by Gail M. Burns, May 2007
(In the interest of full disclosure, I want to state up front that Ashton Crosby, who appears in this piece, serves on the Board of the Hoosac School, where my husband works and of which our sons are alumni. Although it was that connection that allowed me to attend and review this performance, neither, I, my husband, or the school stand to benefit in any way, therefore I see no direct conflict of interest.)
The closest I usually get to “educational theatre” are the productions at the New York State Theatre Institute (NYSTI) and they take a broader view of the genre than many. Mark Twain: Timeless Humor is a brief (75 minute) theatre piece conceived and directed by Cecilia Rubino specifically for Lincoln Center’s daytime Meet the Artist program for school groups. A version of this show was presented in that venue last December, and it will be presented there again next week. I saw the show at a private performance for students at the Hoosac School, a boarding and day school for grades 8-12.
There is no plot, per se. The purpose of the show is to introduce young audiences to the life and work of Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), aka Mark Twain, especially the two of his novels considered suitable for children: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The show opens with some of Clemens/Twain’s more amusing “bon mots” and moves on into some biographical tidbits I found enlightening and entertaining.
At Lincoln Center the three performances are geared towards different age groups, and I assume that the version I saw was the one advertised as suitable for high school students. Certainly the questions the actors put to the audience assumed a certain amount of “book learnin’” that younger students wouldn’t have. But I wonder how much preparation is assumed to have taken place prior to the students entering the theatre. What a funny old whiskery man Clemens/Twain would appear to children who knew nothing about him!
Rubino uses three actors to tell her story. Ashton Crosby bears a passable resemblance to Clemens/Twain and plays him at various points in the proceeding, but there are other times when one of the two younger actors – Jonathan Hopkins and Brandon Scott – speak as Clemens/Twain while Crosby plays other roles. While it is enjoyable to see the diversity of the players, I think this constant changing of roles would be confusing to young
audiences who weren’t entirely clear on who Clemens/Twain was. Hopkins is a young white man who looks suitably like our idea of Tom/Huck. Dressed in rolled up denim overalls and a battered straw hat he fits the mold to a T. Scott is a young African-American man who is obviously there to play Jim in the Huck Finn scenes, but he does well in a variety of other roles as well, and gets to swashbuckle about and spout Shakespeare as “The Duke.”
I am by no means an expert in Clemens/Twain, but I am a big fan of humorous writing and am familiar with the claim that Clemens/Twain was the first and the greatest American humorist. He may have been the first, but I argue vigorously to crown Robert Benchley as the best. My attempts to read Clemens/Twain are invariably thwarted by the fact that I just don’t find him that funny. I recently read a great many of the writings of Twain’s contemporary Marshall P. Wilder (1859-1914) a humorist noted more for his live storytelling than for his written work, and the same problem applied. Both Clemens/Twain and Wilder were considered hilariously funny – in their day. But humor is a very topical form of entertainment. Unless you are painting in very broad strokes making fun of something ubiquitous and unchanging like, oh, say, sex, like Shakespeare did, your material will not age well.
I have also tried reading Clemens/Twain while telling myself over and over that he is NOT funny, and I still don’t really enjoy him all that much. Part of the problem could be that he writes “boy’s stories” and I am of the wrong gender as well as the wrong era.
I enjoyed the beginning of Mark Twain: Timeless Humor much more that the end, where it devolves into a sort of cleaned-up (the “N” word has been excised) Cliff Notes version of ...Huckleberry Finn, after which it just sort of ends. But I got a kick out of the audience participation in the famous “whitewashing the fence” scene from ...Tom Sawyer, enjoyed hearing about Clemens/Twain’s real-life river boat adventures, and I loved the enactment of his first successful published piece, the short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865).
The end annoyed me because I have a particular problem with ...Huckleberry Finn, which I revisited as a book-on-tape during my travels last summer. I realize that I am not alone, the book has been highly controversial since the day it was published. Its first readers found the language “coarse” and its politics alarmingly liberal. A hundred and twenty-three years later Huck’s language is tame, but the book’s depiction of African-Americans is still not politically correct. First it was banned because it depicted blacks as human beings with rights, and then it was banned because it depicted them as slaves who kow-towed to whites. Both statements are true, but neither was popular. But my problem has nothing to do with either the language or the politics of “Huckleberry Finn.” My problems are literary. Clemens/Twain began writing it before he had finished “Tom Sawyer,” the novel that introduced Huck to the world. Having discovered a wonderful character and voice in Huck, Clemens/Twain wrote three-quarters of the novel and then got stuck. He put the book away in a drawer for many years, and finally pulled it out and tacked on an ending that abandons the more adventurous path of following Jim to freedom and returns to the stock comedy of boyhood hi-jinks on the Mississippi. In my mind ...Huckleberry Finn is three-quarters of a great book, and so I have a hard time being told that it is The Great American Novel and having it crammed down the throats of schoolchildren as if it were.
Luckily the story that I wish Clemens/Twain had written – the one about Huck and Jim escaping their respective “owners” (as a minor Huck is just as much the property of his drunken and abusive father as Jim is of Miss Watson) and striking out on the raft seeking freedom and adventure – is the story Rubino chooses to tell, so I enjoyed this greatly shortened version of ...Huckleberry Finn as much as Gail M. Burns will ever enjoy that it.
I hope when this show is presented at Lincoln Center that it receives a little bit more in the way of a physical production – i.e. lights, maybe a set. It is great to have a show that you can just pack up and perform anywhere, and Mark Twain: Timeless Humor is eminently portable, but when you bring your class to see a show at Lincoln Center you expect more than you would if you invited the same group to perform in your school cafeteria.
A school visit to Lincoln Center, including the tour and a Meet the Artist performance, begins at 10 a.m. and ends at 12:30 p.m. Mark Twain: Timeless Humor will be performed for grades 3-6 is on Friday, May 25; for grades 6-8 on Wednesday, May 30; and for grades 8-12 on Thursday May 31. For more information or to make reservations, call Meet the Artist at 212-875-5370 or visit the Lincoln Center Web site.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007