Meeting Mark Twain
After spending an afternoon with American Ed Helm, who lives part of the year in Barton, Vermont, I almost feel like I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting that beloved American author and humorist, Mark Twain.
During my interview with the Mark Twain impersonator, who was dressed in an authentic suit from the late 1800’s which complimented his bushy white mane and moustache, he frequently lapsed into his Twain persona to deliver a well-known quote or two. The transformation is seamless, perhaps because the two men, the anti-imperialist, civil rights and labour movement supporter, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and Ed Helm, a retired civil rights lawyer and activist for peace, health care reform, the environment, and other issues I’m sure, have much in common.
Asked how he evolved from a civil rights lawyer into a Twain impersonator, Mr. Helm explained: “I had seen Hal Holbrook perform Mark Twain and he was very entertaining. During one outdoor performance, a thunderstorm started, there was a clap of thunder and the lights went out. Holbrook said to the audience: ‘Well, you know he’s not aiming at you, don’t ya?’”
Mr. Helm and his wife, Adrien, were also friends with a Mark Twain impersonator: Bill Mc Linn. “I had helped Bill get gigs, so when he died, I inherited his Mark Twain wig.” Mr. Helm, who once took part in a peace march in Moscow along with his wife and four children, continued: “Because of my interest in peace and the anti-war movement, as I discovered Mark Twain’s interest in the anti-war movement… At first Twain was an imperialist, but what tipped him was the PhilippineAmerican War. The same things he said about the Spanish-American War we could say about the Iraq War. He was prescient in
Tom Sawyer Abroad. Tom Sawyer was on the top of the world at the end of the last book, when Injun Joe said: ‘Maybe things will turn out in ways we don’t expect’. George Bush should have read that book. As we learn more about the Iraq War, and more is coming out, Twain’s The War Prayer is still a sobering presentation of these things. Of the twenty-four agencies in the United States, only one agency has never been audited: the Department of Defense. This is a violation of our own Constitution.”
Mr. Helm, after delivering one of Mark Twain’s anti-war speeches to members of the local Civil War Society, was told by an audience member: “That’s the strongest anti-war speech I’ve ever heard.”
Not only can Mr. Helm turn into Mark Twain at the drop of a hat, he also seems to know everything there is to know about this American ‘hero’. “Huckleberry gave Twain his freedom. When he wrote Tom Sawyer, he was an imperialist. But
Huckleberry Finn was originally one story, but in the ten years he took to write it, there were substantial revisions, he had writer’s block, and in it Jim becomes a major character. When he and Jim are on that boat and get stopped, and Huck is asked if Jim is a slave, how Huckleberry answers that question frees him,” Ed explained, continuing: “After Huckleberry Finn was published, Louisa May Alcott wrote Twain saying ‘If that’s the best children’s book that you can write…’ and had it banned in her own city.” This, of course, increased its sales considerably and Samuel Clemens, from then on, had two dozen roses delivered to Ms. Alcott on her birthday each year.
Unlike some Twain impersonators, Mr. Helm likes to adapt his performance to his audience; quite a challenge when those audiences could be in as faraway places as Latin America, Germany, Russia or Japan. “I’ve been to two of Hal Holbrook’s performances, but he always does it for the same audience: white, middleclass readers. I have more diverse groups so I do many different forms of Twain – for doctors, for Danish school children, for young people…” In a recent performance in Hiroshima, Japan, Mr. Helm highlighted the similarities between Mark Twain and Fukisawa, a popular Japanese writer who lived during Twain’s era and who he discovered through sheer serendipity shortly before going to Japan. Last Sunday, with Labour Day in mind, Mr. Helm’s Mark Twain read an excerpt from his speech entitled The New
Dynasty, a speech adopted by the early American Labour Movement, at the First Parrish Universalist Church, in Derby Line. Its words and sentiments echo those of our modernday Occupy Movement, which Mr. Helm has been involved in.
In most of Mr. Helm’s performances, once he has dealt with the ‘Twain topic’ of the evening, he likes to get more interactive with the audience by playing two Twain-inspired activities: “Did I say that?” and “Ask Twain any question”. “Many people have Mark Twain
quotes in their head. In my shows, 90% of the time it’s a Twain quote; 5% of the time it’s a quote by W.C. Fields or someone else; and 3 or 4% of the time they are testing Twain to see if he knows his own stuff!” said Mr. Helm.
Our Mr. Twain had a few of his own favourite quotes: “Well, in our country we have those three gifts: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Conscience, and the wisdom never to practice either.” “Another I like is: ‘What would humankind be without women? In a word: scarce!’”
Besides performing, Mr. Helm is still very much an activist when it comes to the most critical issues of the day, such as the environment. Locally, he and Adrien have organized community events to raise awareness about the effects of climate change and tar sands oil on the Northeast Kingdom. “They want to use the Portland Montreal Pipeline to move tar sands oil. If you have a spill with regular oil, it floats on water. Tar sands oil sinks. In Michigan where there was a spill, they’ve spent one billion dollars, so far, to clean it up and it’s still not done. If there’s an oil spill here, this area will go belly-up economically.”
Being a civic-minded individual, I wasn’t sur- prised to learn that Mr. Helm will get out his Twain suit and put on that southern accent to help organizations raise money. “I do fundraisers with groups and would even consider crossing the border and speaking somewhere like Stanstead College before heading south in October. It would be interesting to learn about Twain’s connections with Canada!”
When asked what he admired most about Mark Twain, Mr. Helm looked thoughtful for a moment before saying: “He was a good husband and a good father, but what I most admire is that he claimed his life. He tried to understand what it is to be human and I admire how he expressed and shared that among other humans.”
Formerly a civil rights lawyer, Ed Helm, seen here in his Mark Twain costume, rang the bell on his porch, in Barton, at 3:00 pm last Wednesday afternoon as part of the United States National Celebration of the Civil Rights March in Washington, DC.
Ed Helm, seen here at his home in Barton, Vermont, has traveled around the world to bring Mark Twain to life.