Playing With Twain
Theater preview: Sam and Laura
Major historical milestones typically evoke a flurry of commemorative activities, from scholarly symposia to celebratory concerts to kitschy souvenirs. Similarly, literary lions are often honored on their birth and death anniversaries. This year is a triple play for Mark Twain (1835-1910): It’s been 100 years since he died, 125 years since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, and 175 years since his birth. So bring on the nationwide festivities for America’s most beloved writer, right?
Not exactly. Clusters of “Twain 2010” events are taking place at historical sites dedicated to the author’s legacy, such as his boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo., and his Hartford, Conn., residence. But no concerted national effort exists. An online petition urging the president to declare 2010 “The Year of Mark Twain” languishes with fewer than 1000 signatures.
This weekend, however, Vermonters can celebrate — and learn about a little-known aspect of Twain’s life — when Vermont author Ron Powers’ new play premieres at the Paramount Brick Box Theatre in Rutland. The Castleton State College writer-in-residence explains that Sam and Laura is “an imaginative extension of a true relationship,” a brief romance from Twain’s days as a young steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. The three-day idyll shared in New Orleans by the 22-year-old future author and 14-year-old fresh-faced farm girl had a lasting impact. The play’s story moves between dreams and reality to explore Laura’s significance throughout Twain’s life. Director and actress Diane Liccardi directs the staged reading, which features performers from the Vermont Actors’ Repertory Theatre.
Powers, 68, cheekily dubs this theatrical foray his debut as “Boy Playwright.” But he’s hardly a novice scribe. Powers’ résumé packs a list of, um, powerhouse credits, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy. Most recently, he collaborated with Ted Kennedy on the senator’s final memoir, True Compass (2009). Clint Eastwood directed an Oscar-nominated film based on Flags of Our Fathers (2000), which Powers cowrote.
Of the dozen nonfiction books he’s penned, the biography Mark Twain: A Life (2005) has received the most resounding acclaim. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the book Twain’s “definitive portrait.” It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. And, at 720 pages, the magnum opus also manages to be a ripping good read.
In a conversation with Seven Days, Powers retraces his lifelong connections to Twain and explains how research for the bio led him to the fascinating story of Sam and Laura.
Powers and Samuel Clemens both grew up in Hannibal, albeit more than a century apart. (Clemens adopted the pen name “Mark Twain” in his late twenties.) Powers says he shared Clemens’ sense of “mystique” about their hometown. “Certainly in my boyhood there was something enchanted about Hannibal,” he reflects. “Rivers are very powerful visually and psychologically. When [Clemens] was a boy, he’d never been anywhere. But the Mississippi River brought all kinds of culture and exotic circuses and gamblers and cutthroats and magicians to town. And it would just inflame his imagination.”
By the time Powers was a kid, Twain towered mythically over Hannibal. “He was everywhere,” Powers remembers. “We would go to the Tom Sawyer Theater for movies; we’d have burgers at the Huck Finn Burger Bar.” What most impressed young Ron was the out-of-state license plates on cars parked near Twain’s boyhood home. “They were from places I thought I’d probably never get to,” he recalls. Pennsylvania, New York, California. “And here they were, coming to see us. That gave me a sense of [Twain’s] significance.”
Powers got his start slinging ink for pay, as Twain did, in “newspapering.” The University of Missouri grad initially covered sports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was the romance that attracted me,” he remembers. “All the cheesy things: Having your byline in the paper and getting into the games free … it was really just a very young man’s fantasy.”
Powers laughingly recalls being “dumb as a box of rocks” at the time. But he believes his modest start “speaks to the power of newspapering for generations of proletarian men and women who come out of the small towns and off the farms … They see newspapering as a chance to join the big conversation,” he suggests. Powers believes Twain blazed this path with his Wild West reportage in the 1860s.
Twain and his fellow “fugitive poets and wild men” penned “tall tales and hoaxes and feuds and fantastical stories,” says Powers. “And that’s the real American language … [It’s] pared down, it’s vernacular and it’s truth telling.” In the mid-19th century, “Americans are still cowering under the authority of that European aesthetic and sensibility,” practiced by “East Coast Brahmins” such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, he explains. “And then Mark Twain opened the doors for the other tradition, which is people who write about American life at ground zero, who write out of their direct experience.”
