Sa­muel and the Bard

Ever the Twain: Wil­liam Shake­speare in Mark Twain’s Amer­ica

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AS an aca­demic and scholar, Lois Rud­nick knows Mark Twain and his views on Shake­speare. As an ac­tor and writer, Jonathan Richards knows Shake­speare and his tremen­dous in­flu­ence on Western the­ater. Put the pair to­gether in col­lab­o­ra­tion and what do you get? Ever The Twain: Wil­liam

Shake­speare in Mark Twain’s Amer­ica — a reader’s the­ater piece that ex­plores how the Bard in­flu­enced (and an­noyed) Twain, Amer­i­can’s own 19th- and early 20th-cen­tury mas­ter of let­ters, plays at 7 p.m. Sun­day, Jan. 31, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. The per­for­mance is a pre­cur­sor to the Feb. 6 un­veil­ing of a copy of Shake­speare’s First Fo­lio at the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art. That ex­hibit, ti­tled First Fo­lio!

The Book That Gave Us Shake­speare, runs through Feb. 28. It is on tour from the Fol­ger Shake­speare Li­brary in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Cincin­nati Mu­seum Cen­ter and the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion.

Ever the Twain came out of a class on Twain that Rud­nick taught a few years ago for the adult con­tin­u­ing education or­ga­ni­za­tion Renesan. “I was not teach­ing any­thing about Shake­speare in this course,” Rud­nick said. “I was deal­ing with Twain’s late writ­ings on race and Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism. Some­where along the line I re­called and brought to class the story of Twain’s ri­valry with Shake­speare — he was a Shake­speare in­ves­ti­ga­tor and com­pletely con­vinced that Will didn’t write a sin­gle word!”

To but­tress his the­sis, Twain wrote a pam­phlet ti­tled “Is Shake­speare Dead?” Pub­lished in 1909, it dis­cusses the con­tro­versy over whether Shake­speare ac­tu­ally wrote his plays and other works or whether some­one else, such as his con­tem­po­rary Sir Fran­cis Ba­con, ac­tu­ally did so. Around the same time, Rud­nick said, Twain wrote “a some­what scat­o­log­i­cal play” set in El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land. He read it to a men’s group he was as­so­ci­ated with, but never pub­lished it dur­ing his life­time. Rud­nick said that the play “was too full of the An­glo-Saxon ‘ F-word,’” to be pub­lish­able or even ac­knowl­edged by Twain. (Ex­cerpts from this play in

Ever the Twain will re­place the ques­tion­able F-word with an equally earthy one, “fart.”)

As dis­cus­sions in the Renesan class pro­gressed, Rud­nick asked the stu­dents if they thought a play about Shake­speare in Mark Twain’s Amer­ica might be an i nter­est­ing pro­ject. Their re­sponse, she re­called, was en­thu­si­as­tic. As a fol­low-up, Rud­nick men­tioned the idea to Shake­speare scholar John An­drews, who sits on the board of Santa Fe’s non­profit KSFR ra­dio with her. Taken by the idea, An­drews in­tro­duced Rud­nick to Richards, and the pair be­gan a col­lab­o­ra­tion. Rud­nick knew about the themes Twain and Shake­speare shared even cen­turies apart. Richards had ex­pe­ri­ence in mount­ing and act­ing in Shake­spearean pro­duc­tions over decades, as well as prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence in writ­ing, jour­nal­ism, and what makes drama ef­fec­tive. The com­bi­na­tion proved fruit­ful. “I would say from the first hour we spent to­gether, it was clear that we had in­cred­i­bly sim­patico ideas and in­ter­ests, and we just kind of both fig­ured out how to do this,” Rud­nick said.

Over the year and a half or so that the pro­ject took, Rud­nick and Richards found their in­ter­ests and knowl­edge bases dove­tail­ing neatly. As noted, Richards i s an ex­pe­ri­enced au­thor, ac­tor, jour­nal­ist, and car­toon­ist. Rud­nick was chair of the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts- Bos­ton for 26 years, and is a spe­cial­ist on Amer­i­can cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture — no­tably t he artist and writ­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Santa Fe and Taos, es­pe­cially arts pa­tron Ma­bel Dodge Luhan. “Shake­speare i s con­sid­ered the great­est writer in the English lan­guage, and Mark Twain was the most beloved Amer­i­can writer of the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies,” Rud­nick said. The two be­gan with Rud­nick’s orig­i­nal con­cep­tion of read­ings from both men’s works, and then “Jon dra­ma­tized it in the most won­der­ful way and added all kind of speak­ers, and di­vided up the di­a­logue among var­i­ous char­ac­ters. It be­came a much more the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion. We re­fined it and re­fined it and re­fined it. There are some­thing like 10 scenes, or­ga­nized the­mat­i­cally, though there’s some chronol­ogy within the themes. There are go­ing to be rev­e­la­tions about both th­ese writ­ers, par­tic­u­larly Mark Twain, and par­tic­u­larly about Shake­speare’s pop­u­lar­ity in the United States, that I would say 99 per­cent of Amer­i­cans don’t know about — but they’re fas­ci­nat­ing,” said Rud­nick.

For the Sun­day per­for­mance, Va­lerie Plame is mas­ter of cer­e­monies. Shake­speare will be played by Richards, and Mark Twain by Bob Martin. Other par­tic­i­pants in­clude Ni­cholas Bal­las, Les­lie Harrell Dillen, Ge­of­frey Pomeroy, Tal­lis Rose, and Bryson Hat­field. Live mu­sic will be pro­vided by Tom Collins, and each scene will be high­lighted by the pro­jec­tion of an apt his­tor­i­cal pho­to­graph or paint­ing. The event is a fundraiser for KSFR and will be fol­lowed by a panel dis­cus­sion.

Though Shake­speare and Twain are both lit­er­ary pil­lars, Rud­nick the scholar does not be­lieve that they shared the same range of cre­ativ­ity. “Shake­speare was well be­yond Mark Twain in his abil­ity to cre­ate women who were be­liev­able and three-di­men­sional,” she said. “Twain was re­ally not able to deal with women in any gen­uine kind of way; he could not deal with sex­u­al­ity at all openly in his so­ci­ety. His wife and chil­dren used to read aloud to the fam­ily, and they would cen­sor cer­tain pas­sages that to us would seem so un­be­liev­ably be­nign that they’re laugh­able.” In part be­cause of this re­pres­sion, she said, Twain was fas­ci­nated with El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land and its “open­ness in lan­guage and speech about the hu­man body, hu­man pas­sions, hu­man sex­u­al­ity, in a way that was ab­so­lutely ver­boten among up­per middle-class white peo­ple in Vic­to­rian Amer­ica — un­less they were look­ing at pornog­ra­phy in se­cret.

“Shake­speare, like Twain — each are prod­ucts of their time,” Rud­nick said. “They share some of the un­think­ing racism of their time. But both of them, be­cause they’re great artists and hu­man­i­tar­i­ans, they’re able to tran­scend those stereo­types that no­body of their ilk, of their time, was able to do.”

Mark Twain

Wil­liam Shake­speare

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