We don’t remember Mark Twain as a man of the theatre, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Twain worked as a theatre critic and wrote scores of plays (most have been forgotten, although Is He Dead? made a belated Broadway debut in 2007 in an adaptation by longtime Encores! scribe David Ives). Twain was also a garrulous participant in countless amateur productions, in which he played knights, lovers, and bears. In honor of the Encores! revival of Big River, Andrew Levy—the author of Huck Finn’s America—delves into Twain’s love of theatre, how he made his book tours into “performance art,” and the extent to which Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was conceived in theatrical terms.
You’ve written that Huck Finn “began its career as a piece of performance art…spoken as much as written, and even sung as much as spoken.” What did you mean?
Andrew Levy: If it was November 1884, and you were one of the first people encountering something from Huckleberry Finn, you were seeing it performed in a theatre. Or perhaps an opera hall or a church. In the 1870s, as Twain began to write Huck Finn, he also began to conceive a theatrical event in which a series of well-known writers would read pieces in vernacular voices. When the tour finally went on the road, a couple of months before Huckleberry Finn was released, it consisted of Twain and one other author, George Washington Cable. They were billed as the “Twins of Genius”: Twain read pieces of his novel, other writings, and even told stories that had been told to him by slaves in his youth. Cable read from his work and also performed Creole songs and slave spirituals. The crowd fell apart, because they had never seen anything like it. I mean, people were fainting. This was like the Beatles.
Did Twain tailor scenes in the book to suit his performing style? Was he consciously writing “material” for the stage?
AL: It’s possible that he was towards the end of the writing process, by which point he had started to think about what sections he was going to read on tour. One of those sections was Huck and Jim’s conversation about King Solomon, which Twain wrote last and just dropped into the book.
What were Twain’s feelings about theatre?
AL: He thought it was amazing and transformative. One of the impulses behind Huck Finn was a nostalgia trip: Twain was writing in the 1870s and 1880s about the 1840s. Like any of us, a lot of what he remembered were the songs and the narratives. He’s just fixated on popular culture, and what he’s doing throughout Huck Finn is saving bits and pieces of it. Twain loved the loose, messy, vital feel of the theatre of his childhood, when audiences would insist that scenes be repeated if they liked them and pelt actors with rotten fruit if they didn’t.
Twain’s earliest theatre experiences were at minstrel shows. Very few theatrical forms remain so disturbingly charged to us, and so horrifying. What did Twain see in them?
AL: We are trained to hate minstrel shows, and we should. I don’t make any apologies for the minstrel show, clearly. But in the nineteenth century it was an art form that fascinated white people like Twain who were deeply conflicted about race. There were moments where sly performers could treat race like a joke and a construction. If you read a bunch of minstrel show scripts from the 1880s and then read a bunch of newspapers from the 1880s, you find that the newspapers embrace racism as a truth and an organizing social structure, whereas minstrel show scripts could be fluid and ambiguous. Given Twain’s choices, he went with the minstrel show.
One of the revelations in your book is that elements of the minstrel show survive in so much of what we think of as wholesome Americana. It’s there in “Turkey in the Straw,” in Mickey Mouse’s gloves, and in Huckleberry Finn. What did Mark Twain lift from the minstrel tradition?
AL: There are scenes where characters cross-dress or perform garbled Shakespeare, which were tropes in a lot of popular theatre back then, including the minstrel show. Twain also seems to have aped the three-part structure of minstrel shows in the structure of Huckleberry Finn: a lot of minstrel shows began with songs and jokes, followed by a series of short theatrical pieces, and ended with an extended parody of plantation life. I think people miss this in Huckleberry Finn. They think a lot in terms of Jim being a minstrel show character—but there were actually more minstrel show characters named Finnegan or Finn than Jim. If you happened to go to a minstrel show in the nineteenth century, Huck Finn might be closer to a stock stage Irishman than Jim was a stock African-American.
There’s also the King Solomon scene. Was Twain playing with minstrel tropes there?
AL: The minstrel show had stock characters: the interlocutor, who had the lightest skin and spoke in the most polished English, and the end-men, who spoke in deep dialects and told jokes that relied on punning, bawdiness, or the misunderstanding of obvious concepts, in ways that sometimes suggested a secondary level of subversion. In the Solomon exchange, Huck essentially takes on the role of the interlocutor, with Jim as an end-man. Of course, you can easily make the argument that Jim’s “misunderstanding” of the Solomon parable is subversive. He sees Solomon as an analogy for the kinds of slaveholders he knew, who would think that splitting a baby was an acceptable thing to do.
Ads for the “Twins of Genius” tour used the tagline “The Trouble Begins at Eight.” It’s a fascinating phrase, particularly in light of Mike Pence’s visit to Hamilton and Donald Trump’s subsequent proclamation that “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.” Did Mark Twain see the theatre as a place for troublemakers?
AL: Oh, yeah. (laughs) That’s the short answer. And Twain loved that line, “The Trouble Begins at Eight.” He’d been using it since he first hit the lecture circuit in the 1860s. He wanted people to be laughing the whole time, of course—but he also wanted you thinking, and a little uncomfortable.
Matt Weinstock edits the publications at New York City Center.