Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CVI

His First Stage Appearance

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Meantime Tom Sawyer remained unpublished.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 prodigious hit.”

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 knight’s achievements.

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 dramatic stage.

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 90 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:

90 [Now Mrs. William W. Ellsworth.]

“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.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00