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My Mark Twain
The Play from The Gilded Age
by Howells, William Dean


(From the Atlantic Monthly, June 1875)

Whoever failed to see Mr. Raymond in Mr. Clemens's (Mark Twain's) play of "The Gilded Age," during the recent season at the Globe Theatre, missed a great pleasure. In this drama a player last year almost unknown takes rank at once with the masters of his art, and adds another to the group of realistic actors whom we shall be slow to believe less fine than the finest who have charmed the theatre-going world. One must hereafter name Mr. John T. Raymond in Colonel Sellers with Sothern in "Lord Dundreary," with Jefferson in "Rip Van Winkle," with Salvini in "La Morte Civile," with Fechter in "Hamlet." Like them he does not merely represent; he becomes, he impersonates, the character he plays. The effect is instant; he is almost never Raymond from the moment he steps upon the stage till he leaves it. His assumption of Sellers is so perfect that at some regrettable points where Colonel Sellers pushes matters a little beyond (as where he comments to Laura Hawkins on the beauty of the speech her attorney is making in her defence), we found ourselves wishing that Sellers -- not Mr. Raymond -- would not overdo it in that way.

The readers of Messrs. Clemens's and Warner's novel of The Gilded Age will easily recall Colonel Sellers, who in the drama is the same character as in the book. The action of the piece has scarcely anything to do with him, and yet, as it happens, it is his constant opportunity to make all his qualities felt. It is scarcely more than a sketch, a framework almost as naked as that which the Italians used to clothe on with their commedia d' arte; and it is as unlike good literature as many other excellent acting-plays. Yet any one who should judge it from the literary standpoint, and not with an artistic sense greater and more than literary, would misjudge it. The play is true, in its broad way, to American conditions, and is a fair and just satire upon our generally recognized social and political corruptions. The story is simply that of the good old Tennessee farmer and his wife who come to Missouri at the invitation of Colonel Sellers, and through his speculative friendship lose everything but the farm on the barren knobs in East Tennessee, which they had not sold. Their adopted daughter, a beautiful and ambitious girl, is deceived into marriage with an ex-Confederate officer who has another wife at New Orleans, and they are in the lowest misery when Colonel Sellers (an ex-rebel, who goes in for "the Old Flag -- and an appropriation") conceives his great idea that Congress shall buy the Hawkins farm in East Tennessee, and found a freedman's university on it. Laura's beauty is believed to be essential to the success of the bill in Congress, and she and her adoptive sister go to Washington to visit the family of Senator Dilworthy, who is engineering the appropriation. There, one day, Laura is met and insultingly renounced by her betrayer, who tells her that he is a gentleman born, and, even if his wife were not living, would never marry her. She shoots him dead, and the play closes with her trial and acquittal, and the presumed failure of Senator Dilworthy's bill. It is merely an episode, but it is strong and new to the stage, however stale to fact, and it appeals to the spectator's imagination so successfully throughout that he does not mind how very sketchy an episode it is. The betrayer of Laura Hawkins is necessarily a little cheap -- betrayers always are -- but the rest of the character-material is simple, natural, and good, and in the play the Western quality of the people is always clearly accented without ever being overcharged; they are of the quarter of the world to which all things are still possible, and Sellers is but the highest expression of the hopeful and confiding mood in which they exist. The delightfulness of his disasters consists in the ardor with which he rises above them and enters into a new and more glorious speculation, which even as he talks of it becomes just a side speculation -- "to keep your money moving" -- while his mind develops a yet larger scheme. If he wrecks the fortunes of his friends, it is out of pure zeal and love for them, and he is always ready to share the last dollar with them whether it is his or theirs. Mr. Raymond nicely indicates the shades of the author's intention in his Sellers, and so delicately distinguishes between him and the vulgar, selfish speculator that it is with a sort of remorse one laughs at his dire poverty in the scene where the door drops from the stove and betrays the lighted candle which had imparted a ruddy glow and an apparent warmth from within; or, again, where he makes his friend stay to dine on turnips and water, having first assured himself from his dismayed wife that the water is good. The warm, caressing, affectionate nature of the man charms you in Mr. Raymond's performance, and any one who felt the worth of his worthlessness in the novel will feel it the more in the play. It is a personality rarely imagined by the author and interpreted without loss by the actor. Only one point we must except, and we suspect it is not the author's lapse; that is where the Colonel borrows ten dollars of Clay Hawkins, and, being asked not to mention the return of it, stops on his way out and with a glance of low cunning at the audience says, "Well, I won't!" This is thoroughly false and bad, and the stupid laugh it raises ought to make Mr. Raymond ashamed. Colonel Sellers is always serious, and apart from what he considers his legitimate designs upon the public purse is as high-souled and chivalrous as Don Quixote.

Some extremely good suggestions give the ease and composure with which these Missourian ex-slaveholders adapt themselves to the splendors of Washington: once the first people in their own neighborhood, they are of the first people anywhere, and in arriving at luxury they have merely come into their own. But the greatest scenes are in that last act, where Colonel Sellers appears as witness for the defence of Laura Hawkins: as he mounts the stand he affably recognizes and shakes hands with several acquaintances among the jury; he delivers his testimony in the form of a stump speech; he helplessly overrides all the protests, exceptions, and interruptions of the prosecution; from time to time he irresistibly turns and addresses the jury, and can scarcely be silenced; while the attorneys are wrangling together he has seized a juryman by the coat-lapel and is earnestly exhorting him in whisper. The effect is irresistibly ludicrous. It is farce and not farce, for, however extravagantly improbable the situation is, the man in it is deliciously true to himself. There is one bit of pathos, where Sellers tells how he knew Laura as a little girl, and implies that, though she might have killed a man, she could not have done murder; which is of great value; if Mr. Clemens or Mr. Raymond could work this vein further it would be an immense gain for the piece; Sellers is not a mere glare of absurdity; you do not want to be laughing at him all the time; and Mr. Raymond might trust the sympathy of his audience in showing all the tenderness of the man's heart. We are loath to believe that he is not himself equal to showing it.

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