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13 January, 2012
Mark Twain, A Biography Vol II, Part 1: 1875 - 1886|
CVI. His First Stage Appearance
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Once that winter the Monday Evening Club met at Mark Twain's home, and
instead of the usual essay he read them a story: "The Facts Concerning
the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut." It was the story of a
man's warfare with a personified conscience--a, sort of "William Wilson"
idea, though less weird, less somber, and with more actuality, more
verisimilitude. It was, in fact, autobiographical, a setting-down of the
author's daily self-chidings. The climax, where conscience is slain, is
a startling picture which appeals to most of humanity. So vivid is it
all, that it is difficult in places not to believe in the reality of the
tale, though the allegory is always present.
The club was deeply impressed by the little fictional sermon. One of its
ministerial members offered his pulpit for the next Sunday if Mark Twain
would deliver it to his congregation. Howells welcomed it for the
Atlantic, and published it in June. It was immensely successful at the
time, though for some reason it seems to be little known or remembered
to-day. Now and then a reader mentions it, always with enthusiasm.
Howells referred to it repeatedly in his letters, and finally persuaded
Clemens to let Osgood bring it out, with "A True Story," in dainty,
booklet form. If the reader does not already know the tale, it will pay
him to look it up and read it, and then to read it again.
Meantime Tom Sawyer remained unpublished.
"Get Bliss to hurry it up!" wrote Howells. "That boy is going to make a
But Clemens delayed the book, to find some means to outwit the Canadian
pirates, who thus far had laid hands on everything, and now were
clamoring at the Atlantic because there was no more to steal.
Moncure D. Conway was in America, and agreed to take the manuscript of
Sawyer to London and arrange for its publication and copyright. In
Conway's Memoirs he speaks of Mark Twain's beautiful home, comparing it
and its surroundings with the homes of Surrey, England. He tells of an
entertainment given to Harriet Beecher Stowe, a sort of animated jarley
wax-works. Clemens and Conway went over as if to pay a call, when
presently the old lady was rather startled by an invasion of costumed.
figures. Clemens rose and began introducing them in his gay, fanciful
fashion. He began with a knight in full armor, saying, as if in an
aside, "Bring along that tinshop," and went on to tell the romance of the
Conway read Tom Sawyer on the ship and was greatly excited over it.
Later, in London, he lectured on it, arranging meantime for its
publication with Chatto & Windus, thus establishing a friendly business
relation with that firm which Mark Twain continued during his lifetime.
Clemens lent himself to a number of institutional amusements that year,
and on the 26th of April, 1876, made his first public appearance on the
It was an amateur performance, but not of the usual kind. There was
genuine dramatic talent in Hartford, and the old play of the "Loan of the
Lover, " with Mark Twain as Peter Spuyk and Miss Helen Smith--[Now Mrs.
William W. Ellsworth.]--as Gertrude, with a support sufficient for their
needs, gave a performance that probably furnished as much entertainment
as that pleasant old play is capable of providing. Mark Twain had in him
the making of a great actor. Henry Irving once said to him:
"You made a mistake by not adopting the stage as a profession. You would
have made even a greater actor than a writer."
Yet it is unlikely that he would ever have been satisfied with the stage.
He had too many original literary ideas. He would never have been
satisfied to repeat the same part over and over again, night after night
from week to month, and from month to year. He could not stick to the
author's lines even for one night. In his performance of the easy-going,
thick-headed Peter Spuyk his impromptu additions to the lines made it
hard on the company, who found their cues all at sixes and sevens, but it
delighted the audience beyond measure. No such impersonation of that
character was ever given before, or ever will be given again. It was
repeated with new and astonishing variations on the part of Peter, and it
could have been put on for a long run. Augustin Daly wrote immediately,
offering the Fifth Avenue Theater for a "benefit" performance, and again,
a few days later, urging acceptance. "Not for one night, but for many."
Clemens was tempted, no doubt. Perhaps, if he had yielded, he would
today have had one more claim on immortality.