culture is the companion piece to Reynold's work, although
much of _Acting Naturally_ has more to do with Twain's interest in
metaphysics than overt connections to nineteenth century performance
culture.  While the contexts of these two studies are generally
similar--with obvious regional distinctions--the authors who were shaped
by nineteenth century on-stage performers were strikingly different, so
it is no surprise that the emphasis of each book revolves around what
performance meant to each individual writer, exploring their distinct
responses to their particular milieus.  Both books offer widely
differing definitions of what "performance culture" entails, with
Reynolds being far more descriptive and detailed in fleshing out the
theatrical realm of his subject.

Of course, Mark Twain's theatrical nature has been oft explored, and
Knoper quickly states his study is part of a long tradition of critical
works, paying particular homage to the work of James Cox.  Knoper then
states his thesis of examining Twain as a dramatic Realist who attempted
to "act naturally" by using dramatic devices to convey an authentic
representation of his culture.  Twain's series of poses and unveilings,
Knoper asserts, came from an attempt by a white, middle-class male to
find his concept of self in the midst of gender, class, and racial
identities in a largely unstable social environment.  Like Reynolds,
Knoper sees Twain's culture as a merging of high brow and popular
cultures, but emphasizes the bourgeois tendencies of an America wanting
to see performances mixing caricature with pathos and resonating orality
with deadpan humor.

Throughout his study, Knoper charts Twain's direct and indirect
relationships with American theater, noting Twain wrote numerous theater
reviews in San Francisco, wrote fragments of plays as well as complete
productions, and used stage conventions in his fiction.

Knoper demonstrates how these interests can be seen early in Sam
Clemens's career, beginning with the "Historical Exhibition" sketch
where the divide between high and low culture and the practice of male
rowdiness superseding the desire for information are harbingers of
things to come.  As Knoper reminds us, in Hannibal, Clemens was aware of
an obvious class structure epitomized by his father's call for lectures
and the popularity of Shakespeare on one side and the river shows of
bawdy burlesques and minstrel shows on the other that Hannibal's city
government attempted to ban in 1845.  Knoper believes the central social
conflict of that era, reflected in Clemens's apprentice works, was
between the desire for middle-class respectability vs. male primitivism
and showmanship that subverted realistic fidelity, as in the carnival
shows of the likes of P.T. Barnum.

"The Historical Exhibition" and other sketches, Knoper asserts, were
acts of cultural clashes showing Clemens's propensity for exhibition and
theatricality that were part of a social context that gave Clemens the
conventions integral to his later work.  Twain's mimicking of these
conventions, Knoper claims, helped sustain the white male cultural
dominance over marginalized groups, although Twain's bohemianism created
an ambivalence that led to Twain's testing of class and gender
distinctions in his fiction.  Knoper sees Twain as reacting to the
feminization of American culture that challenged male prerogatives and
marginalized traveling journeymen like Sam Clemens whose company was
primarily male.  For Knoper, Clemens was part of a boarding house
bachelor subculture that attended music hall shows as a male rite of
titillation and viewed sporting events, notably pugilism, on the same
stage as their other entertainments.  This point parallels Reynold's
description of performance culture but adds an added emphasis on gender
interests integral to Knoper's thesis.

For example, Knoper believes the romantic, rowdy actor Edwin Forrest
captured Clemens early imagination because Forrest's roles were not
gentile or bourgeois, but were more attuned to the taste of tavern
performers than to quiet readers.  Again underlining Reynold's points,
Knoper notes that in viewing performances like Forrest's, the spectator
is not divided from the performer, as working class audiences identified
with onstage competitiveness.  This masculine concept, Knoper explains,
was reflected in the public feuds between posing frontier journalists
such as Mark Twain and the "Unreliable."

Twain's frontier use of hoaxes, Knoper claims, reflected Twain's
interest in mocking the effeminate, gullible mass culture that expressed
passive feminized roles as opposed to male action depicted by actors
like Forrest.  These feelings, unlike those of Whitman in the east, can
be seen in Twain's San Francisco reviews of operas that reflected his
frontier male distaste for music sung in incomprehensible languages.
Twain also deeply disliked sentimental domestic drama, praising instead
the music of black minstrel shows.  Knoper notes that Twain saw a
fidelity to truth in black music that could not be found in dramas more
for the head than heart, and this concern would become an issue
throughout his mature writing career.

