Monday, November 14, 2011

Wetumpka Depot: "An Evening With Mark Twain"

Brought in for just one short weekend, Kurt H. Sutton's impersonation of Samuel Clemens in An Evening With Mark Twain graced the Wetumpka Depot's stage with the wit and wisdon, and frequent spot-on criticisms of American culture, society, and politics.

Mark Twain is revered as America's greatest humorist, and was known later in his life for remarkable speaking engagements across the land where he entertained the crowds by reading excerpts from his books & stories, and reminiscing on his life.

So it is here: the setting is his "parlor" -- a carpet, a wing-back armchair, a lectern, a couple of instruments, and some other props -- from which he recites, sings songs, passes judgement on several sacred cows, and entertains us with his quick wit, sly grin, and frequent forays into folk and "spiritual" music.

Originally devised as Mark Twain Tonight by Hal Holbrook many decades ago, an entire cottage industry has emerged with actors portraying Twain. Mr. Sutton has been on the circuit for over six years, and clearly has a comfort in the role, a command of a wealth of material, selections of which vary from performance to performance, and a demeanor that gets an audience to respond as to a long-time friend [though it took a while for the audience to warm to him and respond appreciatively to an old-fashioned style of storytelling].

We have to listen carefully to sometimes get the joke -- a turn of phrase, a clever pun, or a sly off-hand remark delivered with a shrug of the shoulder or a double-take or a well-timed delayed comment.

If we listen carefully, there is no doubt why Mark Twain's works have continued to captivate readers in three centuries; not only are his subjects timeless or at least relevant today as when they were first penned, but Twain's prose descriptions of rivers & nature & human foibles are rendered to create vivid and lasting pictures.

And his humor always hits its target. For example, he once told someone that he came across "the ugliest woman I ever saw", but the next day when her sister was around, he "now withdraws the statement". Or that "I can cut out bad habits, but not moderate them", concluding that a person with no bad habits is a "moral pauper". Or calling Congress the "Grand old national asylum for the helpless", stating further that we have "the best Congress money can buy" -- sentiments which met with approving laughter from the audience. -- And his rambling story of "Grandfather and the Ram" told by the town drunk who falls asleep in a drunken stupor before finishing the tale, gets funnier with each section as the storyteller gets distracted by the details of the story.

In Act II, Sutton spends much of the time with selections from Huckleberry Finn, and plays all the roles, stating further that this book particularly has been banned by some group or another ever since its first printing, and wisely noting that "nothing sells as well as a banned book". -- Huck's moral dilemma is, of course, that he doesn't turn in the runaway slave, Jim, and thinks he will go to hell for it, but that he can't quite figure out why anyone could enslave another; the choice of going to "the good place" where he would be always in the presence of do-gooders & hypocrites is unbearable for Huck, so he prefers "the other place" for his eternity.

This Mark Twain gave us a lot to think about at a time when slogans and moralizing have little substance; we could well take notice from the master.