The Mark Twain You Don't Know
nytheatre.com review by Paul Hufker
March 25, 2010
Being both from Missouri and a writer, Mark Twain has always been a source of righteous inspiration for me. He was often a single candle, lighting the path for a blind and misguided country on its darkest nights. His satirical style shackled him, though—in the minds of critics, at least—to the position of pseudo-philosopher; but his eloquent common sense morality managed to define the progressive thinking of a generation and a country, and somehow spans that moment to this in relevance and importance. In short, he was the man for his time and place.
Chris Wallace's The Mark Twain You Don't Know is a one-man recreation of some of Samuel Langhorne Clemens's writings, covering of course only a mere iota of the number of subjects Twain himself did. In this case: morality, religion, government, politics, royalty, and war, along with excerpts from his timeless novel Huckleberry Finn—which placed Twain on the map and legitimized his thinking for the ages.
The title of the show, however, implies two things: first, that you already "know" something about Mark Twain, and second, that this piece will show you a side of him to counteract that which you already "know." Being from Missouri as I said, and having twice been to Hannibal, where Twain lived and wrote for a good portion of his life, might give me a head start in anecdotes and facts, but I cannot imagine that the distance is so great for the average American audience member that this play is illuminating a side of the man that many people "don't know." For the first act of the play, seemingly random elements of Twain's history and writings are brought to life by Wallace, who does a seasoned turn as narrator, Twain's characters, and Twain himself. But at act's end I was left wondering just what the point was, in terms of cohesion and thematic intention. Wallace is a veteran, and he's having a good time. This helps, but having recently (and unrelated to this show) re-read some of Twain's writings, it struck me; why, if one wants a true portrait of Twain, wouldn't one simply read his writings? When it became clear that the second act would simply be Wallace's own musical interpretation of highlights from Huckleberry Finn, my suspicions were confirmed. It's all a bit like doing a shot-for-shot remake of a classic movie; it's never as good as the original, and often we wonder "what is the point?"
The kind of format presented, it further struck me, might well be appropriate for elementary or middle school kids—not only for the importance of the message, and the genuine entertainment value Wallace provides, but because there simply isn't enough to the presentation of the material to sustain this kind of evening. This wasn't at all a Mark Twain I didn't or don't know, but one I knew intimately. Even when small facts of his life were revealed which I did not know (his personal tragedy, his involvement in the Civil War) they were not enough to support the show's title and pitch. Not to say that primary source materials should never be fictionalized, but with someone as well known as Twain, one really ought to select something that elicits a revelation. Nonetheless, and to slightly contradict myself, Twain is so earnestly interesting, and Wallace throughout does such a lovely and lively recreation, that I walked away reinvigorated to know more about Twain, and having felt as though I spent a very heartfelt evening in the theatre.
A skillful, seasoned actor who is enjoying the heck out of his story is generally worth seeing. I wish in this case, though, that he had presented a Twain I didn't know, or that the material was more pointedly selected and arranged in a more cohesive manner which might ultimately serve to illuminate a moral, immoral, or even amoral "point," if for no other reason than because Twain's writings so often did. However, for those deficient in Twain-isms, and for those who appreciate skillful acting (who also have an extra $20 to spare), or for those who loved the original so much that they enjoyed the shot-for-shot remake, catch The Mark Twain You Don't Know and watch Wallace work.