"Jim Smiley's Jumping Frog," Knoper states, signaled the beginning of
Twain's deadpan delivery that would characterize his lecture hall
appearances akin to the popular acting style of Joseph Jefferson.  Both
entertainers, Knoper claims, drew from the same sources, hitting a
social resonance that resulted in their continuing popularity in the
nineteenth century.  In their deadpan hands, which allowed for both
shielding masks and tools for deceit, popular entertainment merged the
buffoonery of lowbrow performances with higher seriousness that gave the
ludicrous depth.  In Twain and Jefferson, caricature was subordinated
and integrated into a deeper psychology that led to critical
battlegrounds over taste and social realism.  Twain's staging of
_Colonel Sellers_, Knoper says, was one manifestation of this deadpan
performing style later developed in _Huckleberry Finn_.  Knoper states
this cultural change brought working class rituals into the larger
mainstream and helped Twain contribute a major shift in performance

Here, Knoper travels familiar territory, notably the work of Paul
Fatout, discussing Twain's onstage delivery and critical responses to
it, territory Twainians can easily skim but those less familiar with
this aspect of Twain criticism will find appropriate and useful in this
volume.  Still, the connections Knoper draws between the Sellers
manuscripts and _Huckleberry Finn_ provide new insights into Twain's
creative process and are worthy of further exploration.

Also useful is Knoper's placing of Twain characters in the debate over
imaginative, emotive acting vs. representative realism.  In Twain's
novels _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_, _A Connecticut Yankee in King
Arthur's Court_, and _The Prince and the Pauper_, conscious role playing
is seen not to work (as in Huck's failures in roles beyond his
experience and the King's inability to be coached as a commoner).
Credible role playing, Knoper says, relies on identification from
personal experience, and the believable actor must strike a balance
between detachment and absorption in his part, a concept Knoper explores
in some detail.  One notable idea is that the more multiple the layers
of identity between the actor and his part, the less realistic his

This issue is developed in Knoper's explication of _Pudd'nhead Wilson_
where, for Knoper, Roxy overturns the failures of Huck and King Arthur
by successfully teaching herself to treat the boys in the reality she
has created.  But to maintain her artificial role, she must ultimately
make her false acquiesce real acquiescence, a dupe of her own
deceptions, absorbing her transformed self.  This issue was deepened,
Knoper explains, by Twain's concerns with race and identity in the
novel, exploring the conflict between nature and training.

However, Knoper's brief discussions on race are not as developed as his
repeated emphasis on gender.  His passages on race center on Twain's
duality and his fascination with racial otherness that was condescending
as a white male intrigued with the features of black dance that
affronted middle-class sensibilities.  Knoper believes Twain enjoyed
black dialect's effect of mocking and providing disinformation, which
gave Twain a complex model of language used later in transposing Chinese
stereotyped "jabbering" in his _Ah Sin_.  In this play, Knoper writes,
realistic fidelity was lost in layers of disinformation and artificial
constructs, a problem Knoper believes Twain would resolve in later

At this point, Knoper's study takes a major shift as he uses the
advances (and popular fads) of psychology and science in the nineteenth
century to develop his points linking science with performance culture--
notably the precepts of William Archer and Charles Darwin--to show how
auto-suggestion can alter conceptions of identity.  For example, when
Tom Driscoll learns he is Roxy's son, his behavior immediately changes,
adopting the behavior associated with the slaves of his community.  As
his character is flimsy and easily subject to suggestion, his change is
easier than characters such as Roxy whose, self is well-established and
requires repeated practice to alter--a juxtaposition between character
and characterlessness.

Knoper also points to science when he notes the scene in _Connecticut
Yankee_ when the condemned woman thanks a priest for saving her child.
Her expression was "painted fire," the fire being the gratitude within.
Knoper makes much of how body language is a performance that can be
misinterpreted, but that it is natural and physiologically connected to
identity, a notion Twain likely drew from his annotated Darwin.
According to Knoper in one of his more convincing chapters, Twain's
early interest in phrenology, mesmerism, palmistry, and mental
telegraphy are reflected in many examples from his texts, as are the
revelatory nature of involuntary gestures and physical signs throughout
Twain's canon.  Knoper again notes a gender distinction in Twain's
thinking, that women's faces naturally must reflect the truth without an
ability to lie while males can easily assume masks--another reflection
of Victorian values of sexuality.

