[N.B. The following review was written by Louis J. Budd, on whose
behalf I am merely posting it. --T.R.]
VIDEO AND AUDIO REVIEW
Post, Jim. _Mark Twain and the Laughing River_. Galena, IL:
Jim Post Productions, 1998. Video.
Post, Jim. _Mark Twain and the Laughing River_. Evanston, IL:
Woodside Avenue Music Productions, Inc., 1996. 34:16 mins., CD.
WA 006-2. ISBN 1-886283-08-7.
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Louis J. Budd <[log in to unmask]>
Duke University (emeritus)
Copyright (c) 1998 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be
published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Thinking toward this review led me back to where Tom Quirk's _Coming
to Grips with Huckleberry Finn_ (1993) contends: "Like it or not,
Twain criticism must take into account and to a degree respond to
popular reception and understanding. . . . Scholars and critics who
remain indifferent to popular belief about the man or his work will
have missed much that is significant in their subject." Quirk warns
that "if their methods or vocabulary are persistently arcane or
obscure, the response of the common reader, sooner or later, will
serve as tonic corrective" (p. 107).
That helped me to stay aware of audiences, to remember even when
pontificating for the _Mark Twain Forum_ that it has a mixed
constituency--enthusiasts all, of course, but beyond that varyingly
intent on expertise or on dusting off anybody who slights the _true
facts_ (as apprentice writers put it for emphasis). Some Forum-ers,
however eager to enjoy Twain's writing and personality, are even
purists. They will find enjoying the video of _Mark Twain and the
Laughing River_ distracted by five worries.
First, they will distract themselves by wondering whether the
monologue is authentic and so will keep trying to identify what
texts Post is quoting. Second, having decided that he is rewriting
as well as inventing, they will keep trying to distinguish between
the ur-texts and his versions; since so many counterfeit maxims get
peddled around, Twainians develop that habit. Third, purists,
though not so loyal as to deny that Twain should have blotted out
many a line, will sidetrack from the fast-moving script to ponder
the wisdom of or just the reason for some minor change--such as
"sassafras tea" for "sarsparilla" in the "all the whiskey I want"
anecdote. Fourth, when Post uses his own material they will
inevitably compare his gift for humor with that of the
master--probably and unfairly with the best of Twain, who sometimes
strained as hard as anybody far less gifted. Fortunately, Post
imitates Twain's simpler moves rather well and never violates his
values. Fifth, purists will fret when the running biography gets
too inventive, as when it has Jane Clemens sending Sam to Uncle
John's farm "for one week each month," and they will sigh when Post
improves (and renders) dramatically the tall-tale of Twain's
spurning a plea to invest early in the telephone.
Post can legitimately respond that he never planned a time-warp back
to the Hannibal of the 1840s. "Beside economic gain"--his
semi-private puff to Taylor Roberts declares with Twainian honesty
as well as motive--he aimed at an "entertainment piece," which "took
liberties because we know Twain was one of the great liars of all
time." More specifically, he aimed to recreate the essence of the
"boy-man" through a white-suited raconteur who not only rhapsodizes
about his childhood but slips in and out of its voice and gestures.
Within a familiar outline Post draws boldly, then bolder still,
projecting a "totally uncontrollable boy" of seven or eight whom his
mother whipped often (she "could raise blisters on my butt by
walking across the room with bad intentions") and who capered so
notoriously that Horace Bixby had already heard about him (from Will
Bowen). Of course, such a figure segues far less often into
socio-political criticism than most Twain impersonators, though Post
makes clear Sam's resistance to village Christianity.
For a teacher the operative question is whether to show the video in
class. Judging from the timbre and also the peaks of the applause,
often louder for Post's jokes than certified maxims like "Heaven for
climate, and hell for society," it was filmed with a young audience.
Evidently, teenagers (or even those pre-teeners who intimidate
me with their precocity) will give it four stars or electric guitars
or whatever. For a college audience, I would choose some other
brand of "tonic corrective."
However, though undergraduates chortle at my musical taste, I do
recommend trying the CD on them. (It has twelve numbers, two more
besides those used for the video.) Post wields a strong, clear
tenor backed by an emphatic ensemble along with a few choice
sound-effects, and his lyrics are both imaginative and appropriate.
Several of the songs keep bouncing through my head, especially
"Uncle John's Farm" and "Huckleberry Finn"; and on my chart "Mighty
Big River," the signature piece, should have already become a
toe-tapping hit. If "Steamboat's Comin'" seems easier to compose,
that doesn't lessen its charm, while "Naked Little Boy"--about Sam's
practicing his bear act--makes a surprising subject work out
totally. There are several or at least a few Twain monographs that
I would trade away for this CD.
If I were reviewing this video and CD for one of those weeklies
given away in every place that deserves to call itself a city, I
would condition myself with Quirk's further counsel: "Mark Twain is
'ours' by virtue of a participation in a social community that
forges and forever modifies a consensual view of all its
institutions. Mark Twain and Huck Finn are not to be found in
archives and libraries alone." Ultimately, Quirk persuades me that
a committee, chaired by a non-academic, would make the best reviewer
here. But, rebounding to the opposite pole and joining the parade
of Twain impersonators, I will put myself into his mind,
particularly after he had got somewhat used to being imitated. I
believe that he would have enjoyed Post's visual presence, tone of
voice, underlying persona, and at least some of the invented
material. I _know_ he would have liked the lyrics and the music.