Monday, December 13, 2010

TWAIN & DICKENS

This week, The Mark Twain House & Museum welcomes back HartBeat Ensemble’s play EBENEEZA – A HARTFORD HOLIDAY CAROL. HartBeat’s contemporary twist on Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas story of compassion lost and redemption found will be performed at The Mark Twain Museum Center on December 17, 18 & 19. In this new adaptation, Mark Twain serves as the Ghost of Hartford’s Holidays Past. This interpolation of Twain and Dickens is not the only time the two literary greats have crossed paths…

Charles Dickens and Mark Twain are iconic authors that are instantly associated with the countries from which they hailed. Both have become legends for work that championed the down-trodden and used humor to skewer the hypocrisies of the wealthy and the ruling class. Dickens’ Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and A Christmas Carol have come to define our image of Victorian England. In much the same way, Twain’s major works Tom Sawyer, Roughing It, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi and A Connecticut Yankee have become identified with the restless American spirit during the late-1800s. Just as Twain’s term “The Gilded Age” has become the de-facto name for the excesses of Victorian America, the term “Dickensian” has become synonymous with the squalor and hardships thrust upon the poorest of the poor in Industrial Age-England.

Dickens, in a move that Twain would emulate throughout his career, supplemented his income as an author by conducting speaking tours. While Twain’s legendary performances were equal parts stand-up comedy, storytelling and speechifying, Dickens’ appearances were more of a lecture or a reading. Twain’s speaking engagements in England (which were staged by Dickens’ own manager, George Dolby) were every bit the success that Dickens’ found on his two tours of America. What you may not know is that these two legends were in the same room at the same time and never met.

In 1867, Charles Dickens arrived in America for a series of 76 public readings. On December 31st, he was to appear at New York’s Steinway Hall. One of the fortunate ticket-holders to see the most popular novelist of the day was a man on the verge of becoming the most popular writer of his time – Samuel Clemens. The occasion was particularly significant for Sam because it was his first date with his future wife, Olivia Langdon; her parents had purchased the tickets and had invited the young suitor to join them for the lecture.

Twain documented his attendance of Dickens’ reading for the Alta California newspaper in February, 1868. Twain writes about Dickens’ arrival onstage:

“Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, ‘spry,’ (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman…with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage -- that is rather too deliberate a word -- he strode. He strode -- in the most English way and exhibiting the most English general style and appearance.”

Twain goes on to assess Dickens:

“His pictures are hardly handsome, and he, like everybody else, is less handsome than his pictures. That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face,which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity. But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens--Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it. Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.”

And, finally, Twain assigns a poor review to Dickens’ reading from David Copperfield:

“I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens' reading -- I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language -- there is no heart, no feeling in it -- it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure -- but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.”

Despite Twain’s tough words, he did possess some admiration for the British legend. While out West in the early 1860s, Sam delighted in reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son. (The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan, p. 95) According to R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A-Z, Twain claimed to read A Tale of Two Cities every two years, visited Dickens’ grave at Westminster Abbey in 1872 and welcomed Charles Dickens, Jr. to his Hartford home in 1887. Close to 143 years after Twain went to see Dickens in New York, the two intersect again in Hartford with HartBeat Ensemble’s performance of Ebeneeza.