Powers confesses that he avoided writing about his hometown’s icon and hero for much of his adult life. “I never felt entitled,” he says. “I don’t have a pedigree; I’m not trained as a scholar or historian. There’s something like 40 books already, biographies about him, either full or partial.” Powers kept writing around the subject, though, with two books about Hannibal and a look at Clemens’ childhood.
Why did he finally give in? “The joke is that I wrote it because I was told to by my 6-foot-9, 280-pound Republican agent from Texas,” Powers reveals. “When he says, ‘Do something,’ we little woolly Vermont liberals run and do it.”
Once Powers committed himself to writing the biography, however, he came to realize that the massive quantity of Twain scholarship had still left “a hole you could drive a truck through,” he asserts. “And that hole was his life as he lived it.” Most academics had taken a “forensic approach” and focused on psychoanalyzing the man or deconstructing his work.
Powers’ approach was radical in its simplicity: letting Twain speak for himself. The Mark Twain Project in Berkeley, Calif., the central archive for his papers, “has 15,000 letters to and from him that I could use like a novelist would use dialogue,” he explains. In addition, “the notebooks that he compiled ceaselessly give you his inner thought processes. So I didn’t really have to theorize about him.
“The wonderful thing about narrative is that you let the reader collaborate,” Powers continues. “The reader thinks along with you. And that’s really the way I like to write.” He describes this technique as “putting [Twain] on stage and letting him behave, using the letters.”
Writing an actual play seems a natural extension of that process, especially since solid biographical facts about Laura, while colorful, are scarce — hardly enough for even a slim nonfiction volume. It seems she became a Confederate spy during the Civil War, and may have married in a rush to cover her tracks. Her husband eventually left her, and she worked as a teacher, in San Francisco and Dallas, to support her disabled child. “She apparently moved around a lot,” Powers notes. “But nothing big ever happens to Laura after the Civil War except steadily declining fortunes.”
Powers first tried to craft Sam and Laura as a screenplay that hewed strictly to the known facts. But the “docudrama … was just lying flat there on the page,” he admits. “Mark Twain was such a fabulist himself that he almost invites you to imagine along with him.”
The letter that inspired the storyline of Sam and Laura certainly tantalized Powers’ imagination. Written in 1964 by a man named C.O. Byrd, it describes an evening in a Hollywood nightclub celebrating the 80th birthday, in 1925, of Laura Wright — the same Laura who young Sam Clemens had romanced in New Orleans in 1858. The letter suggests substantial, and previously unknown, correspondence between them.
Powers was already convinced that Laura had been more significant to Twain than other scholars had indicated. The emotional high of falling in love was soon followed by a shocking loss. Just three weeks after Twain met her, his younger brother Henry was killed in a horrific steamboat explosion — on the boat where Twain had gotten him a job. “It tore him apart,” Powers recounts. “He [had] survivor’s guilt.”
The real Laura was unable to console Sam, because her mother quashed any further pursuit of the courtship. She deemed her daughter too young, and Sam’s social station too low. But his notebooks reveal that Twain continued to see Laura in his dreams.
“She was an angel to him,” Powers explains. “She came back again and again to calm him down.” Henry’s death was the most wrenching of the bereavements “that start when he’s a child and never stop.” Laura “answered something for him about innocence,” Powers asserts, especially because his almost mystical memories of her were frozen in time alongside the trauma of losing his brother.
Telling Sam and Laura’s story theatrically gives Powers greater license to explore the importance of these dreams. Twain’s dream life “was so incredibly powerful to him that later in his life he began to believe that dreams had an equal validity or reality with waking life,” he asserts. On one level, the play is “a celebration of the dream life and the power of the dream to act on our psyches and to heal us.”
Powers has his own dream about the future of Sam and Laura after its Vermont debut: “that it will just get out there — to community groups, college, university groups, regional theater,” he says. “Given that there’s no other unified commemoration of [Twain], maybe this will fill the vacuum.” The play is already scheduled for a reading at the University of Missouri in March and a summer production in Calaveras, Calif.
Because the Rutland reading is the play’s first, director Liccardi has been working closely with Powers. It’s rewarding to move the text from the page to the stage, she says: to see that what’s in the playwright’s head finally “gets inside someone’s heart.” An informal Q&A session with the actors, director and playwright will follow the performance.
The intense playwriting experience has been a “labor of love,” Powers says. But it has allowed him to tap into “a part of the creative imagination that you can’t always release in writing nonfiction. So to that extent,” he concludes, “it’s just been plain old fun.”