But a surprising and odd digression changes the scope and perhaps
plausibility of the book when Knoper spends considerable time exploring
mediums and mental telegraphy linking representation with electrical
body impulses, discussing the unconscious mind as medium of expression
and autoeroticism.  It is surprising no credit is given to Sherwood
Cummings's _Mark Twain and Science_ in this section, and more surprising
is that this extended discussion is included in this volume.  While this
material might have made for a useful article elsewhere, its connections
with performance culture are tenuous, strained, and far afield from the
thesis inherent in the book's title.  Knoper does make some useful
points, particularly regarding _Colonel Sellers_ and Twain's use of
mediumship in various novels (Jim's hairball, Joan of Arc's channeling
of spirits), and that women writers often claimed to be mediums rather
than being transgressors of the male dominated public stage.  For
Knoper, women writers exaggerated their passive roles as mediums, as
their works actually tended to emphasize style and artifice over true

Knoper's final chapters, devoted to performance in Twain's novels,
perhaps contain his most original and most intriguing contributions to
Twain studies.  While these chapters reveal little about performance
culture _per se_, they do provide fresh readings of the novels worthy of
critical attention.  Knoper devotes one chapter to the theatricality of
_The Prince and the Pauper_, in which he compares the pageantry of
royalty with the rowdy carnivals of the commoners and the social
criticism inherent in the dramatic juxtapositions.

He develops this theme in his analysis of _A Connecticut Yankee_,
exploring how realist representation is clouded by inverted role playing
and Hank Morgan's marketplace performances that test the meaning of
public spectacle vs. representative value.  The conflict between
representation and meaning is further explored in the discussion of
_Joan of Arc_, in which Joan's life is twisted and distorted in the
dramatization of her trial.  Knoper cites the novel as a part of the
national theater of the nineteenth century, as Joan was a popular stage
figure epitomizing cultural debates over faith, patriotism, and modern
skepticism regarding institutional authority.  Knoper maintains both
mass culture and melodrama share a common symbol in Joan, who Twain
portrayed as authentic because of her natural, unposed fidelity to self
on the public stage.  Her transvestitism merges masculine and feminine
identities, while raising issues of duality and eroticism, and her
mediumship is means for realist, unconscious truth.

Joan, for Knoper, is the opposite of No. 44 in _The Mysterious
Stranger_, the bad boy who loves shows and spectacles.  In _The
Mysterious Stranger_, Knoper claims, Twain uses dream states to explore
the mind/body dichotomy where dreams produce a closer representation of
true fidelity than verbal contrivances or physical expressions can
provide.  In _Mysterious Stranger_, Knoper asserts, Twain resolves his
issues of performance by merging idea and representation in the dream
self where materialization disappears, erasing the duality of mind/body
distinctions.  Knoper points to interesting parallels between _No. 44_
and Mary Baker Eddy's principles of Christian Science that Knoper
believes belie Twain's attacks on her.

_Acting Naturally_ is a well-documented, profoundly thought out addition
to studies on Twain's theatrical aspects, but must be considered but one
contribution to studies regarding this side of Twain.  Again, Knoper is
clearly aware of this, and provides a helpful, annotated bibliography of
secondary sources related to this multifaceted subject.  Many previous
studies, for example, explore aspects untouched by Knoper, notably those
that explore Twain's interest in the pulpit and frontier storytelling.
Knoper is most insightful when applying his conceptions of performance
culture to Twain's novels, and his discussions on _Colonel Sellers_ add
new dimensions for appreciating the craftsmanship of that play.  Knoper
also contributes much to gender-oriented studies of Twain, though his
attention to racial issues is primarily confined to discussing
_Pudd'nhead Wilson_.  But this "lapse" can be considered a flaw only
because Knoper's introduction states that racial issues are central to
his study, and he only sparingly follows up on this point.

While it would be inappropriate to call too much attention to the book
Knoper didn't write, it is useful to observe that the subject of Twain
and performance culture is far from exhausted in _Acting Naturally_, and
Knoper's omissions open opportunities for young scholars to explore in
greater depth.  For example, David Reynold's study of Whitman examined
in detail the importance of music in the culture of Walt Whitman, but
Twain studies still await an important work exploring this facet of
performance culture in the life and works of Mark Twain.  Readers may
need to look to Reynold's for a fuller and clearer definition of just
what "performance culture" is, and look to Knoper for expanding these
definitions and ideas for how they can be applied to texts that, on
first glance, seem far removed from the stage.  Knoper both provides new
insights of his own and widens discussion possibilities, and deserves
credit for both his scholarship and originality.  All Twainians will
find much of value in _Acting Naturally_.